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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Security Council, New York, 28 April 1997

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Security Council, New York, 28 April 1997

28 April 1997

Mr. President,

Let me start by thanking you and the Security Council for the strong support you have consistently shown for refugees all over the world, but particularly for those in the Great Lakes Region. The last time I had the privilege of addressing the Council was October 25. Already then, I briefed you on the fighting which was spreading in eastern Zaire and on the fact that Rwandan and Burundian refugees were abandoning the camps and fleeing for safety.

Although 1.2 million Rwandan refugees have returned from Zaire and Tanzania in the last six months, the plight of the large numbers who stayed behind in eastern Zaire has remained as precarious as before - fleeing armed attack and facing hunger and illness in the Zairean rain forest. My colleagues have also described our uphill battle - making desperate efforts to reach the refugees, carrying out impossible negotiations with the rebel forces and overcoming nightmarish logistical hurdles - to bring life-sustaining assistance, but finding that the refugees have been forced to flee once again as fighting spread to the makeshift camps of Shabunda, Tingi Tingi and now Lula and Kasese. We do not yet know how many lives have been lost through exhaustion, war or outright killing. In addition, an unknown number of Zairians have been displaced by the conflict.

As you are well aware, events since last week took another dramatic and upsetting turn. After we located between 80,000 and 100,000 refugees south of Kisangani, urgent life saving assistance was given and we succeeded in significantly lowering the mortality rate. Our efforts to repatriate the most vulnerable persons by air were repeatedly obstructed. Once again, the refugees were forced to flee following attacks on the camps allegedly by the local population responding to an inflammatory information campaign by Alliance forces. For four days access to the camp was banned. When we were allowed to return, we found only abandoned huts, but no refugees. Among those who disappeared were 9,000 children and other especially vulnerable people who were in no position to walk long distances. Their fate we still have to ascertain.

Mr. President,

Following the strong statements made by the President of the Security Council, the Secretary-General and various government leaders, Mr. Kabila arrived in Kisangani on Sunday, where long and strenuous negotiations took place between him and representatives of the UN humanitarian agencies, the European Union, and non-governmental agencies. We succeeded in obtaining a commitment from Mr. Kabila to cooperate in the repatriation of the remaining refugees from eastern Zaire. During a subsequent news conference, Mr. Kabila said that he attaches two conditions to the repatriation - that it be conducted by air directly from Kisangani to Kigali, and that the repatriation be completed within 60 days beginning May 1. This morning, my colleagues have negotiated the use of two additional destinations in western Rwanda, Gisenyi and Gyangugu.

Although I welcome this development, there is no doubt that the 60-day deadline presents us with a daunting task. We face huge obstacles. The refugees are scattered again and we need time to locate and transport them to Kisangani. For this we must have freedom of movement and unimpeded and safe access. Security guarantees for humanitarian workers are essential and the refugees must be protected from attack as they emerge from the forest. Equally important, we need your continuing commitment to keep the pressure on all parties to help us carry out this operation. In this context, I would like to express my appreciation for the efforts of Ambassador Sahnoun to bring the parties together and negotiate a settlement. It is vital that humanitarian and human rights concerns are prominent on the agenda of the political discussions.

I wish to raise two further issues which are of deep concern to us. The first relates to reports from a number of sources that abuses have been committed against refugees not only in the camps, but also in areas closer to Goma and Bukavu. The most recent is a report of an attack on and an abduction of children and their families from a paediatric hospital near Bukavu. My Office has previously approached the Alliance about alleged human rights abuses. I repeatedly appealed against armed attacks on refugees since the beginning of the offensive, particularly after I visited Tingi Tingi camp in February. I am disturbed about the apparently organized and systematic attacks on refugees who approach our reception and transit centres requesting to be repatriated, and about reports that locals are prevented from helping refugees and being forced instead to chase them away. I wrote to Mr. Kabila asking for assurances that such reports are unfounded or, if they are confirmed, to take urgent measures to prevent repetition. I understand, Mr. Kabila has agreed to the dispatch of a mission of human rights investigators which will require the fullest co-operation of the Alliance to carry out its very difficult task.

Second, we have also heard that armed groups are moving much deeper into Zaire. Some have reached the Angolan border. They are said to include ex-Far members who are threatening local Zaireans. From the point of view of my Office, they may be excluded from refugee protection. While the primary responsibility of dealing with such groups falls on the country of asylum, given the precarious situation in Zaire today, the international community should carefully examine what can be done with this group.

In Burundi we continue to be gravely concerned over the coerced regrouping of civilian populations, including many returnees. This policy violates human rights and humanitarian principles and provides no guarantee of security against armed conflict. The regrouped populations can no longer feed themselves and are in dire need of assistance, but humanitarian agencies are facing a difficult dilemma. Under these circumstances meeting the humanitarian needs of the regrouped population implies compromising with the military strategy of the government. I believe that international responses to humanitarian crises must be principled. At the very least the Government should be required to set measurable benchmarks for the treatment of this population and for the progressive closure of the camps.

Elsewhere in Africa my Office has been making preparations for large scale repatriation to Sierra Leone and Liberia. In Liberia, we are co-operating closely with ECOWAS and others. There are some 700,000 Liberian refugees, 25 per cent of the population, in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. We will of course assist those who wish to return in time for the elections, but some have a wait and see attitude. From the perspective of large scale repatriation, the election time frame is too short. The decision of neighbouring countries not to allow refugees to register means that many of them will not have a chance to participate in the elections. In our view, refugees should have been given a chance to vote in their asylum countries. Logistical constraints in the rainy season are another reason why repatriation will need more time.

Talking of repatriation, let me now turn to Bosnia and Herzegovina which I visited two weeks ago. Out of the original 2.2 million refugees and internally displaced persons, approximately 520,000 have found a durable solution, mostly through integration in asylum countries or through return or relocation to so-called 'ethnic majority areas' since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Further progress in these majority returns depends on accelerated reconstruction efforts in 39 targeted areas for return, identified by my Office. Majority return is therefore a question of greater resource mobilisation and quicker implementation.

Mr. President,

The greatest challenge is the return to 'minority' areas. Only 10,000 of such returns have been allowed to take place, often with enormous effort on our side. While we try to initiate 'open cities' where minorities can return and multi-ethnic cultures can be recreated, some of the local leaders want to build new cities that are ethnically pure. My Office has decided to provide support and material assistance to municipalities and regions which accept minority returns and to withhold it in areas where minority returns are refused. At the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council last week in Geneva, there was strong support for setting such positive conditions for providing international assistance.

I am convinced that ethnic relocation and repopulation cannot be part of a solution for a peaceful and multi-ethnic Bosnia, unless it is voluntary. And it is genuinely voluntary when people can choose to go back to their homes. We will persist to make that choice possible. But if the leaders of the former Yugoslavia continue in peacetime what they pursued in wartime, we may fail and there is a high risk of hostilities resuming. At this critical moment, I ask the Council to keep this issue on its agenda to ensure that the peace process in Bosnia continues to move in a positive direction.

I have very much appreciated your Presidential Statement urging the government of Croatia to fully respect the rights of ethnic Serbs to stay in peace and, for refugees and displaced persons, to return to their place of origin in Croatia. Only then will the Croatian displaced be able to return finally to eastern Slavonia and will a new Serb refugee exodus to an already overburdened Yugoslavia be prevented. I have recently discussed the principle of two-way repatriation with President Tudjman with regard to Eastern Slavonia and an agreement was signed last week between the Croatian Government, UNTAES and my Office, which, when implemented should considerably facilitate such parallel returns. With President Milosevic, I discussed the need for a mechanism to plan and implement the repatriation of Serb refugees to Croatia in line with the normalization agreement between Croatia and the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

Mr. President,

Before concluding, I would like to draw the attention of the Council to the issue of staff security. I wish to appeal to you to make all out efforts to ensure the security of civilian humanitarian staff. Today my staff are undertaking risks higher than they have ever before confronted to save lives in conflict situations. My Office faces grave security risks in many parts of the world; 45 percent of our field duty stations are designated as non-family, versus 16 percent in 1992. I have proposed an in-depth examination of security and security-related stress to be addressed by the ACC this fall. I appreciate very much your recent Presidential Statement on staff security and solicit your continued backing.

Within the context of our operations in the Great Lakes Region and the former Yugoslavia, my Office has learned many lessons. First, the necessity of separating armed elements to maintain the civilian character of refugee camps is crucial and is the first responsibility of host states. Second, when protection in the country of asylum cannot be guaranteed due to armed conflict or insecurity in the refugee camps themselves or when asylum is denied, repatriation may have to be carried out under conditions which are neither strictly voluntary nor strictly safe. As in the Great Lakes region, return may be the 'least worse option' in a 'no win situation'.

How should a humanitarian agency like mine position itself in and influence the ongoing complex developments?

For better or worse, humanitarian, political and security problems and their solutions are closely interlinked. Therefore, I reiterate my plea for better integrated approaches to international crisis management. Humanitarian action within a principled framework, far from being solely a question of international charity, can support peace efforts. In turn, humanitarian activities depend upon political and sometimes military action. This is why I have recently called for the establishment of a rapid deployment capability. Humanitarian actors should not be left alone to take unresolved political questions and dangerous security situations.

Protection of people, which is at the core of my mandate, does not mean simply the provision of emergency relief assistance but is based upon respect for the fundamental human rights of people. This means a security concept that puts human beings at its centre.

Once again I appeal to the Council to continue addressing these issues which my colleagues and our partners face on a daily basis. On many occasions, we have benefited from the interventions of the Council and the pressure it can exert upon parties to a conflict to respect humanitarian law and human rights of threatened civilian populations.

Thank you.