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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 28 June 1996

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 28 June 1996

28 June 1996

Mr President,

Let me start by thanking you for the opportunity to brief this Council. I am very grateful for the strong interest the Security Council continues to show in issues of forced displacement. This time, I shall concentrate my introduction on the Great Lakes region and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mr President, the situation in the Great Lakes region of Africa is indeed very preoccupying. Positive is the continuing progress towards recovery in Rwanda, and the international support for the Government's efforts as demonstrated at the recent Round Table in Geneva. Disturbing, however, are the hardening positions and the increasing instability in several parts of the region. As you are regularly briefed by the Secretary-General on the security situation, let me concentrate on our four main concerns from a humanitarian perspective.

First, new comprehensive initiatives are urgently needed to break the dead lock in the repatriation of 1.7 million Rwandan refugees. Extremist elements among the refugees in Zaire are responsible for increasing armed incursions into Rwanda and have reportedly also been involved in the massacres in the Massisi region, thus creating regional tension. A pervasive climate of intimidation in the camps and fear of arbitrary arrest or retribution in Rwanda remain the two major obstacles to large scale repatriation.

Achieving lasting repatriation and contributing to reconciliation remains our objective. To reach this objective, we are in favour of a 'package' strategy, that would include the following elements of security, justice, confidence building and rehabilitation:

  • temporary relocation of camps away from borders;
  • real action against the former military, political leaders and extremists; only few, and less important 'intimidators' have been separated thus far;
  • monitoring of borders;
  • delivery of justice: the Genocide Law in Rwanda should not be held up, speedier progress in improving the country's justice system is necessary and the International Tribunal must be enabled to expedite the trial of suspects;
  • political dialogue with credible, innocent individuals and groups in exile;
  • sustained mass information campaigns and visits in the camps; and
  • targeted rehabilitation of home communes in Rwanda and of environmentally damaged regions in countries of asylum.

Let me say a few words about the relocation of camps. We believe that it would improve regional and refugee security. Yesterday's attack on a warehouse near the Kibumba camp in the Goma area during which several people were killed, including the Commander of the Zairean security contingent, only reinforces this belief

When combined with the separation of the former army and leadership, relocation would also help breaking their monolithic control of the refugees. It might then enable and induce many bona fide refugees to repatriate.

Separation would make it easier to exclude from international protection those guilty of genocide, in accordance with the OAU Refugee Convention. This has thus far been practically impossible. It would finally free my Office from an untenable position.

As you will recall, relocation and separation were already examined in 1994 and have moreover been agreed to in the Bujumbura Plan of Action of February 1995, which was proposed by the OAU and my Office. I appeal for the re-examination of these measures, which will require the cooperation of the asylum countries, resources and security guarantees. I see no other option. We have tried everything. Let me emphasize, however, that this option alone cannot solve a problem which has not only a humanitarian but a political dimension. If there are to be lasting solutions and genuine reconciliation, I believe that this dimension must be recognized. A broader strategy is therefore necessary, which should in my view be based on more realistic time frames than applied hitherto.

Let me add, that I am worried about the assertion by some that the forced return through various means of Rwandan refugees from Zaire is the only 'solution'. There are still human rights concerns in Rwanda. I am also convinced that in that case large numbers of refugees would fan out and destabilize other regions of Zaire, as happened in Massisi. On the other hand, a sudden mass return to Rwanda could have serious humanitarian and security implications.

My second point concerns Burundi. During the mission I undertook in January at the request of the Secretary-General, local leaders already described Burundi as being in a 'state of war'. Since then there has been a further deterioration, involving gross and systematic violations of human rights, through political assassinations, hit and run actions against civilians and arbitrary revenge. The number of internally displaced persons and of refugees seeking safety in Tanzania and Zaire has considerably increased. The people of Burundi need help.

I hope that the international initiatives to promote dialogue and a halt to the violence, so ably spearheaded by former President Nyerere, and supported by the UN, the OAU and the European Union, will be sustained and stepped up. At the same time humanitarian contingencies must be readied as soon as possible. If necessary, they will, I hope, provide for a military component to ensure the protection of civilians and the security of humanitarian assistance operations. UNHCR cooperates closely with the inter-agency contingency planning for operations inside Burundi, and has established its own contingencies for a large scale refugee exodus. Our plans foresee new refugee sites in Zaire and Tanzania, for which approval by the Governments concerned has, however, not yet been obtained.

While acknowledging the tremendous burden of these countries, I tend to believe that the provision of genuine safety and assistance is much more feasible in asylum countries than through establishing safety zones inside Burundi, as some have suggested. For it should be fully realized that such zones would have to be protected, in an effective manner, and sustained as long as political solutions are not forthcoming.

This leads me to my third point: asylum and refugee protection must be upheld. I am very worried about serious incidents of refoulement of newly arriving refugees from Burundi. While some 51,000 have been admitted to safety in the last few months, several thousand have been forced back. Some have been executed immediately upon return. There have also been several security incidents in or close to Rwandan refugee camps in northern Burundi, ostensibly aimed at provoking repatriation. Basic principles of refugee protection need to be re-affirmed in the entire region, and I would appreciate receiving your support for this.

Last but not least, the safety of humanitarian personnel is in serious jeopardy in many parts of the region. My own Office has 30 international staff members left in Burundi, where three ICRC colleagues were murdered, where humanitarian access is very limited, and where most of the security measures on which I reached agreement with the Government in January, have not been implemented. While continuing to count on the cooperation of the Government, I will have to order the evacuation of my staff, if the current risks increase. In western Rwanda our mobility is limited because of mines and the risk of rebel attacks. In Goma in Zaire, NGO and UN agencies' staff benefitted greatly from the professional protection by the Zairean security contingent during recent riots in that town. Looting, grenades, mines, death threats and attacks on convoys are, however, ongoing risks. I would therefore hope that you will give the security of humanitarian personnel full attention in your deliberations. May I also appraise you of the very serious funding shortfall of usd 118 million for UNHCR's programmes in the region, which we cannot afford to curtail further.

Mr President, many humanitarian and security issues are linked in the Great Lakes region. To solve the Rwandan refugee problem and to prevent catastrophe in Burundi - which could have serious implications for the whole region, a concerted international framework and a shared commitment are in my view indispensable.

At least these conditions are in place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Let me now brief you on the humanitarian developments there.

Whereas Dayton rightly recognizes the importance for peace of just solutions for some two million refugees and displaced persons, there has thus far been too little progress in realizing that objective. The return of some 70 to 80,000 Bosnians to their homes, mostly in majority areas, has moreover been offset by the largely provoked exodus of Serbs from the Sarajevo suburbs this spring and by other movements of relocation and flight.

The reasons are in my view threefold. The first is political: some national and local leaders, mainly on the Bosnian Serb and Croat side, are still trying to pursue in peace their goals of war. They block return, while they are busy relocating members of their own group, e.g. in the Brcko area. The second reason is psychological: lack of confidence and a persistent climate of fear and mistrust. Unfortunately this is nurtured by new violations of human rights in some areas. I am concerned about the harassment of Serbs in Sarajevo by displaced persons, although there has recently been an improvement. I am equally concerned by the resumption, just a few days ago, of evictions of remaining Bosniacs in Banja Luka. While the local authorities may not be involved, they have not brought the situation under control. It is deplorable that at a time when the focus should be on return, expulsions again take place. The third reason is practical: as reconstruction is slow, house destruction and a vicious cycle of occupation continue to severely limit returns, even to majority areas where security is not the main problem.

Patience and determination are essential to tackle these obstacles. The international community should not accept that those undermining the philosophy of Dayton on fundamental points, remain in a position to do so: this should apply to all levels, from national figures to local police chiefs. A protective stance of IFOR and IPTF can calm down the situation in trouble spots, as it recently did in Teslic. Confidence building should benefit from the announced participation of many parties, including opposition parties, in the electoral process, and by the elections next Sunday in Mostar. I am glad that refugees are entitled to vote by absentee ballot. They are, however, obliged to vote in person if they opt for relocation in Bosnia, and I hope that this will not discourage them.

On its part my Office is trying to intensify return assessment visits, based on our agreed guidelines, and inter-entity bus connections. Our bus services in the Sarajevo area now enable some 1000 passengers to travel daily and to make contact. The smaller bus services between Mostar and Nevesinje and between Zenica and Banja Luka are, after initial obstruction, fully booked every day. At long last Bosniac displaced persons are being allowed to work on their homes in Croat controlled Stolac in the Federation. In the Republika Srpska, for the first time one assessment visit proceeded smoothly (in Sipovo). The obstructions clearly outnumber the successes: of the 42 requests for group visits, only 5 have been successful. But the latter give us hope, and in the last fortnight we have witnessed a slight improvement in the attitude of local authorities. In the near future we will analyse the cooperation of the various authorities, and share our conclusions with the High Representative.

In the area of reconstruction larger and smaller house repair projects are slowly but finally taking off. As I announced at the Mid-Term Review Conference in Florence, UNHCR has identified together with its partners and the authorities 18 key areas where targeted reconstruction could accelerate the return of 165,000 persons this year at an estimated cost of usd 183,000 million. While UNHCR's own role is mainly to initiate and catalyze action, several multi- and bilateral donors have shown interest during a recent meeting in Sarajevo.

The challenge is now to deliver. I was pleased that the Peace Implementation Council in Florence followed my advice against the lifting of temporary protection of refugees under current conditions, including absence of freedom of movement and insufficient amnesty legislation and human rights mechanisms. However, some refugees are returning every day from Europe, to majority areas, and we expect larger movements during the next few weeks, after the end of the school year and ahead of the elections. We literally have to build on this momentum, and create accommodation in areas of acute shortage, such as Tuzla.

Meanwhile, we will, with the help of IFOR, continue to create and pursue openings for return to non-majority areas. I would like to call on your political support, as the majority of refugees and displaced persons come from the Republika Srpska and many want to return there. I fear that lack of progress is bound to generate tension and insecurity. At one point preparations will also have to be made for the alternative settlement of people not willing to return to their home areas.

As the return process is complex and will take time, I hope that an appropriate and strong implementation structure will remain in place next year to assist us. Right now, I am very grateful for the excellent cooperation and team spirit both with the military and civilian partners in the field. Coordination is working, and we value the support of the High Representative and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General.

Let me add a few words about the return of refugees and displaced persons to Eastern Slavonia and other regions of Croatia. Like in Bosnia, the return of different groups should not be linked politically and made contingent on reciprocity. At the same time we must be practical: the return of Croats to Eastern Slavonia depends to some extent also on solutions for the Serb displaced people, as many of the homes of the former are occupied by the latter. They, as well as ethnic Serb refugees in Serbia must have the possibility to return to other parts of Croatia, and - this is very hopeful - many want to. The Croatian amnesty law, which in itself is a positive step, should therefore be unambiguous and not restricted to Eastern Slavonia. Meanwhile we are pursuing our pilot projects for return. One big obstacle is the omnipresence of mines. We must, however, achieve faster progress and develop further a joint UNTAES-UNHCR approach. Given the many achievements of UNTAES in what remains a delicate situation, I hope that it will receive all the support it badly needs.

Mr President, allow me in conclusion to make some very brief remarks on a few other refugee situations. I sincerely hope that in West Africa Liberians fleeing from violence, will be granted asylum pending their return. The predicament of the Liberian boat people underscores, in my view, the importance of strengthening the capacity of ECOMOG and, of course, of a resumption of the peace process. UNHCR is ready to launch repatriation programmes in Angola, but continued pressure on the parties is necessary to abide by the peace agreement. In Mozambique the voluntary repatriation of 1.7 million refugees has just been completed, and we are transferring the re-integration programmes to our developmental partners. In Asia the repatriation of non-refugees to Vietnam has to a large extent been finalized. In close contact with the OSCE, my Office is offering its good offices to the parties in the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh to negotiate and implement the return of refugees and displaced persons. I was very encouraged by the recent successful conference in Geneva on the prevention and humane management of forced displacement in the CIS region.

Mr President, let me thank you and the other members of this Council again for your support. My Office needs it.