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House Committee on International Relations, Sub-Committee on International Operations and Human Rights - Hearing on "Rwanda: Genocide and the Continuing Cycle of Violence" | Statement

Speeches and statements

House Committee on International Relations, Sub-Committee on International Operations and Human Rights - Hearing on "Rwanda: Genocide and the Continuing Cycle of Violence" | Statement

5 May 1998

Mr. Chairman,

UNHCR has been requested to appear before this Committee which is looking at a broad range of issues relating to the tragic events in Rwanda in recent years. We have been requested to focus on the refugee dimensions of that tragedy; on what UNHCR has, or has not, done; and particularly on key issues such as the separation of the perpetrators of genocide from refugees; the mixture of fighters and refugees in refugee camps; the location of refugee camps; and our overall efforts to protect genuine refugees in this highly complex and difficult environment.

Over the past four years, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa has been the setting for one of the most rapid mass exoduses of refugees during this century. Tragically, governments in the region and the international community failed to be able to protect civilian refugees from Rwanda and Burundi throughout the Great Lakes crisis, and as a result, there has been enormous loss of life. As the principal UN organization mandated to protect and assist refugees, UNHCR has conducted much soul-searching, and reflected very carefully on its own actions and those of other actors, to determine what went wrong. We would like to try to answer some of these questions in this hearing today.

In order to do so, we have outlined briefly UNHCR's mandate responsibilities and those of States, and UNHCR's efforts over the past four years to meet these responsibilities in regard to Rwandan refugees in the region.

UNHCR's Mandate and Role

UNHCR's primary function is to provide international protection and assistance to refugees and to seek permanent solutions to their problems. Under its Statute and the General Assembly resolution creating the Office, international protection is enshrined as the principal focus of UNHCR's work.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees1 was drawn up at the time of the creation of UNHCR. The Convention and its 1967 Protocol2, as well as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa3, create parallel treaty obligations on States parties to protect refugees. There are currently 134 states parties to the Convention and Protocol, and 43 states parties to the OAU Convention. All states in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa have ratified the OAU Convention.

In order to take account of the special characteristics of the situation in Africa, the OAU Convention expanded the 1951 Convention definition of a refugee to those compelled to leave their country not only as a result of persecution, but also owing to conflict or "events seriously disturbing the public order" in either part or the whole of their country.

In addition to defining who is a refugee, the OAU Convention also identifies certain categories who are excluded from refugee protection (as does UNHCR's Statute). These include perpetrators of crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Preamble of the Convention also recognizes the need "to make a distinction between a refugee who seeks a peaceful and normal life and a person fleeing his country for the sole purpose of fomenting subversion from outside." These instruments clearly intended that the perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity should not be able to escape justice by claiming refugee status.

The OAU Convention also contains provisions as to when refugees cease to be refugees, including due to changes in circumstances in the country of origin, which would make it possible for them to return safely home without fear of persecution, conflict or violence4. The changes that might justify application of the cessation clause must be fundamental and long-lasting. No State has yet applied this clause in regard to Rwanda.

The determination of refugee status, including exclusion from and cessation of such status, is the treaty responsibility of host governments under both the 1951 UN Convention and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention. UNHCR's role is primarily to support, assist and monitor this process. In exceptional cases, UNHCR may take the lead on behalf of states, under its mandate responsibility for recognition and exclusion of refugees, if requested to do so.

UNHCR's responsibilities for protecting refugees are global and non-discriminatory. By Statute, the work of the High Commissioner is entirely non-political, humanitarian and social.

The most important principle of refugee protection under the various legal instruments is non-refoulement, which forbids states from returning refugees to countries where their safety or freedom would be at risk. This principle is non-negotiable, and UNHCR is obliged under its mandate to make every effort to ensure that it is respected. The Great Lakes crisis posed fundamental challenges for the system of international refugee protection, especially in this respect.

Rwandan Exodus of 1994

The dilemma of huge numbers of Rwandans living just beyond the borders was posed almost as soon as the 1994 conflict and genocide began. Barely three weeks after the plane carrying Rwandan and Burundi Presidents Habyarimana and Ntyaryamira was shot down as it neared Kigali on April 6, an estimated 250,000 Rwandans crossed from southeast Kibungo into Tanzania in the space of 24 hours. It was the fastest exodus in modern times. The number of Rwandans in Tanzania would swell to 500,000 in the next days as the advancing Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) tightened its grip on the east of the country.

Such a massive outflow focused the attention of the international community, unsure until then of the dimensions of what had been unfolding in Rwanda. On April 29, the same day that tens of thousands of people crossed into Tanzania, the United Nations Secretary-General asked the Security Council to consider forceful action to respond to increasing evidence of atrocities in Rwanda. The Security Council deferred the question of returning law and order to the country, asking the Secretary-General for more information. One week later, faced with the exodus and the mobilization of the humanitarian agencies, the Council asked him to make plans to get emergency aid to the refugees.

During May and June various proposals were submitted for a peace-keeping force in Rwanda. France's offer to send troops was accepted by the UN when it became clear that other member states were not eager to contribute soldiers to a second Assistance Mission (UNAMIR), the first having been reduced in strength during April. By 9 July French troops began taking up positions in southwestern Rwanda. The consolidation of the Zone Turquoise provoked rapid change in parts of the country not yet under RPF control: on 13 July refugees began to stream across the northwest border into Goma - an estimated 100,000 on the first day - and four days later, with mortar rounds following the column of people fleeing through Gisenyi, those crowding Goma numbered one million.

As the RPF declared a unilateral cease-fire after taking control of Kigali, effectively bringing the war in Rwanda to an end on 18 July, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments were struggling to bring the developing humanitarian crisis provoked by the mass exodus under control. Cholera broke out in Goma on 19 July and for the space of a frantic week, every effort was directed at the collection and burial of some 50,000 victims, mainly women and children. UNHCR appealed for more supplies as its relief stockpile was depleted almost instantly, and this was truly a life-saving period. To alleviate the unmanageable crush in Goma, relief workers and local officials began encouraging refugees to walk north to sites designated by the Government of Zaire. The host state allowed no consideration of sites further from the border.

By the end of August, some 1.3 million Rwandans had fled to Zaire, some 190,000 to Burundi, and some 530,000 to Tanzania.

Early Efforts to Address the Crisis

After receiving assurances from the new authorities in Rwanda that refugees wishing to return would be safe, UNHCR decided on 23 July to encourage and assist voluntary repatriation from Goma. Indeed, many thousands of people, driven by the miserable conditions and the passing of the panic which had carried them into exile, began walking homeward. UNHCR staff also began singling out the self-appointed camp leaders and militia who had by this point already begun trying to stop refugees from repatriating. The leaders' defiant attitude was seen in the refusal, by 20 former community officials, of a UN offer to travel back to Rwanda in order to report back on the current situation to refugees in the camps. The violent rejection resembled that of Rwandan populations in Ngara (Tanzania) two months before, when UNHCR had attempted to move militant former authorities away from refugees. In that incident, aid workers were chased from the camp by machete-wielding crowds.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, noting the security incidents and growing intimidation of refugees wanting to go home, pointed to the need for means to counter the "disinformation and adverse rumours being spread in the camps" at the UN donor conference on Rwanda on 2 August. Although approximately 200,000 refugees had spontaneously left Goma for home by mid-August, UNHCR was forced to cancel the first organized repatriation when its vehicles were stopped and set on by mobs. The attack further underscored the evident need to separate and distance armed elements, including ex-Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and militia, from the civilian refugee population.

Returning to a Zairian government pledge to disarm the newly-arrived Rwandans (26 July 1994), the Prime Minister of Zaire on August 15 asked the UN Secretary-General for help to transfer 20,000 ex-FAR from the eastern border to Kinshasa. But with the immense camps now taking shape and epidemics in check, the calls for military action against the mixed Rwandan caseload, like the Prime Minister's request, went unanswered by countries able to undertake such operations. Army units flown in to help with the relief effort, including a last contingent of 478 US troops, left the region by the end of September.

Clearly the camps contained ex-soldiers, Interahamwe, and "génocidaires" as well as civilian refugees. UNHCR and other agencies on the ground became concerned that a lack of urgency and international support would translate into a protracted struggle with a caseload they were not equipped to deal with. Already in August, reports of revenge killings in Rwanda were putting a brake on efforts to encourage repatriation.

In October 1994 Mrs. Ogata warned of the risks of leaving the camps as they were. "The lives of refugees and humanitarian staff have been endangered and the delivery of relief and essential services disrupted by armed elements from the former Rwandese army and militia," she told UNHCR's Executive Committee in Geneva on 3 October, continuing to say that "The aim appears to be to control the refugee population, block their voluntary return to Rwanda and build resistance against the Government in Kigali."

In a press release dated October 21, 1994, UNHCR went further, acknowledging that "In some camps, the former authorities have virtually taken control of all food and relief distribution in order to consolidate their power and to manipulate and dominate the camp population." Even while the operation in 1994 was primarily still of a life-saving nature, there was no international support for the job of separating fighters from civilians, or of relocating the camps.

The role of militant elements in the camps had caused several NGOs to rethink their engagement on behalf of the Rwandans. In November and December some non-governmental organizations were to pull out of Goma and Ngara, citing the influence of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. UNHCR considered the possibility as well, but the agency's mandate and the humanitarian imperative of caring for the majority of vulnerable and needy civilians, women and children, made a withdrawal impossible.

In New York, Mrs. Ogata tried to revive hope for a military deployment to secure the camps. The former Rwandan army was still endangering the lives of refugees, she said, telling the Third Committee of the General Assembly on 9 November that the Secretary-General had "agreed that top priority will be given to this issue." By the end of the month the Security Council, having heard additional evidence from the Secretary-General of worsening conditions in the camps, requested that he consult with nations for possible contribution of troops to a peace-keeping operation for this purpose.

UNHCR Efforts in 1995

1995 began with UNHCR expressing hope that another one million refugees and displaced persons would go home during 1995. Hundreds of thousands of "old" caseload refugees - people who had fled violence in Rwanda as early as 1959 - had already returned, receiving assistance from UNHCR and the Government of Rwanda. (UNHCR would eventually direct $33 million of a total expenditure of $127 million in Rwanda between 1994 and 1997 to the reintegration of this group, estimated by the Government at 1.2 million people.)

But in a decision characteristic of the next phase of the Great Lakes crisis, the Secretary-General reported on January 25, 1995, that plans to use international military to improve security in the refugee camps would not go forward. He told the High Commissioner that he had appealed to some 40 countries soliciting support and had received only one positive response. As a consequence, he asked UNHCR to explore alternative security arrangements. The position marked the beginning of a period when a worsening situation would create a virtual stalemate in the camps at Rwanda's borders.

Left with no alternative and an urgent need to bring order to the camps, UNHCR on 27 January signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Zaire. The agreement called for 1,500 Zairian elite troops to police the camps in Uvira, Bukavu and Goma and provide security for humanitarian workers and repatriating refugees. The first units, overseen by international civilian liaison officers, took up their functions on 12 February. The extraordinary measure meant that UNHCR arranged for military and police to work directly in support of the authorities.

In an attempt to break the regional deadlock, UNHCR and the OAU agreed to the Burundi President's proposal to convene a conference of all the concerned States in Bujumbura in mid-February 1995. No meetings between the principals, Zaire and Rwanda, had followed the signing of a Tripartite agreement on repatriation arrangements between those governments and UNHCR the previous October. The High Commissioner again identified security in the camps as the main obstacle to repatriation, and to the assembled countries of asylum and origin emphasized that the "legal and ethical dilemmas" of the mixed caseload were "agonizing." She appealed to all States to remove persons suspected of having committed crimes and to encourage the repatriation of refugees.

Clearly, humanitarian agencies were unable to resolve the question of armed elements in the camps on their own. "The exclusion from humanitarian assistance has in practice been impossible, given the numbers and serious security risks involved," the High Commissioner repeated in Bujumbura. Relocating camps away from the borders and separating so-called "intimidators" from general refugee populations were key aspects of the comprehensive Bujumbura Plan of Action, endorsed by all States at the close of the session.

After several months of declining returns to Rwanda - refugees learned quickly of the assassination of a prominent politician and killings of an unknown number of displaced people in Kibeho - the High Commissioner declared in June 1995 to the OAU's Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers that the "presence of former soldiers, militia and the planners and perpetrators of genocide had created major problems for the safety and voluntary return of the refugees, as well as the security of the host community."

The possibility of a re-organization of ex-soldiers and militia received greater attention after Human Rights Watch reported in May of 1995 that arms were reaching Rwandans in eastern Zaire from a number of governments. The assertion was seized on by the Government of Rwanda, which called on the international community to stop the flow. The studies on which the allegations were based elicited a strong reaction from the Government of Zaire. The resentment towards Rwandans on Zairian soil built, with the Prime Minister announcing publicly on 24 June that the time had come for refugees to go home.

The UN's August 16 decision (Security Council resolution 1011) to lift the arms embargo on Rwanda brought a response the next day from the Government of Zaire, which declared its intention to remove all Rwandan and Burundi refugees from the territory. Expulsions began on 19 August, 1995, when 181 Rwandans were trucked by military to Gisenyi. Over the next four days, 15,000 refugees were rounded up by Zairian troops and forced across the border to Rwanda at Cyangugu and Gisenyi. Approximately 130,000 others temporarily fled the camps for fear of being forced back, as resistance to a mass repatriation was substantial. International pressure finally halted the forced return on 24 August.

With the repatriation operation and political relations at a low, the High Commissioner toured the region between 31 August and 7 September and invited Rwanda and Zaire to Geneva the following month for their first Tripartite meeting. Amid growing signs of impatience at a protracted and expensive operation from the donor community, Mrs. Ogata moved the discussion to the dangers posed by a prolonged stay of such a large proportion of Rwanda's population. "It is bad in humanitarian terms," she said, "and potentially dangerous in terms of regional security." The efforts begun in Bujumbura to render States more responsible for a resolution continued, with the High Commissioner underscoring the "clear convergence of interest in repatriation."

But on the heels of the Geneva meeting, Rwandan Prime Minister Twagiramungu resigned and his Zairian counterpart declared that all the refugees would have to leave Zaire by the end of 1995. The two incidents would serve to slow the rate of return and damage already fragile cooperation between the country of origin and the main country of asylum.

The year closed on a note of stagnating repatriation and bleak considerations of the alternatives. Political and financial supporters of the humanitarian agencies were increasingly vocal in suggesting an end to the camps in Zaire. Communicating the US's wish to see the refugees speedily repatriated, former President Carter offered to help mediate and obtained a pledge that Zaire would reconsider its end-of-year deadline. A five-nation conference in Cairo between November 27 and December 2 foresaw the rate of return accelerating to 10,000 refugees a day, without elaborating how this would happen.

Mirroring the growing momentum within the international community to leave the refugee situation to the area countries, the UN Security Council agreed to terminate UNAMIR's mandate in December 1995. Duties of the force of several thousand international troops included assistance to UN agencies and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, peace keeping, and confidence-building activities. The last was important to refugees' belief in the reintegration process.

UNHCR Efforts in 1996

UNHCR and the government of Zaire decided in February 1996 to tighten controls and limit refugees' movements in selected camps in Goma and Bukavu in hopes of stopping commercial traffic on the sites. The "administrative closure" of the sites was also meant to provoke refugees who would be reassured by the presence of additional soldiers in the repatriation staging areas. And, acting finally to separate "intimidators," Zairian troops detained 10 Rwandans alleged to be stopping or dissuading refugees from leaving Goma camps. Three weeks after the closure was announced the operation foundered, with soldiers complaining they had not been paid and abandoning their posts around camps. Only a few hundred refugees had boarded UNHCR buses back to Rwanda.

At the one-year mark after the Bujumbura conference, UNHCR stated to the OAU's Follow-Up Committee in Addis Ababa "the need for strong and unequivocal signals by the Rwandese Government aimed at ensuring respect for human rights, and at reassuring refugees about their security upon return and the restitution of their property." To give refugees reliable news of their areas of origin, UNHCR established centres in each of the Goma camps where refugees could see videos and get information on their home prefectures and communes.

By May however, security incidents in both Rwanda and Zaire and cross-border attacks had increased. The High Commissioner reflected UNHCR's apprehension at the increased violence when she reported to the Security Council on June 28, 1996, that "New comprehensive measures are urgently needed to break the deadlock in the repatriation."

The problems of security and the absence of sustained, voluntary repatriation were the same ones that had greeted all previous attempts to break the impasse, only now the positions seemed immovable. UNHCR proposed a new strategy. The first three elements were: the temporary relocation of camps away from borders; real action against the ex-FAR and former leaders; and, in the face of more incursions to Rwanda, the monitoring of borders.

At that time UNHCR also evoked the possibility of further violence in the region. The forced return advocated by many observers was not advisable as "there are still human rights concerns in Rwanda. I am also convinced that in that case (i.e. a forced return) large numbers of refugees would fan out and destabilize other regions of Zaire," the High Commissioner said.

The idea of a forced return became reality on 19 July, 1996, when Burundi authorities ordered aid workers out of two camps of Rwandan refugees and commandeered trucks in order to transfer them back to Rwanda. Northern Burundi had hosted as many as 200,000 refugees in seven camps since June of 1994.

International pressure again halted the expulsion of Rwandan refugees, after 15,000 people had been deposited across the border. But increased political tension, culminating in a military coup in Burundi on 25 July, 1996, prompted the remaining 70,000 Rwandan refugees in Burundi to return.

Events of October-December 1996

Mrs. Ogata assessed the crisis for the agency's Executive Committee on 7 October 1996 and concluded that "probably never before has my Office found its humanitarian concerns in the midst of such a lethal quagmire of political and security interests." In the run-up to the first attack on a refugee camp in mid-October, political tension and recommendations had multiplied, with Zaire threatening again to expel all refugees and senior US officials advising that camps in Zaire and Tanzania be closed. The pattern of insecurity became more dense until the outbreak of open combat north of Uvira between government troops and Banyamulenge rebels. (Of Tutsi ethnicity, the group had lived in the South Kivu region of Zaire for generations. The rebel groups were quickly to federate themselves as the Alliance de Forces Démocratiques de Libération, or AFDL.)

Fighting quickly spread north from Uvira to Bukavu and then to Goma. Refugees repeatedly fled before the sites were targeted and destroyed, a scenario which was repeated over and over across a zone which hosted over one million Rwandan and Burundi refugees in almost 40 camps. The last international aid workers were evacuated during heavy fighting from Bukavu on 29 October, and from Goma on 2 November, 1996.

With no first-hand information on the fate of the refugees, aid agencies called on the belligerents to allow access to the border towns inside Zaire. On November 7 UNHCR urged nations to send a neutral force that could set up humanitarian corridors, but, in negotiations reminiscent of 1994, the Security Council delayed action on a military option. The discussion turned to a debate over the precise goals of an eventual mission. On 12 November, Canada proposed itself to lead a multinational force (MNF) in securing aid and passage to the refugees scattered, in some cases, by three weeks of fighting. UNHCR strongly supported the case for the MNF, which had been mandated by Security Council resolution 1080.

On November 15 1996, after an offensive by the AFDL, a column of Rwandans began moving from Mugunga camp west of Goma to Gisenyi, in northwest Rwanda. The flow was to continue for six days at a rate which reached several thousand people an hour. Eventually, an estimated 600,000 people were moving along main roads directly to their communes of origin back in Rwanda. Besides stretching aid personnel and resources thin inside Rwanda, the sudden return of over half a million refugees dispelled the sense of immediacy about locating and assisting the Rwandans still in Zaire. The MNF debated different options for an intervention, including setting up land corridors and airdropping food in the heavily forested region west of Lake Kivu, but support for the mission eroded and the last 16 Canadian advance military personnel left their Kampala base by the end of December.

One month to the day after the movement began from Zaire, refugees began arriving in southeast Rwanda from Tanzania. The return followed bilateral contacts between Rwanda and Tanzania and an attempt by camp leaders to thwart repatriation by provoking the entire population of the camps to disperse away from the border with Rwanda. Surrounded by Tanzanian soldiers, the refugees were directed back to Rwanda on foot, where they were received by aid agencies which had used lessons learned from the Goma return to prepare. Initially, the reintegration in the eastern part of the country went smoothly.

Events in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, December 1996-1997

As in 1994, the collapse of international support for a military force to assist humanitarian agencies left them without physical protection for activities which required operating in extremely dangerous circumstances. Contrary to 1994, the refugees had not stopped on the far side of an international boundary but were being pursued by a front line in a spreading civil conflict. Further complicating the task of reaching groups with assistance or the means of returning to Rwanda were the desperate ex-FAR and Interahamwe, who drove tens of thousands of Rwandan civilians westward, on occasion cynically using them as human shields.

The first sightings on the ground in early December of large groups of Rwandans came in zones then still controlled by the Zairian Government - Tingi Tingi (an estimated 120,000 people), Amisi (40,000) and Shabunda (40,000). Prior to these contacts there had been different views, extending to debate at the Security Council, as to how many Rwandans remained in Zaire after the November mass return, with UNHCR and aid agencies unable to account for many tens of thousands formerly in the camps.

UNHCR maintained its plan to regain access to refugee groups in the rebel-held areas, repeatedly pressing the AFDL for safe passage west from Bukavu and Goma. The agency considered possible returns by land and air. In February 1997 the High Commissioner travelled to the region, extracting a pledge from AFDL leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila that he would not press his advance to the refugee encampments at Amisi and Tingi Tingi. However, the AFDL soon pushed bands of fighters (some of whom were being rearmed on those sites) and refugees to the east bank of the Congo river in early March. An estimated 160,000 Rwandans massed opposite the town of Ubundu just as aid workers were forced to leave Kisangani, 125 kms to the north and soon besieged by AFDL troops.

During March the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights situation stated that he had detailed evidence of human rights violations in both North and South Kivu. The claims of the UN Human Rights report were soon bolstered by widespread testimony from NGOs and others of killings of Rwandans in the area.

On March 19, 1997, four days after the fall of Kisangani to the AFDL, UNHCR returned to the city. In the next week staff traveling south towards Ubundu came upon tens of thousands of Rwandans moving north in search of food, medical assistance and shelter. Planning was immediately started for the evacuation of the Rwandans, who overwhelmingly declared their desire to be repatriated; basic camp infrastructure was rushed to two sites designated by the new authorities, 25 and 42 kms south of Kisangani.

The catastrophic physical condition of the refugees, along with the extremely wary AFDL attitude towards the Rwandans' presence, compelled UNHCR to immediately return everyone to Rwanda who was fit to travel. UNHCR's blueprint for the return by air of Rwandans from Kisangani received the approval of the AFDL on 5 April. During the run-up to the start date, a campaign was orchestrated by local officials, media and villagers to delay or thwart the evacuation from Kisangani. The sabotage culminated in armed attacks by soldiers, on the night of April 20, on the camp population of 80,000 in Kasese and Biaro. For three days UNHCR and other aid personnel were denied access to the left bank of the river, the only way to reach the camps.

When UNHCR and international media were permitted to return to the sites they found the camps empty of refugees, save 20 corpses in Biaro which bore the marks of machete wounds. There was no sign of the several thousand extremely vulnerable refugees registered beforehand, including thousands who were judged too weak to walk and hundreds of unaccompanied minors and patients who had been in a cholera isolation unit. The spectacle of destruction and abandoned camps obliged the AFDL authorities to allow UNHCR to start the airlift for Rwandans who began to emerge from the forest.

The authorities maintained pressure on the operation by setting a 60-day deadline for the completion of the evacuation and limiting the number of hours staff were able to spend near the re-inhabited refugee sites. Terrified refugees stormed a goods train being used as transport to the Kisangani ferry. The incident on May 4 claimed the lives of almost 100 people who suffocated or were crushed on the overcrowded railcars. A hastily assembled fleet of leased aircraft would eventually bring more than 43,000 Rwandans home from Kisangani, flying to more than 20 other sites as UNHCR caught up with thousands more Rwandans who had fanned out across Zaire.

By September 1997, UNHCR had evacuated over 63,000 Rwandans by air. These joined 215,000 people returned overland since December 1996 from an extensive network of collection points to the west of Goma and Bukavu.

On September 4, authorities in Kisangani blocked UNHCR from reaching a transit center which still held over 600 Rwandans and Burundi, many undergoing medical treatment in preparation for eventual repatriation. Over two days during which UNHCR was denied all access, the transit center population was flown back to Kigali. The High Commissioner reported on the incident to the Security Council on 9 September, announcing her decision to suspend operations for Rwandan refugees because of the lack of access to, and basic rights for, refugees and inadequate security for humanitarian workers.

The next month UNHCR was ordered by the authorities, along with other agencies and NGOs working with refugees, to immediately leave Goma. An instruction on 2 October from the Government of the newly-named Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, ex-Zaire) also commanded local authorities to seal the border between Rwanda and the DRC in the face of new arrivals from northwest Rwanda, where security incidents had caused several thousand people to flee their homes. UNHCR staff began leaving Goma on 6 October. On that date also the High Commissioner issued a press release, strongly denouncing expulsions of the recent Rwandan arrivals by the DRC. "We were forced to suspend our operations for Rwandan refugee there (the DRC) after our efforts to help these people had been frustrated at every turn," she said.

The 63,000 airlifted to Rwanda included 1,481 people who had crossed from the DRC into Congo Brazzaville. The 15,000 Rwandans identified in May 1997 at Loukolela, Njoundou, Impfondo and in the capital itself were the first large groups or refugees contacted outside the first country of asylum, a phenomenon which would expand to other countries in the region, and which would present UNHCR with new and substantial protection challenges still being addressed today.

While the agency was able to provide assistance and the option to repatriate to some of the Rwandans, many were in places where UNHCR was not able to intervene on their behalf. In August 1997, for example, over 150 Rwandans - including eight which had been recognized as refugees by the Government and UNHCR - were expelled from Gabon and flown directly to Kigali.

Current Situation

In February 1998 the High Commissioner travelled to the Great Lakes for the seventh time. She emphasized the necessity and possibility of reconciling refugee protection with the interests of States and their populations, especially on the subject of security. Discussions with national leaders covered steps to ensure the purely civilian character of refugee camps and UNHCR's need for access to refugees and returnees to meet its mandated responsibilities. In Rwanda, President Bizimungu expressed the Government's wish to see UNHCR maintain its role in the country's post-return reconstruction process.

UNHCR is dedicated to carrying out its protection, reintegration and rehabilitation activities in the Great Lakes region, as elsewhere, in collaboration with States, and the consultations with regional governments will continue at a two-day ministerial-level meeting later this week in Kampala, Uganda. Although the character and magnitude of its operation in the Great Lakes have changed and the agency's budget has decreased by $55 million compared to spending in 1997, the search for solutions in the region still requires firm political, moral and financial support from the international community.

Principal features of the agency's work in the region at present are the care and maintenance of camps sheltering 260,000 Burundi refugees in Tanzania, and where possible, facilitating their repatriation to safe areas in Burundi, and the ongoing repatriation of tens of thousands of Congolese by boat across Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania. Wherever UNHCR is overseeing refugee returns or reintegration, close monitoring of the process is central to its activities.

The issue of approximately 80,000 Rwandans presently located in 14 countries in Africa must be resolved as part of a global approach to regional stability, and UNHCR is concerned also that governments should complete the screening exercise begun in 1997.

Screening of Residual Rwandans

UNHCR's Statute, the UN Refugee Convention and the OAU Convention contain refugee definitions and clauses defining who should be excluded from refugee protection. Under these provisions, States parties may institute procedures for assessing refugee claims to determine whether individuals qualify for refugee status. These provisions were not designed for situations of mass influx. Formal determination of refugee status of individuals in such situations is generally not necessary, with a prima facie determination of the status of the group generally declared.

Following the return of the vast majority of refugees to Rwanda, UNHCR has sought to encourage States to adopt a uniform approach to Rwandans who refuse to repatriate by instituting refugee status determination procedures. Most states in the region have agreed to try to do so, despite serious practical and legal obstacles to implementation. These problems include finding safe and accessible places to hold the residual groups, deploy staff and conduct the procedures, often in very remote locations; difficulties in fact finding, determining credibility, and problems of proof in applying the exclusion clause to those suspected of involvement in the genocide; and the security risks which are inevitably entailed in conducting an exercise of this nature.

As noted earlier, the determination of refugee status, including exclusion from such status, is the treaty responsibility of States. UNHCR's role is to offer advice and support to governments, though measures such as training, and to generally help implement the process. In exceptional cases, if requested UNHCR may take the lead on behalf of States under its Statutory mandate responsibility. UNHCR has agreed to do this in some states in the region with respect to the residual Rwandan caseload.

Screening the residual Rwandan caseload is a highly difficult, complex and resource-intensive exercise. In some locations, it is also dangerous. To date, the status of some 4,000 Rwandans has been or is in the process of being determined by governments with UNHCR support.

This exercise represents a serious attempt to identify and exclude from refugee protection individuals who were involved in the genocide in Rwanda. Those excluded may be referred to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for prosecution. The Office of the Prosecutor is supportive of this process, although it has only limited capacity to prosecute cases. Information on those listed by the Government of Rwanda and the ICTR is shared and fully taken into account in the process. Host governments may also prosecute such persons under their complementary responsibilities under international law (as urged by the Security Council in Resolution 955). Regional States have not demonstrated to date that they are either willing or able to undertake such action. Those determined to be refugees and who are not excluded from international protection are entitled to continued asylum under the OAU Convention.

In the case of any armed elements among these residual groups, UNHCR has urged that these persons be separated and interned by the host government, with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

If it is to be successful, refugee status determination of residual groups of Rwandans who refuse to return to Rwanda is an undertaking which will require continued strong political support and financial backing to ensure the necessary resources for an extremely difficult exercise.

Activities Within Rwanda

A total sum of approximately US $ 127 million has been spent by UNHCR inside Rwanda itself between 1994 to 1997. UNHCR's first actions following the 1994 genocide were on behalf of people who were then returning from an exile from the former government which had begun as far back as 1959, and who were settled on land provided by the government. According to government and UNHCR figures, approximately one quarter of Rwanda's present population has returned to the country since 1994. Despite instability in parts of the country and an extremely poor national economy, the vast majority of the returnees have reintegrated and resumed their lives.

Rehabilitation projects were designed to create conditions in Rwanda conducive to the return of both "old" and "new" caseload refugees, and vulnerable groups, including survivors of the genocide and women head of households, who were given special assistance. Besides direct aid to returning refugees, UNHCR carried out programmes that would shore up the country's ravaged basic infrastructure, including (exceptionally) financial support to its judicial system. The goal of reducing tensions within the Rwandan population guided support to the areas of shelter, water, health and education. Shelter projects in particular have been seen as a necessary means to contribute to the reconciliation process.

UNHCR's programmes planned for 1998 amount to some $59 million in Rwanda and include: assisting another 25,000 returnee families to construct dwellings; working to encourage the integration and active participation of women in the economic and social development of the country; and providing aid and protection to 30,000 Congolese refugees who cannot yet return to their homes in eastern DRC. Due to projected funding shortfalls, however, UNHCR's budget may have to be reduced to some $39 million. This would mean, for example, that UNHCR would only be able to provide shelter assistance to 2,000 returnee families rather than 25,000. UNHCR and the Government agree that such a reduction would have a negative impact on the reintegration process and related reconciliation efforts.


The Great Lakes crisis has shown the limits of humanitarian action, particularly in conflict situations. In the area of international refugee protection, the crucial underpinnings of the system are broad respect for the rule of law and political support. The increasing tendency for refugees to be caught in conflict situations and essentially lawless environments, as in part of the Great Lakes region, has raised unforeseen challenges for refugee protection. Without due process within a legal framework, the system cannot function properly. In situations where this is lacking, strong political support (and perhaps military backing) to uphold the system are necessary. Regrettably, this essential legal and political support has often been absent in recent years. Until the refugee problem in the Great Lakes region is finally resolved, such support by States will continue to be required.

1 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 150

2 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 19 U.S.T. 6223, 606 U.N.T.S. 267

3 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, September 10, 1969, 1001 U.N.T.S. 45

4 Article I (4) provides " This Convention shall cease to apply to any refugee if: ... .(e) he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he was recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality ... "