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20th anniversary of Handicap International recognition by UNHCR Nansen Award

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On 4 October 1996, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) presented the Nansen Medal Award to Handicap International “for its work on behalf of refugees and its contribution to the campaign against anti-personnel mines.” On the 20th anniversary of receiving the award, Handicap International’s co-founder, Jean-Baptiste Richardier, reflects on an important chapter in the organisation’s history.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs Sadako Ogata, presents the Nansen Medal Award to Dr Jean-Baptiste Richardier, founder of Handicap International, and Patrick Segal, the organisation’s then vice-chairman.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs Sadako Ogata, presents the Nansen Medal Award to Dr Jean-Baptiste Richardier, founder of Handicap International, and Patrick Segal, the organisation’s then vice-chairman. | © A. Hollmann / UNHCR

What is the Nansen Medal Award?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: The Nansen Medal Award is presented each year by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to recognise individuals or organisations working in aid of displaced people.

How important was this award for Handicap International in 1996?

It was a big surprise, that’s the first thing to say. We didn’t even know we’d been nominated! We were very touched by it, and it made a big difference to us.

In 1996, Handicap International was still a young organisation - we’d been operating for 15 years - with a rebellious, determined streak, and we were fighting to ensure the needs of people with disabilities were more effectively taken into account, particularly during refugee outflows.

We’d worked closely with the UNHCR on a number of programmes, but we still had a very independent mindset. We’d been critical of the organisation on more than one occasion, hence our surprise! The award provided us with peer recognition from our fellow international and humanitarian organisations.

What role did Handicap International play alongside the UNHCR?

One of the biggest refugee crises in the mid-1990s was on Thailand’s border with Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Major humanitarian operations were also underway in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. These two crises presented the UNHCR with serious organisational and financial challenges. They were supported by partners like Handicap International, and we were given responsibility for a number of large-scale humanitarian programmes.

The award also came just a few years after Handicap International had first set up its “Mine Action” department. We launched our initial mine clearance operations in Cambodia, providing support to the UN, which was struggling to cope with the scale of the threat from mines to refugees repatriated from camps in Thailand. That’s when Handicap International launched its humanitarian mine clearance operations and we’re proud to have been one of the pioneers.

The UNHCR was keen to recognise our work. I’d also say that, in 1996, it bolstered our legitimacy within the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a year before the adoption of the Mine Ban Convention - the Ottawa Convention.

What do you remember most about the ceremony?

It was a very solemn affair, attended by representatives of “Geneva International”. Mrs Ogata made a very strong speech: “My organisation owes much to Handicap International’s managers. Working tirelessly alongside people with disabilities [...] your organisation represents the best of humanitarian action.”

What did this award change for Handicap International?

It gave us lasting media visibility. The image of a serious NGO on which the UN Refugee Agency could rely further strengthened our credibility with donors. It marked a turning point in the organisation’s history and perhaps its inclusion in the group of NGOs that count.

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