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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Vienna, 25 January 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Vienna, 25 January 1996

26 January 1996

I am very pleased with the opportunity to brief your Council on developments which are of interest to both the OSCE and my Office. I should like to thank Switzerland as the new Chair-in-Office for having arranged our meeting today, and wish to pledge UNHCR's continued cooperation with the Chair and the Troika in the months to come. Let me also convey my appreciation to Hungary, the outgoing Chair, for the excellent cooperation extended during 1995.

It is against the backdrop of a volatile Europe that I wish to concentrate on the importance of the partnership that is developing between our two institutions and that was also promoted by the Budapest Review Conference in 1994. Following a general introduction about the problem of forced displacement in Europe, I shall first review some of the challenges lying ahead of us in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I then intend to briefly discuss our cooperation in Tajikistan as well as some of our concerns in the Caucasus, before informing you of the stage of preparations of the forthcoming conference on displacement in the CIS. In this connexion I shall end my statement with a few remarks regarding the prevention of involuntary displacement.

Today, half a decade after the Cold war came to an end, and fifty years after the United Nations was founded, the dimensions of the world's refugee problems are truly global. Over 5000 UNHCR staff are at work, in 118 countries, trying to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to approximately 27 million refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees and war-affected people around the globe, and to promote solutions to their predicament, especially in the form of peaceful return and reintegration once conditions permit. While the greatest number of persons of concern to UNHCR are still to be found in Africa, around 11.8 million, it is striking that Europe ranks second with 6.5 million. Of the nearly 128,000 persons who asked for asylum in Germany in 1995, almost 53% came from European countries. Refugees are therefore a European problem not only because Europe continues to be in demand as an asylum region, but also because Europe has, unfortunately, once again become a major source of refugees.

While some asylum applications continue to be lodged, in western Europe, by nationals from eastern European States going through a period of political and especially economic transition, the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and central Asia clearly account for the largest number of displaced Europeans on the continent at large.

This leads me first to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where our close cooperation will be crucial. Together with UNPROFOR, UN sister agencies, the ICRC and numerous NGOs, my Office has been engaged for almost four years, in the midst of conflict, to ensure the material survival of threatened populations, in the safe areas and elsewhere, and the protection of those fleeing violence and persecution. Now the moment has finally come to help to build peace and in that context to organize the return of some 2.1 million internally displaced persons and refugees.

As I said during the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, on 16 January in Geneva, I am hopeful about the future. But ironical as it may seem, our work in this time of peace will, in many ways, be more complex than it was in war. The key to success lies in my view in confidence building: confidence in security, in progress towards reconstruction, in the protection of human rights and in the new political institutions. I believe that the participants at the meeting of 16 January realized that, however expedient and forceful we should be in pursuing our objectives, including the early return of refugees and displaced persons, the process of confidence and peace building will take time and must be pursued with a considerable degree of caution. Sustainable peace, and lasting solutions for refugees and displaced persons, require progress towards national reconciliation: after four years of terrible conflict, the social and psychological reconstruction of Bosnia will be at least as important as the rebuilding of its destroyed houses and infrastructure.

I am encouraged by the thus far successful implementation of the military provisions of the Dayton Accord. The situation of the few remaining minority groups in Bosnian Serb held areas seems finally to have eased. Progress towards civilian freedom of movement has been achieved in a number of areas. However, I continue to be concerned about Sarajevo and Mostar. I would hope that a major political initiative could be undertaken to preserve the multiethnic character in the former, and to restore at least some of it in the latter. The difficulties in Mostar, I am afraid, are illustrative for the problems encountered elsewhere in the Bosniac-Croat Federation: it is vital that all agreements regarding the Federation be fully implemented, including the return of Bosniacs and Croats, on a voluntary basis, to their places of origin. Regrettably, to date very little progress has been achieved in this regard.

In consultation with the authorities of the Federation and of the Serb Entity, my Office is now elaborating the strategic directions and global planning presented at the meeting of 16 January into an operational plan for the organization of return or relocation movements. On 16 January there was broad agreement with our priority attention for the internally displaced, which would not exclude simultaneous assistance to refugees from neighbouring States and from further away disposing of private accommodation and wishing to repatriate in the months to come. Temporary protection will be lifted following regular multilateral consultations which should ensure a harmonized approach, and depending on the following minimum conditions: the full implementation of the military provisions of the Peace Agreement, the adoption of amnesty legislation except for war criminals, and the functioning of the various local and international human rights mechanisms foreseen in the Peace Agreement. There was also broad agreement about the need to ensure a phased implementation of the lifting of temporary protection arrangements, which would take into account individual circumstances and should ideally go in parallel with progress towards shelter rehabilitation and construction. We must be realistic. Whereas we should aim for sizeable return movements to take place already during 1996, we expect the entire operation to last for at least two to three years.

What makes our task so delicate and complex, and different from most other repatriation operations, is that the political and demographic constellation of the country of origin of the refugees has drastically changed. For some the emphasis will lie on attempts to ensure return to areas of origin and to restore as much the situation before the war started. Others may try to prevent this and to uphold the status quo, i.e. ethnic division. Should the emphasis be on return or on relocation? We risk to be in the middle of this debate, which is essentially a political one. My answer is twofold and simple: first, whereas the parties must create the necessary conditions for return to regions of origin, let the people decide for themselves; second, we will only be able to bring about satisfactory solutions, if the parties have a common understanding of their commitments under the Peace Agreement and scrupulously respect them. The final responsibility is theirs. The international community must make a determined effort to help forge a new peaceful, democratic and prosperous Bosnia, but it can neither substitute for the political will of its leaders nor for the courage of its people to live harmoniously together again.

For peaceful coexistence to succeed, the holding of free and fair elections and the establishment of democratic political institutions will be absolutely vital. The elections, which the OSCE is mandated to help organize and to supervise, should enable all Bosnians, including the refugees, to participate in the consolidation of the new Bosnia by casting their vote for and showing their allegiance to the Bosnian State as a whole as well as to one of the two respective Entities. Let me not deal here with all the issues involved. Clearly, my Office has a major interest in a successful electoral process, and we are therefore in close contact with Ambassador Frowick, the head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia, and with Ambassador Glover of ODIHR and its experienced elections team. Successful elections should undoubtedly give a boost to refugee repatriation; lack of success, on the contrary, would lead to a major setback and might have consequences for the lifting of temporary protection abroad. We trust that the OSCE mission will carefully set the standards for its future independent assessment, as required under Annex 3 of the Peace Agreement, whether "effective elections" can be held under - I quote - "current social conditions" in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I hope that the electoral regulations can be worked out as soon as possible. In our view voting procedures should be kept simple. In order to promote fair and satisfactory solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons, we also hope that they will be given the option to vote for the institutions of the Entity where they feel they belong and where they want to rebuild their lives, i.e. not necessarily the Entity which encompasses their place of origin and registration under the 1991 census. Would it be realistic and fair to require a non-Serb Bosnian citizen expelled from Banja Luka to vote only in that city, if he is determined to join his brother in Tuzla, in the Federation, to start his life anew there? In the coming weeks my Office is prepared to discuss further with the OSCE elections team whether we could be of help in the context of the actual voter registration. Another issue related to registration concerns the provision of Annex 3 which equates the act of voting with the "intention to return". I am afraid that many refugees would desist from voting unless it is made clear that this intention does not equal a commitment to actually repatriate before the right conditions exist. Our aim and hope should of course be that before the holding of elections, conditions in Bosnia would have developed so positively that many refugees would return to take an active part in the electoral process.

I shall not comment on the OSCE's tasks under Annex 1-B, however important, regarding regional confidence and security-building measures, including arms control. Let me rather say a few words about your third major assignment, the monitoring of respect for human rights, which is of direct concern to the safe reintegration of refugees and displaced persons. As we have discussed with Ambassador Frowick, this is a crucial area where we should join hands, together also with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other relevant organizations. Returnee protection is a standard activity of my Office worldwide, to ensure that returning refugees and, in this case, internally displaced persons are treated in accordance with the safety and other assurances given to them. As this activity comes close to human rights protection, one of the challenges will be to avoid duplication of efforts and to ensure a maximum synergy based on complementarity, which could be functional or geographic or a combination of the two. We should for instance work out who would monitor fulfilment of the amnesty provisions or of the obligation to restore private property based on awards of the future Refugee Commission. Telling from our fruitful cooperation elsewhere, especially in Tajikistan, I am confident that, with the assistance also of the High Representative and his Human Rights Task Force in Sarajevo, we shall be able to work out an effective modus operandi.

Maximum coordination not only between IFOR and the civilian component, but also and especially between the various partners in this component, will indeed be indispensable. It will not guarantee success, but without it there will be failure. Moreover, once IFOR leaves, the civilians will have to continue. Having worked four years in a UN operation, I am now looking forward to the challenge of operating with new partners and our first experience is good. Let me emphasize, however, that in order to work effectively together, coordination should not be concentrated in capitals and at the level of headquarters, but should take place there where the action is, in the field.

Let me now turn to three other situations where the OSCE and UNHCR have a shared interest in the resolution of conflict and the peaceful return of refugees and internally displaced persons. I already mentioned Tajikistan, where my Office has successfully handed over its returnee monitoring functions to the qualified staff of the OSCE mission following agreement with the Tajik Government. I am pleased that 90% of the internally displaced and 70% of the refugees have been able to return to their places of origin. We shall continue to be involved with the repatriation of some 18,000 Tajik refugees from northern Afghanistan and with the returnee monitoring of the remaining 9,000 internally displaced persons from Gorno-Badakhshan. I very much hope that the inter-Tajik talks, which are sponsored by the UN and the Security Council, will produce a breakthrough regarding the question of an interim Government and constitutional reform.

Progress regarding solutions for refugees and displaced persons is unfortunately still lacking in the Caucasus, where more than a million people have been displaced by conflict and are often living in dire conditions. In late 1992, UNHCR initiated an emergency response programme in Armenia and Azerbaijan, while we established our presence in Georgia in 1993. I am aware of the Permanent Council's close interest in humanitarian operations in this region and I am confident that you will continue to lend us your support. I am concerned, however, that in the absence of meaningful progress towards conflict resolution, the international community's already low interest in developments in the region will further wane. This applies in particular also to the return of displaced persons to the Abchazia region in Georgia. Whereas our experience in Tajikistan demonstrates that return need not always or entirely depend on an elaborate or comprehensive political settlement, the 1994 Quadripartite Agreement unfortunately proved to be an insufficient basis for solutions in the absence of such a settlement.

As you know too well, the conflicts in the Balkans and in the CIS which I mentioned, and there are others, have followed the disappearance of overarching political rule some years ago. Fortunately, most nations gained independence in a peaceful manner. On the other hand, I am afraid that, tensions involving especially minority communities do still exist in various parts of the continent, and that if not properly managed these could lead to new conflict and displacement.

I therefore think that the forthcoming Conference on Refugees, Returnees, Displaced Persons and Related Migratory Movements in the Countries of the CIS and Relevant Neighbouring States, or simply "the CIS Conference", will be an important event. As you know, this Conference is organized jointly by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the OSCE, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR. I am pleased that the preparatory work is proceeding well and it is now anticipated that the Conference will take place towards the end of May this year. The Drafting Committee composed of participating countries has begun to work on the Declaration of Principles and Programme of Action, prepared by the Secretariat, which would combine commitments of the CIS States with coordinated support by the international community towards the effective and humane management as well as the prevention of involuntary displacement in their region. Intensive drafting work lies ahead of us in what is a particularly motivating challenge for our institutions.

You may recall that the UN General Assembly had requested my Office, in December 1994, to convene such a conference. To date, some five million people have already migrated throughout the former Soviet Union, fleeing violence, economic hardship or political change. The Declaration of Principles and the Programme of Action are intended to address a wide range of issues, including the potential displacement of minority groups and specific situations inherited from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, such as the plight of formerly deported and forcibly relocated populations and of stateless persons. I believe that the CIS Conference represents an important form of cooperation between our organizations in the field of standard setting, institution building and prevention. The Conference as such is not an end in itself: the preparatory process has already encouraged consultations on substantive issues among the States in the region, and we hope that the Conference will catalyze future dialogue and regional cooperation. In order to increase its impact, I should like to request the OSCE and its Member States to give their full political support to the CIS Conference as another pioneer attempt at addressing complex humanitarian issues from a comprehensive regional perspective.

This attempt perfectly fits into the three pronged strategy of prevention, emergency preparedness and solutions, which my Office has been advocating for several years in order to tackle the problem of forced displacement. Rather than concentrating re-actively on the tragic human consequences of conflict, the international community must attempt more pro-actively to address its causes, in a truly comprehensive manner. On our part, whereas the protection of people in need, through the granting of asylum or temporary refuge, remains at the core of UNHCR's mandate, much greater efforts are being made to promote conditions in countries of origin which would render flight unnecessary or which would allow people to return safely. Neutral and impartial humanitarian action can at times foster a climate conducive to dialogue; through our presence on the ground we have been able to mitigate and sometimes even to prevent violations of human rights; through advisory services we are helping Governments to avoid statelessness; elsewhere we are actively involved in rehabilitating the justice system or in demobilizing armed factions. I could give you many other practical examples of how we try to help avert compelled displacement and to promote solutions. Clearly, however, humanitarian contributions cannot substitute for political interest and initiatives: they must be integrated into a much broader strategy to promote not only the security of States, but also and, I would say foremost, the material and physical security of all people and communities living within them.

It is in this context gratifying to note that recent OSCE meetings have stressed that the mass displacement of populations is often related to the non-observance of commitments undertaken in the context of the OSCE. I was also pleased to note that the item on "cooperation in the field of migration, refugees and displaced persons" has been retained as an important component of the OSCE's ongoing contribution to a common and comprehensive security model for Europe in the next century. I would hope that your organization can expand its role in conflict prevention and resolution making use, inter alia, of the advanced mechanisms it has developed to this effect. Let me use this occasion also to praise the patient and preventative work of the High Commissioner for Minorities.

Mr Chairman, I am coming to the end of my statement. The OSCE's predecessor, the CSCE, was instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall just a few years ago and in shaping the new Europe. Through the Helsinki process and its follow-up conferences it has, inter alia, set fundamental standards for human and minority rights. It seems to me that the OSCE is now moving further, through its good offices and its involvement in the field to promote respect for these rights and to help to build democratic institutions. Wishing you every success in this direction, let me state UNHCR's continued interest in working ever closer with the various institutions of your organization - ODIHR, the High Commissioner for Minorities and the Conflict Prevention Centre - as well as with the Chairman-in-Office and all Member States. Especially when it comes to solutions for forced displacement, such as now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I believe that our close cooperation will be of immense benefit to those my Office is ultimately accountable for: the millions of ordinary women, man and children in need of protection, assistance and, above all, a new, brighter future.

Thank you.