Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Some of the Causes for the Refugee Crisis – Injustice, Intolerance and Lack of Respect for Human Rights


Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 - 2003)

Editor’s note: Begin by reading Prince Sadruddin’s profile in: Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: A Rare and Insightful Interview With The UNESCO Courier.

The following excerpts are taken from a selection of statements, interviews and speeches that the late Prince Sadrudding Aga Khan made when he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A link to all his UNHCR speeches is provided below.

To the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran, 25 April 1968

We can only hope that gatherings such as this will bring the time nearer when Man will no longer have to fear what Aldous Huxley so well expressed as “Man’s inhumanity to Man.”

“Distinguished delegates, your debates will concern every man, woman and child, living or as yet unborn – for the future depends not only on the technological progress of our world but above all on the way the succeeding generations shall live with one another.

“It is just as important to translate the articles inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into everyday practice as it is to spread science and knowledge or to build dams and create new sources of power. For what is wealth without wisdom, or development without freedom?

“All nations desire peace, progress and justice – yet every day selfishness, intolerance, lack of understanding and discrimination continue to add tragic pages to the history of our time. Indeed, this century has been greatly guilty in its disrespect for the inalienable rights of man. None know this better than the millions of refugees, the unfortunate human beings who have been forced to seek safety outside their own country because of persecution and intolerance. How were they received? The nations were not always generous towards refugees, and in the past untold tragedies sometimes followed the arrival in countries of asylum.

“And what about the causes of refugee movements? Have they disappeared today? When asking myself this question I have in mind that persecution does not always take the extreme form of threatening life and liberty: it is also persecution when a person is hindered in the exercise of his economic activity because he belongs to a particular social groups or confesses to a particular religion or because of his ethnic origins; or when for the same reasons a group of individuals is segregated in crowded and unhealthy areas; or when parents are prevented from bringing up their children in accordance with their wishes.

“Here one is forced to admit that the causes of refugee problems are not diminishing, particularly when we remember that people also become refugees because of enmity between groups of different ethnic origin, or different religions, living in the same land; intolerance and hatred which create such tensions and personal conflicts that normal life for members of one of the groups becomes almost impossible and causes them to seek safety elsewhere. We must also remember the refugees who flee the repression and disturbances which accompany struggles for civic rights or national independence in several parts of the world. The resulting picture is a dark and wide canvas of human suffering that covers nearly all continents of our planet.

“There is no doubt that, if there were to be more tolerance and more justice and more respect for the basic rights of human beings everywhere, there would be fewer problems of refugees in the world. But the day when we shall not have to think of refugees, unfortunately, would still appear to be far off; we can only hope that gatherings such as this will bring the time nearer when Man will no longer have to fear what Aldous Huxley so well expressed as ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’.”


To UNHCR Headquarters Staff, 15 January 1969

“It gives me great pleasure to have this contact with you again for the first time since the meeting held three years ago when I had the privilege of taking over from Mr. Schnyder. This will give us a good opportunity to review in very general terms what has been achieved during that period. It is also a special occasion for me because, as you know, the General Assembly chose to re-appoint me for a new term which began on 1 January 1969.

“When I was watching television during the tremendous Apollo experience recently and saw the world as a tiny sphere, it seemed incredible that, after so many years, it had not learned to live in peace, that men were still fighting, perpetrating injustice, committing crimes against humanity and persecuting individuals. It is, as I say, incredible that despite all the tremendous progress which has been achieved, men still resort to violence instead of to mediation and dialogue, within or outside the United Nations, and that this violence should produce refugees.”


To UNHCR headquarters staff, 24 January 1977

It is easy to forget that we are all supposed to be devoted to the purposes of the Office. It might be useful to pause and to reflect on what this actually means.

I believe in dialogue. Dialogue is something which should be mutually beneficial, and the dialogue that takes place between you and your representatives and the administration should also take place in this room today. I would, therefore, appreciate it very much if, during the few remarks that I intend to make now, those of you who wish to put questions or those of you who wish to comment simply on some of the things that I have touched upon would please prepare their points. I can assure you that whatever you wish to say will be most welcome.

It is important to remember that UNHCR is a special kind of outfit. The reason is because, in the twenty-six years of our activity, everything that we have done together is related intrinsically to the welfare of human beings. This is important to remember. Basically, what perhaps makes this great difference between UNHCR and other organizations, be they international organizations or other bodies, is that everything we do is related to our objective. I think it is no mere coincidence that the General Assembly in its wisdom decided in the 1950s that the High Commissioner should be elected by the General Assembly, not just appointed as so many members of the Secretariat are, and that therefore all the members of the United Nations should participate in the choice. Furthermore, in the Statute itself there is a very clear reference to the fact that UNHCR staff shall be chosen from persons devoted to the purposes of the Office.

It is easy to forget that we are all supposed to be devoted to the purposes of the Office. It might be useful to pause and to reflect on what this actually means. We might, at the same time, when we think of how we should be devoted to the purposes of the Office, reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it, and basically analyse our position in the Office and our relationship to one another and to our work in this particular context.

I would be personally extremely unhappy if I felt that this Office was becoming a memo-producing factory. Here again, I am prompted to think of our relationship with our work and with our objectives. Basically, while you may think that you can solve problems by drafting lengthy memos, sending long cables or even making very long telephone calls, the drafting of lengthy notes is something which sooner or later is affected by the law of diminishing returns. At some point, if you or I spend a great deal of time sending extremely sophisticated and lengthy instructions to colleagues at headquarters or in the field, you spend more time thinking about the style of the memo, its drafting, whether it’s good French or English, whether the argument is going to be persuasive enough, whether it’s going to leave room for any dialogue, and you begin to weigh every word and every sentence and every comma. The memo itself becomes more important than the subject matter. The refugee themselves are not going to be helped, I submit, by this kind of bureaucracy. Let notes for the file be brief and to the point.

Sometimes we seem to live in a permanent crisis of enormous workloads, of new emergencies. We work extra hours, consequently one doesn’t have time to pause and reflect on what the best solution might be to a given problem. If one spends just five minutes thinking about the problem before taking any action, the solution is likely to be much more durable and productive. Memos should not be produced without thinking out the arguments very carefully; meetings should not take place without all the issues having been examined, without having examined the options, without submitting alternatives, as it were, so that meetings can be shorter. If colleagues deal with their work in this way, if they go to meetings unprepared, I find that an enormous amount of time is wasted and at the end of the meeting one doesn’t really have a much clearer idea of what in fact should be done about the problems discussed. Then you meet again. So let us try to pause and reflect, so as to understand our objectives. If I stress this, it’s because some of us have felt that, by precipitous action, one sometimes gets into a situation of adopting ad hoc decisions, and such decisions, taken hurriedly, produce what can best be described as “policy by default”. By rushing through things, you take a decision, sometimes not the right one, it is then implemented and things are simply not tackled, not dealt with. Then, by default, it becomes a precedent and you do the same thing again when you face a similar problem.


To the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 14 November 1977

Consider our proclamations: 1978 is Anti-Apartheid Year and 1979 International Year of the Child. Yet the road is paved, in 1977, with the expulsion across borders of children in southern Africa and the scattering of families on each continent.

Madam Chairman,

The Committee has before it today two seemingly routine matters: my Annual Report, and the periodic consideration of whether UNHCR should be continued. The agenda, appropriately terse, scarcely conceals its irony.

An Office which it was hoped, in 1951, would soon wither away together with the refugee problem, finds itself speaking today for a nation of the nationless – more populous than many Member States, more neglected and deprived than any represented here. The situation compels me to speak with increasing frankness: the dichotomy between aspiration and reality widens, not narrows.

There is the paradox of universality: we applaud, rightly and with hope, the growing universality of our Organization and look forward to the completion of this process. Must we concurrently witness the growing universality of the refugee problem? Must the concept of nationhood so often disenfranchise millions along the way?

Consider the paradox of international treaty-making: we invoke our inter – dependence and seek to elaborate laws of the sea and outer space; yet for many there is refuge neither on sea nor land and international instruments that exist are too frequently ill-observed, if observed at all.

The economic dialogue continues between North and South: but the nation of which I speak belongs neither to one, nor the other. Neither fair trade, nor debt cancellation touches its life. From where, then, will the resources be obtained each year to meet the “basic needs” of refugees and the displaced?

Surely there is no better forum than this in which to underline these ironies. They haunt the work of UNHCR, and infallible indicator of the world’s political fever – a fever that UNHCR cannot cure, but the consequences of which determine, each year, the actions and concerns of this non-political Office.

Consider our proclamations: 1978 is Anti-Apartheid Year and 1979 International Year of the Child. Yet the road is paved, in 1977, with the expulsion across borders of children in southern Africa and the scattering of families on each continent.

It is callous, Madam Chairman, to compare degrees of human suffering and facile to speak of mass suffering. When we think of the refugee, we must really think of the individual. Bur, sometimes, the aggregate of similar individual experience amounts to the indictment of a system: apartheid is such a system. It represents the ultimate distortion of political values – a government intrinsically hostile to the people.

[…] Madam Chairman, it has been my privilege to report to this Committee for twelve years now. Each year, my Office has derived renewed strength from the manner in which this Committee has, as it were, “united for mankind” in the resolutions here adopted. My thanks are also due to the many non-government organizations and voluntary agencies that have steadfastly supported our effect Of particular importance to me has been to recognition that the work of this Office is, indeed, humanitarian and non-political, despite its too-obvious sensitivity. This was not always so and I respect, all the more for that reason, the delicacy of the trust conferred on us. But this trust must be translated into programmes of assistance for refugees and displaced persons. And here. I must plead with you to match your trust, and your sympathy, with resources.

Madam Chairman, I should be relinquishing my post at the end of the year. The most valuable mark of confidence which I could wish to receive from the Third Committee would be the knowledge that the partnership which we have established during my term of office will continue to benefit refugees and displaced persons in the future.

It is to them that my thoughts turn now, in the hope that the application of this Organization’s Charter and the principles that it upholds will help some day to prevent further human tragedy.

Date article posted on Simerg: December 1, 2010


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Please click  Speeches by Prince Sadruddin to read  speeches and statements he gave during his term as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Enter “Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan” in FILTER box to narrow search to his speeches. There are approximately 65-70.

2 thoughts on “Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Some of the Causes for the Refugee Crisis – Injustice, Intolerance and Lack of Respect for Human Rights

  1. A brilliant, heartfelt speech that penetrates into the heart and mind.

    Shaheen Sultan Dhanji

  2. This speech is applicable for all of us in our respective fields of work. You need to send this to global publications…because in the days of Prince Sadruddin, when thigns were not so disguised, adulterated, fake, this could be said in the open. And when you read this, everything becomes so simple to decipher…there is no hidden agenda , no umbrella under which to hide one’s truth. It is said. Plain, simple, fact.

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