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"The Role of Humanitarian Action in Peacekeeping" - Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 24th Annual Vienna Seminar, Vienna, 5 July 1994

Speeches and statements

"The Role of Humanitarian Action in Peacekeeping" - Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 24th Annual Vienna Seminar, Vienna, 5 July 1994

5 July 1994

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today on the challenges of humanitarian action in the midst of armed conflict.

My Office was established by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to protect and assist refugees and to find solutions to their plight. Traditionally, our activities have been carried out in the relatively peaceful environment of a neighbouring country of asylum. That scenario is now changing dramatically with the proliferation of internal conflicts and escalation of population movements, and a much greater willingness on the part of the international community to address these problems within borders.

In my presentation today, I would like to study the implications of this change. I will analyze some specific cases to illustrate the challenges we face, as the UN increasingly engages in politico-military operations with a prominent, if not pre-dominant, humanitarian objective. Finally, I would like to draw some conclusions on how to meet the new challenges while safeguarding the specificity, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action.

Let me begin by briefly describing the background to the growing prominence of humanitarian issues on the international political and security agenda.

The end of the Cold War has unleashed, and in some cases intensified, internal conflicts, particularly ethnic ones, on a scale rarely seen before. Massive population displacement is a direct consequence, and sometimes, as in former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Rwanda, the very objective of the conflict. Many of the victims are forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries but many more are displaced within their own borders.

In the past two years, UNHCR has had to respond to several major humanitarian emergencies, including in northern Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Currently, we are protecting and assisting over 1.5 million refugees in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro as well as almost 3 million displaced and affected population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last November, in the space of one fortnight, some 600,000 persons fled ethnic killings in Burundi to seek refuge in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire. In recent months, over 300,000 persons from Rwanda have sought refuge in neighbouring Tanzania to escape the gruesome massacre of civilians in their own country. Next week I shall be travelling to Tanzania to visit the refugee camps.

The multiplicity as well as the complexity of the humanitarian crises in the post-Cold War world have created an increasing demand for international action in internal situations. In April 1991, the UN Security Council recognized that human rights violations which led to mass exodus from northern Iraq were a threat to international peace and security. Subsequently, the Security Council has justified UN political and military action for humanitarian purposes in Bosnia Herzegovina, Somalia and Rwanda. In Somalia and Rwanda, the Council has gone even further, authorizing member states to use all necessary means to achieve the humanitarian objectives, in cooperation with, but not necessarily under the command of, the Secretary General. In Nicaragua, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Liberia, the Security Council has realized that the peace process cannot proceed without addressing the problem of refugees and the displaced.

Seizing the growing willingness of the international community to address internal conflicts, UNHCR has promoted a three fold strategy:firstly, of preventive activities so that people are not forced to flee their homes; secondly, of emergency preparedness to meet their humanitarian needs if they are forced to flee; and thirdly, the pursuit of solutions which allow refugees and the displaced to return home in safety. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for the internally displaced, at the request of the Secretary-General we are protecting and assisting them in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Sri Lanka. Our action on behalf of the internally displaced has been encouraged and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, particularly when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem. We have also actively seized the opportunities for voluntary repatriation in the wake of peace settlements, for instance in El Salvador, Mozambique and Cambodia. Where feasible, we have launched cross-border operations to help the internally displaced and returning refugees, e.g. from northern Kenya into Somalia. A similar approach for Rwanda may be taken if circumstances prove desirable.

Thus, our efforts aimed at the prevention and solution of refugee problems are closely linked to the UN's political and military initiatives to prevent and address threats posed to international peace and security by such situations. It is through political initiatives that refugee problems can be resolved or prevented from arising. Conversely, humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action. It can create an environment conducive to political negotiations.

However, the relationship between the political and the humanitarian is more complicated than that. Political and humanitarian objectives do not always coincide, and may sometimes even contradict each other. Nor are political and military means consistent with fundamental humanitarian principles. Achieving political objectives may require the use of force against one party or the other, whereas humanitarian action is premised on the principles of impartiality and neutrality. Impartiality means helping victims on all sides of the conflict. Neutrality means more than being even handed, it means being independent from political goals and considerations. This is the essence of what I would call "humanitarian space".The pursuit of humanitarian space requires negotiations to obtain consent.

The critical question is: how much space can humanitarian action enjoy in UN operations which seek to combine political, military and humanitarian factors?

The challenge we face is a complex one, and inevitably varies according to the type and nature of the integrated operation. One could speak of two distinct categories of UN integrated operations, and a possible emerging third category.

The first category is the most complex. This is when enforcement action is combined with humanitarian action in on-going conflict situations. I have in mind the cases of northern Iraq, Bosnia Herzegovina, Somalia and Rwanda.

In the case of northern Iraq, Security Council resolution 688 did not explicitly authorise military intervention, but insisted that Iraq grant immediate access to all those in need of assistance, and called upon all States to assist these efforts. The decision was interpreted by the Coalition Forces as an encouragement to intervene immediately and create a "safety zone" in northern Iraq, where relief was provided to those who could not obtain asylum in Turkey. In June 1991, UNHCR took over the humanitarian operation from the Coalition Forces.

In Bosnia Herzegovina, the military mandate has been inter-woven very closely with humanitarian activities. Unlike northern Iraq, UNHCR was already present in Bosnia Herzegovina, when Security Council resolution 764 of 29 June 1992 mandated UNPROFOR to ensure the security and functioning of Sarajevo airport so that UNHCR could continue to deliver humanitarian assistance. It was a peace-keeping mission, in other words based on the consent of the parties concerned. On 14 September 1992, resolution 776 expanded UNPROFOR's mandate under Chapter VII to include protection of humanitarian activities. Subsequently by resolutions 819 in April 1993, 824 in May 1993, and 836 and 844 in June 1993, the Security Council designated six safe areas in Bosnia and gave UNPROFOR the responsibility, under Chapter VII, to protect these areas and its civilian population, and authorized air cover in support of UNPROFOR.

In the case of Somalia, following the failure of the advance team of peacekeepers in 1992 to secure the airport and seaport, the total breakdown of law and order and escalating humanitarian needs, Security Council resolution 794 explicitly authorized the use of force to create secure conditions for the uninterrupted delivery of relief to the starving people. Humanitarian assistance in Somalia is coordinated by the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, while UNHCR is assisting almost a million Somali refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen, in addition to the cross-border operation from northern Kenya into Somalia, which I mentioned earlier.

In the case of Rwanda, UNAMIR was originally deployed under Security Council resolution 872 of October 1993 to assist in the implementation of the Arusha Peace Agreement. Widespread killings which followed the deaths of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi on 6 April and the outbreak of fighting led the Security Council gradually to modify the mandate of UNAMIR "to contribute to the security and protection of displaced, refugees and affected civilians" and "provide security and support for the distribution of relief supplies and humanitarian relief operations".The functions remain as a peace-keeping mission. However, as you know, on 21 June the Security Council adopted resolution 929 under Chapter VII, authorizing member states to "establish a temporary operation under national command and control for the security and protection of displaced persons, refugees and civilians at risk ".It endorsed military action by France.

What has been the impact of these military mandates on humanitarian action? I should like to highlight two areas with some positive as well as problematic implications..

The first is capacity. Linking up with the military has clearly strengthened the ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, both in northern Iraq and Bosnia Herzegovina. By ensuring humanitarian assistance from April until June 1991, Operation Comfort not only saved lives, it also gave UNHCR the lead time to set up its programme. Learning from the experience in northern Iraq, UNHCR set up its emergency preparedness and response system, so that now we can react to major emergencies within days rather than weeks.

The use of military resources in Bosnia Herzegovina undoubtedly enhanced our capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance. The securing of Sarajevo airport by UNPROFOR and its activities on demining, repair of roads and utilities, and the protective coverage of convoys in some areas were invaluable contributions to the humanitarian effort. Outside the UNPROFOR structure, UNHCR's airlift to Sarajevo as well as airdrops to besieged areas have been implemented by air force staff from a number of contributing countries working under UNHCR's authority and control. We have also benefited from seconded military staff for telecommunications and logistics.

The second area relates to the use of force to obtain humanitarian access. As you know, except for northern Iraq, each of the other operations has moved from peace-keeping to Chapter VII, or has even combined the two. Obviously, this shift has been very controversial for humanitarian organizations in ensuring the "humanitarian space".

So far the use of force to obtain humanitarian access has yielded limited results. In northern Iraq, where military force was successfully used to gain direct access in the form of a safe haven, the operation was later turned over entirely to humanitarian organizations. UNHCR's presence which followed the action in northern Iraq was based on a Memorandum of Understanding, signed between the government of Iraq and the United Nations on 18 April 1991, although the resolution, and the determination of the international community to enforce it obviously influenced the outcome of the negotiations. This neat turn of events helped to make northern Iraq a rare example of successful humanitarian intervention.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, although resolution 776 authorized UNPROFOR to protect humanitarian activities under Chapter VII, force as such has never been used to pursue humanitarian assistance. UNHCR has spent considerable time and effort negotiating access, with military escorts adding a deterrent value. To give one example, as chairperson of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, I myself sought and obtained commitments from all three parties to allow us unhindered access for our winterization programme on 18 November last year. Of course, despite assurances, we remained open to manipulation by the parties. Commitments were often made, only to be broken as soon as our convoys began rolling. But I have always gone back to the parties and sometimes obtained results. The risks have been high, twelve UNHCR and other humanitarian staff having lost their lives in the operation. Despite all obstacles, however, we have been able to save lives, and have helped the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to survive two winters without a major catastrophe. That is no mean achievement.

Relying on negotiations has been criticized by some, but would the use of force have allowed sustained access, in the absence of a longer term political solution?

The Somalia experience would seem to suggest otherwise. Somalia has demonstrated the limits of humanitarian action when Chapter VII measures are used to ensure access, and the UN itself is perceived as a party to the conflict.

The use of force against one party inevitably affects the perceived impartiality and neutrality of the UN, and by implication also of UN humanitarian organizations associated with the operation. In these circumstances, humanitarian organizations may need to distance themselves from the UN military operations. The authorization by the Security Council resolutions of the use of airpower in and around the safe areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina to support UNPROFOR, and the NATO ultimatum on air strikes have increased the risk of retaliation towards civilian humanitarian staff.

Protection of civilians is the aim of UN-endorsed French military action in Rwanda. The situation is still unfolding but it would be wise to recall past lessons. Negotiations and consent are critical for assuring "humanitarian space".The long-term protection of the people, whether in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia or Rwanda, can only be assured through political settlement of the conflict.

Let me now turn to UN operations in which the humanitarian objectives have been defined and agreed within an overall political settlement. I speak now of the case of UNTAC in Cambodia and UNOMOZ in Mozambique.

UNTAC represented a well planned and structured set-up, based on the Paris Peace Agreement, which comprehensively addressed humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems. Problems of implementation were resolved through negotiations rather than enforcement. UNHCR, which was mandated to repatriate 370,000 Cambodian refugees, was able to maintain credibility and confidence with all the parties, including the Khmer Rouge, even when UNTAC's relations with the Khmer Rouge were strained.

Mozambique, which I visited in February, also represents a comprehensive peace implementation scheme by the U.N.I was encouraged by the progress on the peace process, particularly the strong political commitment of the parties to the agreement. From UNHCR's point of view it is a more complex operation than Cambodia, involving repatriation of about 1.5 million refugees from six countries to Mozambique, of whom about half have so far returned. There is a close and symbiotic relationship between repatriation and the rest of the operation. The ability of UNOMOZ to establish security, demine access roads, and demobilise soldiers could affect the pace of return and reintegration. I hope that UNOMOZ, like UNTAC, will demonstrate the positive interface between peace-keeping and humanitarian action.

In these operations the challenge is not so much the interface between the political and the humanitarian, but how to draw in the rehabilitation component. Sustaining solutions and building peace require socio-economic measures.

If peace enforcement in the midst of conflicts presents one set of challenges and peace implementation in post-conflict situations another, then yet another set of challenges is presented by what I would term the third category of UN operations, in which new actors and modes of cooperation are emerging.

For instance, in Liberia, the peace-making efforts of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) is combined with peace enforcement by ECOWAS, UN military observers as well as humanitarian actors, from within and outside the UN. Despite the clear division between peace-enforcement and the UN's role, the failure to ensure the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement and the consequent continuation of insecurity and violence have hampered our efforts to assist the victims or help them to return home.

In Tajikistan, peace-keeping initiatives by the Central Asian States and the Russian Federation have been paralleled by UN efforts. UNHCR sent an emergency team to Tajikistan in December 1992, and worked actively to promote conditions which would allow the refugees and displaced persons to return home. The Secretary-General appointed a Special Representative to pursue political negotiations with the parties. UN military observers were deployed to monitor the situation. I believe the joint efforts helped to create a climate of confidence which in turn has encouraged most of the displaced and refugees to return home. Today, our main task is to monitor their safety and human rights in a situation which is still fragile, pending the outcome of UN-sponsored political talks in Moscow.

Now in Georgia, political negotiations continue under UN auspices, while a Quadripartite Agreement has been reached among the parties, Russia and UNHCR on the return of refugees and displaced persons. At the same time, CIS troops have been deployed to monitor the ceasefire negotiated by the Russian Federation. Obviously these developments will affect the returns to Abkhazia. As cooperation between the UN and regional organizations grow, as new actors come on the scene, it is extremely important that the complex interface between political, military and humanitarian factors be understood and respected. It will be a formidable task of learning and information sharing.

To sum up, let me say that impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian action are easier to maintain in peacekeeping operations where political objectives of the deployment are clear and accepted by the parties, as in Cambodia and Mozambique. When political objectives are unclear and peace-keeping is launched in the midst of a conflict, and turns into enforcement action, as in Somalia or former Yugoslavia, tensions can and do arise between the political, military and humanitarian components. In all situations, it is essential for the humanitarian organizations to maintain the strictly non-political, neutral and impartial nature of their mandates. It must not only be done, it must be perceived to be done, because at stake is the protection of people. Humanitarian action is not only about the delivery of relief but first and foremost about ensuring the basic human rights and security of the victims."Humanitarian space" for such action can be gained through negotiations. However, peace will only come through political solutions.

It is not for humanitarian organizations to support or oppose the use of force, but it may be incumbent on them to distance themselves from enforcement in order to preserve their mandates.

Needless to say, closer consultation and coordination between the political, military and humanitarian components are essential at every phase and level of the operation.

Former Yugoslavia has starkly demonstrated that without peace, humanitarian assistance alone cannot avert disaster. UN peace-keeping and humanitarian activities are of vital importance, but if peace is not forthcoming, they can themselves become hostages of war. There is no other substitute for the political will to find a political solution. Political commitment is essential if humanitarian action is to remain effective in the midst of conflict, and to reinforce the process towards peace.