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"The Interface between Peace-keeping and Humanitarian Action" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata at the International Colloquium on New Dimensions of Peace-keeping, at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, 11 March 1994

Speeches and statements

"The Interface between Peace-keeping and Humanitarian Action" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata at the International Colloquium on New Dimensions of Peace-keeping, at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, 11 March 1994

11 March 1994

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today on the interface between humanitarian action and peace-keeping.

Some traditional peace-keeping operations in the past have contained humanitarian elements, notably the Congo. But, by and large, during the Cold War political and humanitarian actions were seen as distinctly separate, however untenable or unreal that division might have been. With the proliferation of internal conflicts and humanitarian crises in the post-Cold War world, as well as a much greater willingness on the part of the international community to address them, that relationship has undergone a metamorphosis.

In my presentation I would like to study the implications of this complex relationship from the perspective of a humanitarian organization. I will analyze some specific cases to illustrate the limits and prospects of cooperation between the humanitarian and the politico-military components of the United Nations. Finally, I would like to draw some conclusions on how to improve that cooperation, while safeguarding the specificity, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action.

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

The end of the Cold War has unleashed, and in some cases intensified, internal conflicts, particularly ethnic ones, on a scale rarely seen before. Massive population displacement is a direct consequence, and sometimes, as in former Yugoslavia and Georgia, the very objective of the conflict. In the past two years, UNHCR has had to respond to several major humanitarian emergencies, at least three of them affecting over a million persons. In April 1991, 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran or the Turkish border. UNHCR is assisting over a million Somali refugees in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. In former Yugoslavia, we are protecting and assisting over 1.5 million refugees in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro as well as almost 3 million displaced and affected population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last November, in the space of one fortnight, some 600,000 persons fled ethnic killings in Burundi to seek refuge in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire.

In addition to almost 20 million refugees and other persons assisted by UNHCR, there is probably an equal, if not greater, number of internally displaced persons in refugee-like conditions. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for this group of persons, at the request of the Secretary-General we are protecting and assisting the internally displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka. Our action on behalf of the internally displaced has been encouraged and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, particularly when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem.

UNHCR's growing involvement with the internally displaced persons is both a response to the enormous humanitarian needs of the persons and an integral part of UNHCR's three-fold strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions. We should make every effort to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are then, we must meet their humanitarian needs and promote conditions which will allow them to return home in safety and dignity. In this way, UNHCR is complementing its efforts to secure asylum abroad with prevention and solution-oriented activities inside the country of origin of refugees and displaced persons.

Prevention and solution, and particularly our work with the internally displaced, are drawing us more directly into situations of internal conflict, and thus bringing us closer to the UN's own efforts to prevent and address threats posed to international peace and security by such situations.

Action by the Security Council to resolve internal conflicts, enforce peace or implement peace settlements can no longer ignore coerced population movements. Security Council resolution 688 found the exodus of 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds in April 1991 to be a major threat to international peace and security. Whether in Namibia or Nicaragua, Cambodia or Mozambique, Rwanda, Liberia or Georgia, Security Council action has consistently recognised the importance of resolving the humanitarian problem, as part of the effort to promote reconciliation and reach a political settlement. Indeed, in the case of former Yugoslavia and Somalia, the Security Council has moved even further, justifying political and military action for humanitarian purposes.

UNHCR welcomes the greater interest of the political arms of the UN in humanitarian problems. For UNHCR, close cooperation with UN's political initiatives is essential in terms of solving the refugee problem or preventing it from arising. We recognise that humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action, it can help to create the environment conducive to political negotiations. At the same time however, I am acutely conscious of the risks of politicising humanitarian mandates. Political and humanitarian objectives are not necessarily coincidental. Repatriation of refugees may be politically desirable but unsafe. Evacuation of civilian population may meet humanitarian needs but not be politically acceptable.

In analysing the interface between peace-keeping and humanitarian action, a number of categories can be discerned. I would like to discuss three different categories. The first is one in which the peace-keeping and the humanitarian form major components of an overall political framework. The case of UNTAC in Cambodia and ONUMOZ in Mozambique come to mind.

UNTAC represents a well planned and structured set-up among the different components, including the military and the humanitarian. The key to success was the Paris Peace Agreement, which comprehensively addressed humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems. UNHCR, which was mandated to repatriate 370,000 Cambodian refugees, could clearly define its autonomy, neutrality and impartiality under the UNTAC umbrella. It was able to maintain its credibility and confidence with all the parties, including the Khmer Rouge in the course of the repatriation, even at times when UNTAC's own relations with the Khmer Rouge was strained.

Mozambique, from where I have just returned, also represents a comprehensive peace implementation scheme by the U.N.I was encouraged by the progress on the peace process, particularly the strong political commitment of the parties to the agreement. From UNHCR's point of view it is a more complex operation than Cambodia, involving repatriation from six countries to Mozambique of about 1.5 million refugees. About forty per cent of them have returned from the neighbouring countries to their villages of origin where UNHCR is establishing micro-projects for reintegration. While most of the returns from Malawi are spontaneous, UNHCR is organising return movements from Swaziland by train, from Zambia and Zimbabwe by bus, from Tanzania by boat and from South Africa through the Kruger National Park!The security conditions created by ONUMOZ will determine the pace of return, as will the ability of ONUMOZ to de-mine the access roads to the returnee areas and to demarcate the mined areas. I hope that ONUMOZ, like UNTAC, will demonstrate the positive interface between peace-keeping and humanitarian action.

The second type relates to peace-keeping and humanitarian operations in on-going conflict situations. UN involvement in former Yugoslavia is the case in point. UNHCR's operation in former Yugoslavia predates the deployment of UNPROFOR. It started in November 1991, following a request from the then Yugoslav government and the UN Secretary-General to protect and assist persons displaced by the war in Croatia. Following the independence of Croatia, UNHCR was involved not only in helping internally displaced persons but also refugees who crossed the newly-formed borders. In spring 1992, when the fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, UNHCR found itself working for the first time in the midst of raging war and not only for refugees and displaced persons, but also the besieged population.

UNHCR's close collaboration with UNPROFOR started when Security Council resolution 764 of 29 June 1992 asked UNPROFOR to ensure the security and functioning of Sarajevo airport in order to enable UNHCR to provide assistance to those in need. Furthermore, Security Council resolution 776 of 14 September 1992 authorised the despatch of some 7,000 troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to protect and support humanitarian activities. Security Council resolutions 819 and 824 added a further mandate to UNPROFOR to protect "safe areas", areas in which Muslim civilians are under siege by the Bosnian Serb forces.

UNPROFOR also supports humanitarian activities through demining, repair of roads, bridges and utilities, and the running of convoys in some areas. Outside the UNPROFOR structure, UNHCR has benefited from seconded military staff for telecommunications and logistics. UNHCR's airlift to Sarajevo, which now exceeds that to Berlin in 1948, is implemented by air force staff from a number of contributing countries working under UNHCR's authority and control. The airdrop operation is also coordinated with UNHCR and has been a lifeline for many besieged cities.

In these various ways, UNHCR's humanitarian activities have become closely entwined with the military, strengthening our humanitarian capacity but also raising new questions.

Humanitarian access has continued to be based on negotiations with the parties, the military escorts being more of a deterrent, rather than active protection. In the absence of a cease-fire, UNHCR and UNPROFOR have devoted much time and effort to gain assurances for access, very often to have them broken as soon as our convoys began rolling, either because of fighting or deliberate manipulation by the parties. The level of risk has been high, with 11 UNHCR and other humanitarian staff having lost their lives in the past two years.

On the other hand, the possibility of active military intervention has complicated the UN efforts. The non-involvement of UNPROFOR in the combat has allowed the UN to maintain its impartiality and neutrality. If UN peace-keeping forces were to engage in offensive action, it would no longer be possible to maintain the non-political and impartial base of the UNHCR's humanitarian activities, however serious the needs of the victims might be.

I hope that recent, more positive developments will finally mark a turning point, and lead in the near future to improved access and freedom of movement in Sarajevo and at least some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I shall be travelling to former Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo and Tuzla, next week to assess the situation.

In contrast to Bosnia, in Somalia the U.N. has authorised and used force for humanitarian purposes. The move to justify enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was based on the argument that no government existed in Somalia that could request and allow the use of force, and that the situation in the country should be considered a threat to regional peace and security. Thus, Somalia was not a case of intervention against the will of a government but of intervention in the absence of a government.

The Somalia experience highlighted both the difficulties of providing humanitarian action in the midst of total anarchy as well as the limits of humanitarian action when Chapter VII action is used. The use of force against one party inevitably affects the perceived impartiality and neutrality of the UN, and by implication also of UN humanitarian organisations associated with the operation. It will take some time to restore the confidence of the Somali people towards the UN.

I should mention that UNHCR does not have a large operation in Somalia. We are, however, assisting one million refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. Furthermore, we have since 1992 engaged in a cross-border operation from northern Kenya into Somalia to provide assistance to those who might otherwise feel compelled to leave Somalia.

The third type of interface is still somewhat inconclusive. The case in point is Tajikistan where the integrated efforts of the UN may have helped to prevent the escalation of the crisis, although the situation is still fragile. The civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 displaced over half a million persons and forced another 60,000 to flee to northern Afghanistan. Right from the beginning, UNHCR supported an integrated approach to address the political and humanitarian aspects simultaneously. We participated in the "good offices" mission sent by the Secretary-General in November 1992, and sent in our emergency team in December. It was soon followed by the appointment of the Secretary-General's Special Representative and the deployment of the UN military observers. I believe the joint efforts of all three components helped to create the climate of confidence which in turn encouraged most of the displaced and refugees to return home. Today, our main task is to monitor their safety and human rights situation. All parties in Tajikistan and the neighbouring countries have given us their full cooperation in the realisation that the humanitarian objective of early return of the refugees and the displaced is crucial for promoting the political objectives of national reconciliation and regional stability. A carefully balanced combination of the humanitarian, political and military components, as in Tajikistan, may well be worth pursuing in some other situations.

Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia, Somalia and Tajikistan offer several important lessons.

  • first: autonomy, impartiality and neutrality are easier to maintain in peacekeeping operations where political objectives of the deployment are clear and accepted by the parties, as in Cambodia, Mozambique or traditional "consensual" peace-keeping. When political objectives are unclear and peace-keeping is launched in the midst of a conflict, as in Somalia or former Yugoslavia, tensions can and do arise between the political, military and humanitarian components.
  • second: whatever the type of operation, it is essential for the humanitarian organisations to maintain the strictly non-political, neutral and impartial nature of their mandates. The provision of humanitarian assistance should not and must not become linked to progress in political negotiations, or to other political objectives. The de-linking must not only be done, it must be perceived to be done.
  • third: the neutral and impartial image of humanitarian action can be affected in the context of Chapter VII operations using force, which must by definition be directed against one or more parties. When the UN decides to use military force against a party to the conflict, it may become necessary for humanitarian organisations to distance themselves, if they are to effectively discharge their mandates.
  • fourth: the humanitarian mandate must be clearly understood by all. Humanitarian action is not just about providing relief. It is primarily about protecting people and ensuring the basic human rights and security of the victims on all sides of a conflict.
  • fifth: closer consultation and coordination are essential between the peace-keeping and humanitarian components at every phase and level. This is particularly so when the two comprise the overall UN effort to achieve peace and security. Coordination is best achieved when the objectives of the particular operation, and the roles and responsibilities of each component of the operation are set out clearly, the leadership is defined and structures are created to allow open communication among the various components.
  • sixth: military resources and expertise are a useful means to accelerate and augment the emergency response capacity of humanitarian organisations. However, military resources for humanitarian purposes should be under civilian command and control.
  • seventh: the humanitarian and military actors need to better understand their respective mandates and modes of operation, their concerns and constraints. Thus, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations have begun a dialogue with the UN Peace-keeping Department to develop operational guidelines and training courses for their staff to improve cooperation and coordination.

Finally, let me say, as inter-ethnic conflicts spread against a background of declining state power, and the media exposes the human suffering, the public pressure for humanitarian action will increase. However, the call for humanitarian action is unlikely to be accompanied by the necessary political will or action to resolve the conflict. The euphoria which greeted the end of the Cold War has been overtaken by a sober reassessment of the new geopolitical realities. In such situations there is a risk that humanitarian action could become a camouflage for political inaction. It could lead to prolonged operations, draining our limited resources, which, unlike peace-keeping, are almost entirely based on voluntary contributions.

Former Yugoslavia has starkly exposed the limits of humanitarian action in the absence of effective political will to address the conflict and the horrendous violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Without peace, humanitarian assistance alone cannot avert disaster. UN peace-keeping and humanitarian activities are of vital importance, but if peace is not forthcoming, they can themselves become hostages of war. There is no other substitute for the political will to find a political solution. Such political commitment is essential if peace-keeping and humanitarian action are to remain effective.