Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the International Rescue Committee Freedom Award, New York, 21 November 1995

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to receive the Freedom Award tonight. I would like to express my deep appreciation to the International Rescue Committee for bestowing this tribute on me. It is a recognition of the courage and devotion of more than 5,000 staff of my Office, who are working in dangerous and difficult conditions to assist some 27 million persons falling under the responsibility of my Office.

The International Rescue Committee has been a strong advocate on behalf of refugees, especially women and children, and has played a key role in the delivery of emergency assistance, and medical and educational services to millions of victims worldwide. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank the IRC and its staff for its commitment and readiness to assist the refugees at often high personal cost.

It is gratifying that an award to commemorate human freedom should be bestowed on an organization committed to the protection of those who fled their homes because their life and freedom were threatened.

Africa has been at the forefront of our operations. The flight of more than 2 million Rwandans to neighbouring Tanzania and Zaire within a matter of days in June of last year, brought about a massive relief response and international solidarity, but no immediate solution is in sight for the women and children languishing in the camps. But there are also many positive developments. We have just completed the repatriation of 1.7 million Mozambicans, and are preparing for the return of some 300,000 Angolans.

But today, I would like to pay special tribute to all the efforts to bring peace to former Yugoslavia. I am elated that an agreement has been reached on Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 3.5 million people have been affected by the conflict, and the human suffering has been immense. The forcible displacement of people has been one of the very objectives of the fighting. For nearly four years, more than 600 UNHCR staff have been operating under very dangerous conditions to keep the Sarajevo airlift going, to keep the humanitarian convoys rolling and to provide protection to people wherever possible. We can be proud that the humanitarian agencies, with the invaluable assistance of UNPROFOR, have been able to save thousands of lives.

Now, we must make sure that those people who have been the target of the conflict do not also become the victims of peace. For any durable peace settlement to work, the fundamental human rights and humanitarian principles must be fully respected. UNHCR will continue its humanitarian assistance and is preparing for the return of the refugees and displaced persons. Any return should, however, be voluntary and take place in an organized and phased manner. In the first phase, people displaced inside Bosnia and people with professional expertise necessary for the reconstruction of the country should return. In the second phase, repatriation from the neighbouring republics of former Yugoslavia, and in the third phase, repatriation from countries outside former Yugoslavia. I envisage that with the onset of winter and the serious accommodation shortages, no significant return will take place until next spring. We must realize, however, that repatriation for some people will not be a solution and that resettlement will be necessary.

Humanitarian action is important but is not an end in itself. As the causes of humanitarian crises are political ones, so are the solutions. We can alleviate human suffering and mitigate the consequences of forced displacement, but we cannot substitute for political responsibility.

I count on your continued partnership to build a world in which refugees can return home safely and that others will not be forced to flee.