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Working in a War Zone: A Review of UNHCR's Operations in Former Yugoslavia


Working in a War Zone: A Review of UNHCR's Operations in Former Yugoslavia

1 April 1994


This review is intended to analyse operational issues facing UNHCR in protecting and assisting war-affected populations as well as identify management lessons which can be used to improve emergency response. The review focuses principally on UNHCR's efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1992, although many of the issues and lessons were also drawn from 1993.

The review was carried out by Lowell Martin, Chief of the Central Evaluation Section, during missions to the Former Yugoslav Republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. Key documents and studies were reviewed and in-depth discussions were held with UNHCR staff in headquarters and the field. Extensive discussions were held with officials of other United Nations agencies, donors, the governments, and staff of non-governmental agencies. Information covering essentially all activities was collected and analysed during the review, but in the interest of brevity, only the information required to facilitate an analysis of major issues and support conclusions is provided.


(1) The emergency relief operation in former Yugoslavia was the largest and possibly the most prominent humanitarian initiative ever undertaken by the international community. For UNHCR, the programme was arguably the most significant and challenging which the organization has mounted since it was established more than 40 years ago. Moreover, the operation has led to a wide-ranging reassessment of UNHCR's role and mandate, as well as a reappraisal of the relationship which exists between the humanitarian, political and military components of the UN system.

(2) Yugoslavia began to break up in mid-1991, when two of the country's six republics declared their independence. Over the next few months, UNHCR's small Belgrade office followed political and military developments and reported to Headquarters on the growing number of population displacements taking place.

(3) At the October 1991 meeting of the Executive Committee, the Federal Government of Yugoslavia asked UNHCR if it could help to address some of the country's growing humanitarian needs. Following consultations between the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner, UNHCR was requested to take the lead in assisting displaced people in Yugoslavia.

(4) UNHCR responded to these requests by sending an assessment mission to the country, the aim of which was to determine the nature and scope of the organization's presence and involvement. Although the prevailing attitude was generally one of caution, staff members who participated in the mission recognized that with Croatian independence near, displaced people who had moved into or out of the republic would effectively become refugees, and therefore of direct concern to UNHCR.

(5) Shortly after the mission, UNHCR decided to launch a modest assistance programme in Croatia. In addition, the High Commissioner appointed a Special Envoy with overall responsibility for the republics that made up former Yugoslavia. At the time, very few people within the organization imagined that he would be there for an extended period of time.

(6) UNHCR's growing involvement in former Yugoslavia was influenced by a number of different factors. Having established an early presence in the area, UNHCR was well placed to respond to the humanitarian needs of the population when the war erupted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moreover, with the distinction between refugees, displaced persons and other war-affected communities becoming increasingly blurred in the republic, UNHCR soon found itself committed to an immense relief operation.

(7) UNHCR's involvement in former Yugoslavia was also influenced by broader developments on the international scene. In many senses, the end of 1991 was a crucial period for UNHCR. At the end of the conflict in the Persian Gulf, there was a sense that the UN system in general, and UNHCR in particular, had entered a new era, in which traditional assumptions, principles and mandates would have to be reconsidered. The unexpected and massive movement of Iraqi refugees into Iran and the border area of Turkey had caught UNHCR unprepared. The organization was unprepared both in terms of its policy with regard to people who had been refused the right to seek asylum in another country, and in terms of the agency's operational capacity to respond to large-scale emergencies.

(8) Key donor states, dissatisfied with what they perceived as the poor performance of the UN system in the Persian Gulf, had concluded that greater coordination was required amongst the humanitarian agencies involved in complex emergencies. Significantly, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, winch was specifically created to address this shortcoming, was being established at precisely the time when UNHCR was mounting its operation in former Yugoslavia.

(9) Other developments in the international environment also helped to shape UNHCR's response to the crisis. Throughout the 1980's, concern had been growing amongst the states of Western Europe about the increased number of asylum seekers arriving from other parts of the world. UNHCR had in many ways tried to help governments deal with this development. Nevertheless, there was a feeling within official circles that by calling on states to keep their doors open, UNHCR was contributing to the problem. By the time large numbers of people began to leave their homes in former Yugoslavia, the principles on which UNHCR's work is based were being called into question throughout Europe.

(10) The willingness of Western states to challenge the traditional refugee regime had become particularly apparent during the Persian Gulf crisis, when Turkey was supported by its more powerful NATO allies in refusing to admit asylum seekers from northern Iraq.

(11) Donor states which had only recently been insisting that UNHCR limit its expenditure and restrict itself to core activities with Convention refugees now insisted equally vehemently that UNHCR should assist the 400,000 internally displaced people massed at the border between Turkey and Iraq.

(12) Although the UN's performance in the Persian Gulf was criticized by donor states, UNHCR's willingness to assume responsibility for the relief operation in northern Iraq led to an unprecedented increase in funding. As a result, UNHCR was finally able to emerge from the financial crisis which had confronted the organization in 1989.

(13) These developments had demonstrated that if UNHCR was to remain a relevant organization in the emerging new world order, it would have to adopt increasingly innovative and pragmatic responses to population movements.

(14) The evolving situation in former Yugoslavia, therefore, presented UNHCR with a variety of important institutional challenges. The operation provided the organization with an opportunity to demonstrate its continuing relevance in Europe; to utilize and develop the enhanced emergency capacity which it had built up in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf operation; to operationalize the preventive approach to refugee problems being advocated by many governments; to prepare for potential crises in former Soviet Union; and, finally, to demonstrate the value of the lead agency concept to governments which had created a new coordinating body.

(15) The Sarajevo Accord of January 1992, known as the Vance Plan, began to clarify UNHCR's role and formalized the organization's presence in former Yugoslavia. The plan, which gave UNHCR responsibility for the registration and return of displaced people, generated a feeling that negotiations would bring about a quick solution to the conflict. At the same time, however, reports from UNHCR staff in the field cautioned against the proposed rapid return of people who had been uprooted during the. conflict. Moreover, any sense of optimism began to quickly wane as staff realised the difficulty of implementing the plan and as serious conflicts started to break out in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(16) The senior managers responsible for providing resources to the operation continued to debate the extent of UNHCR's involvement. Discussions between the Regional Bureau for Europe and the support services centered around whether the organization should be dedicating scarce resources to an operation in Europe; the lack of clarity with regard to UNHCR's emerging role; and the organization's capacity to manage a potentially large and complex operation. There was a growing sense that if UNHCR were to provide some protection to the displaced populations and play a preventive role in the conflict, the ' organization would probably be required to provide assistance on a very large scale.

(17) Considerable effort was also spent trying to work out the respective roles of UNHCR and ICRC, particularly with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given its mandate and experience, ICRC initially accepted responsibility for working in conflict areas, while UNHCR focused its efforts on the more peaceful areas of former Yugoslavia. However, at the outbreak of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ICRC acknowledged that it did not have the capacity to address the growing needs in the war zones. Consequently, UNHCR's involvement was expanded to include these areas.

(18) While this development was consistent with the wishes of many UNHCR field staff, the Regional Bureau at headquarters was more inclined to seek the involvement of other agencies, not only ICRC, but also UNICEF and WHO. Neither of the two UN agencies, however, had a strong interest in the operation nor the funding required to play a significant role in former Yugoslavia.

(19) On the ground, the Special Envoy had recognized at an early stage that if resources for the operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina were to be mobilized, then field staff would have to establish a credible and visible operation. Once UNHCR's ability to deliver had been demonstrated to the donors, he believed that support would readily follow.

(20) The considerable energy and particular experience of the Special Envoy undoubtedly had an important influence on extending UNHCR's role in former Yugoslavia. Having served in Central America, where UNHCR had played a significant role in the regional peace process, the Special Envoy recognized the need for a comprehensive approach, linking the international community's humanitarian and political responses to the situation. Equally important was the Special Envoy's experience in fund-raising during the Gulf crisis, which greatly influenced his vigorous and proactive approach to external relations.

(21) A UNHCR appeal for US$ 165 million, launched at the end of April 1992, marked a significant escalation of UNHCR's involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The size of the appeal surprised field staff concerned with the operation, as did the donors' immediate and positive response, which further committed the organization to a large-scale relief operation.

(22) Significantly, and in contrast to past operations, UNHCR did not attempt to withdraw when the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While operational conditions became increasingly difficult and dangerous, decisions were continually made to intervene and save lives.

(23) The commencement of the Sarajevo airlift in July 1992 was a key event in affirming UNHCR's lead role in the operation. Although several Western governments were willing to assume responsibility for the airlift, UNHCR was eager to demonstrate its effectiveness, and worked hard to secure responsibility for this aspect of the relief effort. Once the airlift began, the operation gained a much higher political profile and the need for UNHCR's presence in former Yugoslavia ceased to be debated internally.

(24) Within a month, the High Commissioner convened a ministerial-level international meeting in Geneva, which adopted a comprehensive humanitarian strategy. Soon afterwards, an inter-agency mission designed a plan of operations and joint appeal, which provided the basis for an expanded UNHCR presence. Large numbers of UNHCR staff began to arrive in former Yugoslavia. Numerous offices were opened and transport modules consisting of trucks, drivers and maintenance facilities were put in place.

(25) By September 1992 the UNHCR operation had expanded to over 100 staff and continued to grow. For several months the situation remained chaotic. Staff struggled to organize the resources they had received and to feed nearly two million refugees, displaced and war-affected people. The situation began to stabilize towards the end of 1992, with the completion of winter preparations and a move into a larger office in Zagreb.

(26) From this time, the operation began to maintain a high momentum. UNHCR was able to deliver and distribute very substantial amounts of assistance - some 600 metric tons a day from November 1992. At the same time, WFP started to organize itself to assume responsibility for the delivery of food to UNHCR warehouses at ports of entry, the first significant support received from another UN agency.

(27) 1993 was characterized by continued growth in staff numbers and by fruitless efforts to move out of the emergency phase and towards a more stable and controlled operation. Unfortunately, however, rapid changes in the pattern of conflict continually required UNHCR's over 500 field staff to respond to new events and circumstances. These problems were only exacerbated by shortfalls in resources and deteriorating security. Consequently, UNHCR continued to move from one crisis to another throughout the year.

(28) By January 1994, the operation had been underway for two years and had assisted over four million people. UNHCR's own expenditure of US$ 600 million, coupled with some US$ 400 million of in-kind contributions channelled through the organization, brought the total cost of the UNHCR operation close to a billion dollars.

(29) Other UN agencies had budgeted some US$ 570 million for the same period, most of which was provided in the form of WFP food. In addition, an amount of aid exceeding that channelled through UNHCR was provided bilaterally and through NGOs.


(30) UNHCR's relief operations have played a critical role in alleviating suffering in former Yugoslavia. Although the impact of the organization's intervention is difficult to assess with any degree of precision, it is generally acknowledged that the assistance delivered to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina has saved many thousands of lives and has helped to avert population displacements in a number of areas.

(31) Without the food, shelter materials and medicines which UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations have provided to displaced, besieged and war-affected communities, a large number of deaths would inevitably have occurred from hunger, cold and disease, especially amongst the more vulnerable segments of the population. The assistance programme has permitted many people to stay in their homes, and in some instances, the presence of UNHCR and other international personnel has placed obstacles in the path of violence, discouraging ethnic cleansing and the harassment of minorities. Furthermore, by focusing international attention on forced displacements and other human rights abuses, UNHCR has had some success in moderating the worst excesses of the parties.

(32) The operation in former Yugoslavia has had many important consequences for UNHCR. By demonstrating its expertise in launching such a large-scale relief programme, the organization has gained a greatly enhanced public reputation and boosted its credibility with donor states. Staff members have also developed a new degree of pride and self-confidence in UNHCR's operational abilities. As a result of these developments, UNHCR is now better equipped to play a leading role in international efforts to protect and assist populations with urgent humanitarian needs.

(33) The relief operation in former Yugoslavia had I many unconventional features and took place within an unusually complex political and military environment. In such an environment, none of UNHCR's conventional durable solutions were appropriate. The primary humanitarian objective was to save lives and reduce suffering until a political settlement could be achieved.

(34) UNHCR's principal efforts toward this aim consisted in delivering as much relief tonnage as the warring parties would allow, in an attempt to alleviate suffering and enable beneficiaries to remain in their areas of origin. At the outset of the operation, no-one envisaged the intensity or duration of the conflict, the scale of the population displacements it would provoke, or the amount of assistance that would have to be provided to its victims.

(35) UNHCR's protection and assistance efforts were carried out in some of the most difficult operational conditions ever encountered by the organization. Several million beneficiaries had to be fed and provided with shelter materials, a task which required the creation of an exceptionally large and complex logistical operation. UNHCR staff found themselves working in the middle of an active conflict, with limited and sometimes non-existent security provisions.

(36) The war in former Yugoslavia, which involved not only regular armies, but also militia forces and unruly factions, was itself unconventional in nature. As has been frequently pointed out, mass population displacements were a direct objective - and not just a consequence - of the conflict. UNHCR's efforts to prevent mass displacements by enabling people to remain in their own towns and villages were therefore in direct opposition to the aims of the warring parties. In such a context, every humanitarian activity inevitably had political and military consequences. Furthermore, political leaders seldom seemed willing to compromise, often displaying an extreme disregard for the suffering of their people.

(37) The situation on the ground and conditions imposed by the warring parties changed on a daily basis, making it extremely difficult to predict scenarios and formulate plans. Operational difficulties were invariably aggravated by the deep-seated animosity amongst the combatants and communities concerned.

(38) In view of the many difficulties that the operation faced, UNHCR's performance can be highly commended. Certainly, UNHCR's activities in former Yugoslavia have received widespread praise from other UN organizations and donor states. In many respects, the organization's response was quicker and more effective than in recent emergency operations in areas such as Bangladesh, Kenya, the Persian Gulf and West Africa.

(39) The political analysis carried out by senior UNHCR staff in the operation was generally excellent, often permitting the organization to keep pace with and anticipate developments. The organization's media relations activities also met with much acclaim, and were widely viewed as having been handled more successfully than in any previous major operation.

(40) Although protection efforts in Croatia and Serbia were reasonably effective, the function encountered many difficulties in conflict areas. Protection activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina had short-term successes and there were specific situations where UNHCR's presence helped to strengthen the safety and security of threatened populations. On a broader level, however, the impact was generally very modest.

(41) The logistics operation managed to deliver massive quantities of food despite continual obstacles. Using staff secondments and a recently expanded roster, UNHCR was able to get more people rapidly on the ground than ever before. However, difficulties in deploying a sufficient number of mid-level internal staff greatly hindered the organization's ability to provide the management structure and programme management required.

(42) UNHCR's efforts to coordinate the relief operation with its UN partners, NGOs and the military could have been given more attention. In practice, however, other UN agencies had neither the presence needed for meaningful co-ordination nor much interest in being coordinated by another organization.

(43) Although the working environment was extremely difficult, UNHCR was nevertheless able to benefit from a number of positive circumstances. These included:

  • an ample supply of highly skilled and committed local staff;
  • the availability of large numbers of external personnel who despite their lack of UNHCR experience had excellent professional skills;
  • the provision of massive financial and logistical resources" by donor states for a sectorally limited operation;
  • the existence of a more developed infrastructure and better organized community structures than in most other emergency operations; and,
  • the availability of existing resources and reserves amongst the beneficiaries.

(44) The international relief effort had several consequences that were not anticipated at the outset. First, the operation enabled governments to focus public attention on their response to the humanitarian dimension of the problem, thereby diverting attention from failures in the political process as well as calls for direct military intervention.

(45) By supporting humanitarian efforts, Western governments were able to maintain the appearance of doing something without actually contributing to a resolution of the conflict. According to one senior UNHCR official, "every time the question of settling the conflict came up, the donors responded by saying that they were going to give more money to the humanitarian effort."

(46) Second, the relief operation became an important component of European efforts to contain the conflict and the population movements that it provoked. Protecting and assisting the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina reduced the number of people seeking asylum in neighbouring and nearby states, in some senses enabling traditional asylum countries to evade their international responsibility.

(47) Third, the provision of assistance in a war zone can easily prolong and contribute to the conflict. By sheltering people from the impact of the war, assistance can reduce pressure on political leaders to compromise, and assume direct responsibility for the welfare of their communities. In more tangible ways, external assistance can also lengthen and fan a conflict. Troops and militia forces can be fed, and fuel supplied to hospitals, for example, can permit warring parties to use their own resources for military purposes.

(48) Critics of the operation have tended to focus on the undesirable consequences of a relief programme in a war. They have suggested that as a refugee agency, UNHCR should not have become involved in assisting war-affected populations, or should point have withdrawn.

(49) The principal questions that have to be asked are whether there were any realistic alternatives to the approach adopted by UNHCR, and whether a different approach could have saved more lives and reduced suffering. As a humanitarian agency, UNHCR has to focus on the needs of victims and serve as their advocate. The organization must consider and try to minimize the political and military ramifications of its decisions. However, UNHCR is certainly not in a position to make humanitarian decisions on the basis of whether its efforts could have a limited war or prejudge its outcome.

(50) The net impact of UNHCR's involvement in former Yugoslavia has clearly been positive. Lives were saved and hardship was reduced. Moreover, it was perhaps inevitable 'that with an effective early response, UNHCR would become inextricably drawn in, and lose a degree of control as the humanitarian programme became part of a much larger political and military process.

(51) The operation in former Yugoslavia has acted as an important catalyst in the international community's evolving approach to humanitarian protection and assistance. First, it has blurred the traditional distinction between refugees and other categories of people in need of protection. Second, it has encouraged closer integration of the humanitarian, political and military elements of the UN system.

(52) For UNHCR, the operation has had particularly important implications for the future. The organization has clearly moved into new areas, somewhat away from its more traditional role as a refugee protection agency. Among other developments the operation has introduced a new style of militarized humanitarian relief and has intensified the discussion regarding preventive strategies.

(53) Many observers believe that UNHCR's activities in former Yugoslavia set the stage for greater future involvement with internally displaced persons and other vulnerable non-refugee populations by a highly operational UNHCR. With the experience it has gained, it is not difficult to envisage UNHCR working in close association with UN peace-keeping operations while serving as an umbrella organization for international relief operations.

Prevention and Protection

(54) Working with displaced and war-affected populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina confronted UNHCR with a variety of protection issues, many of which had never been previously encountered or systematically examined.

(55) The concept of preventive protection, which emerged early in the operation, constituted an effort to address root causes, thereby enabling people to remain in their areas of origin. Thus, it was hoped that preventive efforts could avert population displacements and limit the scale of the refugee problem. Regrettably, the joining of two separate notions, prevention and protection, provided a misleading description of UNHCR activities as well as a misinterpretation of the protection concept. Consequently, preventive protection was neither understood nor appreciated by field staff, and as the conflict developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina it was soon abandoned.

(56) The operation in former Yugoslavia nevertheless provides some important insights regarding the nature and potential of preventive activities. In a number of specific instances, UNHCR's presence, mediation and assistance had a moderating effect on the warring parties and may have helped to inhibit expulsions and displacements. Despite these occasional successes, UNHCR's experience in former Yugoslavia reveals a need for the preventive approach to be more carefully considered.

(57) To be successful, preventive measures will have to be more accurately targeted at the real causes of displacement in a specific situation. This, however will require a greater understanding of the social, economic and political dimensions of mass displacements than UNHCR has until, now been able to develop.

(58) Preventive steps have to be taken at an early stage, and normally at the political level, in order to have a substantial impact. It is increasingly evident that prevention should precede the outbreak of full-scale conflict, before law and order have completely broken down, while there are still identifiable authorities and there is room for mediation and conciliation.

(59) If it is to be effective, prevention will also require substantial resources. Unfortunately, many of the preventive measures which can be drawn upon include activities such as early warning, education, mass information, and economic assistance, for which adequate resources are seldom available. Furthermore, if resources are attainable for prevention there is always the risk that they may not be available for refugees.

(60) Much more effort is required to define UNHCR's role and specific areas of competence in a manner that does not over-estimate or misconstrue the organization's possible contribution. Once UNHCR has determined its likely involvement, the organization must more effectively communicate the meaning and implications of prevention to front-line staff.

(61) Care must be taken to ensure that prevention by UNHCR does not become an excuse for inaction by states or a pretext for restrictive practices. Perhaps the most important precondition to seek when carrying out preventive activities is a population's ability to leave their own country and request asylum elsewhere.

(62) One of the most pressing dilemmas confronting UNHCR in Bosnia and Herzegovina was whether to help people stay in areas of conflict or try to move them to locations where protection and assistance could be more easily provided. In the event, UNHCR felt obliged by constraints to adopt a restrictive evacuation policy.

(63) At the outset, staff were understandably reluctant to help people become refugees, a blatant contradiction of the preventive protection concept and anathema to traditional UNHCR principles and ways of thinking. Furthermore, as the aims of the war became clear, evacuation was seen as encouraging ethnic cleansing and prejudging the outcome of the conflict.

(64) The political and practical constraints of evacuating people were formidable: who should be evacuated and where should they be taken? Moreover, evacuations were seldom accepted by the warring parties and could not be undertaken without considerable risk to those being evacuated. In such a new context, UNHCR lacked policies or procedures to deal with the issue. In view of the likelihood of similar dilemmas arising again when working with internally displaced persons, UNHCR should consider the issue of evacuation more systematically in order to establish some basic principles.

Assistance and Logistics

(65) The mobilization and delivery of relief to war-affected populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the largest and most difficult logistical operation ever undertaken by UNHCR. Although the relief effort has received widespread acclaim, the logistical operation had some weaknesses, such as a lack of control over stocks and distribution. These shortcomings, however, were to a large extent unavoidable given the difficult working environment, the speed with which the operation had to be launched, and the variety of human and material resources which had to be patched together. Moreover, while UNHCR's logistical system was somewhat undisciplined and disjointed, it had a very substantial delivery capacity.

(66) Because the operation is generally considered to have been a logistical success, the numerous problems created by an over-reliance on external staff have generally been overlooked. UNHCR still needs to establish a small corps of professional logistics staff to set up logistical systems and to direct external personnel.

(67) When assembling a relief operation from a variety of disparate resources, a substantial management effort is required to maintain a common system in which assets are centrally managed. In addition, an effort must be made to ensure that internal programme capacity matches external logistical inputs, so as to avoid simply shifting gross tonnages of relief as quickly as possible in an uncontrolled and imbalanced manner.

(68) One of the principal lessons learned from former Yugoslavia is the enormous potential which exists to mount and consolidate an international operation under a UNHCR banner when governmental and public interest has been mobilized. In view of the danger of over-extending UNHCR's management capacity in such situations, the organization's efforts should, from the outset, be more clearly focused on providing the operation with an overall framework and direction. In too many cases, a desire to maintain control and a leading role has led UNHCR to miss or only belatedly take advantage of opportunities to devolve responsibilities.

Management Issues

(69) UNHCR has made considerable progress in developing its emergency management capacity, but still needs to improve its internal systems and planning approaches.

(70) Emergency planning is always problematic but presented "an unparalleled challenge in former Yugoslavia, given the rapidly changing pattern of the conflict and the absence of a conventional durable solution to guide UNHCR's work. Even when such difficulties exist, however, planning is essential to inform and guide staff as to what they are trying to achieve.

(71) In an emergency, the detailed and long-term blueprints traditionally associated with the notion of planning are inappropriate. A more fruitful approach involves defining overall mission objectives and priorities; thinking through scenarios and options; and developing situational policies and principles based on various scenarios. Initial planning should also set out structures and lines of communication as well as clarifying individual roles and responsibilities.

(72) Within this general framework, detailed programme plans, prepared and updated on a regular basis, are required to respond to constant changes in needs, resources and field conditions. The monthly operational plan that was eventually developed in former Yugoslavia provided an effective means of meeting this requirement.

(73) The appointment of a Special Envoy in the field and the creation of a dedicated unit for the emergency at Headquarters once again demonstrated the value of such arrangements in a fast-moving operation. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that the Special Envoy arrangement does not circumvent Headquarters structures that could make a valuable input into decision-making and policy formulation. Furthermore, despite the benefits which can be gained from separating a fast-paced operation from slower-moving programmes, special emergency units should in most cases remain within the relevant regional bureau, or should be rationalized and reintegrated into a regional structure as quickly as possible.

(74) The operation in former Yugoslavia illustrates the need for UNHCR to adapt its funding and staffing procedures to the needs of a rapidly developing emergency. In general, the Financial Management and Information System (FMIS) proved too complex and insufficiently flexible. UN administrative procedures were too restrictive for practical use, and UNHCR's own post creation procedures often slowed down the recruitment and deployment of staff.

(75) The management of a large-scale emergency operation is always going to be demanding, requiring as it does the ability to both think thoroughly and to act decisively. Considerable progress has been made in these areas over the past few years. Nevertheless, further improvements to UNHCR's methods, systems and procedures are required to strengthen the organization's emergency management capacity.

Agency Coordination

(76) UNHCR was requested to assume a leading humanitarian role in former Yugoslavia at an early stage of the relief operation. Although the experience of the past two years has in many ways demonstrated the validity of the lead agency approach to coordination, it has also revealed the need for UNHCR to give greater attention to the operational implications of this concept.

(77) The authority and responsibilities associated with UNHCR's lead agency role were never fully or formally defined. In practice, UNHCR interpreted the notion in terms of assuming direct responsibility for operational activities in all sectors of the programme.

(78) UNHCR's relationship with the other agencies more on logistical and administrative support than on policy-making and planning. In general, the humanitarian organizations of the UN system operated as a loose consortium or association. Each agency had its own set of priorities, planned its own programmes and generally undertook separate efforts to mobilize resources.

(79) It is widely recognised that the leading operational role assumed by UNHCR contributed to the speed, effectiveness and flexibility of the relief effort. At the same time, however, the absence of a UN system-wide response and the lack of support and guidance provided to NGOs had some unfortunate consequences. The potential contribution of other humanitarian organizations was not fully realized, UNHCR itself was often left overstretched, and relief coverage was somewhat uneven

(80) UNHCR's interpretation of its lead agency role was shaped by a number of factors. These included the action and delivery-oriented approach of UNHCR; donor state acceptance and appreciation of the role assumed by UNHCR; and the general reluctance of other UN organizations, including the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), to make a major commitment to former Yugoslavia.

(81) Experience in former Yugoslavia suggests that UNHCR's recent and successful efforts to strengthen its emergency preparedness and response capacity have to some extent deflected the organization's attention from the issue of inter-agency coordination. UNHCR must therefore give greater consideration to the lead agency concept and identify the activities and arrangements required to solicit the involvement and collaboration of other UN agencies, the ICRC and the NGOs in large-scale relief operations.

Military Support

(82) Experience in former Yugoslavia has demonstrated that national military contingents, operating under UN auspices, have the capacity and potential to provide many useful forms of support to a large-scale relief operation. Nevertheless, a number of obstacles must be overcome if there is to be regular and effective collaboration between UNHCR and the UN's peace-keeping or protection forces.

(83) Given UNPROFOR's mandate to support the UNHCR relief operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it would have been both logical and desirable for the two components to work closely together. In practice, however, the absence of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, coupled with the lack of an overall coordinating framework, meant that there was often an unfortunate distance between the humanitarian and military aspects of the operation. These fundamental obstacles to effective collaboration were only exacerbated by differences in size, location, command structure, operational style and organizational culture.

(84) Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from former Yugoslavia is that when the humanitarian and military aspects of a UN operation cannot be separated, because they are both ultimately linked to Security Council resolutions, then they must be better integrated at the operational level. Greater efforts should be made to avoid the kind of ill-defined relationship into which UNHCR and UNPROFOR drifted in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(85) When UN forces are providing humanitarian support, UNHCR must develop a better understanding of how military structures operate, and seek ways to guide the military. If UNHCR intends to work with peace-keeping and protection forces, it must also take steps to orient, train and exchange information with military personnel. UNHCR must learn how its small number of staff can influence and make effective use of the massive military capability potentially at the disposal of humanitarian operations.

(86) UNHCR's widely acclaimed performance in former Yugoslavia will almost certainly lead to requests for the organization to provide humanitarian assistance in future operations involving UN military forces. The organization should now make effective use of the experience, expertise and authority that it has gained over the past two years to lead a discussion of the future relationship between the UN's humanitarian, peace-keeping and conflict-prevention activities.

Human Resources

(87) In every emergency for the past 15 years, the most frequent criticism of UNHCR has been the organization's inability to rapidly deploy an adequate number of suitably experienced personnel. The operation in former Yugoslavia was in some senses no exception to that rule.

(88) UNHCR's new emergency staffing arrangements, developed in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf operation, enabled the organization to mobilize the required number of staff in a relatively short period of time. Serious difficulties arose, however, in identifying, deploying and retaining the services of middle-level personnel who could manage and administer the programme effectively, as well as supervise the large number of external staff recruited for the operation.

(89) To become an effective emergency organization, UNHCR must finally acknowledge the need to establish a complete senior management team at the outset of an operation, rather than concentrating all responsibilities in a single Representative or Special Envoy. In a large emergency, there is also a need for an experienced senior head of operations and a senior head of administrative, financial and personnel functions. In addition, UNHCR requires a carefully managed reserve capacity to supplement or take over from the emergency team and to remain with the operation for an extended period of time.

(90) One of the most critical elements in UNHCR's response was the effective use of emergency rosters as well as standby staffing arrangements with governmental and non-governmental organizations. UNHCR should expand its efforts to supplement its internal capacity with external expertise. To optimize the effectiveness of both external and internal staff, much more serious and creative efforts must be made to provide them with orientation and training, both before and during their deployment in the field.

Staff Security

(91) When UNHCR began to assist victims of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, few envisaged that the organization would soon find itself working in the middle of a war zone. Moreover, as the importance of UNHCR's role grew, it became increasingly difficult for the organization to disengage from the operation, despite the deteriorating conditions. While efforts were made to improve staff security, UNHCR's lack of experience in such situations meant that adequate security provisions were never fully developed.

(92) Improvements can and should be made to prepare and equip field staff for situations where security problems exist. At the same time, UNHCR must think more carefully about the organization's responsibility towards its staff. In former Yugoslavia, newly engaged personnel, provided with neither adequate training nor support, were expected to take risks that national military services would not take. Staff were also expected to assume responsibility for decisions about their own security, although they often lacked the experience and guidance required to make the necessary judgements.

(93) UNHCR should take overall responsibility for determining when conditions are too hazardous for the organization to operate. On a more local level, field offices must have the right to make security decisions when they believe that they are confronted with an unacceptable level of risk. Decisions to remain should not, however, be binding on individual staff members. No UNHCR employee should be obliged to go to or remain in a situation which they themselves deem too dangerous.

(94) UNHCR has an obligation to attempt to meet the humanitarian needs of people who are of concern to the organization. UNHCR should not, however, accept direct responsibility to undertake activities for which other organizations (such as UN military forces or the ICRC) are much better suited by virtue of their mandate, experience, training and resources.

(95) It is unrealistic to think that UNHCR can develop the quasi-military capacity required to work in areas of active conflict. Nevertheless, steps could be taken to establish a corps of personnel - or even a new organizational component - composed of staff with the training and experience required to work in hazardous situations.

(96) UNHCR must precisely define the security conditions in which it is prepared to ask staff to work, as well as think through possible arrangements for support and handover. Before accepting any further invitations to work in situations of internal displacement and conflict, UNHCR should clearly explain to donor states and to the political and military components of the UN system, the limits of its capabilities and involvement.

Media Relations

(97) Media relations in former Yugoslavia were the most successful and most professionally handled in UNHCR history. These efforts have had a number of important consequences. In addition to mobilizing resources and political support for the operation, public information activities were used to denounce abuses, in an effort to protect war-affected populations. At the same time, media coverage provided a means of asserting the neutrality of humanitarian relief, enhancing the security of aid workers and facilitating their access to the beneficiaries.

(98) The unusual level of media interest in former Yugoslavia and the liberty which UNHCR staff were able to take in expressing their views suggests that these achievements win not easily be replicated in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the operation provides an important indication of the advantages which can be gained from a very active public information strategy. The most important components of such a strategy include:

  • making efforts to cultivate and support the press at all levels of the organization;
  • permitting staff to talk with the media on subjects they know;
  • making effective use of staff with media experience;
  • serving as an accurate, reliable and timely source of information and analysis; and,
  • guiding the media to interesting and important stories.

(99) UNHCR's experience in former Yugoslavia has demonstrated the benefits that can be gained when media relations are treated as an important and integral part of the organization's operational activities. With the expertise and reputation UNHCR has acquired, the organization is now well placed to make better use of the international media. At the same time, greater efforts could be made to cultivate local media, in order to make the operational environment more favourable to UNHCR's humanitarian efforts.

(100) Improving UNHCR's emergency response capacity, as well as adapting to new operational environments and demands, are two of the principal challenges now confronting UNHCR. By being better prepared to meet these challenges, UNHCR will be able to save many lives and reduce a great deal of human suffering. Furthermore, it is increasingly evident that successful emergency operations significantly contribute to UNHCR's credibility and authority, thereby facilitating its efforts to protect, assist and find solutions for refugees throughout the world.



(101) Two years after UNHCR began its operation in former Yugoslavia, there was a general recognition that the organization had assisted thousands of refugees to find safety in neighbouring and nearby states and helped to prevent a number of large-scale refoulements.

(102) UNHCR's involvement kept innumerable displaced and war-affected people alive and in some instances averted population displacements by preventing - or at least moderating - the abuses committed by the warring parties. Furthermore, by sharing information with the media and other members of the international community, UNHCR alerted the world to the process of ethnic cleansing and focused global attention on other atrocities.

(103) Despite the positive consequences of UNHCR's involvement, there has been a growing awareness that the distribution of relief in a war zone does not constitute protection, and that the kind of prevention and protection activities available to humanitarian organizations and personnel can have only a very limited impact when performed under conditions of active conflict.

(104) At best, UNHCR's presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina had a mitigating and delaying effect, rather than a genuinely preventive or protective impact. In many instances, the presence of UNHCR and other international personnel meant that atrocities were only committed in a less obvious and more covert manner. Moreover, on a number of occasions, after seemingly successful preventive efforts, areas were subsequently closed off by military forces, 'ethnically cleansed', and then reopened.


(105) Protection in former Yugoslavia has gone through many stages. Initially, UNHCR hoped to introduce a new strategy characterized as preventive protection, and to assist in the repatriation of people who had been displaced by the early conflict between Croats and Serbs, thus also providing protection in a more traditional manner. Preventive protection was intended to avert population displacements and to limit the scale of the refugee problem. By establishing an international, humanitarian presence in the region, and by providing war-affected populations with material assistance, UNHCR hoped that it could create a situation in which the need to flee was diminished, thereby enabling people to remain in their areas of origin.

(106) Unfortunately, preventive protection proved to be a misleading and unworkable strategy, and, as a result, the approach was quickly abandoned. By the end of 1992, the concept had disappeared from the vocabulary of most field staff in former Yugoslavia. UNHCR's efforts to introduce a preventive protection strategy provide a number of important insights regarding the nature and potential of preventive activities, and therefore warrant closer attention.


(107) The notion of preventive protection emerged in the context of discussions regarding the role of UNHCR and other international organizations in addressing the root causes of refugee movements. In the specific circumstances of former Yugoslavia, the relevance of a preventive approach was reinforced by a number of considerations. These included, for example:

  • the inability of many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina to leave the country;
  • the determination of some war-affected populations to remain in their homes;
  • the operational difficulties involved in providing shelter to large numbers of refugees and displaced people in the region; and,
  • the unwillingness of many Western European countries to admit large numbers of people fleeing from the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

(108) Ideally, European states wanted to keep asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia as close as possible to their areas of origin, possibly even recreating the kind of 'safe area' that was established in Northern Iraq to avert a large-scale refugee influx into south-east Turkey. Within UNHCR there was a growing recognition that the traditional approach of calling upon governments to be generous and to keep their doors open would prove futile.

(109) Preventive protection thus emerged in 1991 as an untried but potentially more relevant approach to deal with massive population displacements in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To some extent, it was a concept in search of application, a theory in need of testing. Perhaps more significantly, it was the only response which the international community was prepared to contemplate at that moment.


(110) In practice, the notion of preventive protection was not appreciated by many UNHCR staff in the field. Many of the organization's more experienced personnel were ambivalent about this new approach, regarding it as a negation of the right of asylum and a betrayal of the fundamental protection principles to which their professional lives had been dedicated. Moreover, given UNHCR's evident inability to stop the process of ethnic cleansing, the notion of preventive protection appeared increasingly inappropriate.

(111) UNHCR staff generally found it difficult to understand the concept of preventive protection. Without sufficient guidance regarding its basic principles, strategies and operational modalities, UNHCR personnel had to interpret the concept as pragmatically as possible. In most field locations, this meant maintaining contacts with local communities and identifiable authorities; mediating and intervening on behalf of minorities; and monitoring the imminent movement of populations.

(112) Significantly, as the operation in former Yugoslavia proceeded, the delivery of material assistance quickly became an increasingly important component of UNHCR's protection strategy. Food aid served as a means of sustaining people and preventing further displacements, but also provided a concrete rationale for UNHCR's presence in the area.

(113) UNHCR's growing emphasis on emergency logistics and the distribution of relief was influenced by the vague nature of the preventive protection concept. The assistance programme provided staff with a concrete programme and budget, with definable objectives, measurable targets and identifiable operational tasks. These elements appeared far more nebulous in the preventive protection initiative. Donors also had difficulty understanding and judging protection efforts, and quickly began to judge the success or failure of the UNHCR operation almost solely in terms of metric tonnes of aid moved.


(114) Many questions have been raised about UNHCR protection policy in former Yugoslavia. One of the most serious concerns the extent to which the preventive protection strategy is consistent with traditional humanitarian principles such as the right to seek asylum and international burden-sharing. In the view of its harshest critics, preventive protection simply 'let Europe off the hook'. For them, the approach legitimized the restrictive asylum practices which have multiplied in the region during recent years, and endorsed the view that there are acceptable alternatives to flight, even in situations where the affected population has a demonstrably well-founded fear of persecution in their own country.

(115) Many UNHCR staff categorically reject such criticisms, pointing out that from the outset, UNHCR insisted on the right to seek and find asylum. They also argue that the analysis upon which such criticisms are based fails to comprehend the intransigence of European policy at the time. Governments, they note, did not hesitate to push people back at the height of the fighting. Even so, large numbers of Bosnians and other former Yugoslav citizens were admitted by European states, under temporary protection schemes or other arrangements.

(116) Critics contend that as well as being physically sustained by the food which UNHCR delivered, the affected populations were morally sustained by the idea that they would be rescued in some fashion by the international community. In reality, of course, the political will for such action did not exist. Thus the enormous amount of assistance channelled through UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations became something of an alibi for states which wanted to avoid both a military involvement in the conflict and a large-scale refugee influx from former Yugoslavia.

(117) Those responsible for the operation point out that populations were morally sustained only in a few locations, such as Sarajevo, and even then principally by the presence of UNPROFOR and the international media. They note that the extent to which the operation may have served the political purposes of Western governments is hardly an argument against the humanitarian operation, and question whether the absence of relief efforts would have made any difference on the political front.


(118) UNHCR's experience in former Yugoslavia has demonstrated the limited value of most prevention and protection activities in situations of open conflict. The operational environment in former Yugoslavia was such that the small-scale and localized protection and prevention activities undertaken by UNHCR inevitably had only a limited impact. The concept of protection is founded to a significant extent on the premise that the parties to a conflict have some respect for international law and diplomacy, and that they are fearful of international repercussions. Prevention is based on education, mediation and the notion that the parties wish to limit the human and physical devastation which inevitably results from war.

(119) The ideas of protection and prevention counted for little in a situation where the combatants, populations and politicians concerned were consumed with anger, hate and irrationality. Although the presence of journalists, human rights observers and UN aid workers can have a moderating effect on warring parties in many conflict situations, in former Yugoslavia, the combatants proved insensitive to outside scrutiny and were unafraid of international sanctions. The ferocity of the fighting and the logic of the war were so strong that even a substantial reinforcement of the organization's presence would have made little difference to the pattern of conflict and population displacement.

(120) A useful comparison can be made between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sri Lanka, where the preventive activities undertaken by UNHCR - the organization of food convoys, the distribution of relief to displaced populations, and the creation of Open Relief Centres (ORCs) for people seeking safety, shelter and medical care - are generally recognized to have played a useful role in alleviating suffering and reducing the scale of the refugee exodus. As a Central Evaluation Section review has noted, "the unanimous opinion of everyone consulted, including the inhabitants of ORCs, is that if the UNHCR assistance programme had not been available, the majority of those benefiting from it would have gone to India. "

(121) UNHCR's Sri Lanka programme was able to take advantage of several positive features of the operational environment, few of which existed in the context of former Yugoslavia. For example:

  • the Sri Lankan conflict was smaller in scale and intensity than the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina;
  • both the Sri Lankan government and its armed opponents were supportive of the UNHCR programme and generally honoured the agreements which they made with the organization;
  • UNHCR's humanitarian relief operation was autonomous of any UN peace-keeping or political presence, and its neutrality in the conflict was generally not called into question;
  • the Open Relief Centres, protected and administered by UNHCR, provided displaced people and other affected populations with a real degree of safety and security, not only in the centres themselves, but also in surrounding areas; and,
  • the option of leaving the country remained; as UNHCR's evaluation report observed, despite the many obstacles to flight, "it is generally agreed locally that any sufficiently determined individual who wants to go can do so. " PREVENTION REQUIRES MORE ANALYSIS

(122) Prevention, protection and solutions have become the fundamental components of UNHCR's global strategy for the 1990s. The organization's knowledge and understanding of these three concepts is, however, extremely uneven. While the concepts of protection and solutions have been systematically examined and applied by UNHCR since its creation more than 40 years ago, the notion of prevention has been subjected to almost no in-depth analysis. More significantly, UNHCR's practical experience with prevention is so limited that the operational implications of this approach remain extremely vague.

(123) A number of lessons and ideas can be drawn from UNHCR's recent experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Clearly, preventive activities are most likely to be effective in the period which precedes a full-scale conflict, while identifiable authorities still exist, while civil institutions continue to function, and before law and order has completely broken down. In Bosnia and Herzegovina none of these conditions were met.

(124) On its own, UNHCR can make only a limited contribution to prevention. UNHCR must attempt to serve as an initiator or catalyst for preventive efforts. The organization simply does not have the mandate, resources, expertise or presence to address the root causes of refugee movements in a systematic manner. As the High Commissioner has observed, "prevention is a multifaceted undertaking which, to be effectively accomplished, requires the participation of many different actors. It involves the promotion of human rights, economic development, conflict resolution, institution building and the broad dissemination of information." Many of these activities are most appropriately undertaken by other elements of the UN system, with UNHCR playing a supportive and catalytic role.

(125) A concerted effort is required, both within and outside the organization, to identify UNHCR's specific areas of competence and expertise, and to develop a more comprehensive approach that includes establishing effective partnerships with other institutions which are, or could be, engaged in preventive activities. Even then the potential for prevention should be kept in strict perspective. Once UNHCR has elaborated its potential involvement it must more effectively communicate the meaning and implications of prevention to front-line staff.

(126) Prevention is clearly a very positive and innovative approach. Nevertheless, as a number of commentators have pointed out, this strategy may also have unintended and undesirable consequences. It is likely that prevention will be manipulated by states, used as an excuse for political inaction and as a pretext for the introduction of restrictive asylum policies. Given the pattern of events in Northern Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina, why should any potential host country now open its borders to an unlimited number of refugees and asylum seekers? Why not simply insist that the populations concerned are protected and assisted within the borders of their own country? Recent events involving Somali refugees in Kenya, Afghans in Pakistan and Azarbaijanis in Iran demonstrate the new-found popularity of this argument.


(127) One of the most pressing dilemmas confronting UNHCR personnel at the outset of the operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was whether to help people to stay in areas of actual and potential conflict, or whether to facilitate their movement to locations where protection and assistance could be more easily provided. This issue created endless difficulties and frustration for field staff, many of whom were relatively new to the organization.

(128) Humanitarian relief in Bosnia and Herzegovina was initially intended to enable people to remain in their own homes, a strategy which was consistent with the international community's efforts to combat ethnic cleansing, and with the UNHCR's belief that its role in former Yugoslavia was to prevent, rather than create, new population displacements. A policy of organized evacuation, it was felt, would simply have prejudged the outcome of the war and contributed to ethnic cleansing.


(129) At the outset of the operation in early 1992, UNHCR adopted ICRC's policy of non-evacuation - an INTRODUCED approach which also appeared to be consistent with preventive efforts. Having begun the operation under the banner of preventive protection, UNHCR could hardly be seen helping people to become refugees. Once relief flights to Sarajevo started, however, questions began to be raised as to why the organization was not allowing people to leave on the empty planes.

(130) UNHCR maintained that it would only assist departures in life-threatening situations. Instead of attempting to pursue a policy of evacuation, UNHCR stressed the right to freedom of movement and the right to seek access to safety.

(131) Some field staff found it difficult to understand the organization's evolving evacuation policy and were reluctant to accept such restrictive criteria. Others, however, favoured them. Consequently, inconsistent practices were commonplace. In some instances, staff who were requested to assist in the movement of people refused to do so on policy grounds. At other times, desperate and ad hoc decisions were made to evacuate. In Srebrenica, for example, thousands of people who had lost everything were living in a situation which was clearly not tenable, with many being killed by snipers' fire. In this environment an agreement was negotiated enabling the evacuation of 150 vulnerable people for humanitarian reasons.

(132) After much discussion in the field, the idea that prevention and evacuation were not mutually exclusive strategies or objectives gained acceptance, and evacuation criteria were expanded. In principle, the clarification of evacuation policy and criteria facilitated field staff efforts to assist in the transfer of people. In practice, however, staff continued to agonise over what constituted a life-threatening situation and faced innumerable obstacles in actually carrying out evacuations.

(133) By early 1993, the High Commissioner recognized that UNHCR had reached the limit of its capability in providing relief to the war-affected in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a letter to the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner asked for this issue to be brought once again to the attention of the Security Council. More specifically, UNHCR sought the Security Council's support in gaining access to besieged cities and safe passage out of conflict areas, thereby enabling the evacuation of wounded people and other vulnerable groups. UNHCR could not, she emphasized, focus its efforts exclusively on the provision of assistance to people who remained in their homes and areas of origin.


(134) With the benefit of hindsight, however, some observers suggest that UNHCR could have done more to assist people to safety - a function, they suggest, that is quite distinct from that of 'creating refugees'. According to this argument, when the objective of the war became clear, UNHCR should have informed the affected populations that it could not guarantee their protection, and offered them the opportunity to leave. If UNHCR's activities had been oriented in this manner at an earlier stage of the conflict, it is argued, many more lives might have been saved and a great deal of human suffering averted.

(135) Critics suggest that a stricter focus on the humanitarian needs of the victims may well have resulted in a different approach to the problem. They believe that UNHCR gave a much higher priority to the right to remain than it gave to the right to leave, an approach which may have originated from the organization's sensitivity to participating in the process of ethnic cleansing, as well as its close identification with the political objectives of the United Nations and key donor states.

(136) A few observers suggest that there were some alternatives to the initial anti-evacuation approach of ICRC and UNHCR. The creation of protected areas, for example, would have posed many operational and military difficulties, but might also have provided more secure conditions to the country's besieged and war-affected populations. Furthermore, had UNHCR promoted the notion of large-scale resettlement more vigorously, the potential recipient states - who were determined to avoid this outcome - might have taken additional steps to address the root causes of the refugee problem.


(137) Staff responsible for developing UNHCR's approach to evacuation point to the political and operational problems that evacuation would have encountered. It was easy to suggest that people should be assisted to safety, but where exactly should they have gone and how would they have got there?

(138) Architects of UNHCR policy point out that critics who suggest that UNHCR should have tried to organize evacuation have an unrealistic perception of UNHCR's influence. As an independent humanitarian actor, UNHCR could only work on the basis of consensus by all parties. Evacuations through the frontlines were simply not safe, nor accepted by the warring factions. Any large-scale efforts to evacuate would have resulted in UNHCR being perceived as a party to the conflict and, in the view of many, the organization would have had to discontinue its relief operation. Operational difficulties aside, evacuation convoys would have entailed unacceptable risks to those being evacuated, who would have been the target of shelling and sniping.

(139) Even small-scale attempts to evacuate civilians degenerated into endless haggling over exchanges of evacuees for money, prisoners, dead bodies, food, or whatever imaginable before the warring parties would permit the evacuees to leave. Furthermore, evacuations inevitably led to increased persecution and ethnic cleansing in the hope that those remaining would depart or be taken out.

(140) The possibility of creating protected or 'safe' areas was never considered a workable solution by UNHCR. Such areas could not be protected by UNPROFOR and quickly became large refugee camps in the areas of origin. Protected areas were neither safe or economically viable, nor did they permit freedom of movement in or out. In establishing safe areas the international community simply encouraged more ethnic cleansing.

(141) Some criticism of the delay in reorienting UNHCR's approach and providing earlier and better guidance on the evacuation issue is justifiable. It must, however, be recognized that the organization was attempting to operate in an entirely new type of situation, for which established policies and procedures did not exist. In many cases, staff working among suffering civilians simply had difficulty accepting a restrictive, constraints-oriented evacuation policy, regardless of its logic, when they recognised that people could not be protected where they were.


(142) The governments of Europe generally opted to provide 'temporary protection' rather than granting refugee status to asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia or providing them with resettlement places. Although a legally undefined notion, temporary protection is based on the understanding that persons with such status will return to their own country when it is deemed safe to do so. Such arrangements, which have involved more than 600,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, 250,000 of them in Germany alone, have proven to be a useful means of short-circuiting the very lengthy asylum procedures which exist in most European states.

(143) Despite the success of this approach, there is a growing sense that it is time to move from a stage of pragmatically managing temporary protection to the development of legal frameworks and standards of treatment that specify the obligations of states. It is evident that UNHCR could play a useful role in this process.

(144) Some staff members and external observers believe that the time and energy which UNHCR has focused on the relief operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has diverted attention from important protection and asylum issues in neighbouring republics and in other European states. It has been suggested, for example, that UNHCR could have made greater efforts to convince Slovenia to open its doors to refugees. Similarly, some commentators have suggested that UNHCR should have been more vigorous in its protests when Austria decided that asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia were not going to receive any more assistance, and should therefore seek alternative destinations.

(145) Assessing the validity of such observations is very difficult. UNHCR has, for example, consistently and repeatedly pressed the Croatian and other authorities to admit greater numbers of people. At a broader European level, the organization has made frequent calls for the whole of the continent to share the burden of the refugee exodus. Many of these efforts have gone unheeded and unrewarded, however, as the countries concerned have increasingly adopted a policy that asylum seekers from Bosnia and Herzegovina should generally remain in and, if necessary, be returned to the first safe country in which they arrived. Such an approach made it feasible for asylum seekers to be returned, for example, from Slovenia to Croatia, since Croatia was deemed to be safe.


(146) In analysing UNHCR's protection efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the principal question that has to be asked is whether a different approach could have saved more lives, reduced the scale of human suffering and contributed to solutions. At the same time, however, it is necessary to ask what decision-making latitude and influence UNHCR realistically has. Despite UNHCR's consistent efforts to focus primarily on the needs of the victims, it was perhaps inevitable that the organization's objectives and strategies reflected the priorities of the most influential forces within the international community, in this case the Security Council and the principal donor states.



(147) UNHCR's efforts to mobilize and deliver assistance to displaced and besieged populations in former Yugoslavia represented the largest and most difficult relief operation ever undertaken by the organization. Drawing upon the logistical capacity of several states, the massive aid operation has served as the principal source of food for many thousands of people and has played an important role in limiting the scale of displacement.

(148) The magnitude of the relief effort, which involved the use of over 400 vehicles, led to the operation being described as 'a trucking operation with frills'. Although this description is not entirely accurate it does reflect UNHCR's priorities, as well as the way in which the organization's human and material resources were primarily deployed. Other programme activities, such as the provision of shelter and social services, were very small-scale and often belated in comparison with the transport and distribution of food.

(149) The logistics operation deserves much praise for its achievements. The speed with which the operation was launched, and the variety of resources which had to be patched together, is impressive by any standard, particularly in view of the difficult working environment. The swiftness is even more impressive when compared to the deployment timetable of UNPROFOR or other UN organizations.


(150) Despite widespread acclaim, the operation was not ideally designed and consequently had a number of weaknesses. In the final analysis, however, the relief effort very successfully delivered the food which displaced and war-affected populations needed to survive. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the operation could have been organized and implemented in any other way. There was simply no-one available with an overall picture of the relief effort who could coordinate and direct the programme as the pieces were provided by governments.

(151) The operation in former Yugoslavia was in many senses unique. Nevertheless, important lessons can be drawn from the experience with regard to large-scale logistics activities in an emergency, as well as the provision of assistance in a conflict zone.

(152) In trying to meet assistance needs, relief coming into the country was quickly delivered to the areas UNHCR could reach. Deliveries had to be based on crude population statistics rather than any real assessment of needs, and consequently the food basket delivered was often imbalanced. The lack of access and security constraints did not permit monitoring and commodity control. Inevitably perhaps, some humanitarian assistance found its way to combatants in the conflict.

(153) In order to establish such an immense relief system in such a short period of time, donors were requested to provide whole logistics modules rather than individual elements such as trucks, drivers or warehouses. Without significant overall direction, broad responsibilities were defined by the members of rapidly formed logistics teams and the components were cobbled into a system.

(154) Through sheer hard work, risk-taking and a 'get it done' philosophy, highly qualified logistics personnel succeeded in working out a delivery-oriented operation among themselves. The result was a relatively undisciplined and disjointed system, but one with a very substantial capacity. In the final analysis, the nature of the operation meant that UNHCR was obliged to focus on shifting gross tonnages as quickly as possible.


(155) Normally, the logistics function is regarded and treated as a part of UNHCR's programme activities. A programme unit, fed with information from the field, is expected to oversee and target logistics activities. In former Yugoslavia, however, by quickly building a massive logistic structure staffed by external logisticians, UNHCR created an organizational component which completely dwarfed the small programme unit. Consequently the two functions worked separately, with programme staff tending to run after logistics, rather than guiding the relief operation.

(156) Many complications arose from the tendency of extremely proactive logistics staff to direct deliveries without consulting a programme structure that in principle should have been much larger. With logistics controlling food and sending it out as quickly as it came in, programme staff were in no position to ascertain whether commodities were actually being moved, let alone specify which deliveries should go where.

(157) Neither logistics nor programme staff were able to attend to the basic aim of ensuring that the right people were provided with the correct balance of various food items. Quickly distributing when access was available led to oversupplying some commodities to particular areas. Unfortunately, once a particular commodity had been oversupplied, it was inevitable that there would be an under supply of that item to other communities. This in turn created imbalances in the food basket which proved impossible to correct.

(158) UNHCR was never able to develop a clear overall picture of the extent to which needs were being satisfied. As a result, agencies which would have liked to support gaps in the programme were unable to target their efforts. Furthermore, items that should have been targeted, such as supplementary foodstuffs, were distributed to all beneficiaries on an indiscriminate basis for over a year.


(159) Political pressures to deliver stocks often forced logistics staff to move commodities. To the extent possible, UNHCR tried to distribute a mixture of food items, but with the field calling for deliveries it was often very difficult to close warehouse doors until enough of each commodity could be assembled to provide a full basket. With items being pumped through the system, any needs assessments that were undertaken were likely to be ignored.

(160) While the logistics staff engaged for the operation tended to be experienced people with strong professional qualifications, they knew little of UNHCR's structure, working methods or even its basic mandate. Logistics personnel easily overlooked or misunderstood what should have been the programme's role. Even when roles were understood, the absence of programme staff at the same professional level made it unrealistic for logistics staff to relinquish the functions they had assumed.

(161) In view of the speed with which the operation was organized by external staff and the very limited direction given to the operation, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be little communication and understanding between logistics and programme personnel. There was simply no-one available, in the field, with the time to make the linkages required among various organizational components or even within the logistics function.

(162) The absence of programme personnel and an experienced staff member to direct the operations was rooted in UNHCR's perennial emergency staffing difficulties. While the organization was quickly able to engage skilled external logistics officers (on one occasion the UK's Overseas Development Administration alone provided five in a single day) it was not able to deploy a commensurate number of experienced internal programme staff. Even a year and a half after the massive operation had begun, UNHCR had only deployed one programme officer with prior UNHCR experience in the function.

(163) The few programme staff assigned to the operation were often obliged to concentrate much of their time on the planning and financial aspects of projects relating to non-food items, which in dollar terms constituted only a small percentage of the overall programme. A disproportionately small amount of programme time was spent on the hundreds of millions of dollars of food delivered through UNHCR.


(164) In rapidly cobbling together a massive logistics operation in several republics, a high degree of independence had to be given to the six extended distribution points in Belgrade, Metkovic, Ploce, Rijeka, Split and Zagreb. Initially, there was neither a common system nor any form of centralized control. The relatively autonomous extended distribution points essentially drove the operation.

(165) A central system would have enabled a more efficient and economic overall management of logistics assets and relief commodities. Costly logistics assets could have been used more flexibly rather than being under-utilised in areas where access was being denied to trucking teams. In the absence of strong central management with the authority to move logistics resources between extended distribution points and between the five OCMs, logistic personnel were often extremely reluctant to give up trucking assets, fearing that these would not be returned. Consequently, costly truck teams often sat idly waiting for access to be reestablished. Furthermore, without a common and centralised system, it proved extremely difficult to coordinate the delivery of relief or even simply to report back to donors in a coherent manner.


(166) The absence of programme staff unquestionably contributed to assistance being largely limited to food. It is doubtful, however, that the operation would have had the capacity to provide a balanced programme for millions of war-affected persons. To a large extent, needs were almost endless and far outpaced programme resources, which were in any case often under threat of funding shortages. Despite the criticism from those with particular sectoral interests, the operation had neither the means nor the flexibility to set up the kinds of services that were often advocated; simply providing limited food assistance outside urban areas was frequently extremely difficult.

(167) Even with the financial means to address a significant portion of the required health, education and social services, the structure and personnel to implement these activities would simply not have been available. NGOs with the capacity and the organizational sophistication required to provide such services were in short supply and often already had government funding to carry out other activities.

(168) Working in a war zone, combined with limited financial and implementation capacities, created serious programme constraints. Nevertheless, UNHCR's experience clearly underscores the importance of anticipating and reacting to individual and smaller group needs, even if it requires an investment of time disproportionate to the number of people being helped and UNHCR's potential impact on the problem. In several instances, less obvious needs became major issues, leading to damaging public criticism and demanding a subsequent large investment of organizational time. In former Yugoslavia, the operation gave priority to the most basic survival needs of the beneficiary population as a whole. As a result, more specific and highly emotive needs such as medical evacuation and care for rape victims and abandoned psychiatric patients were perhaps inevitably neglected.


(169) A lesson re-emphasized by the emergency is the need to avoid unnecessarily sophisticated technological solutions. After logistics and computer staff struggled for some eighteen months to set up an elaborate computerised stock control system, a senior logistician observed that a manual system would have been more accurate and only slightly less efficient. Moreover, a manual system could have functioned almost immediately. The former military logistician pointed out that a computer system is essential for an army supply organization tracking between 12,000 and 15,000 different items, but is certainly not necessary when fewer than 100 items are stocked, as was the case in former Yugoslavia.


(170) The operation illustrates the importance of maximizing the use of local logistics resources which can substantially reduce operational costs. As the logistics operation progressed, staff recognised, for example, that by deploying international trucking teams closer to the border areas, greater use could then be made of much cheaper local contractors to transport commodities to the international teams. The potential savings were considerable. For example, a local rate of US$15 per metric ton compared to US$615 for the most costly single trucking team, which in total was budgeted at US$6 million per year.

(171) Any rational argument about the need for additional programme and finance staff, a UNHCR logistics team, a head of operations and a purchasing officer, needs only go as far as the potential savings such staff could have realised. The financial losses and potential embarrassment associated with non-professional staff procurement, contracting and systems design are both alarming and avoidable.


(172) Relief workers generally believe that basic needs were covered and that food went to its intended beneficiaries. Nevertheless, working in a war zone has required the flexible application of generally recognized assistance principles regarding access, assessed need and monitoring. Experience has demonstrated that the only principle that can realistically be followed while working in a country at war, is simply being neutral and trying to assist all those in need, irrespective of their origins. Even following such a basic principle is often problematic since providing food to someone's enemy may easily result in the aid provider being perceived as an enemy.

(173) In trying to reduce the level of suffering, the international community endeavoured to provide food to those it had access to, rather than on the basis of need, or the ability to monitor whether the aid was actually received by the intended beneficiaries. In such a situation, it was inevitable that aid was misdirected by the warring parties, to the benefit of combatants.

(174) Making distinctions among beneficiaries was unrealistic, since essentially all able-bodied males were combatants, who often wore civilian clothes and lived with their families. Furthermore, staff pragmatically recognized that the more easily identifiable combatants were frequently the type of persons who would not hesitate to take food from vulnerable non-combatants, if they themselves did not receive assistance.

(175) Since the granting of access was political, it was also inevitable that aid frequently did not go to those in greatest need but to those the combatants were willing to feed. Consequently aid easily became a hostage to the military and political objectives of the warring parties, who used relief as a weapon or as a source of support for their war efforts.

(176) UNHCR was able to monitor in an impressionistic and informal manner, but closer and more careful monitoring would, in many instances, have put staff at high risk. Furthermore, with some 200 depots serving as the final distribution points for a far greater number of municipalities, even a weak attempt at monitoring would have required huge staff resources.

(177) In principle, humanitarian organizations can suspend or withdraw from an operation if their principles are not respected. In practice, however, assistance cannot be stopped if people will starve without aid or if political imperatives dictate that assistance will be provided. Consequently, humanitarian agencies have little ability to manoeuvre and stick to their principles even when few, if any of them, are respected. It is increasingly clear that when humanitarian organizations provide aid in conflict situations they will be obliged to take an extremely pragmatic stance, and, when necessary, to bend their principles, as both UNHCR and ICRC have had to do in former Yugoslavia.



(178) In recent years, UNHCR has successfully reinforced its capacity to meet the needs of fast-moving relief operations. Experience in former Yugoslavia, however, indicates that the organization should take additional steps to develop its emergency planning approaches and management systems.

(179) Attempting to respond to civilian needs in a zone of active conflict presented UNHCR with unparalleled planning challenges. Rapid and constant changes in the situation on the ground meant that staff were continually obliged to respond to new developments, sometimes on an hourly basis. As a result, many concluded that it was a sufficient challenge simply to plan the next food convoy.

(180) Setting objectives proved particularly difficult. In the post-war context of the Persian Gulf operation, for example, the situation in the field was volatile but UNHCR's aims became quite clear: to repatriate the refugees, to establish an assistance programme adapted to the cold weather and to hand over longer-term responsibilities to other humanitarian agencies.

(181) With the absence of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was no durable solution around which UNHCR could orient and plan its work. Rather than promoting repatriation, local integration or resettlement, the organization's primary objective was generally defined either in broad terms of saving lives by maximizing the supply of relief until a political settlement could be reached, or in the narrow terms of the monthly logistics plan.


(182) Although the monthly plan enabled staff to set immediate logistical priorities, they often remained confused about which activities they should prioritize. Should they, for example, focus on helping people at risk to flee; providing a reassuring presence; negotiating the protection of minorities; managing a logistics operation; coordinating with other agencies; or serving as a media spokesperson? At the same time, confronted with an almost limitless range of demands and needs, UNHCR personnel found it difficult to determine the limits to each of these activities.

(183) Planning and prioritization were rendered even more difficult by UNHCR's potential involvement in activities which the organization had never before undertaken or even imagined. In Sarajevo, for example, the most critical needs included support to municipal services such as water, gas and electricity supplies, as well as the production of essential commodities such as bread and coal.

(184) Periodic funding shortages only exacerbated the planning problem and complicated efforts to enter into agreements with implementing partners. Furthermore, staff could not imagine that the peace settlement that was always expected to completely alter the operation would remain elusive for so long.

(185) The lack of clarity with regard to priorities, coupled with the operation's reactive nature, meant that most UNHCR personnel, particularly those new to the organization, simply tried to respond to the most urgent events of the moment. Although it was not always overt, staff confusion as to what they should be doing permeated every level of decision-making.

(186) The implications of individual decisions were not always thought through. As a result, staff members often found that after taking a number of piecemeal decisions, operational activities were moving in a completely different direction than anticipated.

(187) The Headquarters sections responsible for support and control functions normally encourage field staff to clarify their operational objectives. In former Yugoslavia, however, normal planning requirements tended to be waived, or were applied in very precise and counterproductive ways. Satisfying FMS, for example, often required field staff to carry out detailed planning for future activities, even though the fluidity of the situation meant that time-consuming revisions soon had to be made.


(188) In any discussion of planning and objective-setting in an emergency context, it is always easier to identify problems than to provide solutions. Efforts to improve emergency planning are, however, worth the time and energy required. As one experienced emergency manager pointed out, two-thirds of making anything work is letting other people know what will be expected of them. Quite simply, planning permits delegation and keeps staff informed as to what they should be trying to achieve.

(189) A better understanding of the nature of planning in emergencies is evidently required. Experience has shown that in a fast-moving emergency, the detailed and voluminous blueprints traditionally associated with the concept of planning are of very little value. In an emergency situation such as former Yugoslavia, a more appropriate approach to planning includes:

  • defining operational objectives, priorities and limits:
  • thinking through scenarios, contingencies and options;
  • developing situational policies and principles;
  • establishing structures and lines of communication; and,
  • clarifying individual roles and responsibilities.

(190) Once these processes have been undertaken, operations managers can continually review, adjust and communicate plans in order to maintain a focus on what they and their staff are trying to achieve. In addition, more detailed programme plans and priorities, such as those contained in the monthly operation plan used in former Yugoslavia, will permit staff to adapt their activities to constant changes in needs and resources. Staff must also recognize that in an emergency, decisions and plans made one day will undoubtedly be changed the next.


(191) As well as demonstrating the limitations of traditional planning approaches, the emergency in former Yugoslavia has reinforced UNHCR's recognition of the need to delegate authority to the field.

(192) The appointment of a Special Envoy reporting directly to the High Commissioner proved to be a particularly effective organizational arrangement for a situation in which overall operational responsibility could not easily be discharged from a single location. This approach, which had first been used in the Gulf crisis and later employed in the Cambodia and Afghan repatriation programmes, enhanced the organization's flexibility and accelerated decision-making in the field.

(193) The appointment of a Special Envoy increased the attention that could be devoted to policy and political issues, and provided the operation with an overall perspective that a conventional country representative could not have developed. At the same time, the Special Envoy served as a bridge between the different republics involved.

(194) Among the few disadvantages of the Special Envoy arrangement is the extent to which such a function can easily bypass Headquarters structures that could usefully participate in the policy and decision-making process. Involving several senior staff in these processes can be particularly useful in situations where the unconventional nature of an operation may require a degree of caution.


(195) Working out the respective roles of the Special Envoy and the OCMs (Office of the Chargé de Mission) covering five republics of former Yugoslavia was one of the more contentious aspects of the operation. This was particularly the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which absorbed the vast majority of the Special Envoy's time.

(196) Efforts to draw a distinction between the policy-making responsibilities of the Special Envoy and the operational responsibilities of the OCM for Bosnia and Herzegovina proved extremely difficult since political negotiations often touched on the smallest details of the convoy operation.

(197) Organizing UNHCR's structure to support the operation in Bosnia was difficult in view of the geographical dispersal of the many parties involved in the operation; the decentralized nature of the logistics system; and the difficult security conditions and communications problems which existed in Sarajevo. In these circumstances, every possible arrangement offered advantages and disadvantages.

(198) Moving the OCM for Bosnia and Herzegovina from Sarajevo to Zagreb early in the emergency may have been unavoidable, but the operation was often more difficult to manage without an OCM or Deputy operating from the republic being covered. Zagreb was relatively secure and was generally easier to operate from than Sarajevo. It provided quicker access to many supporting locations and was also the base for a number of key organizations involved in the operation. This arrangement did not permit UNHCR to coordinate closely enough with the military command which located its headquarters in Kiseljak, a town near Sarajevo.

(199) This arrangement also had the effect of isolating the OCM from UNHCR's field offices in the republic, as well as the wide range of activities in Sarajevo and from the NGO community, which was largely located in the Croatian port of Split. The presence of both the OCM for Bosnia and the Special Envoy in the Croatian capital, also increased the extent to which both offices were perceived as biased. Such perceptions were, of course, particularly strong in Belgrade.

(200) With so many scattered offices and newly appointed staff involved in the operation at the outset, it was sometimes difficult to determine who was supporting or directing whom. Within a two-month period, for example, the head of the Pale liaison office was told that the office reported to the Special Envoy, the OCM for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the OCM in Belgrade. One can imagine the confusion that new UNHCR staff members would experience in such a situation.

(201) Communication between UNHCR's many offices in former Yugoslavia was also difficult. The Special Envoy was constantly analysing political developments and potential scenarios, and therefore had the clearest vision of the situation and the overall direction of the operation. However, with a huge and hastily established office, and with most staff new to UNHCR, the structures and channels needed to communicate the Special Envoy's plans and policies were often lacking.

(202) In too many instances, UNHCR personnel felt that they were not provided with the information, guidance and feedback which they required to function effectively. As a consequence, staff were often placed in embarrassing situations, and were obliged to improvise in discussions with NGOs, government officials and the press.


(203) At Headquarters, a Special Operational Unit for Former Yugoslavia (SOFY) was established to manage the operation, separate from the European bureau, which lacked the operational experience found in other regions.

(204) The creation of a special operational unit offered advantages in terms of team-building, freedom of action, creativity and pace of work. SOFY, however, does not provide a useful model for most emergency.operations, which are more effectively managed by an organizational component such as the Gulf crisis unit, which offered many of the same advantages as SOFY while remaining within the relevant regional bureau.

(205) Despite the benefits which can be gained from separating a fast-paced operation from slower-moving programmes, special operations units should be rationalized and reintegrated into a regional structure as quickly as possible. Such an approach enables emergency activities to be conceptualized within a broader operational and organizational context, and encourages the introduction of solution rather than relief-oriented strategies. Locating a special operations unit in a regional bureau tends to facilitate the phasing out of functional activities that are allowed to develop within an emergency structure and which duplicate those in other parts of the organization.


(206) Difficulties associated with planning, staffing and communication were often at the heart of operational problems. For most personnel, however, the difficulties encountered in using UNHCR's regular procedures and systems for mobilizing financial and human resources in a fast-moving emergency often generated even greater frustration and annoyance.

(207) Particular criticism was directed at the FMIS system, which proved too complex for new staff and implementing partners, as well as too rigid for a constantly changing operation. Few personnel were sufficiently conversant with the system to use it effectively. Furthermore, staff frequently complained that the system over-emphasized budgetary aspects while tending to neglect planning and performance.

(208) Procedures relating to administrative expenditures continued to be far too restrictive for practical use in an emergency operation. With headquarters authorization required for certain expenditures in excess of $500, the procedures create unnecessary work and delay. Moreover, such procedures seem senseless when representatives are able to provide implementing partners with far greater authority for precisely the same expenditures, and to sign LOIs (Letters of Instruction) worth millions of dollars. Curiously, ad hoc procedures to authorize administrative expenditures in emergency situations were developed in the late 1980's, but they are not widely known and have only been made available to staff on a selective basis.

(209) Despite progress in establishing accelerated recruitment procedures for emergencies, existing procedures for post creation still need to be adapted to emergency requirements. At present, the creation of urgently required positions is often delayed a month or more by the need to wait for the next scheduled meeting of the periodic post review board.

(210) Any discussion of emergency management and procedures ultimately returns to the question of deploying experienced personnel. The large number of externally recruited staff engaged for the operation generally had excellent management skills. They did not, however, have sufficient emergency experience and knowledge of the organization to think through the operation in a comprehensive manner nor to make effective use of its systems and structures. This difficulty was compounded by the lack of training in UNHCR principles and procedures offered to external recruits taking up management positions.

(211) Managing emergency operations continues to be one of the most difficult challenges confronting UNHCR. Although the organization has made significant efforts to improve its capacity to respond to emergency needs, additional efforts are still required to adapt methods, systems and procedures to suit the requirements of rapidly evolving field operations.



(213) The last three years have witnessed a series of complex humanitarian operations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, prompting the international community to consider how such large-scale relief programmes can be most effectively organized. While it is generally recognized that coordination between humanitarian agencies could be improved, there is much less agreement on the models and mechanisms that are required to achieve this objective. Some useful ideas can be drawn from recent experience in former Yugoslavia.

(214) UNHCR was asked by the UN Secretary-General to play a leading role in former Yugoslavia at the outset of the relief operation. Since that time, UNHCR has generally been referred to as 'the lead UN agency'. The meaning and operational implications of this concept, however, have remained vague.


(215) In practice, the UN relief programme in former Yugoslavia has effectively been a UNHCR operation rather than a genuinely system-wide response to the emergency. UNHCR has had a much larger presence than any other UN agency, and, together with WFP, ICRC and its implementing partners, has been responsible for channelling the majority of relief assistance to the beneficiary population. Relatively little activity has been undertaken by other UN agencies.

(216) In general, the humanitarian organizations of the UN system have operated as a loose consortium or association. Most agencies had their own priorities, planned their own programmes, and carried out their own fund-raising activities. Tasks were generally not allocated in a systematic manner.

(217) In leading the relief operation, UNHCR has acted as the principal point of contact with UNPROFOR, ICFY, UN Headquarters and the warring parties, on behalf of other UN agencies and the NGOs. At field level, UNHCR assisted other organizations with logistical and administrative support. As a consequence, UNHCR's relationship with the other agencies has tended to focus more on immediate activities and problems than on policy-making and planning.


(218) The 100 or more NGOs working in Bosnia and Herzegovina have made a major contribution to the operation. Except for the 25 voluntary agencies working as UNHCR implementing partners, however, UNHCR has generally been unable to provide them with substantial support and guidance. For most NGOs, UNHCR's principal contribution has been in practical matters such as the provision of identity cards, licence plates as well as security and programme information.

(219) In Zagreb in particular, UNHCR was often unable to provide the voluntary agencies with the support they sought. In an effort to facilitate coordination, UNHCR co-funded an office of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Because UNHCR lacked structures and staff dedicated to the NGO liaison function, however, agency representatives were often left wandering the corridors of the UNHCR office, looking for answers and information. Collaboration tended to be most effective in the field, where UNHCR and the NGOs were able to work closely together and to establish coordinating committees for specific sectors such as shelter, food and health.

(220) The presence of a single UN agency, providing a lead in all aspects of the operation, is generally recognized to have streamlined the relief effort and in many ways contributed towards its efficiency. However, UNHCR's limited ability to mobilize a UN system-wide response and to provide support and guidance to the NGOs had a number of unfortunate consequences.

(221) Perhaps most significantly, the potential contribution of other humanitarian organizations was not fully realized, and UNHCR itself was often left over stretched. Without UNHCR's direction, the coverage provided by the NGOs was uneven. Relief efforts were duplicated in some areas, while the resources provided to other locations were small in relation to needs. UNHCR was also unable to cultivate and develop the smaller NGOs, leaving many agencies with a sense of isolation from the operation as a whole.


(222) The organizational and coordinating arrangements which emerged in the operation were the product of several different factors.

(223) From the outset, UNHCR very actively sought a leading role in former Yugoslavia, an approach which did not always encourage the participation of other UN agencies. Moreover, once the Secretary-General had requested UNHCR to spearhead the relief effort, the lack of a formal agreement detailing agency roles and responsibilities meant that UNHCR and other UN organizations were able to interpret the lead agency arrangement in whichever way they chose. In general, other agencies had little interest in receiving direction from another UN organization.

(224) There was a general desire amongst other UN agencies to limit their involvement in former Yugoslavia. Some - such as WFP and UNICEF - had other programmatic and geographic priorities, and were particularly reluctant to establish huge-scale operations in a European country. Others - such as WHO - were more accustomed to planning long-term programmes with government ministries, and therefore lacked the action-oriented, 'order and delivery' approach required for an emergency operation of this scale. Thus in sharp contrast to UNHCR, most other UN agencies generally established only a small and belated presence in the field.

(225) UNHCR did not receive substantial support from another UN agency until early 1993, when WFP formally assumed responsibility for the delivery of food to UNHCR warehouses. WFP's belated involvement was partially attributable to the nature of the initial relief- programme, which was largely limited to the distribution of food parcels. Nevertheless, many UNHCR personnel questioned the benefits that could be gained by devolving an ongoing activity to another organization, pointing to the time and energy which had to be invested in the handover process as well as the operational difficulties which arose as the other agency came up to speed.


(226) Donor states have often expressed their support for the notion of coordinated and system-wide UN responses to complex emergencies. In former Yugoslavia, however, perhaps the most complex and important operation for western governments, they appeared to recognize that a single operational entity could manage the programme in the most effective and responsive manner. Such a conclusion could only have been reinforced by observing the experience of UNPROFOR, which consisted of some 40 national military contingents, struggling to work together.


(227) The minimal participation of the UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) in former Yugoslavia also played a part in reinforcing UNHCR's leading role in the relief operation. The DHA was formally established at the end of 1991 with the explicit purpose of coordinating system-wide responses to complex emergencies. But the new organization came into being just after UNHCR had been designated as lead agency, and it was barely functioning at the time when the relief operation was launched.

(228) In mid-1992, DHA participated in an inter-agency assessment mission but subsequently confined itself to assembling consolidated appeals on the basis of inputs provided by different agencies. These appeals did not, however, attempt to set out a coordinated UN objective and programme, and were of limited value as far as many donors were concerned.


(229) In the scale and nature of its activities, the ICRC's contribution to the operation in former Yugoslavia came closest to that of UNHCR. Historically, there has been a relatively clear division of labour between the two organizations: while the ICRC has worked with war-affected populations in conflict zones, UNHCR has focused its protection and assistance efforts on refugees in countries of asylum. In former Yugoslavia, however, the effective broadening of UNHCR's mandate to include displaced, besieged and war-affected populations broke down this traditional boundary.

(230) Inevitably perhaps, organizational relations in the field were sometimes strained, particularly in the early stages of the emergency. The contrasting mandates and approaches of UNHCR and ICRC, as well as their different relationships to UNPROFOR and the warring parties, hindered cooperation. As the operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina progressed, however, it became evident that there was more than enough work for both agencies, and that it was impossible to divide up that work by beneficiaries or by area. Although this resulted in a degree of overlap between UNHCR and ICRC, assistance activities were generally well harmonized and the two agencies strived to maintain a consistent approach.

(231) Working together on protection issues tended to be more problematic. Although levels of cooperation depended on the personality of individual delegates, the ICRC's somewhat secretive approach to protection matters often hindered its ability to share information with UNHCR.


(232) The organizational culture and working methods of the ICRC are quite distinct from those of UNHCR. As experience in former Yugoslavia has demonstrated, the ICRC tends to work in a rather structured and rigid manner, adhering firmly to a very clear set of basic humanitarian principles. In contrast, UNHCR tends to adopt a far more flexible and pragmatic approach, focusing more on the achievement of immediate objectives than on the means whereby those goals are attained.

(233) These differences were illustrated very clearly in former Yugoslavia by the alternative strategies used to deliver relief. UNHCR, for example, made extensive use of UNPROFOR escorts. In some situations, the organization was prepared to challenge the combatants and push its way through roadblocks. In certain instances, UNHCR was also prepared to engage in trade-offs, providing the warring parties with a portion of the relief so that the rest of the shipment could reach its intended destination.

(234) The ICRC, however, generally adopted a more principled and inflexible approach, refraining from the use of military escorts and refusing to bargain with combatants. Rather than working out local deals and ad hoc solutions like UNHCR, the ICRC attempted - with only moderate success - to work on the basis of formal agreements, negotiated at the highest level.

(235) The different mandates and approaches of the ICRC and UNHCR are in many senses complementary and in former Yugoslavia were combined to good effect. Close coordination and collaboration between the two organizations is likely to remain problematic, however, particularly in protection matters and in smaller-scale operations where the scope for competition is greater. As a fiercely independent organization, the ICRC will always remain outside of any formal coordinating arrangements established by the UN system. Moreover, while the ICRC has tried to modify its activities and working methods to meet the new demands of the post-Cold War era, it retains a very distinctive and sometimes rigid set of operational principles.


(236) In the three years since the outbreak of the Persian Gulf crisis, UNHCR has expended a substantial amount of time and effort in developing its emergency preparedness and response capacity. While some difficulties remain to be resolved in this area, particularly in the transition from emergency to regular arrangements, there is a general recognition that these measures have had a very substantial impact. Donors, NGOs and other UN agencies agree that no other humanitarian organization could have assumed the role and responsibilities taken on by UNHCR in former Yugoslavia.

(237) UNHCR's determination to strengthen its operational performance, coupled with misconceived efforts to restructure the emergency response arrangements of the UN system, have to some extent diverted the organization's attention from the question of inter-agency cooperation. There is now also a danger that the acclaim received by the operation in former Yugoslavia could cause UNHCR to develop a somewhat exaggerated sense of its effectiveness while downplaying the potential contribution of other agencies.


(238) Although experience in former Yugoslavia has demonstrated the validity of the lead agency model, it has also revealed the need for UNHCR to give greater thought to the operational implications of this concept. More specifically, UNHCR must resist the temptation of confusing the notions of 'lead agency' and 'sole agency', and should identify the kind of actions that can be taken to solicit the involvement and commitment of other humanitarian organizations. Experience in other recent operations suggests that these could include:

  • involving other agencies more fully in the policy-making and planning processes;
  • developing a better understanding of the capabilities and working methods of other agencies;
  • undertaking fund-raising efforts on behalf of other organizations and sharing resources with them;
  • appointing staff and establishing structures with specific responsibility for coordination with other agencies in the field, particularly NGOs;
  • gathering and disseminating both operational and situational information in a systematic manner;
  • developing common facilities with other agencies and providing practical support to them;
  • initiating joint training and activities with other agencies; and, team-building activities with other agencies; and,
  • highlighting the contribution of other agencies in media relations activities.

(239) The international community's appreciation of UNHCR's performance in former Yugoslavia has increased the probability that the organization will be invited to assume a leading role in future relief operations. If the organization is to discharge this responsibility effectively, UNHCR must not only continue to develop its own emergency response capacity, but must also make greater efforts to orchestrate its activities with other UN agencies, the ICRC, and the voluntary agencies.



(240) Working closely with UN military forces in former Yugoslavia has been a new and instructive experience for UNHCR. The operation has demonstrated that national military contingents, working under UN auspices, are capable of providing many useful resources and support to a humanitarian relief effort. It is clear, however, that many obstacles to close collaboration still need to be overcome.

(241) The contribution which UNPROFOR was able to make to humanitarian activities in former Yugoslavia has been the subject of much debate. Those who regard the military role favourably focus on the role and impact of the military escorts provided to UNHCR convoys. More easily overlooked is UNPROFOR's broader contribution in stabilizing the situation amongst the warring parties. Without the localized security, confidence and unspoken deterrent provided by UNPROFOR, it is doubtful whether UNHCR and other relief organizations could have continued to provide humanitarian relief on such an enormous scale.

(242) UNPROFOR escorts helped UNHCR convoys gain access to areas that would not have otherwise been able to receive assistance, and permitted operations to continue on a regular basis to many besieged areas. Perhaps the most frequently acknowledged service rendered to the operation by UNPROFOR was the sense of security provided to drivers. When convoys came under attack, drivers were usually able to seek shelter in the armoured personnel carriers that accompanied the convoy.

(243) Critics of militarized escorts believe that UNPROFOR's contribution was minimal and restricted to specific areas. They note that providing security to UNHCR convoys was never a military priority, and argue that in practice, the organization had to cope with all the bureaucratic inconveniences of the military without any real protection. Most of the casualties amongst humanitarian relief workers, critics point out, occurred in escorted convoys.

(244) The decision to significantly increase the number of UN troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina appear to have been made before there was a clear understanding as to what the enlarged forces should do. In response to criticism concerning their objectives, the forces were given an unprecedented mandate to protect and ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. However, neither UNHCR nor UNPROFOR knew what this meant in a practical sense, nor had they any experience in working together.

(245) Amongst themselves, the UNPROFOR forces debated the nature of their role. Should they be humanitarian workers in uniform or formal military units? And should they carry weapons? A wide range of possibilities were scrutinized. As these discussions evolved, military planners tried to determine what would be required in terms of personnel, weapons, vehicles and other equipment in order to defend UNHCR's convoys against various levels of threat.


(246) Relief workers were originally very apprehensive about the militarization of convoys. Their concerns reflected the same apprehension normally expressed by the ICRC. Many UNHCR staff initially expected that UNPROFOR would be able to provide the personnel and equipment needed to carry out activities such as road maintenance and repairs, mine sweeping, towing and information-gathering. They also hoped that a military presence would assist them in getting convoys through to war-affected populations and deter against harassment and violence. Other staff feared that UN forces would attempt to 'shoot their way through', turning the relief operation into an enforcement action of the type which developed in Somalia.

(247) In practice, neither the most optimistic nor pessimistic expectations were realized. UNPROFOR only used force in self defence rather than to enforce access. Consequently, although UN troops escorted the relief convoys, deliveries could still only be made by means of negotiation with the warring parties.

UNPROFOR's relief mandate UNPROFOR's peace-keeping mandate was gradually expanded by the Security Council to include a number of relief-related responsibilities. UNPROFOR's support to relief efforts was essentially limited to ensuring the security and functioning of Sarajevo airport and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Subsequent mandates specifically included references to the protection of humanitarian assistance provided by UNHCR and others, as well as the use of force as a last resort to ensure relief aid for Bosnia and Herzegovina.


(248) In view of UNPROFOR's mandate to support the UNHCR relief effort, it would have been logical for the two organizations to collaborate closely. Unfortunately, the absence of clearly defined roles and an overall coordinating framework or structure contributed to a greater distance between the humanitarian and military aspects of the operation than was desirable.

(249) UNHCR and UNPROFOR generally went their own ways although collaboration improved over time. The various contingents were deployed according to national and local military priorities, and there was little discussion with UNHCR regarding UNPROFOR's support and protection of humanitarian operations. As a consequence, UN forces often arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina unprepared to provide the assistance expected by many UNHCR staff, who anticipated a considerable logistic, medical, engineering and security backing.

(250) Many problems could have been avoided if UNHCR and UNPROFOR had clarified their roles, responsibilities and working methods at the outset and found ways to work closely together. Unlike UN operations in Cambodia, Mozambique and Namibia, no overall structure coordinating political, military and humanitarian activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina was initially established. Only in mid-1993 was a Special Representative of the Secretary-General designated to undertake this function.

(251) Closer contact between UNHCR and UNPROFOR would have enabled better collaboration, but would not have eliminated the difficulties experienced by the peace-keeping force, which consisted of some 40 relatively independent contingents, directed by a somewhat weak and unorganized UNPROFOR command structure as well as their own national capitals.

(252) Disagreement within UNHCR concerning the working relationship of the humanitarian and military components, coupled with the organization's lack of experience in such operations, undoubtedly contributed to the distance maintained by UNHCR. Certainly, staff had many different expectations and ideas regarding the support they did or did not want.


(253) Many of the military forces gave little priority to humanitarian activities and had difficulty seeing themselves in a supporting role. These difficulties were only compounded by the inexperience of various national contingents in carrying out humanitarian operations, the variety of non-mandated objectives that were pursued, and the very limited control which the UNPROFOR command was able to exert over national contingents. Contributing governments, afraid of the political fallout of military deaths, ensured that priority was given to self-defence and logistic sustainability. This absorbed most of the contingents' time and resources, especially in the early stages of the operation, to the frustration of UNHCR staff.

(254) The difficulties experienced in the relationship between the humanitarian and military components of the UN were exacerbated by differences in size, command structures, operational style, organizational cultures and priorities.

(255) The sheer difference in size was a source of continual difficulties. UNHCR lacked the capacity to liaise or provide even a simple orientation regarding UNHCR activities to the 16 generals and hundreds of senior staff attached to dozens of different national contingents. UNHCR was simply swamped by this massive presence. Military personnel, on the other hand, felt that UNHCR was grossly understaffed.

(256) Differences in what the military characterizes as command and control structures also complicated the relationship. In the military, decision-making is highly centralized and structured, while UNHCR tends to delegate more decision-making authority to staff on the ground and retain flexibility. Military personnel did not find it easy to discern any hierarchy in the UNHCR structure or understand who was responsible for making decisions.

(257) Collaboration was hindered by the absence of similarly defined geographic responsibilities. Whereas UNHCR's activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina were directed from Zagreb, UNPROFOR's command structure was located in Kiseljak. Furthermore, sub-offices often covered areas different from the battalions supporting them. Large discrepancies in grade levels, age and experience of the staff working for UNHCR in the field and their military counterparts sometimes detracted from the credibility UNHCR had with more senior and mature military officers.

(258) Personality and temperamental differences between soldiers and aid workers as well as the divergence in their aims and orientation, dress and manner, sometimes made the relationship an uneasy one, lacking sympathy and understanding. The suspicion that existed between civilian and military personnel was reinforced by the military's mistrust of local staff upon whom UNHCR is heavily dependent.

(259) Military personnel disliked being directed by civilians. Civilians on the other hand were often annoyed by 'military-speak' and the tendency of the military to issue instructions rather than submitting requests. Furthermore, the inclination of military officers to be crass and autocratic often brought out anti-authority feelings in much younger relief workers, particularly among NGO staff.


(260) There are more fundamental differences in the way military and humanitarian activities are planned and carried out. In the military, where accountability is high, commanders define action based on the resources available. In carrying out humanitarian activities, where results and accountability are less clear, UNHCR's attempts to stretch itself to do whatever it can to deal with a problem. Thus, unlike UNHCR, the military often only accepts tasks it has the resources to accomplish.

(261) In the military, all activities are guided by clear statements of objectives and carried out within precisely defined structures, rules and procedures. As a consequence, military personnel were constantly annoyed by what they perceived as short-notice and last-minute changes. From their perspective, UNHCR simply could not understand what is required to 'get an army on the road'.

(262) To military personnel, the frequent redeployment of UNHCR field staff was a confusing annoyance. For UNHCR, on the other hand, UNPROFOR's six-month rotation cycle without a system of briefings or handover was a major problem, particularly if this occurred when convoy operations were suspended. In such instances, new military personnel started with absolutely no experience of working with UNHCR in a convoy operation.

(263) Lastly, the quality of individual UN military contingents and the way they approached their job varied greatly. As it is often stressed, UNHCR is unlikely to get the military it wants and in most situations is likely to be supported by a far greater number of different national contingents than are manageable. In future operations where relief workers are obliged to work closely with UN forces and entrust their lives to military personnel who are not up to the task, new and perhaps much more serious problems will emerge.


(264) It is useful to draw lessons from the difficulties that humanitarian and military personnel experienced in working together. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from former Yugoslavia is that when the humanitarian and military aspects of an operation cannot be separated, because they are both ultimately linked to the Security Council, then they must be better integrated at the operational level. For security reasons alone, they must work much more closely together in any future operations where the risks to UN staff are high.

(265) In situations where UNHCR is supported by the military, substantially greater efforts will have to be made to have a say in where the military locates and the way in which it operates. Unfortunately, however, it is unrealistic to expect rapid changes in the military's approach towards humanitarian support. In most situations, it will be incumbent upon UNHCR to use its much greater flexibility to adapt to a partner which does not understand UNHCR's role or methods of work.

(266) When UN forces are providing humanitarian support, UNHCR must make greater efforts to understand how military structures operate, and seek ways to guide and, to the extent possible, direct the military. If UNHCR intends to work with peace-keeping forces, it must take steps to orient, train and exchange information with military personnel who are often inclined to see UNHCR's role as simply handing out food. In short, UNHCR must learn how its small number of staff can influence and use the massive military capability potentially at the disposal of humanitarian operations.

(267) The goodwill for closer cooperation certainly exists. Although operational styles and organizational cultures are very different, military and humanitarian personnel in former Yugoslavia often found it satisfying and instructive to work together. At the battalion level, working relations and support improved significantly during the course of the operation and were often very good.


(268) UNHCR's performance in Bosnia and Herzegovina will undoubtedly lead to requests for the organization to provide humanitarian assistance in future peace-keeping operations. In the event that UNHCR is once again obliged to work in conflict zones, greater efforts should be made to either work completely independently or much more closely with the military, perhaps even under one command. The least desirable option would seem to be the arms-length marriage into which UNHCR and UNPROFOR drifted, with little effort to clarify respective responsibilities and working methods. UNHCR should now draw upon the experience, expertise and authority it has developed in former Yugoslavia to lead a discussion of the relationship between humanitarian and peace-keeping activities.



(269) In every emergency since the late 1970s, the principal shortcoming of UNHCR's response has been the organization's inability to rapidly deploy an adequate number of suitably experienced personnel. In this regard, the operation in former Yugoslavia was not significantly different. Although UNHCR's new emergency staffing arrangements enabled the organization to mobilize the required number of staff in a relatively short period of time, serious difficulties arose in identifying and deploying middle-level field managers, administrative officers and programme personnel.

(270) When the conflict first developed in former Yugoslavia, UNHCR's office in Belgrade was staffed with a small but very able team. Recognizing that the emerging republics could not be effectively covered from the former capital city, a Special Envoy was appointed and a second team of seasoned staff members was built around that post, operating from Zagreb and Sarajevo.

(271) For the six months following the Special Envoy's deployment in November 1991, UNHCR staff were overstretched, but were nevertheless able to establish an effective foundation for the massive operation that was to come. Although a high rate of turnover amongst the initial team members created some continuity problems, UNHCR's activities were formulated and directed by a number of the organization's most highly regarded officers.


(272) In the first half of 1992, UNHCR's presence began to expand rapidly in response to the deteriorating situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the expansion of the assistance programme. Forty new posts were created in April that year, followed in July by an additional 150, and a further 100 posts two months later. Before long, the UNHCR staff contingent had grown to an unprecedented 500.

(273) Based on a staffing formula developed in the Gulf crisis, the initial aim of the Division of Human Resources Management (DHRM) was to staff the operation with an equal mixture of experienced UNHCR staff, external staff with UNHCR experience, and outside staff new to UNHCR. Given the sheer number of people required, however, this objective quickly proved impossible to achieve. UNHCR simply could not deploy sufficient numbers of experienced personnel for such a massive operation, in which the workload of a single field office was often equal to that of a regular country programme.


(274) As a result, the largest UNHCR operation in the world functioned for some time without an experienced administrative officer, a personnel officer, a finance and project control officer, a purchasing officer, or even a logistics officer with UNHCR experience. Massive programme activities were managed by a relatively junior professional and a programme assistant. Entire sub-offices were often staffed by newly recruited personnel, thrust into the frontline of the operation without training or guidance.

(275) The few experienced staff members initially deployed generally went to former Yugoslavia on mission status and remained for very limited periods of time. In Split, for example, where most of the NGOs working in Bosnia and Herzegovina have their headquarters, the sub-office had more than eleven heads, acting or designated, in its first year of operation. The critical sub-office in Sarajevo had nearly as many heads in less than a year.

(276) By mid-1993, only 20 of some 550 staff assigned to the operation had significant UNHCR experience according to DHRM estimates. Some 18 months after the first request for a senior administrative officer had been made, one of UNHCR's most capable administrators was permanently assigned to the operation in Zagreb - the sixth person to occupy that post. Nearly two years after being requested, the first senior programme officer with substantial experience arrived.

(277) While the small number of junior staff responsible for programme and administrative activities deserve credit for their outstanding performance, it is hardly surprising that the operation was plagued by serious administrative, financial and personnel problems. Millions of dollars were spent on procurement, for example, without the creation of a contracts committee. The absence of systems and experienced staff to control resources meant that during the operation's early stages, a number of vehicles and computers simply disappeared. Hundreds of UNHCR employees functioned without job descriptions, and reconciling the staffing list with the people actually working for the organization was difficult, if not impossible.


(278) Despite their often excellent qualifications, externally recruited staff were handicapped in various ways. Many found it difficult to gain an overall perspective and identify priorities without an understanding of UNHCR, its mandate and manner of work. New staff generally knew little about the roles and responsibilities of different elements within the organization - a knowledge that most staff members take for granted. As a consequence, they were continually stepping on the toes of their colleagues, or alternatively they retreated to a very narrow definition of their function. The large number of inexperienced staff members deployed in the operation also found that they did not know how to get what they wanted out of the organization, unlike more seasoned personnel who know how to manoeuvre within UNHCR systems and who have a good understanding of what they can and cannot do.

(279) Recruiting appropriate staff from outside the organization was not easy; there are only a finite number of people with the right skills and experience who are available for immediate deployment. In many cases UNHCR was competing for staff with other agencies, as well as with other humanitarian emergencies and repatriation operations elsewhere in the world. Difficulties in identifying suitable recruits were compounded by the very special profile required to work effectively in former Yugoslavia operation. Candidates were expected to be highly motivated and energetic, psychologically balanced, courageous without being 'cowboys', able to deal with stress and frustration, and to be team players with communication and managerial skills. Even when such paragons could be found, UNHCR felt obliged to pay some attention to gender and geographic balance.

(280) UNHCR was helped to some extent in securing seconded staff by the recent retrenchment in many armed forces, which has placed a considerable number of military personnel onto the labour market, many of them with appropriate logistical and operational skills. Moreover, because it was a European operation, UNHCR was able to engage a larger number of Europeans and Americans than might be thought acceptable in other parts of the world and hence take advantage of sophisticated national recruitment systems. In many instances the military personnel seconded to UNHCR had a useful impact on the organization, helping to create a sense of discipline and efficiency in the operation as well as a more professional attitude towards staff security.

(281) Besides the obvious problem of continuity, new staff employed for a limited period were handicapped in other ways. Some placed too much emphasis on short-term personal priorities, while those who wanted to secure longer-term employment with UNHCR were sometimes prone to showmanship, competition, empire and career building. Many of these problems could have been reduced by using a higher proportion of regular UNHCR staff members.

(282) Within UNHCR, managers of the operation in former Yugoslavia also had to compete for staff, many of whom preferred to work in less dangerous places such as West Africa or Cambodia. Although the priority given to former Yugoslavia after mid-1992 made the release of staff less of a problem than in other recent emergencies, a huge amount of time was nevertheless spent on negotiating with other bureaux and divisions. In some cases, executive decisions were required to secure the release of urgently needed staff, an approach which only compounded the resentment which many other parts of the organization felt towards the attention given to the operation in former Yugoslavia.

(283) Internal UNHCR staff generally showed little interest in working in former Yugoslavia. In many instances, there was not even a single internal applicant for mid-level posts. Most UNHCR staff had little interest in leaving their families or organizational components to work in a special war zone operation which could end at any time. Although financial incentives were generally good for single personnel, for most staff with families, having to maintain a separate household offset any financial advantages.


(284) Despite the absence of experienced international staff, the operation benefited greatly from the quality and motivation of local staff, who were undoubtedly one of the operation's greatest strengths. Local personnel were generally highly skilled - in many cases better qualified than UNHCR's international staff - and proved to be of particular value in specialized areas such as shelter, social services and public information.

(285) The unusual mixture of internal and external, as well as international and local staff, was not without its problems. Local staff often resented the higher status of internationals, and although personnel with military and non-military backgrounds generally worked well together, to some extent differences in the way the two groups thought, spoke and acted led to an unfortunate degree of segregation.


(286) Emergency staffing difficulties have been examined by UNHCR for more than a decade. In a review of UNHCR operations in the Persian Gulf crisis, the Central Evaluation Section observed that earlier evaluations and lessons-learned studies had presented a remarkably consistent set of recommendations with regard to the strengthening of UNHCR's emergency staffing capacity. These have included:

  • the appointment of a corps of specialized emergency officers, who can be sent to the scene of a refugee influx within hours of the first alert;
  • the establishment of a roster, containing the names of suitably experienced UNHCR staff members who can be called forward during a formally declared emergency for short or medium-term missions;
  • the creation of a pool of proven emergency consultants, particularly those with sectoral expertise;
  • the establishment of standby arrangements with governmental, non-governmental and international organizations which are capable of seconding individuals or teams of field workers and technical experts to UNHCR at very short notice;
  • greater acceptance of the need to replace regular programme personnel in key posts at headquarters or in the field when those staff members do not possess skills or experience appropriate to the demands of the emergency;
  • a more systematic use of junior staff members at UNHCR headquarters to act as 'backstops' for more experienced personnel who have been temporarily reassigned to the field;
  • the production of phased emergency 'staffing plans, specifying the number and type of personnel required for an operation, taking due account of the need for handover periods, staff leave and limited working hours; and,
  • better financial and career incentives for staff who accept difficult emergency assignments and who prove their ability to work at a senior level in emergency operations.


(287) DHRM and other elements of UNHCR can take justifiable pride in the extent to which such proposals have been implemented in the past three years. Nevertheless, several of the approaches, such as the greater use of junior or external staff as backstops at Headquarters, demand more attention.

(288) The Persian Gulf operation provided a structural and procedural model for emergency staffing on which DHRM staff were able to build. The programme in former Yugoslavia initially benefited from arrangements such as the Nordic standby staffing system, and a greatly expanded emergency recruitment roster, both of which were established as a direct result of the crisis in the Gulf. As the operation progressed, new secondment arrangements with governments proved critical to the operation.

(289) Accelerated recruitment procedures which DHRM had worked out with the APPB enabled UNHCR to hire staff without always issuing vacancy notices. Without such accelerated procedures, the operation would have simply ground to a halt. In general, the operation was staffed in a more creative manner than previous emergency programmes, an approach epitomized by the presence of nearly a dozen different categories of personnel.


(290) Other important lessons can also be learned from UNHCR's experience in former Yugoslavia. Hopefully, the conventional wisdom that the success of the trucking operation resulted from the use of external logistics officers will not cause UNHCR to neglect this function internally. UNHCR needs a core of trained and experienced logistics staff, to set up operations and guide external logisticians. Creating such a group would clearly result in substantial savings and improved operations.

(291) Future emergency operations also need to reconsider the type of missions undertaken by computer and communications technicians from Geneva. Such missions should go beyond simply putting equipment or systems in place. Technical staff must ensure that the necessary training is provided and that systems are functioning as intended before they return to headquarters.


(292) The operation in former Yugoslavia has once again highlighted the need to strengthen UNHCR's post-emergency staffing arrangements. The current system, whereby emergency staff are sent on mission for a maximum of two months, has not worked in former Yugoslavia, nor has it functioned effectively in places such as Benin, Liberia and Burundi. Consequently, the sustainability of emergency operations continues to be one of UNHCR's biggest staffing problems. Clearly the progress made in developing longer-term arrangements has not been commensurate with the advances made in other areas.

(293) Perhaps the only real solution to this problem is for UNHCR to move from simply staffing vital functions to building a stable group of personnel, both at headquarters and in the field, whose primary function is to serve in emergency operations. The biggest step to take in establishing such an arrangement is a recognition of the need to build some 'fat' into the organization. If UNHCR is to respond to unexpected situations in the same manner as national military forces and emergency services, then it must develop some reserve capacity.

(294) UNHCR continues to make progress in a number of external staffing activities. Arrangements similar to those worked out with Denmark and Norway have been discussed with Britain and the United States. Governments, have also been asked to place personnel on UNHCR's emergency staffing roster. Among the ideas being discussed is that of paying retainers to external staff whose services will be required at very short notice.

(295) UNHCR deserves credit for deploying a small team of its best staff to establish and organize the operation at the outset, an approach which was partially responsible for the organization being able to take a clear lead in mounting convoy and airlift operations. However, as one staff member who arrived in the field at the beginning of the emergency pointed out, UNHCR should not forget the rule that if it takes one person to run something, it will take three to set it up. In too many instances UNHCR has had a tendency to do just the reverse and use one person to establish the operation, and three to run it.


(296) Greater emphasis must also be given to the creation of emergency teams. People who work together in emergencies know one another's strengths and weaknesses and do not need to spend a great deal of time defining roles and responsibilities. In many situations, a team of five experienced staff members can achieve more than 20 people who do not know UNHCR and who are unfamiliar with each other.

(297) In a large operation such as former Yugoslavia, a Representative or Special Envoy is needed to lead the UNHCR team, to coordinate activities, develop policies, clarify objectives and to perform diplomatic duties. In addition, the organization requires a senior staff member with highly developed management and operational skills and another manager with expertise in the administrative, financial and personnel functions. In most situations a purchasing officer will also be required. With these four people in place from the start, operations would be established and managed far more effectively. To make the Representative or Special Envoy responsible for operations and administration is simply not realistic.



(298) Without making a decision to work in a war zone, UNHCR's efforts to aid victims of the conflict drew it into a situation where staff were exposed to dangers far exceeding those encountered in past operations. Efforts have been made to improve staff security, but the lack of organizational experience in such situations has meant that staff have had little guidance or training. Furthermore, the absence of basic security equipment combined with an operational climate of risk-taking, led to staff assuming personal risks on a daily basis that exceeded the risks which military forces supporting them were willing to assume.

(299) UNHCR has often carried out operations in dangerous regions and during civil war situations, such as, for example, Angola, Lebanon, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zaire. UNHCR has never, however, operated in the midst of such an intense and sustained conflict.

(300) Security risks increased gradually. When the first relief convoys destined for Bosnia and Herzegovina were blocked in March 1992, there was a great deal of concern as to whether staff lives were being put at risk. However, as UNHCR became increasingly committed in the rapidly expanding and relatively ad hoc operation, time after time the vaguely defined limits of acceptable risks were extended.

(301) A year after the massive assistance programme began, staff in Bosnia and Herzegovina found themselves working in an environment characterised by extreme levels of lawlessness and random violence that included sniper fire and shelling. Military forces and UN staff had often become indistinguishable to combatants, and UN staff were the target of threats and deliberate attacks.

(302) In dealing with unruly factions in a combat zone, it is unavoidable that staff were exposed to a high level of danger. Most UNHCR staff became resigned to the dangers of working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and believed the level of risk was manageable if they were cautious. Staff frequently point out, however, that their assessment of risk was essentially based on what had not yet happened.

(303) The level of risk varied greatly according to staff functions. Nevertheless, an overall comparison of casualty rates for UNHCR staff and UN soldiers in former Yugoslavia indicates that the probability of being a war casualty was eleven times higher for a UNHCR staff member. UNHCR convoy drivers were repeatedly exposed to the greatest dangers and consequently were the most frequent casualties.


(304) UNHCR was not able to define an acceptable limit to staff risk, nor was the organization able to take a decision that would draw a line at any point. Nevertheless, as the situation evolved, UNHCR personnel found themselves becoming more accustomed to the violence and assuming ever increasing risks.

(305) To some extent risks may have been increased by the massive presence of the international media. With the media covering the situation so closely, staff sometimes felt they must be seen responding to needs, even if this implied taking substantial personal risks.

(306) At the outset of the operation, staff took the traditional view that military escorts would be perceived as an effort to force aid in, and hence a provocation that would endanger convoy staff. Consequently, many staff initially felt that militarized convoys would exceed an acceptable security limit.

(307) As the operation progressed, previously unacceptable levels of staff risks were quickly passed. At the outset, UNHCR indicated that it would cease operations when staff were targeted. When staff were subsequently targeted, this previously stated limit was ignored. Flak jackets were introduced and soon replaced with bullet-proof vests and helmets. Later, armoured vehicles, gas masks and rubber suits for protection against chlorine gas were all provided as part of a rapid escalation of tolerance levels.


(308) Staff were willing to take the risks for many reasons. Most aid workers developed a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to the people they were serving and wanted to do all they humanly could to save lives. In most cases, staff choose to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a combination of reasons which they often describe in terms such as: "the opportunity of working inside history-making events"; "the excitement of being involved in a thrilling operation"; and "learning about yourself as you are pushed to your personal limits. " Also mentioned with some frequency was the interest in longer-term employment and the fear of losing their job if they were not willing to work in conflict areas.


(309) Without either personal or organizational experience of such situations, UNHCR was slow to develop the required security measures. Particularly during the early phases of the operation, many staff showed little commitment to security practices. The climate was one of heroism and risk-taking. According to several staff, there was a sense that "you could make a name for yourself" or "get a promotion by going to dangerous places".

(310) Staff attitudes towards security in some offices were often overly influenced by the personalized attitudes of the individuals in charge and the climate they created. Risk-takers were viewed as courageous, while staff more concerned about security were derided for their timidity or cowardice. The sense that staff might be putting other colleagues at risk, particularly local personnel who would follow regardless of the dangers, was often not nearly as strong as the sense of setting an example of bravery. Fortunately, attitudes toward security evolved and improved as staff began to relate the situation risks to their potential achievements and became more concerned about their well-being.

(311) New staff members, often in their twenties, were placed at the centre of the action, overburdened and often overwhelmed with responsibilities. In many cases they were insecure about their role and lacked both the training or guidance to make decisions on very serious security issues. In the few instances where security training was provided, it took place many months after it was initially requested. Such a delay is understandable for normal training requirements but inexcusably slow for a pressing security need, leading most staff to characterize the situation as amateurish.

(312) New staff working in Bosnia and Herzegovina had difficulty understanding why training had been organized so slowly and was so limited. Many point out the particular need for elementary briefings on issues such as: convoy organization; mine awareness and recognition; hostage-taking; hijacking; sniper fire and shelling. Each of these dangers was part of the normal work experience for staff assigned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(313) The laxness concerning staff evacuation plans typified the security environment. Such plans were developed belatedly. In many instances staff believed they were too busy to develop plans, and in other cases questioned the value of planning. Furthermore, responsibility for security evacuation was never clearly defined and was left to the judgement of new staff members in charge of field offices.


(314) Staff were essentially told they were responsible for making their own decisions about security, guidance that was viewed by many as an abdication of organizational responsibility. It is quite evident and understandable that staff need criteria regarding acceptable risk. Certainly UNHCR employees must make basic decisions for themselves, but these decisions must be informed and guided. In many situations, staff are simply not in a position to judge security conditions by themselves. One cannot expect inexperienced personnel, parachuted into an unfamiliar country, to judge the security situation in a quiet town where there is no hint that troops are moving in their direction.

(315) UNHCR should take overall responsibility for determining when conditions are too hazardous for the organization to operate. On a more local level, field offices must have the right to make security decisions when they believe that they are confronted with an unacceptable level of risk. Decisions to remain should not, however, be binding on individual staff members. No UNHCR employee should be obliged to go to or remain in a situation when they themselves deem that it is too dangerous to stay.

(316) Field office decisions concerning evacuation should be made by a designated group rather than being left to one person, for whom such decisions can be an horrific responsibility. A group can better assess and weigh the various security dangers involved in a situation, which generally involves a number of complex considerations.


(317) The slowness with which protective equipment arrived seriously exacerbated security problems. The protective gear and communication equipment required for working in a war zone did not arrive until six months to a year after it was required. Despite the fact that people had been working in dangerous areas since mid-1992, some offices only began receiving such basic equipment as flak jackets and helmets six months later. Armoured vehicles, satellite phones and other communication gear essential for security did not arrive or were not fully operational until almost a year after they were needed.

(318) The absence of equipment greatly contributed to the risks that were taken. For example, many UNHCR personnel worked for months where there was constant sniping without even a flak jacket. Staff often noted that although they were willing to take risks, they believed it was the organization's responsibility to support them to the extent possible in such conditions UNHCR employees were often annoyed that other agencies appeared much better equipped. ICRC in particular always seemed to have more appropriate communications equipment.

(319) Security equipment was not without its own problems. Such resources are extremely costly and frequently lost or stolen. At road blocks, staff often found that security equipment was considered to be military equipment. In addition there have often been debates as to whether such equipment would lead UNHCR personnel to take additional and perhaps unnecessary risks.


(320) Clearly UNHCR was simply not prepared at the outset to work in a war zone, either psychologically or in more practical terms. Even after the organization had committed itself to working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it seemed slow to fully conceive the security requirements of the situation. It is now evident that one cannot stay in such operations without significant security support, and simply asking how many flak jackets an office needs and then recording the distribution, falls far short of the professional security support, training, guidance, and equipment that is required in such situations.

(321) Unlike the military or ICRC, UNHCR does not have the Principles or continually developing experience to prepare it for work in a war zone. Both ICRC and, of course, the military have professional approaches and working methods developed for conflict zones. ICRC, for example, follows strict procedures. Once its principles are transgressed, the organizations withdraws.

(322) Many people both inside and outside of UNHCR do not think that UNHCR is the right organization to be providing humanitarian assistance in a war zone, and offer a number of arguments in support of their position. They point out that it goes beyond UNHCR's know-how and experience and is part of ICRC's, not UNHCR's, mandate. Many believe that UNHCR is by nature quick and flexible, but its staff are not particularly disciplined in following procedures, a significant failing when working in conflict zones.


(323) Many staff suggest that if UNHCR chooses to operate in war-affected zones, it will have to be more consistent or risk being perceived as merely an all purpose relief tool of the donors. Critics point out, for example, that if UNHCR is going to be giving assistance to war affected populations in former Yugoslavia, why should it not assist victims of conflict in other areas such as Angola..

(324) Many observers have questioned whether civilians should be involved in war situations for which they are neither equipped nor trained. In the past it was often suggested that when there is no clear separation between relief workers and military personnel, UNHCR has crossed an acceptable limit. A more recent view holds that in such situations, UNHCR staff should work as closely as possible with peace keeping forces in order to avail themselves of the protection only the military can provide.

(325) One frequently expressed opinion is that the military should take the lead when relief is provided in a war zone, in view of both their expertise and equipment, and their ability to defend themselves. Many staff suggest that as security deteriorates, passing through carefully defined levels, the humanitarian and military components of an operation should have a handover plan for the military to assume various aspects of relief.

(326) UNHCR should recognise that at the outset of an operation, when it will often be possible to hand over responsibilities to another organization, its staff will generally not want to give up the operation. The early period of an operation generally brings institutional attention and support that no-one is prepared to forgo, as was the case at the outset of the Sarajevo airlift in 1992. However, after a relief operation is well established, it will be more difficult to find institutions or military contingents willing to assume it.

(327) Many personnel consider that UNHCR became to some extent trapped in the operation. They believe that as the operation progressed, UNHCR was no longer in a position to decide whether its activities should be continued. This belief gained widespread acceptance following the Secretary-General's insistence that he was in charge in early 1993, when UNHCR tried to temporarily suspend part of the operation.

(328) There is a sense of cynicism among many relief workers that they are expected to take risks that national military contingents are not eager to take. Many relief workers see civilian convoy drivers, for example, being used in a high-risk situation for which they are neither equipped nor trained, in part because their death would carry much less weight than the death of a member of a military contingent, where casualties represent a country's loss rather than a UN loss.

(329) Staff recognise that UNHCR's presence was linked to Security Council decisions and was the raison d'être for the presence of UN military forces. If humanitarian operations were suspended, the international community's entire approach to the situation would have had to be rethought. Certainly there would have been greater pressure on Western governments to intervene, something neither they nor all members of the Security Council wanted or could agree on.


(330) Staff security is increasingly becoming an organization-wide issue. In a December 1993 paper, UNHCR's Co-ordinator for the Horn of Africa pointed out that "security for our staff in Somalia, Kenya or Ethiopia has reached its lowest level ever. Daily, staff members are exposed to violence and intimidation to such an extent that the threshold in guaranteeing minimum security has long passed. How far can we push our staff to operate under these conditions? When and how do we say enough is enough and conclude that we can no longer operate, or has it now become an acceptable criteria to operate under these conditions?"

(331) A number of improvements can and should be made to prepare and equip staff for situations where security problems exist. It is doubtful, however, that UNHCR can develop the quasi-military capacity required to work in areas of active conflict.

(332) UNHCR has an obligation to attempt to meet humanitarian needs of people who are of concern to the organization, but UNHCR should not assume direct responsibility to undertake activities for which other organizations (e.g. UN military forces or ICRC) are much better suited by virtue of their mandate, experience, training and resources.


(333) UNHCR should define the security conditions in which it is prepared to ask staff to work, as well as develop possible arrangements for support and handover. Before committing itself to work in situations of internal displacement and conflict, UNHCR should clearly explain to donor states as well as to the political and military components of the UN system, the limits of its capabilities and involvement.

(334) If UNHCR intends to work along side peace-keeping forces it may have to establish a corps of personnel - or even a new organizational component - composed of staff with the training, experience and equipment needed to deliver humanitarian aid in conflict areas. It is clear, however, that the type of approach to risk and security that evolved in former Yugoslavia should not be repeated.



(335) With some 5000 journalists accredited to former Yugoslavia, it was perhaps inevitable that UNHCR would be much more in the public eye than ever before. Undoubtedly, however, much of this attention was due to UNHCR's efforts to cultivate and work closely with the media. Consequently, media relations were perhaps the most successful and most professionally handled in UNHCR's history. Although replicating this success elsewhere would be difficult, UNHCR's information activities provide important lessons for future operations.

(336) Successful media relations brought a number of important benefits. In addition to increasing public awareness of UNHCR in general and strengthening governments' support of the organization, the media was used to:

  • communicate issues and mobilize international action;
  • secure political and financial support;
  • assert the neutrality of humanitarian action in order to protect staff and facilitate access;
  • denounce abuses in an effort to protect and prevent; and,
  • gather and disseminate information.

(337) From the outset, UNHCR was able to formulate and present a clear message regarding its aims. The extent to which this message was consistent with the media's account of the war and its efforts to focus on the humanitarian implications of the conflict greatly facilitated media activities. Consequently, public information efforts in former Yugoslavia enjoyed a much greater compliance of purpose than in many UNHCR operations where the 'UN relief bureaucracy' has been portrayed as inefficient and indifferent.

(338) Media relations efforts were greatly helped by the situation's particular interest to the European and North American public. Western audiences could easily identify with victims, who looked like them and lived in a similar manner. To many people, the conflict recalled memories of the second world war and served as an unsettling reminder that conflict and suffering were not as far away as they had imagined.

(339) The war and the hardship it caused provided the news media with highly marketable themes, including for example, massive bloodshed, sexual violence, dramatic rescues, and the innocent victims of easily identifiable villains. Television in particular was keen to show relief convoys that were blocked or harassed, as well as how normal people were coping and getting on with their lives in a war situation.


(340) Much of the credit must be given to the talents of public information-minded staff who were able to successfully exploit a UNHCR policy of media openness that has been evolving in recent years. Through their commitment, staff were able to build press confidence. The media particularly appreciated the Special Envoy who was often flamboyant and sometimes emotional but always extremely effective. In addition, the operation greatly benefited from having four international public information officers assigned to the operation in former Yugoslavia as well as professional news persons in charge of the organization's media activities in Geneva.

(341) UNHCR effectively used a variety of approaches and information material. Staff attempted to be the most credible source of accurate, reliable and timely information and analysis. In briefings, the press was dealt with in an open and supportive manner. In a sense, journalists were made to feel like accomplices or allies in the humanitarian operation.

(342) A great deal of effort was spent cultivating the media. Staff tried to make themselves available at any time, going out of their way to meet journalists and provide them with personalized attention. Rather than sending journalists press releases, interviews and press conferences were organized.

(343) Journalists were provided with many other forms of support. UNHCR helped them cross frontlines, in an effort to bring them to areas which UNHCR wanted covered and denounced. In addition, staff tried to identify potentially good stones in order to guide the media. To help communicate the operation on television, 12 to 15-second sound bites were prepared and presented by field staff with media experience.

(344) An effort was made to create a media relations programme that was transparent and forward looking. Staff tried to keep the press informed, but also tried to stay one step ahead by anticipating major issues or stories. Whenever possible, journalists were alerted to problems before the operation was criticized. Staff, and in particular the Special Envoy, were able to successfully avoid being perceived as UN bureaucrats. The Special Envoy was extremely skilled at being critical and yet knowing precisely how far he could go in his criticism.


(345) One of the most noteworthy and successful aspects of public information efforts was the extensive use of non-traditional spokespersons. Staff throughout the operation were given the liberty of speaking with the media on subjects they knew. Relief workers were instructed to be professional, stick to facts and avoid political analysis.

(346) To assist staff in speaking to the media, public information staff in the operation tried to provide guidance to all personnel regarding how to respond to questions. In addition, personnel throughout the operation were periodically provided with the questions the Special Envoy was being asked along with his responses, as well as notes on what UNHCR was communicating to the press.

(347) The most significant and unanticipated consequence of using non-traditional spokespersons was the creation of heroes by the media. Journalists often focused their attention on a few field staff, who because of their nationality, charisma, colourful quotes or partisan statements, were frequently interviewed for radio or television. Although some staff were concerned that others performing similar work were not afforded due recognition, the 'heroes' played an effective role in personalising the institution and in some cases galvanizing support for the operation.


(348) Although public information staff essentially relied on interviews, they also successfully used information bulletins and briefings, press releases and briefing kits. One of the operation's most successful tools were the information bulletins which were, in their content and style of presentation, essentially a combination of the Gulf bulletin and weekly UNDRO situation reports. In order to be interesting, the bulletins combined a very brief narrative summary of recent developments, with many pages of tables, maps and graphs providing the type of information needed by the media.

(349) Perhaps the most significant disadvantage to the external relations effort was the amount of time the operation's management and its staff had to invest speaking to journalists. The more successful their public information efforts were, the more time journalists sought.


(350) Although UNHCR as an institution benefited immensely from the visibility gained through the operation, the attention clearly diminished UNHCR's customary independence and to some extent entangled the organization in the operation in ways UNHCR could never have foreseen.

(351) At an early stage of the operation, UNHCR was undoubtedly institutionally reluctant to hand over the relief programme to military forces in view of the media attention UNHCR was attracting. Later, however, when UNHCR tried to suspend its operations, the organization found itself to some extent trapped.

(352) Staff learned how to lead the operation through the media. They consciously or unconsciously set goals and deadlines through the media by simply saying that UNHCR would attempt a certain course of action and then tried to live up to their press statements. For example, staff would frequently notify the press that if food were not delivered to an area in five days, people would go hungry, thus bringing pressure upon UNHCR to act.

(353) Particularly during the early stages of the operation, there was a sense among field staff that they were able to pressure and influence Headquarters through the media. Staff were perceived as building up expectations within the media which field staff would in turn use to gain support from Headquarters by saying they were in danger of losing their credibility.

(354) The degree to which UNHCR directed the media, and conversely the extent to which the media drove UNHCR, was often debated. There is certainly ample evidence that both types of influence existed. Information was shared on a give and take basis, and a close collaborative relationship was established.

(355) UNHCR, for example, used the media to help gain access to victims. In other instances, UNHCR was forced to devote a disproportionate amount of resources to a small number of persons who had captured the media's attention. In the final analysis, however, UNHCR spent only a modest percentage of its time focusing on areas or persons as a consequence of media attention.


(356) With the benefit of the experience and confidence gained in former Yugoslavia, UNHCR should now begin to consider how it can coordinate its public information with other agencies, NGOs and the military, as well as how it can support others while serving as a lead agency. A broader media relations approach would have strengthened UNHCR's lead agency role and reduced the resentment of other UN agencies and NGOs, who perceived media attention and credit as being given solely to UNHCR.

(357) Improving media coordination and support to other agencies in former Yugoslavia would have required staff to curb the natural inclination to promote only UNHCR's operations. To some extent this was, however, unavoidable. In most cases, the activities of other UN organizations were too limited to report on, and they and the NGOs were not forthcoming about their programmes.


(358) With the expertise UNHCR has developed, considerably greater efforts could be devoted to cultivating the local media in future operations. Although UNHCR was able to obtain local media coverage from time to time, national media strategies were never systematically developed, nor was coverage sought as frequently as would have been desirable. Consequently, the potential of the local media was left largely untapped.

(359) When opportunities arose, UNHCR tried to explain the neutral and non-political nature of its operation, and the extent to which it was assisting victims of all sides. In general, however, securing local coverage was often difficult, time-consuming and often not particularly successful. In view of the many other demands on staff time, it was perhaps easy to conclude that no publicity was preferable to bad publicity.

(360) It is clear, however, that the educational role played by the local media deserves more attention. Better and greater use of local staff and media resources to develop a national campaign could help make local populations aware of UNHCR's role and efforts on their behalf. In situations where the national media are controlled by the authorities, UNHCR may be obliged to pay for media time.


(361) The operation greatly expanded the organization's awareness of the media's potential and provided lessons and ideas for UNHCR programmes elsewhere. It should be understood, however, that the unusual level of media interest and the liberty which UNHCR had in expressing its views will make it difficult for the organization to replicate the same type and degree of media coverage elsewhere. In most countries, it would be difficult to both work in, and report from, the country of origin without being much more sensitive to the concerns of the host government.