Cablegate: Unhcr Regional Representative Utkan Views On Eve Of

Published: Tue 2 Aug 2005 11:02 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A) Hanoi 1865 and previous; B) Phnom Penh 1178 and
previous; C) Phnom Penh 1230; D) HCMC 524 and previous; E)
04 HCMC 1554
1. (SBU) Summary: In HCMC before his August 2-4 visit to
the Central Highlands, UNHCR Regional Representative Utkan,
accompanied by Hanoi-based UNHCR representative Vu Anh Son,
told ConGenOffs that cooperation with the GVN on issues
related to the return of ethnic minority refugees from
Cambodia was improving. The GVN was facilitating his visit
to meet with some of the 94 ethnic minority individuals
recently returned to Vietnam that UNHCR had determined not
to be refugees. The GVN also had "routinized" the travel of
Hanoi-based Son to the Central Highlands and granted him
unescorted access to returnees, giving UNHCR a clearer
perspective on conditions in the Central Highlands. This
access was important as Utkan was growing increasingly
distrustful of NGO reporting, including that of Human Rights
Watch, on the condition of ethnic minorities in the Central
Highlands. Utkan viewed as complementary and welcomed the
proposed visit of U.S. Mission staff to the Central
Highlands and wanted others in the world community to follow
suit. UNHCR would have to substantially increase its
profile in the Central Highlands were the 42 "refusniks" in
Cambodia forced to return. End Summary.
2. (SBU) On August 1, ConGenOffs met with UNHCR Regional
Representative Hasim Utkan and Hanoi-based UNHCR
representative Vu Anh Son to exchange views on conditions in
the Central Highlands before their visit to the Central
Highlands province of Gia Lai province August 2-4. Utkan
said that the visit was not a monitoring visit per se,
although he intended to visit some of the 94 screened out
ethnic minority individuals recently returned to Vietnam
(Ref B). Technically, UNHCR had no legal obligation to
monitor their welfare. Moreover, there was nothing in the
Tripartite MOU that required that the GVN grant access to
the Central Highlands; during negotiations, the GVN had
resisted UNHCR efforts to insert language on monitoring into
the document. The best that UNHCR could obtain at the time
was a commitment that the parties would "consult" on this
3. (SBU) That said, the Tripartite MOU between the GVN, RGC
and UNHCR made no distinction among the various types of
returnees to Vietnam. Strategically, UNHCR found it in its
interest to press for access to the 43 ethnic minority
individuals that had voluntarily returned to Vietnam earlier
in 2005. By doing so, UNHCR set a precedent for future
international monitoring and gained capacity to make
independent assessments of conditions of ethnic minorities
in the Central Highlands. In this regard, Utkan said that
he leveraged the April/May Human Rights Watch reports
alleging abuse of voluntary returnees (Ref D) to gain GVN
approval for the UNHCR Hanoi-based local representative Son
to visit Gia Lai Province. Although there was some
Politburo resistance before the first visit, they have
become "routinized." Over the past three months, Son has
made five visits to Gia Lai, meeting 41 of the 43 voluntary
returnees. He has been able to document that they are
not/not being mistreated. Now, in another positive step,
the GVN has facilitated Utkan's travel to the Central
Highlands. These visits will allow UNHCR to improve its
capacity to determine refugee status of ethnic minorities in
future cases, Utkan said.
4. (SBU) In Utkan's view, the GVN was not a driving force in
the return of the 94 or ongoing Cambodian Government efforts
to refoule 42 "refusniks," all of whom are from Gia Lai
Province (Ref C). He believes the Cambodian Government, as
a matter of national pride, wants to make the point that it
is within its right to return the 94 -- and even the
refusniks -- six months after the Tripartite MOU was signed.
5. (SBU) In Utkan's view, the refusniks are an unprecedented
problem. International refugee law assumes that refugees
are persons that flee from imminent threat and thus would
welcome -- and accept -- a durable solution. The refusniks'
refusal to accept resettlement casts doubt on the urgency of
their claims and underscores the political agenda underlying
the presence of some of the ethnic minorities from the
Central Highlands in Cambodia. For example, the refusniks
were in regular contact with the Montagnard Foundation in
South Carolina via cell phone. Nonetheless, because these
42 are the "hardcore," it is in no one's interest to see
them returned to Vietnam, Utkan said. For its part, if the
refusniks are returned, UNHCR will have a real obligation to
maintain a more robust international presence in the Central
6. (SBU) Utkan emphasized that in dealing with the ethnic
minorities crossing from Vietnam, UNHCR applied a threshold
for granting refugee status well below what it would apply
in other operations worldwide. The ethnic minorities were
given an "overextended benefit of the doubt." Some were
clearly coached prior to their interviews. Moreover, Utkan
was particularly disturbed that some of the UNHCR's own
implementers -- particularly the Jesuit Refugee Service --
had told the 94 to disregard UNHCR instructions and to
resist physically return to Vietnam. Utkan also was
frustrated with Human Rights Watch "distortions" over events
surrounding the return of the 94 and, more broadly, over the
situation of ethnic minorities in Vietnam. He commented
that Human Rights Watch (HRW) is decentralized and, at least
in the case of its Cambodia-based representative, exercises
no quality control over reporting from the field.
Willingly or unwillingly, HRW has become part of a political
agenda involving ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Central
7. (SBU) Utkan viewed as complementary and strongly
supported U.S. and other international community visits to
the Central Highlands. He suggested that such visits be
front-loaded in the first few months following repatriation.
We told him that such a strategy tracks with our
understanding of dynamics in the Central Highlands. For
example, our contacts in Gia Lai told us that ethnic
minorities who had returned voluntarily from Cambodia in
2002 were under tight police scrutiny during their first few
months back in Vietnam. Police scrutiny gradually ebbed so
long as the persons stayed away from activities that the GVN
believe were linked to "Dega separatism".
Khmer Krom
8. (SBU) During our discussion, Utkan also inquired about
conditions for the Khmer Krom -- ethnic Cambodians -- in the
Mekong Delta. Over the past two to three months, UNHCR in
Phnom Penh has seen an uptick in the number of Khmer Krom
seeking assistance; perhaps as many as 60 individuals have
approached UNHCR. Normally, UNHCR will receive no more than
two or three Krom petitioners in a year. We told Utkan that
we have traveled in the Mekong Delta and specifically
examined conditions for ethnic Cambodians. However, we have
not detected any evidence of systemic discrimination against
the Khmer Krom as some international advocacy groups have
alleged (Ref E).
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