Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 52nd Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 20 March 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 52nd Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 20 March 1996

20 March 1996

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honour to be addressing the Commission on Human Rights once again. Before I start, let me congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, and the Bureau on your election.

In addressing the fiftieth session of this Commission, two years ago, the brutal war in the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the conflicts and mass displacements in Somalia, Central Asia and the Caucasus compelled me to talk about human rights abuses as the cause of refugee movements. Last year, with the continued targeting of civilians in the Balkans and the insecurity in camps hosting Rwandan refugees, I focused on the need for operational mechanisms to protect vulnerable refugees and other displaced populations during ongoing crises.

This year, important developments in these two regions lead me to concentrate on the end of the displacement cycle: the repatriation of refugees and the return of internally displaced persons. In doing so, I would like to draw your attention to the dynamic inter - relationships which exists between respect for human rights; safe, lasting repatriation; and the overall objective of peace consolidation.

In Rwanda, progress towards normalization is real, though obviously fragile - as evidenced by the relatively slow pace of voluntary repatriation of those refugees who left the country in 1994. While 300,000 have repatriated under UNHCR's auspices over the past 18 months, this remains a modest figure, compared to the 1.7 million still living in camps in neighbouring countries of asylum. The regional Plan of Action adopted in Bujumbura last year provides a far-reaching framework for the commitments of the State of origin, States of asylum and the international community, including UNHCR, to create conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity. Whereas this is the only realistic option for the vast majority of the refugees, the efforts made by all parties have not yielded the expected results.

In the former Yugoslavia, the focus of UNHCR's largest-ever operation is shifting from providing relief and protection to the active search for solutions, as we have now moved from war to peace time. At last the time has come to help prepare the ground for the two million internally displaced persons and refugees to return home.

Mr. Chairman, the search for solutions to forced displacement is an integral part of my protection mandate. UNHCR is therefore actively engaged in activities in countries of actual or potential return aimed at making effective the fundamental human right of refugees to return to their own countries. They include the negotiation - often within tripartite frameworks involving countries of asylum, the country of origin and my Office - of amnesties and other guarantees on behalf of returning refugees. They also include, most importantly, monitoring the situation of returnees on the ground, for the dual purpose of preventing discrimination or victimization and of providing objective information upon which remaining refugees and displaced persons can base their decision to return.

Over recent years, we have been involved in a range of new initiatives to safeguard the human rights of returnees. Priority attention is of course given to the rights to life, liberty and security of the person, but we may find it necessary to monitor and strengthen the observance of other related rights, in order to facilitate full re-integration. In Tajikistan, UNHCR has helped train judges and prosecutors to further assure equality before the law of returnees, long-term residents and new settlers alike. In Angola, Mozambique and Guatemala, we are supporting educational rights by funding new and renovated schools and classrooms. In Laos and Cambodia, we are promoting economic rights through so-called "Quick Impact Projects": simple, small-scale, community-based projects to help war-affected groups mend the damage from conflict and to ease the financial burden of repatriation.

As these examples show, our efforts to monitor and improve the treatment of returnees have often led to easing tensions between different groups and to a better human rights environment for much larger communities. They are also intended to make a contribution to the development of national and local capacities to re-build war-torn societies in full respect for human rights and the rule of law. But I wish to emphasize that the bridge between repatriation and human rights is two-way. At the end of the day, our ability to voluntarily and safely return home the uprooted victims of conflict and persecution almost inevitably depends on the ability and willingness of the home State to assume the full array of its responsibilities vis-à-vis its own citizens.

Mr. Chairman, before I detail some of the daunting challenges involved in bringing durable solutions to the refugee problems of the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region, allow me to establish a crucial premise: namely, the central place which respect for human rights deserves in the process of post-conflict peace building, in all its aspects. Just as the return of refugees is not an end in itself, human rights standards and mechanisms should not be isolated from the overarching objectives of normalization and peace. Instead, they must be firmly built into each component of the complex mosaic which will sustain reconstruction and reconciliation. The humanitarian mandate which has been vested upon me to protect and assist the displaced victims of war and persecution would be meaninglesss if these same people were to become the victims of peace. In my mind, to achieve a humanitarian solution is not just to achieve a humane settlement: the task involves restoring people in their rights, their dignity and their autonomy as responsible citizens.

Perhaps the single most critical human rights test in the implementation of the peace accord for Bosnia and Herzegovina will relate to freedom of movement. The freedom to choose one's place of residence is obviously restricted, de facto if not de jure, in the aftermath of a ruthless armed conflict of which the very objective, for some parties, was ethnic division. The Dayton Accord affirms the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes, and the parties must be held to their commitments to implement this right by creating the necessary conditions for return to regions of origin. Looking at the recent exodus of ethnic Serbs from Sarajevo, I am concerned, however, that the political blockages still in place may prove to be at least as powerful as the road-blocks and front-lines which used to separate communities during the war.

Personal security is evidently of critical importance in the context of peaceful and dignified return. In this context, the amnesty adopted by the Bosnian Parliament in February, covering, among others, draft evaders and deserters, is a very welcome step.

One might draw a parallel with the pressing need, in Rwanda, to reactivate the so-called Screening Committees examining the various degrees of guilt and responsibility in acts linked to the genocide, and to release non-guilty persons. Such measures should help dispel the prevailing perception among refugees of lack of security from arbitrary arrest and detention. Lack of due process for want of an effective judiciary system is an aggravating factor.

In the former Yugoslavia, as in Rwanda, a sense of justice needs to be brought about in order to enhance the repatriation process and pave the way to national reconciliation. Individuals must be held accountable, at least for serious human rights violations which are defined as international crimes. The peculiar features of the 1994 exodus from Rwanda have created for UNHCR a tormenting dilemma: there are good reasons to believe that moral and material authors of the genocide are to be found among the refugees. This circumstance does not, of course, confer upon them any kind of immunity. On the contrary, for our repatriation efforts to retain credibility, the suspected perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice. States of asylum have an inescapable responsibility to comply with relevant Resolutions of the Security Council and to fully co - operate with the International Tribunal. Their taking resolute steps would go a long way towards breaking the bond of fear which continues to keep bona fide refugees, intimidated by their former leaders, from exploring the repatriation option.

On a different plane, the right to adequate housing, which we hope to see prominently placed on the agenda of the forthcoming Habitat II Conference, has powerful implications in the post-war reconstruction of Bosnia. The peace agreement contains several provisions for the restitution of property or the award of just compensation, as well as for the temporary accommodation of refugees and displaced persons. The effective adjudication of property claims will hopefully start as soon as possible, and compliance with restitution awards should be closely monitored. Meanwhile, UNHCR has gone ahead with the implementation of quick housing repair projects, but the international community is woefully slow in releasing the funds needed for long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction. In Rwanda, similar issues have arisen as a result of massive destruction of property during the 1994 events and the subsequent return of 700,000 refugees who had fled the country in earlier years.

Last in this non-exhaustive inventory of human rights challenges I would like to mention, with particular reference to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the right to vote and to be elected in free and fair elections. As we have seen in Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique, the establishment of democratic political institutions is vital to peaceful coexistence and to the restoration of responsible statehood. The linkages between the future holding of elections and the refugee return programme are equally strong. Successful elections, in which refugees in asylum countries must be able to participate, should undoubtedly give a boost to refugee repatriation. Lack of success, on the contrary, might have adverse consequences on the willingness of refugees to return.

Mr Chairman, in spite of its obvious and close interest, UNHCR does not have ready - made answers to these difficult questions. They point at the limits of humanitarian action in addressing and reversing the consequences of conflicts of this complexity and magnitude. Allow me, therefore, to seek the support of this Commission for a comprehensive approach to solutions, in which a sensible division of labour is strengthened by the consistent application of human rights standards.

We must bear in mind that, in any society recovering from violent conflict, the most important human rights players are the authorities of States whose residents have been forced to flee or have otherwise suffered from the conflict. Those States, not the international community, bear the ultimate responsibility for protecting the human rights of their populations. The establishment of the various human rights bodies foreseen under the Dayton Accord, for example, should be of major relevance to restoring confidence among the remaining minority populations in Bosnia. I salute the appointment of the Ombudsperson and look forward to co-operating closely with her Office. Local governments, civic groups and indigenous NGOs are also important vehicles for reconciliation and for disseminating a culture of human rights and peace among diverse segments of the population.

At the same time, the international community must help governments get back on their feet and restore or develop national and local institutions. Just as regional diplomatic efforts can provide the framework for political settlement and the ensuing resolution of refugee problems, regional organizations and mechanisms can play an important operational role in the critical peace-building phase. I therefore welcome the close collaboration with the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Commission Monitoring Mission in such fundamental aspects of the peace implementation process as human rights and election monitoring, the establishment of a human rights culture, or advisory services to the local police of the Bosnian Entities.

In the Great Lakes region, we support the on-going initiatives of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and of the OAU for determined and concerted international action especially with regard to Burundi, where genuine political dialogue must at last replace the spiral of human rights abuses, ethnic intolerance and more killings. The reference to regional mechanisms should not in any way detract from the valuable role played, in Rwanda, by the UN Human Rights Field Operation, with which we have concluded a Memorandum of Understanding in order to ensure maximum synergy, based on complementarity of mandates and expertise. I sincerely hope that this operation will find the financial support it needs so urgently. I am particularly glad to report that our cooperation applies, not only in the area of returnee monitoring, but also with regard to promotion and institution-building projects, such as a country-wide series of workshops on arrest and detention procedures.

The multiplicity of international actors in post-conflict situations is necessary given the magnitude of the tasks to be accomplished, although it may be at times somewhat confusing. The success of international involvement will, however, be measured by three key factors. The first is a well structured division of work, on which coordination must proceed among organizations and institutions with the required expertise and ability, to avoid duplication of efforts and fill gaps instead. The second is the ability of the international effort to mobilize and develop local capacities and responsibilities. Institution-building must be a clear priority, also where political changes have taken place in a more peaceful manner. The Conference on Refugees, Returnees, Displaced Persons and Related Migratory Movements in the Countries of the CIS and Relevant Neighbouring States, which will take place in two months' time under the auspices of UNHCR, IOM and the OSCE, represents an important form of international cooperation in the field of institution-building and the promotion of human and minority rights, to prevent the further dislocation of populations in a region which has already witnessed the migration of some five million people in recent years.

The third key to success of integrated international operations - and of their national and local extensions - is their firm foundation in common and consistent human rights standards. The Commission on Human Rights has helped advance our repatriation efforts as well as peace-building by promoting the development of human rights standards, many of which are directly relevant to our work. One striking example is the compilation and analysis, presented to this session by Mr. Francis Deng, of legal standards relating to the protection of internally displaced persons. Its chapter on movement-related needs deals in depth with the issues involved in the right of the displaced to return voluntarily, in safety and in a timely manner, to their places of former residence.

Mr. Chairman, before coming to the end of my statement, I wish to pay tribute to the various other aspects of the work of this Commission, and I am confident that you will continue to pay heed to the special rights and needs of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced. We have a strong and particular interest in the work of Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. We greatly appreciate her assistance with our recently-published "Guidelines on the Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence Against Refugees". Sexual violence can lead to flight, can threaten refugee protection and can hinder return. I commend her recent conclusion that refugee and asylum laws should be broadened to include gender-based claims of persecution, a subject we are increasingly discussing with interested governments.

My Office has actively participated in the study of Ms. Graça Machel on the impact of armed conflict on children and I look forward to a final draft of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child banning the military recruitment of all children under 18, by government forces or non-governmental entities. The trauma experienced by child soldiers can haunt them for years and seriously hinder their maturity into responsible members of a peaceful society.

In due course, we hope the Commission will also turn its attention to the right to a nationality, a topic of great concern to UNHCR because of our mandate under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction on Statelessness and its frequent link to refugee and repatriation problems.

Mr. Chairman, in conclusion, let me emphasize that in the context of post-conflict peace building and reconstruction, the peaceful return of refugees and internally displaced persons should be an integral and essential component. For the community as a whole, it adds to reconciliation and solidifies peace. For the individual concerned, it should herald a new future. Let us all work together to promote the conditions necessary for its implementation.

With its mandate of seeking solutions to refugee problems, and through the ensuing focus on returnees, my Office can make certain limited - but, I hope, significant - contributions to strengthening the observance of human rights and, more broadly, to the fusion of peace in the many countries so recently torn apart by civil strife.

We must, however, be part of a team of players, both national and international, each aware of our potential and limitations; cognizant of appropriate overlap and separation; mindful of universal standards yet respectful of the uniqueness of every country and people. Most of all, we must remember that our essential function is to help nations take responsibility for their own populations.

Human rights is the common thread tying all our efforts. The disregard of human rights, almost by definition, is a cause and an integral part of violence, persecution and flight, just as respect for human rights is so essential to the cementing of peace. This Commission's efforts are an invaluable aid to UNHCR and to those we try to protect within this broader framework. I wish you every success in the upcoming discussions and look forward to our continuing cooperation.

Thank you.