The Nansen Lecture: World Refugee Day 2011

Last updated: 6/21/2011 // Former UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland presented the Nansen Lecture on World Refugee Day 2011 to mark the 150 years since the birth of the great Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. The lecture title was: "The Changing Face of Displacement in the 21st Century".

The Nansen Lecture was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Norway, the Norwegian Consulate-General in New York, the Women's Refugee Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on June 20, 2011.

Mr. Egeland's speech was based on the following text: 

"To have the opportunity to speak at an event in commemoration of Fridtjof Nansen here in NYC with the Secretary-General of the UN and so many friends and colleagues present – is indeed a great privilege. Many thanks to the Women’s Refugee Commission, the Norwegian Permanent Mission and Consulate General for organizing this event. 

I always find that the hardest thing, when talking about refugees, conflict and disasters, is to bring the reality of the frontlines before people like us who every day enjoy what President Roosevelt famously called “freedom from fear”.  

So maybe we could collectively, at least for the next 30 minutes, imagine that we are not safely and comfortably enjoying or enduring this speech at the Harvard Club in New York. But, imagine in stead that we are among the many men and women, boys and girls that were today forcibly and ruthlessly displaced by conflict, repression or by the increasingly harsh forces of nature.  

That when we go to sleep tonight our mind is overwhelmed with fear, desperation, and exhaustion. But also with a desperate hope. Because tomorrow morning and every morning to come we would hope to end the hopelessness of being as homeless as a refugee, an internally displaced or a so-called “illegal migrant”.  

In short, I have in my 35 years of working with human rights and humanitarian affairs always found that the only way to remotely understand the realities of the more than 43 million fellow human beings presently surviving as refugees or displaced people is to think that it could so easily have been your children, your parents or yourself. I know that if born in another place or another time I would easily have been among the countless million struggling to make it as undocumented or “illegal” migrants.


I held my first Nansen lecture in 1995. Then as now the theme was refugees and displacement. At that time we saw several cruel wars centrally placed in Europe and concentrated in the Former Yugoslavia. We also saw several armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union. The number of refugees in Europe, in Africa and other continents had reached record levels and the outlook was bleak in spite of the improved political climate in post cold war international relations. Since that speech we have more than a billion additional human beings on our planet, but fewer refugees from war and conflict. We have however more displacement due to natural disasters and climate change.  

Analysing, as we do today, the global nature of displacement is like taking a global X-Ray of human kind. So the first question we must ask when reflecting on the changing face and nature of displacement is the following basic one: Is the world in general getting better or worse?  It is a question I have frequently asked been asked not only by students and journalists, but also by refugees: Are we making progress on our watch?

I am, after having visited or worked in more than a hundred countries, convinced that the world is getting steadily better for a sizable majority of us. There is more peace and less terror and killing of civilians than in the 70s, 80s and 90s. More children get education and health care than when the cold war ended. There is marked increased in life expectancy on all continents and in nearly all countries.

There are also more democracies, fewer military coups and less human rights abuse than when the Cold War ended twenty years ago. At that time, in the 1990s, there were as many as ten horrific genocides. Now, we are hopefully and probably seeing none. Child mortality has decreased by millions during the last 20 years, even in a rapidly growing world population.

The global overview of displacement and refugees was launched earlier today in Oslo. 43,7 million people are internally displaced or refugees by the end of 2010. A refugee has fled across an international border to seek protection, whereas the even greater number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled the same kinds of political, ethnic or cultural persecution, but have not yet crossed a border and often therefore has even less protection than the refugees. There are also growing numbers of people who leave their homes due to non-political push and pull factors.

The statistics presented today document fewer refugees who have crossed a border for protection than in the first half of the 1990s (16,2 million in 2010), but it is still the highest number in the tumultuous post Cold War years. But, symptomatically, in a world of many failed, fragile and fractured states the number of refugees within a country, the number of internally displaced, has not gone down compared with the record levels of 1993. In fact, since the relatively good year of 2005 scores of new displacements have made the numbers of internal refugees reach 27.5 million in 2010. The protracted and often forgotten civil wars and conflict zones where these live in misery and fear are more often than not seeing no coherent conflict resolution.


There is in a world of much social, economic and political progress increasing numbers of people fleeing an increasing number of natural disasters. There are also more migrants and guest workers. Not only is climate change and variability contributing to more extreme whether, but more poor people in a growing world population also live more exposed to the harsh forces of nature. Every year the last year we have seen many more people displaced by disasters than by conflict. Natural disasters contribute to the so called “environmental refugees” who flee from inhospitable living conditions, disasters and – possibly, unfolding climate change. Together with the millions who try to escape protracted poverty and misery for better economic opportunities elsewhere, the “environmental refugees” join the ranks of migrants that often have to enter the richer countries as “illegal aliens”.

There is also the darker side within a growing and globalised world economy that have made so many of us rich and also lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Among the more than seven billion at our planet there is also growing social injustice. The affluent have become rich beyond the wildest imagination - while the poorest live in the same abject misery as before. Some 200 years ago the ratio between the richest and poorest nations was around one to three. Now the ratio between the richest and poorest countries is a hundred to one. The richest individuals are richer than several of the poorest nations combined – a few billionaires are richer than the poorest two billion people.

Man walked on the moon more than a generation ago, but we are still far away from securing coherent and predictable relief and protection for women, children and civilians at large in too many of the conflicts and crisis of our time. Too many communities are neither a strategic concern nor a public opinion priority within the leading capitals or among the political, economic and military elites that could make a difference. I have been a humanitarian worker, researcher and activist for more than 30 years. More often than not I have  felt that whether or not our appeals for people in desperate need was heard is decided by a bizarre lottery rather than the objective needs of the affected and the resources at hand.

If you are African, non-English speaking, and affected by a slow onset natural disaster or a protracted conflict you will lose out in the English language Western media, and in Washington, London and the Scandinavian capitals which are best able to place humanitarian priorities on the international agenda. The net short term outcome of deliberations among the powers is usually funds for a minimum of blankets and band aids to keep people alive, but not the comprehensive investment in development, security, justice and political solutions which could help people out of their vicious circle of misery and vulnerability.


It does not have to be like that. During my years as the global Emergency Relief Coordinator I saw, first hand, how effective humanitarian action with local and regional partners can build hope and the freedom from want that President Franklyn D. Roosevelt defined as one of humanity’s foremost goals two generations ago. I could witness social progress even in such hopelessly war torn societies as Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Congo and Burundi, Angola and South Sudan, Northern Uganda, Kosovo and Nepal.  We also coordinated through the United Nations massive, life saving international relief in the Indian Ocean tsunami, the South Asian earthquake, the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, the Lebanon war and the Darfur crisis. 

In most of these overwhelming emergencies hundreds of thousands of lives were predicted to perish.  These sombre predictions were averted because multilateral action, building on local capacities, is today infinitely more effective than in 1941 when President Roosevelt spoke to the US Congress. 

We fail as a collective humanity when multilateral action lacks the unity of purpose among UN member states. We fail, tragically and repeatedly, when the United Nations and regional organisations are not provided with the political will and the minimum of economic and security resources needed from their member states.  The endless ongoing suffering in Darfur, in Burma, among Palestinians, in the Congo and among climate change victims in the South is a product of neglect among those national, regional and international actors that could have unlocked the situation.


I am glad that the Women’s Refugee Commission is sponsoring this event as we need to address the rights of, the vulnerabilities of and the great potential of women in circumstances of conflict and crisis.

The good news is that we have over the last decade gotten a whole series of international norms, decisions and declarations that once and for all declare that a gender perspective is a necessary precondition if we are to succeed in promoting security, development and humanitarian principles.

In October this year, we will mark the 10th anniversary of the landmark UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security.  In addition, we work towards the effective and comprehensive implementation of the provisions of UNSCRs 1820 and 1888, which confront sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The UN has thus, once and for all, declared that we must have a specific focus on women in all our work in crisis and post-crisis situations - not only because it is in conformity with our ideals, but also with our interests. We will fail in our peace, development and humanitarian efforts unless we focus on the needs of and resourcefulness of women.

There is also good news in terms of some implementation, some places. In a few post-conflict situations, from Burundi to Nepal, the representation of women in political decision-making has increased manifold since peace agreements were made and the peace process started. In many development programs and capacity building efforts inside and outside of the UN there is greater, better and more effective focus on empowering women.  

Women and girls have over the last decade in most countries achieved greater access to health care and education. In many emergency operations humanitarian workers have mainstreamed gender perspectives and relief groups provide more appropriate and effective aid for women and girls as well as men and boys. When I was the Emergency Relief Coordinator we established a stand-by gender capacity that can send experts anywhere in the world on short notice to help protect and promote the rights of women in extreme situations. So far operative gender experts have been deployed to improve humanitarian programs in more than 20 countries.

But the bad news dwarfs the good news: the bitter realities in most crisis and post-crisis situation are that little has changed. Too many places women and girls continue to live in extreme vulnerability, suffer unbelievable human rights abuse and remain totally marginalized in all decision-making that affects their lives and their communities. 

In short, although UNSCR 1325 deserves to be celebrated as a major breakthrough for women’s rights in the peace and security arena because of its systematic insistence on the interconnectedness between gender and peace and security concerns - the realities on the ground have not changed for most of the women in most of the situations that the UN wanted to reach.

Humanitarian crises - be they conflicts or natural disasters - reinforce, increase and perpetuate social inequalities and discrimination, including gender inequalities. The potential contributions that women can make to disaster risk reduction, to crisis response and to post-crisis reconstruction and peace building are all too often overlooked and female leadership in building community resilience frequently disregarded.

Pre-existing vulnerabilities are also often exacerbated. We see more sexual and domestic violence. We see violations concerning housing, land and property rights, personal documentation and status rights.  Again, more often than not, it is women, girls and boys that bear a disproportionate brunt of these violations.

We must acknowledge that the systematic integration of gender into humanitarian responses has not yet been achieved and much remains to be done at many levels –  policy development, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, needs assessment tools and, more than anything else, operational tools and practices. The systematic collection and analysis of sex- and age-disaggregated data; and the integration of gender perspectives in appeals and planning tools related to disaster preparedness, responses and post-crisis reconstruction and peace-building are critical steps in the right direction. 

We must have systems in place to ensure that all women, girls, boys and men have equal access to and benefit from humanitarian assistance. If we do not have a gender perspective our job is not done and people who we are there to serve are possibly put in harms way.

All humanitarian actors must be held accountable to ensure that they understand the different needs of women and men – girls and boys and design their interventions taking these differences into account.

Humanitarian workers also need to know if they are putting people at risk of sexual violence by increasing their vulnerability.  If a shelter provided does not make sure the shelter is safe – and puts women at risk of rape – then the shelter provider did not do his job.  If again latrines are not separated and women cannot access sanitation facilities safely – then the provider of sanitation services did not do his or her job. 

All humanitarian decision makers must “follow the money” – if we do not know how much money is going to support gender programming we will not have the resources needed. A new gender marker in the international Consolidated Appeals Process is the first effort to follow where the money goes and tell us how we allocate resources.

Importantly, the use of resources must be grassroots oriented and operational and advocacy more focussed. Many of the good advocates for women’s rights have in recent years been more successful in organising seminars and studies in New York, Geneva, Nairobi or Oslo than in getting field projects, envoys and local action to make a difference on the frontlines.

We’ve talked about gang-rape in the Congo, Darfur and elsewhere too long. Rape is a crime of the worst kind. In war it is a war crime. The first international trial declaring rape as a war crime took place in Europe in the 13th century – but women are still physically and mentally destroyed in war and crisis in all cultures and on all continents. Those military and civilian commanders who condone or commit this abuse belong in jail and campaigns need to target their individual accountability.


It is already more than six years since I brought, as UN Under-Secretary General, Darfur to the Security Council for the first time. It was April 2, 2004 and the German Council Presidency was two days old. For several months we had struggled to get anyone interested in this forgotten desert conflict that had already displaced hundreds of thousands defenceless civilians. As of that month Western nations took upon themselves to bring Darfur's cause forward. Since then the number of dead, displaced and abused women and children have more than quadrupled in Darfur.  

I noticed during these first crucial months of trying to mobilise against the atrocities in Darfur, that there was little help or interest among Sudan's Asian trading partners or among Arab nations. That neglect became fateful, because they had greater influence in Khartoum than the Westerners. Later, in September 2006, President Bashir himself confirmed this in the meeting of non-aligned countries in Cuba. We "fear no sanctions" he said, because Sudan has "forged close trading links with China, India, Pakistan and Malaysia".

In my own encounters with government officials in Khartoum they more than once demonstrated that they were comfortable with their international position. Once, when I brought up our reports of massive rape of women in Darfur they counterattacked: "we see your criticism in Western media, but we also see who support you: the same nations that tear apart Iraq and betray the Palestinians - and you want us to take moral lessons from them?"


If the new multi-polar world is to settle the remaining 32 armed conflict and prevent new ones, the international diplomatic orchestra must function better. The new regional and world powers must not only be recognized as powers that rightly belong at the table in the Security Council – they must also be charged with taking responsibility for positive change in places like Burma, Sudan, the Congo and Zimbabwe. The West may be well advised to defer to those may actually succeed so the media and the NGOs more often will ask: what are you in Beijing, New Delhi or Pretoria planning to do multilaterally as well as bilaterally?

It may seem a paradox that in the midst of our advancements in terms of new technology and communications that make us do unbelievably sophisticated things, we see  Medieval racism, hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islam phobia and anti-Western sentiments which is beyond reason and control in may countries and age groups. The sectarian violence and religiously motivated terrorism has caused countless people to flee their homes in our time.


In spite of and because of all this, there is reason for optimism. I believe the coming years can and will see a revival of multilateral action for refugees and displaced, victims of wars and disasters. There should be a multilateral renaissance because the experience of recent years has proven the costly futility of unilateral force. Since 2003 the United States alone has spent more than 1000 billion dollars on war and the state and nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is several times more than the combined bill of all United Nations humanitarian, developmental, environmental, peacekeeping, peacemaking and democracy building efforts in a hundred countries during the same years.

The UN operation that built peace, democracy and human rights in chaotic and war-torn Liberia cost about one billion dollars a year. The US pushed for this successful UN operation. It cost the Americans a quarter of a billion dollars a year – or the equivalent of 14 hours of expenses at the same time in Iraq.

Clearly, the age of investment in joint, collective and coherent action through the United Nations has come for the rich and the powerful member states of the organisation. As we move from a uni-polar world of US dominance to a multi-polar world, it will be as important to recognize the political importance of the new powers and demand that they assume their part of political and economic burden sharing. In the new world the Security Council and the International financial Institutions should reflect economic and political reality in this century and not the world as it was in 1945.


Too few would know that the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo represent one of the greatest losses of lives in our generation. Hundreds of thousands of lives have perished among the defenceless civilians scattered in thousands of hamlets in this vast country without anybody noticing beyond the bereaved mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. This endless haemorrhage of human lives can and must stop. And the reasons why are explained beyond any words in the images from the frontlines of humanity as taken and presented by Espen Rasmussen in this immensely important book.

When I visited the Congo in 2003, a dozen or more armies were fighting in eastern Congo. Armed groups and militias consisted of hundreds of thousands of ruthless, undisciplined men from neighbouring states, from the main ethnic groups, and from organized crime fuelled by the illegal exploitation of Congo’s vast natural resources. Among them there were some thirty thousand child soldiers. In the crossfire was the defenceless civilian population.

We went by helicopter and jeep to see how peacekeepers and humanitarian workers negotiated or enforced the access for relief and reconciliation efforts. Seeing the drunk, drugged, and heavily armed militias, and meeting some of tens of thousands of sexually abused and mutilated women and children, I felt, like most, that the Congo was the closest one could get to a hopeless case of chaos and societal collapse.

When I came back in the autumn of 2006, there were some signs of change. Two million of the close to four million refugees and displaced had returned home. A series of militias had been disarmed. In conflict prone Katanga, Ituri, and North and South Kivu we met militiamen impatiently waiting for the small sums of money and support that are given by aid groups for the demobilization and reintegration of men who had specialized in living by the gun, but who now told us they wanted to join in a peaceful society as working men. My humanitarian colleagues had access for the first to vulnerable communities that had been beyond reach since the end of the 1990s.

After years of indecisiveness, neglect, and penny-pinching lack of investment in United Nations operations, there was finally in 2004 a renewed effort by a united Security Council to provide a more robust peacekeeping force; there was a generous and long-term push by the European Union to fund the ambitious UN-led electoral process; and there was more money for our efforts to provide coordinated relief in all parts of the country. On the front lines of this increasingly effective operation were the good efforts of dozens of Congolese and international nongovernmental organizations, all the UN humanitarian agencies, and a peacekeeping force that received its soldiers primarily from the Asian and African nations that today bear the brunt of global UN peacekeeping.

But then at the end of 2006 the Security Council powers and the EU seemed to go on vacation. All EU forces which had been there for the elections and human rights protection were withdrawn. A peace-keeping force that has one fourth of the size and equipment of the Western forces in much smaller Afghanistan was not strengthened.

The Asian, Latin American and African forces that today bear the brunt of global UN peacekeeping was unrealistically expected to help build coherent Congolese armed forces and disarm countless militias.  Today, neither the EU nor other Europeans are living up to what was successfully done in 2003-2006 nor to our solemnly sworn responsibility to protect in areas were we have our blackest colonial history.   

So even though many parts of the Congo became better. Some of the Eastern Congolese provinces are still an outrage. Too many disastrous circumstances are unchanged. The mortality rate, perhaps a thousand needless deaths each and every day since war broke out in 1998 remained at it outrageous high point. And the thousands of gang-raped women I met at the Panzi Hospital in South Kivu were joined by new girls and women that had been mutilated by the men who still use female bodies as battlefields with total impunity. 

If we at least could agree that a live in the Congo is as much worth as a life in Europe, North America or Japan, we could end the massive, collective suffering of entire populations in Central Africa that we have seen for far too long.


In spite of, but also because of all of these experiences, I believe that in the coming generation progress can be achieved.  We now have means to end so much of the suffering that was seen as inevitable during previous generations. We have, in spite of temporary financial meltdowns, greater resources at hand than at any time before. We have superior technology and information. We have advanced early warnings for hunger, epidemics and conflict which make it impossible to claim we did not know what was brewing.

We also have the biggest and best network of like-minded inter-governmental, governmental and non-governmental organisations as channels of future investments in peace and development. They represent great hope as we embark on a generation that has in its hands to end massive misery and prevent conflict and disasters. It is a question of will.

In the future we must think more strategically, and more locally, in the way we undertake our long term efforts to make societies resilient to hazards and strife. We must work more closely with local governments and civil society to strengthen their capacity for handling crisis and exercising good governance. We must find better ways to forge coordination and partnerships internationally, nationally and locally. Thus we will be able to tap local resources and local expertise better.

Time and again we see that more lives are saved in earthquakes, floods and tsunamis by local groups than by expensive airborne fire brigades. Similarly, it is usually local and regional actors who are make or break for peace building efforts and reconciliation. Recognising the need to discuss a new deal in forging effective partnerships beyond borders and artificial organisational barriers is a precondition for improved future humanitarian action.

The growth in high-quality civil society movements, especially within third world societies, is probably the single most important trend in global efforts to combat poverty and conflict. They are more important than governments and inter-governmental organisations such as the UN tend to recognize.

Over the years I have seen how the international community, in spite of often half-hearted investment by the powerful and the rich, has succeeded in providing life-saving assistance and protection to those in greatest need. Through the United Nations and other international organisations I have seen how we can organize, against all odds, tremendous processes of change when we have a sufficient minimum of political support from the most powerful capitals and a sufficient minimum of resources from the richest nations. So there is, in spite of all the troubles and threats, hope for humanitarian action, for refugees and for internally displaced.

Jan Egeland,

Director, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and

Former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator 2003-06  

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