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Closing Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 8 December 1999

Speeches and statements

Closing Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 8 December 1999

8 December 1999

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today's meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group has been a remarkable opportunity to reflect on the challenges we are currently facing in addressing problems of forced human displacement in South-Eastern Europe, and to plan the way ahead. As our discussion has clearly indicated, the events of 1999 have added new layers to the existing problems of refugee return and reintegration. However, I believe we have reached a consensus to remain fully engaged in our combined efforts to achieve lasting peace and stability in the region, including through a close relationship between UNHCR - and the Humanitarian Issues Working Group - and the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe.

Many of you have spoken with justified concern of Kosovo, and of the serious challenges in the province: the need to rebuild institutions and services, the delays in reconstruction, and above all the grave threats to ethnic coexistence. Much remains to be done, indeed, to normalize the situation in the province.

However, talking of the various problems affecting the region, your statements confirmed my impression that a "re-balancing" of international attention has occurred. I am glad for this, since I feel that many of the challenges associated with Dayton remain unmet.

To briefly sum up, I would like to refer to three themes that have clearly emerged from our debate.

First, the importance to resolve the lingering problems of human displacement through a more effective strategy for return. Many have stressed this point, and I could not agree more. To have about two million people displaced from their homes in Europe at the end of the 20th century is not tolerable. I wish to thank you for expressing support for my proposals to revitalize the 1998 Regional Strategy for Sustainable Return.

As I said, we must not abandon the responsibilities of the Dayton Accord, including that of making it possible for all refugees and displaced people to return to their pre-war homes. After our discussion, however, I feel even more strongly that in planning for returns, and especially minority returns, we must be realistic, matching available options with the actual wishes of refugees and displaced people. We - governments in the region, local authorities, international organisations, and donor governments - must identify, respect and support the choices of those displaced - they, better than anybody else, know where their best chances for integration are to be found in the region. Basically, if we want to achieve solutions to problems of displacement, these solutions have to be as flexible as possible.

I have announced new UNHCR initiatives to identify and facilitate realistic opportunities for return in 2000. In this regard, I welcome the expression of support, in particular from Mr. Van der Stoel on behalf of the Stability Pact, and from donor governments. I also welcome your support for the initiative to organise tripartite meetings between UNHCR and states, or between UNHCR, states and entities - the latter, of course, together with state authorities - to discuss and implement concrete return operations. This initiative is important because the ultimate responsibility for durable solutions rests with governments in the region. Several have expressed their readiness to work with UNHCR on concrete measures to speed return, and I hope that they will put words into action in our upcoming tripartite meetings.

Second, the necessity to provide adequate assistance to those in need. Although this Working Group deals primarily with humanitarian issues, I was somewhat concerned by the relatively few references to the difficult humanitarian situation of refugees and displaced people in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - not only those who have recently fled, or have been expelled, from Kosovo; but also the half a million refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We heard today from several speakers about the difficult economic conditions in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, especially in Serbia proper, and the signs of growing vulnerability and humanitarian risk affecting a wider portion of the population as the social safety nets are stretched beyond capacity. I would like to assure all of you that we will continue, together with our NGO partners, to provide the much needed humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and to advocate the importance of providing assistance to all those in need in the country.

Third, the importance of creating an environment of co-existence throughout South-Eastern Europe. Together with bold leaders in the region, and - as Mrs Robinson forcefully stressed - with progressive forces in civil society, we can and must create real hope for a brighter future.

Some of you have noted, and expressed support for, my idea of promoting coexistence by fostering economic opportunities. I look forward to discussing this concept further with all of you - and to designing and implementing projects. Let us make "Jobs for Coexistence" the concrete symbol of our willingness to support people in marginalizing, and ultimately eliminating, the forces of disintegration.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our discussions today clearly indicate that a regional approach is the only way ahead. In this respect strong expectations were expressed for what the Stability Pact can hopefully achieve for the entire region, through the progress of democratic institutions, the creation of economic opportunities, and - last, but not least, from our perspective - the resolution of refugee problems. However - and this is very important - progress cannot be imposed. Progress must be built from the ground up. As Mr Bildt said this morning, if states and communities in the region are to demonstrate their readiness for integration into Europe, they must first achieve, internally, the successful and peaceful integration of their own communities. We stand ready to help them.

Thank you.