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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Washington Conference on Humanitarian Demining, Washington, D.C., 20 May 1998

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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Washington Conference on Humanitarian Demining, Washington, D.C., 20 May 1998

20 May 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Refugees who return home meet many obstacles on their way - bad roads, bureaucratic hurdles, occupied houses, and sometimes even hostile neighbours. No threat, however, is more insidious and deadly for them than mines. In almost every place to which refugees return - but also in many areas hosting refugees - millions of mines continue to indiscriminately kill and hurt men, women and children. When I visit refugee camps, or towns and villages where refugees have returned - from Bosnia to Angola, from Cambodia to Afghanistan - I am struck by the disproportionate number of people, and especially children, who walk around in crutches, their limbs maimed for life by a landmine they have walked on. Sad to say, they are luckier than many of their friends and relatives, who have lost their lives - very often as they were heading back home full of hope, after years of exile.

Eliminating the threat of landmines is one of the highest priorities for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While conflicts in the past 20 years have had different causes, in almost all of them this small, low cost weaponry has been used, leaving a trail of death and permanent disability in its wake. Indeed, as UNHCR was attempting to clear a safe path for Afghans and Cambodians to return home, in the early 90s, it may have helped invent "humanitarian demining", together with the International Committee of the Red Cross and many NGOs working with refugees and returnees. In 1995, I announced that my Office would boycott companies that manufacture or sell anti-personnel mines. The following year, we awarded the Nansen Medal - the most valued distinction in the refugee cause - to Handicap International, an NGO which has been in the forefront of the fight against mines, and in the assistance to mine victims. We actively support the signing of an international agreement to ban the manufacture, sale or use of these weapons.

UNHCR has been advocating and supporting a total ban on the use of anti-personnel landmines for many years. As I said, we have a special interest in the fight against this deadly weapon. Mines force people to flee - in today's wars, which often occur between communities or ethnic groups - mines are planted not only to kill the enemy, but also to drive from their homes minority groups or civilians associated with the opposite side. Mines are planted around and across borders, to prevent people from reaching safe asylum. Mines are often a hindrance to the delivery of humanitarian assistance - sometimes because relief personnel and vehicles must cross mined areas, but in some instances, because humanitarian convoys are a direct target. And finally, mines inhibit the return of refugees and displaced persons. Figures compiled by the ICRC on mine victims treated in hospitals in Afghanistan show that returning refugees figure prominently among the victims.

My Office is not a demining agency. We do not have the expertise, nor the resources, to deal with this highly technical activity. In situations in which mines pose a direct threat to refugees and returnees, however, we have promoted our own programmes, including awareness, training, detection, and actual demining. The most important such project has been recently launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Experts estimate that there are over 30,000 mined zones in this country. They believe that over three million mines were laid during four years of conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Mines are indeed a serious obstacle to the return of over 1.8 million people who still live away from their homes in this region, two and a half years after the signature of the Dayton and Erdut Peace Accords.

I visited one training site last month, in Banja Luka, and participated in a landmine clearance demonstration. My Office has established six demining teams to operate under an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme and in coordination with the local Mine Action Centre. 240 deminers have already been trained and put to work - we firmly believe that developing local expertise in dealing with mines is absolutely essential. Equipment has been purchased and is now available. This programme will of course work in close coordination with other demining activities in the region - but it will focus specifically on areas of refugee return. This is very important. In this context, I am pleased to note that one session of this Conference will deal with the crucial assessment phase - and I trust that the needs of refugees and returnees will be taken into due account, given their particular exposure to this deadly threat.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the fight against landmines is one of the great battles of our times. I am therefore pleased to be here today, and I am honoured to participate in the opening of this important Conference. Let me in particular congratulate the Government of the United States for organizing it, and for deciding to contribute to the search for solutions to the grave and lingering threat to humanity that landmines pose in so many countries. We all know and appreciate the humanitarian commitment of this nation and of the American people. Without key US support, my Office would not be able to help 23 million refugees, displaced persons and other people of concern worldwide. Let me now add that without US support, the fight against landmines will not be possible, and a key element in the protection and assistance we provide to refugees and returnees would be missing. I welcome this support, as - I am sure - will my colleagues in other UN agencies, with whom we closely coordinate demining activities.

As an example, my Office spent just over two million US dollars on the Bosnia demining programme in 1997. This is a relatively low price to pay for saving thousands of lives and making return home possible for tens of thousands of people. Unfortunately, similar, urgently needed activities cannot be carried out in other countries for lack of funds. We have experienced this problem ourselves with our demining activities in Angola. You will agree with me that this is not acceptable. People's lives have no difference in price. I hope and trust that this Conference will help keep the international community focused on the landmine issue. The hopes and expectations raised by the Ottawa Conference must be fulfilled. Under the leadership of the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations, my Office will continue to work with UN agencies, Governments, the ICRC, NGOs and other partners, in trying to eliminate the "hidden killers".

On behalf of all those refugees and returnees who - because of your efforts - will not be killed or maimed by a mine, I thank you and wish you well in your discussions.