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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Humanitarian Intervention, at the Millennium Conference sponsored by the Fondation Roi Baudouin, Brussels, 13 December 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Humanitarian Intervention, at the Millennium Conference sponsored by the Fondation Roi Baudouin, Brussels, 13 December 1993

13 December 1993

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be invited by the King Baudouin Foundation to speak at the Millennium Conference on the topic of "Humanitarian Intervention".

As U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, I will approach the subject from the perspective of refugees and displaced persons. Under international law a refugee by definition is a person outside his country of nationality. Traditionally, a refugee did not become the object of international concern until after he crossed his national boundaries, and the interest of the international community ceased as soon as he returned to his country of origin or became a naturalized citizen of his country of asylum. Thus, international protection and assistance of refugees studiously respected the bounds of national sovereignty.

Such deference to national sovereignty was understandable during the Cold War. Today, this position is increasingly under pressure. In the wake of international action in northern Iraq, Somalia and former Yugoslavia, questions are being asked as to whether there is a duty or a right to intervene, with force if necessary, to meet humanitarian needs, and the extent to which concerns of national sovereignty should be allowed to circumscribe such a duty.

I do not intend to dwell on the debate on the existence of such a right or duty, because I do not view the issue as primarily a matter of use of force against a sovereign power to gain access to victims of humanitarian emergencies. It is not only sovereignty which constrains action in internal conflict situations. Nor does the use of force necessarily enhance the opportunities to address humanitarian needs. Looking at it from the perspective of an operational humanitarian organization, I believe the issue is far more complex. It requires a thorough understanding of the factors which, on the one hand, call for greater international humanitarian action inside national borders, and on the other, inhibit and limit such action.

I would like to begin by giving you some facts and figures on the escalating humanitarian needs within national borders, and then indicate how humanitarian concerns are impacting on the political agenda. I will analyze the specific situations of northern Iraq, Somalia and former Yugoslavia, and draw on the experience of some lesser known cases, such as Tajikistan, to show the constraints and opportunities for humanitarian action in the post-Cold War world. Finally, I would like to draw some conclusions from these experiences and comment on the need for a more comprehensive and integrated strategy to address humanitarian crises.

Let me begin by describing the main features of the humanitarian scene today.

The most striking feature is the growing scale of human suffering. In the past two years, UNHCR has had to respond to several major humanitarian emergencies resulting from large-scale population movements, almost all affecting several hundred thousand persons and at least three of them, over a million persons. The most recent emergency resulted last month, when in the space of one fortnight over 700,000 persons fled ethnic killings in Burundi to seek refuge in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire.

It is also significant that today there is more displacement within borders than across them. It is estimated that while there are about 19 million refugees and other persons assisted by UNHCR, there could be over 25 million internally displaced persons, which is almost three times the population of Belgium. In Somalia over 700,000 persons are internally displaced. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, some 3 million people have been uprooted or trapped in besieged cities, dependent on UNHCR's assistance for their survival. Hundreds of thousands of persons have been displaced in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan.

Most of the displacement is the product of internal wars, violence and massive human rights abuses. Indeed, ethnic conflict is a common denominator of many of today's refugee problems. Africa has long been the scene of tribal strife. The bloodshed in Somalia, and in recent weeks in Burundi, continues to bear testimony to that fact. In Europe, the demise of communism has revived ancient ethnic, nationalistic and religious hatreds. Former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example of vicious war, torture, rape and murder to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another.

During the Cold War, ideological and political confrontation did not allow the United Nations to become involved in internal conflicts. With the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of ethnic conflicts has brought about a growing realization of the threat they can pose to regional and international peace. There is thus a greater willingness in the international community to address these threats collectively. In countries as far apart as El Salvador, Haiti, Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique, the UN has sought to broker peace, supervise cease-fires, demobilise soldiers, organize elections and monitor human rights. The repatriation of refugees has been an integral component of UN-supervised peace settlements, e.g. in Namibia, Nicaragua, Cambodia and now in Mozambique. In the course of the past two years, UNHCR assisted some 370,000 Cambodians, over 2 million Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Mozambicans and other refugees to repatriate.

UNHCR has seized the growing willingness of the international community to address internal conflicts and has promoted the prevention and solution of refugee problems by addressing them at the source. The Office has advocated a three-fold strategy. It seeks to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are, then their humanitarian needs must be met and conditions created in the country of origin to allow them to return home in safety and dignity. In this way, asylum outside the country of origin is complemented with prevention and solution-oriented activities inside the country of origin of refugees and displaced persons. UNHCR's growing involvement with the internally displaced persons in places such as Bosnia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa should be seen as part of this three-pronged strategy.

Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for this group of persons, we have assisted in specific cases, at the request of the Secretary-General, when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem. Our action on behalf of the internally displaced has been encouraged and endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

It is therefore clear that there is both a need for greater humanitarian action within borders as well as an inclination on the part of the international community to support such action. Humanitarian action on behalf of nationals within a country, usually in the midst of conflict, is not easy. Let us now examine a few specific cases, to see what are the trends, constraints as well as opportunities for such action.

Let me begin with the well-known case of northern Iraq. Within a fortnight in April 1991, 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds fled their homes. Half a million of them were trapped on the Turkish border with no possibility of asylum. In an unprecedented move the Security Council adopted resolution 688 which linked human rights violations to threats to international peace and security, and insisted that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq. The resolution encouraged the Coalition Forces to intervene to create a "safety zone" in northern Iraq to provide relief to those who could not obtain asylum in Turkey. Within weeks of the creation of the safety zone, almost all of the Iraqi Kurds along the Turkish border and in Iran were back in northern Iraq, though many were unable to return to their old homes for sometime.

Initially, UNHCR was caught in a dilemma between a legal restriction preventing it from extending relief to people who had not crossed a border and a humanitarian obligation to help those in need. However, I decided that we would help those who were trapped on the border, interpreting border not in legal terms as a dividing line but pragmatically as an area in which there was no Iraqi sovereign authority willing or able to assist the people. Sovereignty was not an issue in the end because, in the meantime, a Memorandum of Understanding was negotiated between the government of Iraq and the United Nations (in which Mr. Suy played a key role), which allowed us to establish presence in northern Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi government.

Let me note three points on the northern Iraq experience. First, Security Council resolution 688 and the Coalition action clearly challenged the traditional notion of inviolable sovereignty. The adoption of resolution 688 and the apparent determination of the international community to enforce it undoubtedly influenced the decision of the Iraqi government to agree to UN presence. Thus intervention, combined with consent, provided the framework for humanitarian action in northern Iraq. The consent of the Government was important for UNHCR. Iraq hosts several thousand Iranian refugees, and our access to them might otherwise have been jeopardized.

Second, given the rapidity and scale of displacement, quick military intervention by the Coalition Forces was invaluable in saving human lives. The Coalition effort between April and June 1991 also gave us the lead time to set up our programme.

Third, the short term nature of the military action, without long-term political objectives raised serious concerns about the security of the people, and remained an overriding preoccupation of UNHCR. We deployed some 180 staff, augmented by hundreds of NGOs, as well as 500 UN guards, ostensibly to guard UN property. In reality, the guards, together with the other staff, helped to build confidence and enhance security for the people. These measures, combined with assistance to rehabilitate some 1,600 villages, helped settle the Kurdish displaced persons and enabled UNHCR to withdraw from northern Iraq in June 1992, some fifteen months after we first went in. A longer term political solution, however, remains elusive.

Now to former Yugoslavia. UNHCR's involvement in former Yugoslavia predates the deployment of peace-keeping forces. In November 1991 following a request from the then Yugoslav government and the UN Secretary-General, UNHCR began 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, for the first time, working in the midst of raging war and not only for refugees and displaced persons, but also the besieged population.

One of our major concerns in Bosnia has been to ensure humanitarian access to the victims. Security Council resolution 716 of 29 June 1992 authorized the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to protect Sarajevo airport and access to the city so that UNHCR could continue to provide assistance to those in need. Through Security Council resolution 776 of 14 September, UNPROFOR's mandate was extended, and over 6,000 troops were deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina to support and provide military cover for UNHCR's humanitarian activities. However, access has been based on consensual arrangements with the parties involved, in line with the traditional peace-keeping rules of engagement. In the absence of a cease-fire, much time and effort has been spent to gain assurances for access, only to have them broken as soon as our convoys begin rolling, either because of fighting or deliberate manipulation by the parties. Without any authority or means to use force, UNPROFOR escorts for the relief convoys have been more of a deterrent, than active protection. They have failed to prevent the deaths of at least 10 UNHCR and other humanitarian staff.

UNPROFOR support has been crucial for 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. The airlift to Sarajevo, which now exceeds in duration 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 become a lifeline for many besieged cities.

Our objective in Bosnia has not been only to provide relief but, most importantly, to protect people, and at least at the beginning also to prevent further displacement. In addition to UNPROFOR troops, we have over 600 staff but, unlike northern Iraq, international presence has proven to be of limited value as war raged and "ethnic cleansing" expanded. Preventing displacement or providing effective protection is not easy when the very objective of the war is to force other ethnic groups to leave the territory.

On 16 April, the Security Council adopted resolution 819, requesting the Secretary-General to increase the presence of UN peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica town in Eastern Bosnia in order to monitor the humanitarian situation. The Council demanded that all parties treat Srebrenica as a "safe area" free from armed attack or other hostile acts. The Security Council subsequently expanded the designation of safe areas to Zepa, Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac and Sarajevo. While these resolutions were adopted under Chapter VII, which allows the use of force, it is not clear whether UNPROFOR has a mandate to use force if these areas are attacked. The international presence of UNHCR, UN military observers and UNPROFOR soldiers in some of the "safe areas" has provided a measure of safety, at least in the immediate term. However, access to the areas is still controlled by the Serbs, who severely limit the kind of assistance that can be brought in. At least some of the areas are subject to occasional shelling. Furthermore, the future of the "safe areas" remains uncertain, and there is a risk that "safe areas" could become prolonged camps, dependent on long-term international protection and assistance.

Former Yugoslavia has starkly exposed the limits of humanitarian action. The major constraint has not been sovereignty, but more the lack of it. The vacuum of governmental authority within Bosnia has made access more difficult, and lack of political will outside Bosnia to address the situation has encouraged violations of human rights and humanitarian law with impunity. The non-use of force to obtain access has been criticized but there are some doubts whether the use of force would in itself improve access, without clearer long-term objectives. For UNHCR, therefore, negotiations and holding the leaders to their assurances remain the only realistic option.

Former Yugoslavia has shown the futility of distinguishing between refugees, displaced persons and others in internal conflicts when all affected population are in need of humanitarian assistance. It has highlighted the dilemma created in ethnic conflict situations between the right to seek asylum and the right to remain in one's own home. If we help people to leave, we encourage ethnic cleaning, if we don't, we endanger lives.

The strongest criticism of all has been the lack of more decisive action by the international community to bring about an end to the conflict. Indeed, the strong insistence on humanitarian assistance in the absence of a political strategy is being perceived in some quarters as a cover for lack of political will or leadership. Without peace, it is clear that humanitarian assistance alone cannot avert disaster. Although we have managed to save millions of lives thus far, I am afraid that the deadly combination of war, winter and military blockades make a major catastrophe almost inevitable.

In contrast to Bosnia, in Somalia the U.N. has authorised and used force for humanitarian purposes. Following the failure of advance team of peacekeepers in 1992 to secure the airport and seaport for delivery of relief supplies, and the continued defiance of the Somali warlords to accept full deployment of the United Nations peacekeepers, in December 1992 the Secretary General recommended to the Security Council to move into enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. He justified his recommendation on the ground that no government existed in Somali 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.

Security Council resolution 794 explicitly authorized the use of force to create secure conditions for the uninterrupted delivery of relief to the starving people. While the operation was successful in reducing starvation, saving lives and restoring order to a large part of the country, violence flared up between June and October 1993 in southern Mogadishu, with several serious attacks against the UN troops. The use of force by the UN caused the deaths of Somali civilians and in turn led to a combat situation involving the UN. These incidents highlighted both the difficulties of enforcement action when there are multiple culprits, and the limits of humanitarian action when Chapter VII action is used. The use of force against one party has affected the perceived impartiality and neutrality of the UN, without which humanitarian action cannot be undertaken effectively.

I should mention that UNHCR does not have a large operation in Somalia. We are, however, assisting one million Somali 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 cross-border operations, with some consent or at least acquiescence of local authorities, have proven to be a practical and effective, though limited, means of humanitarian action even in turbulent states.

Let me touch very briefly on another case of humanitarian action which is less well known but which has important lessons to offer. This is Tajikistan, where civil war in 1992 led to over half a million persons to be internally displaced and another 60,000 to flee to northern Afghanistan. Right from the beginning, UNHCR advocated strongly an integrated approach, which would address the political and humanitarian aspects simultaneously. UNHCR participated in the "Good offices" mission sent by the Secretary-General in November 1992, undertook missions to Moscow and Tashkent to promote its humanitarian objectives, and has been working closely with the UN military observer team since its arrival in January 1993. Our objective has been to assist refugees and displaced to return home voluntarily and safely. Although we have a small shelter project, the main thrust of our activities has been confidence-building activities and human rights monitoring of those who have returned. The activities are carried out with the full consent and good cooperation of the government. These have been forthcoming because all parties in Tajikistan and the regional governments agree that the early return of the refugees and the displaced will promote national reconciliation and regional stability. Despite severe funding constraints we have been able to help most of the refugees and almost all the internally displaced return home. We intend to phase down in 1994. The ultimate success of the operation will depend on the process of national reconciliation and the establishment of the rule of law. However, the lesson of Tajikistan is that early political action pays rich dividends for effective humanitarian action, and avoid expensive military deployment later.

So, let me sum up the main characteristics of humanitarian action, or intervention, today.

  • first, it is occurring in response to internal conflicts, against a background of disintegrating state power and emergence of sub-state actors. The decline of state power is not only a cause of humanitarian crises, it also hampers effective response. In fact, as the earlier examples showed, humanitarian action is constrained, less by sovereignty, than by insufficient authority to control abuses or be held responsible for them.
  • second, given the vicious nature of ethnic conflicts, the protection, of victims is a major objective of humanitarian assistance. However, legal principles for the protection of the internally displaced are not clear; institutional mechanisms are absent or ad hoc. Gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law are a common characteristic in almost every situation, with no effective machinery to stop them. Consequently, a pragmatic approach has been the most successful, based on negotiations for access and international presence for protection.
  • third, emergency response capacity is critical. UNHCR has equipped itself with emergency teams, an emergency fund, stockpiles and standing arrangements with NGOs and governments for rapid deployment of staff and goods. Military resources and expertise have also helped to accelerate and augment the response capacity to humanitarian emergencies. However, it has been most beneficial when provided under civilian command and control.
  • fourth, the use of the military for ensuring humanitarian access has been controversial, because of the differences in approach and objectives of the military and the humanitarians. It is often compounded by the absence of clear political objectives and strategy to resolve the underlying conflict. Although military cover of humanitarian relief may be necessary and useful in some security situations, it risks affecting the neutral and impartial image of humanitarian action. This is particularly the case in Chapter VII operations using force, which must by definition be directed against one or more parties, while the humanitarian imperative requires assisting victims on all sides.

Let me therefore say in conclusion that the call for humanitarian action or intervention inside conflict-ridden countries will increase, both because of humanitarian concern for the victims, often generated by media coverage, and because of the perception that large-scale displacement, particularly when they turn into cross-border flows, is a threat to stability. However, while there is likely to be more pressure on humanitarian organizations to act, the euphoria which greeted the end of the Cold War has been overtaken by a sober reassessment of the new geopolitical realities. Major countries are turning inwards and are preoccupied with domestic concerns. Against this background of a power vacuum, the United Nations may be expected to be more active and yet curtailed by the lack of decisive political or military action on the part of its member states. The recent crisis in Burundi is one example where the international community has not been forthcoming in taking action to prevent massive killings followed by yet another refugee emergency. In such situations there is a risk that humanitarian action could be used - or rather abused - as a substitute for political action.

In order to be effective, humanitarian action should be part of a comprehensive response, which integrates political, security, human rights and socio-economic issues. Early warning and rapid preventive action must be at the core of such a response. Legal principles and effective mechanisms should be developed to take account of the evolving nature of state sovereignty and expanding international responsibility. Indeed, the challenge for crisis management in today's world is to devise a system that balances the states' concerns for territorial integrity with the protection needs of minorities and individuals.

Such a system cannot be developed only by political leaders and decision-makers since it involves the protection and well-being of individuals and peoples. I welcome the effort of Roi Baudouin Foundation and the Millennium Conference to mobilize the wisdom and efforts of peoples from all walks of life - human rights specialists, humanitarian workers, NGOs, academic and research community, as well as the thinking public at large - to build an international system that responds to the massive humanitarian needs of today.