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Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 21 April 1998

Speeches and statements

Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 21 April 1998

21 April 1998

Mr President,

Seven months after my last briefing to the Security Council, I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet with you again. I will focus today on the two regions where problems of forced human displacement continue to pose the greatest challenges to my Office: the former Yugoslavia and Central Africa.

I have just returned from a two-week tour of five countries in the former Yugoslavia. The efforts made by the international community to consolidate peace and rebuild war-affected areas are beginning to have visible results. During 1996 and 1997, about 400,000 people displaced by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia returned from exile. However, two and a half years after Dayton, 1.8 million people continue to live away from their homes. Most of them come from areas in which they would now be an ethnic minority. Problems of displacement are complicated by the interlinkages between their possible solutions - this is clearer if you look at the "map of displacement" in this region, which has been distributed to you. The most lasting impression of my trip - the fourth I made to the former Yugoslavia since the end of the war - is that unless solutions are found for refugees and displaced persons, there will be no stability and no lasting peace in South-East Europe.

Peace-building efforts have concentrated largely on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Returns to minority areas continue to be the main objective of my Office. In this respect, I was encouraged by the open, constructive attitude of President Plavsic and Prime Minister Dodik of Republika Srpska. Minority returns are indeed beginning to reverse the destructive effects of ethnic cleansing.

More than 800,000 people, however, remain displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 600,000 refugees remain in exile abroad. Despite the commitment of some leaders and the efforts of the international community, obstacles on the ground - including very serious threats to their security - continue to discourage people from returning home. The "Open Cities" initiative, which promotes priority assistance to towns whose leadership and communities show sustained commitment to minority returns, has expanded to eleven cities and has attracted over 40 million US dollars in international aid. This initiative, however, cannot be considered entirely successful until key cities such as Sarajevo and Banja Luka show a firm commitment to minority returns. Although a much larger number of people have expressed their wish to return, fewer than 5,000 people have been registered as minority returnees to "Open Cities" since 1996. Even adding to this figure those who have returned spontaneously, the total number of minority returns remains far below expectations, and a matter of grave concern to my Office.

In Croatia, a complex situation of displacement with multiple regional links involves up to half a million people living away from their homes. The main problem is represented by the 350,000 Croatian Serbs who fled from the former UN Protected Areas in 1995. Many want to repatriate, but are prevented from doing so by a combination of bureaucratic obstacles, lack of economic opportunities and a generally unfavourable attitude towards their return. Furthermore, ethnic Croats who are refugees from Bosnia now occupy the houses of exiled Croats of Serb ethnic origin. This situation is in turn related to the displacement of Bosnians across the Inter-Entity Boundary Line in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself, and in Western Europe. Solutions are interlinked across borders. Even so over-simplified a picture gives an idea of the complexity: we are working family by family, but not only does each successful repatriation have a multiplier effect, it also encourages spontaneous return.

Most Croatian Serb refugees (about 300,000) live in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which also hosts approximately 250,000 Bosnian Serbs - most of them from "minority areas" in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I told President Tudjman that the return of refugees to Croatia was made difficult, if not impossible, by a lack of real commitment by the Croatian authorities, especially at the local level. The President assured me that he would allow the return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. It is urgent that this engagement be translated into concrete action by the Croatian Government, by immediately removing all existing obstacles to a safe and dignified return. It is essential that the international community continues to perceive the unhindered repatriation of refugees to Croatia as a crucial element of this country's democratization process. On the other hand, President Milosevic has agreed to consider favourably the integration in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of those who elect not to return. I have urged him to expedite the process of granting them citizenship, provided of course that the decision to remain is made voluntarily.

I should furthermore like to draw the attention of the Security Council to two areas of particular concern to my Office in the former Yugoslavia. In the Danubian Region of Eastern Croatia, especially after the end of the UN Transitional Administration's mandate, Croatian Serb displaced persons and even some long-time residents are compelled to leave the area because of persistent discrimination and harassment. There is a continued fresh outflow of people to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and to a lesser extent to Bosnia and Herzegovina and further away, to Western Europe. Croatia is today generating refugees.

The other issue of concern is Kosovo. In Pristina, I met with Government administrators and with the LDK leader, Dr Rugova. Given the prevailing tension between the Albanian majority and the Serb administration, police and paramilitary, the situation of 14,000 Croatian Serb refugees hosted in collective centres is preoccupying. I requested the Government to relocate them to safer areas - particularly those who are living in schools. Fighting and violence in the Drenica area have also caused the displacement of over 20,000 Kosovars, of whom about 5,000 fled to Montenegro. Unless there is meaningful dialogue between the parties, and if extremist elements prevail, further internal displacement and even refugee outflows may occur, with very dangerous consequences for regional stability. So far no one has fled to neighbouring countries, and we have made emergency preparedness plans, but Governments in the region - especially that of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of the Republic of Montenegro - are justifiably worried by this prospect. It is of course essential that suitable pressure be exerted on the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to establish constructive dialogue with the Albanian leadership. On purely humanitarian grounds, however, I would like to echo the concerns of the countries in the region and ask the international community to be mindful of the potentially negative effect of sanctions on their already fragile economy and their most vulnerable citizens.

Upon request of the Peace Implementation Council of the Dayton Peace Accords, my Office is developing a regional strategy to resolve refugee problems in the former Yugoslavia. In this respect, Mr President, a number of key issues must be urgently addressed. First and foremost, the safety and security of returnees must be ensured. It is imperative that the presence of the Stabilization Force be maintained, and that United Nations efforts to establish and train a multi-ethnic police force under IPTF guidance be strengthened in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also essential that the threat of landmines be eliminated. My Office, in cooperation with UNDP, has launched a demining programme in the context of the "Open Cities" initiative. I would like to also commend the initiative of the Government of Slovenia to establish a Trust Fund for demining. Second, the issue of property must be effectively addressed - not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it is essential to give suitable financial support to the Real Property Commission - but also in Croatia, where illegal house occupancy continues to be one of the main obstacles to return. Third, objective information must be provided to those who are still refugees and displaced: I am very concerned that refugees are the target of false information and of other forms of pressure, trying to convince them not to return to their homes. Fourth, documentation for returnees must be provided in an expeditious way, rather than becoming a bureaucratic obstacle to their return. Fifth, returnees, and particularly the elderly, must be granted the same access to social benefits as all other citizens.

Let me now turn to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. In February, I visited nine African countries and met with their leaders, including the current chairman of the OAU, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as with the OAU Secretary General, Dr. Salim. The main objective of my tour was to discuss with leaders and their governments the refugee situation, and examine together how refugee protection can be reconciled with the security of States and their peoples.

The trip has yielded positive results in terms of a better dialogue between UNHCR and the governments concerned. I was pleased to have the opportunity to personally discuss the leaders' concerns, and to listen to their proposals. There is a clear consensus among them that the problems do not lie with established principles for the protection of refugees, which are accepted by all, but stem from a failure or inability to apply some of the basic principles of refugee law contained in the OAU Refugee Convention. I refer in particular to the exclusion from refugee status of persons who have committed crimes against humanity or war crimes, and to the prohibition of subversive activities by refugees against any country, including their own.

One concrete result of my mission was the agreement of the Governments of Tanzania and Burundi to participate in a tripartite mechanism with UNHCR to discuss the voluntary repatriation of Burundians from Tanzania. A first tripartite meeting was chaired by UNHCR on 11 March. Beyond the immediate objective of dealing with operational matters concerning voluntary repatriation, discussions were useful in promoting dialogue and I hope dispelling misunderstandings on the refugee issue, which has been a source of some tension between the two governments.

Another positive outcome of my tour was the agreement of all the governments of the countries I visited to participate in an informal meeting at the ministerial level to discuss refugees and security issues. Dr. Salim and I will convene and co-chair the meeting in Kampala on 8 and 9 May. To encourage open discussion and debate, the meeting will otherwise include only representatives from the countries concerned, although we are keeping other interested countries fully involved in its follow-up. President Museveni of Uganda, who has agreed to host and open the meeting, suggested that it be a "workshop" in which participants will be able to have a frank exchange of views rather than to make formal statements on behalf of their governments. I hope this initiative will result in concrete proposals that will address the refugees' need to be protected and to find solutions to their displacement problems, taking into account the needs of the peoples of the region to live in security, stability and prosperity.

Mr President, in the course of my tour I was able to observe at first hand some encouraging developments. In Burundi, although the peace process advances slowly, I was able to visit Cibitoke province for the first time. There, I saw returnees, displaced persons and local people beginning to rebuild their lives together, with help from UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Last year more than 60,000 refugees returned spontaneously from Tanzania, although 260,000 continue to live in border camps. In Rwanda, efforts to promote reconciliation, now figure alongside the establishment of justice in the Government's plans as well as in grassroots activities in which my Office participates. I was able to visit some of the 70,000 newly constructed housing units that have been built with UNHCR support. Not only do these projects help meet the physical needs of returnees and survivors of genocide - they also contribute to reducing the tension that can arise from disputes over property and housing.

Alongside these positive developments, however, there are worrying trends in the Great Lakes region that must be noted. In Rwanda, the security situation in the north-western prefectures remains a major preoccupation. Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, are still unable to work outside the main towns, and recent terrorist attacks in central Rwanda are of great concern. The situation in Burundi is extremely volatile, despite improvements in many provinces. Tensions and sporadic clashes persist in the Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met several senior Government members and discussed with them steps needed to establish good working relations with my Office. Some progress has been made. Cooperation with the Government in dealing with war refugees from Brazzaville has been effective. Recent episodes of refoulement of hundreds of Burundians from South Kivu have ceased thanks to the intervention of the authorities in Kinshasa. Serious problems, however, continue to exist. You will recall that last September, I informed the Security Council of my decision to suspend activities on behalf of Rwandan asylum seekers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, until access to this group and security of humanitarian staff be fully granted. I raised these matters in Kinshasa, but to date UNHCR continues to be prevented from having access to the remaining Rwandans. Those fleeing from violence in north-western Rwanda are regularly returned involuntarily to their country. National staff manning our office in Goma after its activities were suspended at the request of the authorities last October - as well as staff from other UN agencies - have been harassed and arrested.

I fully understand the security concerns of governments like that of the Democratic Republic of Congo when refugees are mixed with combatants or even with genocidal criminals. But we need to work with the governments concerned - and they need to work with us - to find solutions that permit real refugees to obtain asylum and that do not violate the fundamental principle of refugee law - non-refoulement - while at the same time maintaining the security and stability of countries and peoples giving asylum to refugees. Cooperation with governments is particularly needed in dealing with the Rwandans remaining outside their country, of whom we know of at least 30,000 in nine countries in Africa in addition to an unknown number in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Difficult as this may be, we must continue to protect those who are not combatants and not guilty of crimes within these groups.

Let me give you as an example the situation in the Central African Republic, which received more that 1,400 Rwandans in May 1997. The Government treated them in accordance with established OAU Convention principles. UNHCR provided support in undertaking the determination of refugee status for the entire group. Although the results have not been published, it is understood that several hundred persons would be excluded from refugee status. Meanwhile some of the asylum-seekers have committed serious crimes against Central African nationals. This is an urgent problem. I met yesterday with the Minister of Interior of the Central African Republic. Given the fragile security situation of his country, the Government will have to take drastic measures if a solution is not found immediately. It does not have the resources needed to separate those recognized as refugees from those who are rejected. And even if the separation were done, how would the Government deal with those who are found not to be refugees?

Mr President, UNHCR is increasingly confronted, worldwide, and in Central Africa in particular, with the problem of separating refugees from fighters, or worse, criminals and génocidaires. As the Secretary-General said in his report to you last week, "combatants hiding among refugee populations remain, even today, a source of insecurity throughout the region". Between 1994 and 1996, after having repeatedly tried - in vain - to obtain international military support in the former eastern Zaire, my Office had to make its own security arrangements in refugee camps. In Tanzania, we are reinforcing the capacity of the police forces to maintain the civilian character of camps. Such arrangements, to a certain extent, allow for improved security, but they are usually insufficient to separate refugees from génocidaires.

In the Central African Republic, as in the Republic of Congo and in other countries, we will of course lend our good offices to address the problem of mixed groups. But its ultimate solution - physical separation and prosecution of criminals - does not lie within the scope of my mandate. Contrary to what has been affirmed very often, by saying so we are not abdicating our responsibilities. I would like to be extremely clear on this point: UNHCR has no mandate to deal with criminals or combatants, and we do not have a police force - nor do I believe that my Office should have one - to deal with such cases. In his report, the Secretary-General suggested "the establishment of an international mechanism to assist host governments in maintaining the security and neutrality of refugee camps". Needless to say, I strongly support this proposal. I should like to add that such a mechanism must include the possibility to call on military or police support to carry out the separation of refugees from those who do not deserve international protection, and to deal with those who are separated. When all other measures are inadequate, as was the case in the former eastern Zaire, this may be the only possibility to safeguard asylum without threatening the security and stability of entire regions.

Mr President, let me conclude by saying that in the former Yugoslavia the international community has made great political efforts and invested substantial material resources in ending the war, in creating conditions for peace and in starting reconstruction programmes. The scale of its involvement in the Great Lakes region (and, it must be said, in other post-conflict situations in Africa) has been much more modest. This has compelled humanitarian agencies to deal alone - with insufficient means - with the consequences of inadequate attempts to resolve conflicts, build peace, reconstruct countries emerging from war and reconcile divided communities. If efforts to bring peace to Central Africa and to promote its economic development are to be successful, the time has come to draw lessons from the efforts made in the former Yugoslavia. International cooperation coupled with joint, robust political action, must be applied more decisively to other war-torn societies, especially in the Great Lakes region, and in other parts of the African continent. I hope that the presentation of the Secretary-General's report on Africa will be the opportunity for the Security Council to show leadership and commitment in mobilizing worldwide attention on these problems and galvanizing international action to address them.

Thank you.