02/2006: Barbara Hendricks

February 2006

Barbara Hendricks
UNHCR Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador


20 years of commitment to UNHCR’s
international protection activities


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Despite a very active and successful career as a world renowned soprano, you have been the longest-serving Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, travelling extensively to meet with policy-makers and refugees in Africa, Asia and Europe over the past 20 years. You continue to carry your advocacy to the highest diplomatic and government levels internationally and, in recognition of your outstanding commitment, the High Commissioner awarded you in 2002 a lifetime Goodwill Ambassadorship. In 1998 you founded the Barbara Hendricks Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, to personalise your struggle for the prevention of conflicts worldwide and to facilitate reconciliation and enduring peace where conflicts occur. Since 2001, you have also been an active board member of the Refugee Education Trust. Could you describe, briefly, the origins and sense of your dedication to world refugee affairs, as well as the distinctive benefits, to UNHCR and other agencies, of putting your celebrity to the service of international refugee protection activities?

Ü Barbara Hendricks: In some way you could say that I was born a refugee in my own country. In 1948, the year that I was born and the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in many southern states of the USA, US citizens who were descendants of the former slaves who had helped build the country were not entitled to the same rights that the US Constitution afforded to the rest of its citizens. Full and equal protection under the law of the land and the right to vote was not for all. As a child I witnessed the civil rights movement in the state of Arkansas and Tennessee. Later as a university student I became politically active working for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War. This was a time when many different rights movements were being formed and I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to work together for human rights for each and every human being, ensuring that no one would be left out and that this was better and more efficient than having different groups working isolated for their own rights, sometimes even in opposition to the rights of others.

When the UNHCR asked me in 1986 if I might be interested to work together with them as a Goodwill Ambassador I, like most people in the world had little idea about who the UNHCR was or what the UNHCR did. As I learned about the organization and the complexity of refugee problems and solutions I realized that I could put my beliefs about universal human rights into practice by actively supporting the cause of refugees. Over the years I have become attached to the refugee cause because it is a just cause and because of the untiring work of the UNHCR and its partners in the field that I have witnessed all over the world. It is, however, the courage and dignity of the refugees themselves, particularly the women, who together with the children make up 80% of the refugee population, that have inspired me to continue in spite of obstacles and the difficulty of the task. It is so clear to me that human rights abuse and violations are the roots of refugee problems and that the promotion and defence of Human Rights in our daily lives can be the seeds of the solutions for many refugee situations as well as a guide for us to live together in harmony on this planet, finding together durable and just solutions for the many serious problems confronting us all.

The most important criteria for accepting a celebrity that wants to work for the UN or an NGO, in my opinion, has to be a genuine commitment to the cause and an ability to articulate the complex humanitarian situations that they are called upon to explain. If these criteria are not fulfilled then celebrities can be counter productive. The slightest suspicion that the celebrity is following a suggestion of a public relations agent to find a cause in order to enhance her or his image can make it so difficult for the work of genuine, committed celebrities to be taken seriously and, more importantly, for the often complex message that they are trying to convey to be heard.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Since 1987, you have visited a range of refugee sites in Zambia, Malaysia, Thailand, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Croatia, Bosnia, and East Timor. You have also been a regular interlocutor to heads of state internationally, to report on refugee needs and possible solutions. Could you guide us through some of the highlights of your UNHCR missions to Africa, Asia and Europe over the past twenty years, describing the nature and possible complexity of the local refugee crises you have encountered, and your contribution to the deployment of emergency assistance and/or more durable solutions?

Ü Barbara Hendricks: The visits to refugee camps that I have made on behalf of the UNHCR since 1987 have exposed me to different refugee situations all over the world. There were those preparing to return home to stability, eager to rebuild their country and their lives. In this group were Namibians in Zambia and Cambodians in Thailand. I followed up on these stories, visiting Cambodia during the repatriation process led by Sergio Viera de Mello. It was a moving experience to see the Cambodians overwhelmingly embracing democracy for the first time with 90% participation in their first democratic election. Namibians defied the pessimistic predictions of a bloody civil war as they established, peacefully a new independent Namibia. The joy of independence festivities in East Timor will remain one of the most moving experiences I have had. These are among the success stories that represent the desired outcome of refugee situations but they are not at all the kind of stories that attract the media’s attention. There is still much to do. A war crimes tribunal has yet to do the needed work in Cambodia that could help lead to healing and reconciliation.

Other refugees that I had visited had to wait much longer to return home, such as the refugees from Mozambique in their settlement in Zambia on the border with Mozambique, whom I visited at the same time as the Namibians. They return home only began 14 years later. The Cambodians had themselves been in exile for nearly the same amount of time. I was in Ngara, Tanzania with Rwandan refugees shortly after the genocide and exodus, it was a desperate situation. I visited Rwanda and Burundi a year later but even though there have been a constant stream of refugees returning to Rwanda since then, the genocide and the subsequent refugee crisis has contributed to the spread of conflicts in the Great Lakes area of Africa and there remains an instability and volatility that is of great concern today. An interesting case, refugees who left Democratic Republic of Congo, formally Zaire, between 1965 and 1968, in order to escape post-independence chaos and fighting. They headed northeast into southern Sudan to Juba, a garrison town which was frequently bombed during the civil war in Southern Sudan. Now that the civil war has ended the UNHCR is in the process of helping them to repatriate after more than 40 years in exile even though the situation in the DRC is not as stable as one would wish. This is proof that most refugees are attached to their homeland, their language and culture and want more than anything to return home and to be able to live in peace with dignity on their own soil and among their own family and loved ones.

However once the UNHCR has completed its task, which is repatriation or resettlement, it must leave and move on to other pressing emergencies. Too often the international community lacks the will to insure a durable and stable peace. This has always been a frustration for me. I believe that much more will is needed, first to try to prevent conflicts and the ensuing barbarism, destruction and exodus from occurring. Just as much will is needed to insure that peace keeping and peace building is given the financial and political support necessary in order to give real hope to the refugees for a brighter future after their return.

I am unable to measure my contribution in concrete terms but I hope that I have been able to shed some light on these complex situations that are too often reported as the tragedy of the week in emotional sound bites by the mass media and then forgotten. I have tried be a voice for refugees, speaking their truth to world leaders and the general public so that the citizens of the international community will understand that we are all refugees on this earth without the solidarity of one another and that through the strength of public opinion we can push our governments to act in a spirit of brotherhood.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Throughout your humanitarian work, you have also been an impassioned speaker on the rights of refugee women. What would you say are the most typical and pressing issues affecting refugee women today and, in your opinion, what are the most urgent corrective measures currently overlooked by the intervention strategy applied by international agencies and national government authorities?

Ü Barbara Hendricks: Today the UNHCR cares for about 19.6 million persons in the world who have been uprooted as a result of the violation of Human Rights. Around half of these persons are girls and women. Domestic violence is the most prevalent form of violence against women in the world and refugee women are no exception. Although for refugee women and girls there is the added violence and absurdity of war which too often directly targets them. In Bosnia and Rwanda rape became a deliberate aim of war. Many young female refugees had been forced to become child soldiers and often forced into different forms of sexual slavery as well. Most women refugees also have others who are dependent on them, children and the elderly. Health concerns are more accentuated for women in the refugee population, particularly HIV/AIDS infections which has been growing in the female population.

The Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted in 1998, giving it power to judge a wide spectrum of offences, including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy. I cannot overstate the important role that this court can have for enabling reconciliation and lasting peace as well as being a strong tool for the prevention of the crimes against humanity that we have so sadly witnessed during our lifetime.

The most important responsibility of the UNHCR, known as international protection, is to ensure respect for the basic human rights of all refugees, but particularly for the most vulnerable. Together with its partners it offers counselling, education and vocational training, programmes that can help to empower girls and women to become independent. They can learn skills that they can use while they are refugees, but more importantly when they return home or settle in a third country to start a new life.

The most important corrective measures would be for the international community, national and regional governmental authorities, the security council of the UN and in particular the gang of five, the permanent members, to demonstrate some true will to take the measures necessary to prevent conflicts from happening thus preventing exodus and the precariousness of life as a refugee and to truly and actively support existing resolutions concerning Human Rights for all.

The Security Council adopted resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace and security on 31 October 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction, and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.