Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Meeting on Humanitarian Aid for Victims of the Conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 29 July 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Meeting on Humanitarian Aid for Victims of the Conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 29 July 1992

29 July 1992

"It is quite incongruous that in a Europe which is more prosperous than ever in history, it is still possible to find refugees living in misery.... There is absolutely no earthly justification for the continuation of this state of affairs." These were the words of Dr. Auguste Lindt when as High Commissioner for Refugees some 32 years ago he launched a major - and successful - drive to close the last of the post-Second World War refugee camps in Europe.

Today, the refugee problem has come back to haunt Europe again. Three weeks ago, I visited the republics of former Yugoslavia. Driving from Zagreb to Belgrade I could see how the beautiful countryside has been marred by the destruction of towns and villages on a scale rarely seen before. The cruel reality of ethnic relocation was there right before my eyes in the selective and systematic obliteration of houses, clearly targeted in order to force the inhabitants to flee. I had heard some of the appalling stories in April when I visited Hungary, which has very generously received tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict. Three weeks ago, I spoke to many more refugees in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Some of the refugees were in camps, some accommodated in public buildings, some hospitably received by private families. The atrocities which they have witnessed and have been subjected to are horrifying. Systematic expulsions, forcible relocations, assassinations and other forms of persecution have been aimed at persons for no other reason but their national, ethnic or religious origin.

The policy of establishing ethnically pure zones - "ethnic cleansing", as it has been referred to - lies at the heart of this conflict. War has always created refugees but the conflict in former Yugoslavia seems to have a new - horrifying - twist. Displacement seems to be the goal, not just the result of the war, with the motive clearly being ethnic relocation.

What is happening in the former Yugoslavia could be a chilling omen of evolving situations further east. Therefore, the willingness and ability of the international community and of the parties concerned today to tackle the problem which confronts us right now in the former Yugoslavia could set the pattern for other parts of eastern Europe and central Asia.

I came back from my visit to former Yugoslavia, encouraged by the fine efforts of the States and the people in the region to receive refugees, impressed by the courage and resilience of the victims of the conflict, and appreciative of the international relief effort. But my overwhelming feeling was one of time running out. With each passing day, 10,000 more persons are being uprooted. The potential for displacement in the coming months is frightening - and all this against a backdrop of severe winter not so far away. The perversion of minds seems so violent, the destruction of houses so colossal that rebuilding of both may rapidly become impossible, and without which there can be little hope of solution. The hospitality and generosity of the governments and people in the region and the neighbouring countries has been admirable, but cannot be treated as boundless. I am deeply worried that if we do not act immediately and forcefully on both political and humanitarian fronts, we may find ourselves stranded with an open-ended relief programme and a massive permanent refugee problem in the heart of Europe.

There is undoubtedly an urgent and compelling need to reinforce humanitarian action, but humanitarianism cannot be sustained for long without an effective political solution. Therefore, by drawing the attention of the world to the scale and complexity of this humanitarian tragedy, I hope this conference will mobilise the international support necessary for the protection and assistance of the victims of the conflict in former Yugoslavia and for the pursuit of solutions, as well as contribute to an impetus for a peaceful, political settlement.

It is with these dual objectives in mind that I would like to outline to you the problems which confront UNHCR in former Yugoslavia in the three related areas of protection, assistance and solutions. International protection is the primary function of UNHCR, but when the main objective of a conflict is to uproot people and make them into refugees, an organisation like UNHCR finds itself impaled on the horns of a cruel dilemma. Seeking to protect refugees without any power to prevent them from becoming refugees not only undermines humanitarian principles, it aggravates the problem itself.

Let me tell you of one incident that occurred less than a week ago in a town called Bosanski Novi. Despite all efforts by UNHCR and the UN Protection Forces, the mayor of Bosanski Novi organised a convoy of buses and cars to expel 4,000 Moslem inhabitants of the town on 16 July 1992. The expulsion was done with great bureaucratic and legalistic zeal, the persons being given documents to show that they had given away their properties as "gifts" and were leaving voluntarily. For four long days UNHCR tried to negotiate an arrangement to allow the people to remain in Bosanski Novi. The answer however was clear. The killings, intimidation and detention in the end forced UNHCR to evacuate 7,000 persons from Bosanski Novi to Croatia on 23 July.

For the first time in its history, UNHCR was caught in a scandalous blackmail, which left us with no choice but to accept expulsion in order to prevent more killing and terrorizing of people. The cynical manipulation of our humanitarian mandate could well become a dangerous precedent for other such situations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What does protection mean in such situations? It means not only the right to seek asylum from persecution, it also means the right of return for all those who so desire, and above all, it means the right to be allowed to remain in one's home in safety and dignity, regardless of one's ethnic, national or religious origin. It is clear that protection must include the notion of prevention, but the latter can only be effective if backed by political action for a peaceful settlement. The reprehensible practice of "ethnic cleansing" will never be a viable basis for peace and security, and must be strongly condemned. Measures to ensure respect for humanitarian law and human rights, particularly for minorities, must guide the formulation of a humanitarian strategy to the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

One such important measure would be to extend international humanitarian presence to those areas of rising tensions where there is no conflict, for the purpose of objective reporting and monitoring, as well as to have a moderating effect and play a mediating role between the parties.

I also see an inherent link between international assistance and preventive protection. The relief effort in Sarajevo is one example. During my visit to the former Yugoslavia, I took a relief flight from Zagreb to Sarajevo, and drove from the airport to the city down the road which snipers have made notorious. Talking to the residents of the city, I was deeply touched by their warm welcome and appreciation for the little we have done for them. To them at least, the airlift to Sarajevo is much more than a symbolic humanitarian gesture by the international community. It is an act of solidarity to try to save the people of Sarajevo from destruction.

During the three weeks of the airlift operation which started on 3rd July, over 400 flights have brought in more than 5000 metric tonnes of food, medicines and medical supplies. But there are many Sarajevos - many places, notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina, cut off from humanitarian assistance for weeks, even months, despite all our efforts to gain access. The besieged population need food, medicine, shelter, and above all, international attention and support to stop them from being massacred. Over the coming days, we must expand greatly our overland logistical capacity, and I want to make a special appeal to Governments to respond to our needs for trucks and drivers. New routes must be opened to allow us to reach all those who are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, and for this we must have the support of all parties, regional and local.

In this context, I must pay a special tribute to all relief workers and my own staff who are risking their lives to reach the people in need. This meeting owes it to them to establish clear principles for their safety and to obtain the agreement of all parties to respect these principles.

The plight of the refugees in former Yugoslavia has triggered an outpouring of international sympathy for the most vulnerable among the vulnerable, those in need of urgent medical attention, particularly children. Hundreds of thousands of them have been affected by the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a heart-rending exercise to have to set criteria for their evacuation. Yet, this difficult job must be done, taking into account critical medical needs, assurances of safe passage, and the availability of logistics, keeping in mind the best interests of the individual and respect for family unity. Indeed, the experience of humanitarian organisations has shown that this latter factor is crucial to the eventual well-being of the evacuees. Evacuation is possible in principle for the moment only from Sarajevo because of the presence of the UN peace-keeping troops and the on-going airlift operation. We are working closely together with UNICEF, WHO, and ICRC, and in cooperation with UNPROFOR, on those who might be in need of evacuation. We have gratefully accepted offers of transport and reception of those few for whom there is no option but evacuation, despite the tremendous hazards of transport in areas like Sarajevo. At the same time, I hope every effort will continue to be made to provide medical and other assistance to all those in need who cannot or do not wish to move.

There are however many who have no option but to move, in order to seek safety and refuge in other countries. In line with their responsibilities towards asylum seekers, all States, within or outside the region, should provide temporary protection to persons fleeing former Yugoslavia and who are in need of such protection. Keeping borders open for those who need protection is an important act of solidarity and also reflects burden-sharing. I know that some governments have offered or are considering accepting refugees on a quota basis from other receiving countries. In some refugee situations, including in Europe in the past, various plans for resettlement have been pursued and implemented, generally on a permanent basis. Although there may be a need for a number of resettlement places as a measure of solidarity towards receiving States and, indeed, the refugees themselves, I believe that the nature of the current conflict is such that a flexible system of temporary protection would respond adequately to the emergency situation and encourage return as the most desirable and feasible solution. However, whatever mechanism for burden-sharing is adopted, it must not limit the right to seek asylum. In this - as in other situations - admission and protection, at least on a temporary basis, should be given without discrimination to all those who need it. Military and political considerations should not override the humanitarian concerns which govern the grant of refuge to asylum-seekers.

Material assistance to the refugees and displaced persons as well as to the receiving States in the region is an important element of solidarity and burden-sharing. I am encouraged by the response we have received so far, and particularly grateful to the European Community for their magnificent support of our programme. But, clearly, with more than 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons, in addition to some 850,000 people affected by the conflict now requiring assistance, and the continued outflow of people, the needs have overwhelmed the existing resources, both of receiving States as well as UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO and ICRC. A renewed effort must be made to mobilise the entire UN system and the international community at large. I am grateful for Mr. Eliasson's readiness to mobilise such an effort, and I wish to express my gratitude to those Governments which have responded and will be prepared to respond to the on-going and anticipated short, medium and long-term programmes.

I am particularly concerned about the urgent need to prepare for the winter. We estimate that more than half a million people will require some kind of shelter, through rehabilitation of existing structures and through establishment of camps. In the coming weeks, we will need innovative ideas, as well as the involvement and support of both agencies and governments, to meet the demands before the onset of winter.

Protection and assistance are not only inter-linked, they share the same ultimate objective, which is to find a lasting solution. We must already from today focus our efforts on the solution the great majority of refugees are seeking:return home in safety and dignity, which is endorsed by the Security Council resolution 752 and which is the mandate of my Office in all refugee situations. Return will eventually require a massive reconstruction effort, but more fundamentally, it will require the reaffirmation of the basic human right to return home in safety and dignity and for an end to all practices and actions which force people out of their homes and block the prospects of return. I consider this point to be of crucial importance. Otherwise, measures to protect and assist refugees will amount to complicity in the policy of "ethnic cleansing". It will be impossible for UNHCR to engage in a protracted relief effort because there is no will among the parties concerned to admit to the root causes of the conflict and deal with measures for a lasting peaceful solution.

I must express my strong preoccupation at a refugee situation which is draining precious financial and human resources desperately needed in other parts of the world, mainly Africa and Asia. It would be remiss of me not to point out the crying needs in poorer parts of the world which are being overshadowed by the refugees from ex-Yugoslavia. Shortage of funds may force us to stop assisting the repatriation of the Afghans, 900,000 of whom have already returned from Pakistan and Iran, with another million projected to go back before the end of the year. We are unable to move into top gear in the repatriation programme for Angolans due to shortage of funds. The relief effort in the Horn of Africa has been hampered, among many other things, by a serious lack of resources, and notably food.

For three decades, regions outside Europe have been the main focus of UNHCR's attention and resources, and must remain so, given the enormity of the refugee situations still persisting there. Nevertheless, today, when we are confronted with a major refugee drama in Europe, the solutions which other regions have pursued may help us to chart a strategy to deal with the crisis in former Yugoslavia - and possibly elsewhere in Europe.

Building on the lessons learnt at the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA), the Comprehensive Plan of Action on Indochinese Refugees (CPA), and the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), we have distributed a Note to the meeting in which we attempt to outline the seven elements which could form the basis for a comprehensive humanitarian initiative in former Yugoslavia. I look forward to hear your reaction to the proposal. For my part, I am at your disposal to engage my Office in the immediate follow-up mechanism suggested in the Note before you. I would certainly also welcome your views in this regard.

As I said earlier, I am afraid time is running out. For weeks - and months - for too long - people have been attacked, and forcibly driven from their homes. It is time - and probably the last call - for the world to launch a humanitarian counter-offensive. Let us make sure that the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis galvanises world conscience into decisive action for a peaceful, political settlement. Humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action but it can act as the bridge from conflict to peace. I hope that today's meeting will mark an important step along that bridge.

Thank you.