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Opening Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on Conflict and Humanitarian Action, Princeton, N.J., 22-23 October 1993

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on Conflict and Humanitarian Action, Princeton, N.J., 22-23 October 1993

23 October 1993

Dear colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When Ambassador Olara Otunnu and I first discussed, several months ago, the idea of a jointly sponsored conference on the pressing topic of humanitarian action in conflict environments, we could not have hoped for a better attendance and venue.

Indeed, I am delighted that such a wide gamut of officials, scholars and independent personalities representing all the facets of international society involved with or concerned by this major challenge of our time, responded favourably to our invitation. It is only apt that we should meet at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. The proximity of New York is also most appropriate, for reflection on questions such as those on our agenda, should never be remote from the policy and decision-making centres. Neither should it be distant from the actual realities on the ground with which those that my Office is confronted - perhaps I should say threatened - with on a daily, in some parts of the world, or an hourly basis. This is why the IPA and UNHCR felt it was essential that a cross-section of senior diplomats, international civil servants, researchers, academies, non-governmental activists, journalists and actual practitioners gather to exchange views and experiences in the quest of greater clarity and consensus over immensely complex dimensions of our new turbulent era.

And because we are here to engage in a dynamic debate, I shall keep my opening remarks brief, particularly since I have requested two of my colleagues to present to you the experience my Office has gained recently in two of its main operations, namely Cambodia and the former-Yugoslavia.

I have asked my colleagues to be forthright in their presentations. You will understand that the choices they face daily on the ground are real, the tensions agonizing. Every day, in their work and around them they see the limits of humanitarian action, and the significance of political action. Their expectations of what should be pursued politically are understandably high.

The choice was of the two case-studies was logical. At a time when internal conflicts are pervasive and blow to pieces the modern state architecture, former-Yugoslavia stands out as an ominous example of what unchecked nationalist outbursts can do to federal structures. Hatred of the other appears to have become the main source of national identity, as in the most primitive stages of human history. The type of conflict that we witness in the Balkans today is a cancer that can spread through the entire fabric of national and international society. Consequently, the way in which we manage - or mismanage - and eventually resolve this as well as other similar conflicts will be a test of our ability to control what could otherwise take epidemic proportions.

I am not being unduly alarmistic when I say that internal conflicts gradually acquire an international dimension - either because of the collapse of multi-ethnic states or as a result of foreign intervention - and that their multiplication is a major blow to world stability in what appears, perhaps mistakenly, as a post-ideological phase of contemporary history.

Those who claimed that history had come to an end, were simplistically premature in their judgement. History is undergoing a deep and traumatic metamorphosis that we can yet neither fully comprehend nor, worse still, claim to direct. The Balkans are a sad illustration of the sort of war that one would expect in Europe - particularly after the CSCE framework came about - to be immune from. Not only is that not the case, but all of us appear to be sinking deeper every day into that horrendous quagmire. The cost of that war in human, principled and ethical - let alone in political and financial - terms, is such that I and my colleagues are finding it increasingly hard to accept and live with.

The former-Yugoslavia must not be allowed to become a routine humanitarian operation as nothing in it is routine-like. Every day brings its new catalogue of shameless and calculated violations of human rights, humanitarian law applicable to conflicts and to basic, and universally accepted, humanitarian principles, despite the strict observance on our part of the neutrality, impartiality and non-political nature of our mandate.

The fundamental issue in the former-Yugoslavia, on which I would very much welcome your thoughts is the following: how long and how far can a humanitarian institution go in assisting and, to some extent, saving the victims, without damaging its image, credibility and principles and the self-respect of its staff in the face of manipulation, blackmail, abuse, humiliation and murder?

When I agreed with Ambassador Otunnu to take up the operation in former-Yugoslavia as a case to be presented here, to be honest I had expected that we would have entered by now a new phase. I had hoped that we would be at the beginning of an end, so to speak, that we have been struggling, by now with the implementation of some peace agreement, however difficult that might have been.

Today, the prospects for peace having receded, the situation in former-Yugoslavia is, in both political and humanitarian terms, more alarming than ever. Currently, we are proceeding with the winterization programme, pre-positioning goods, food, medicine, fuel, clothing, for a planned beneficiary of 2.74 million in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Gaining access in order to deliver assistance is the major challenge. We shall put all our efforts to negotiate for access, with all parties, at all levels. Gaining some humanitarian space is the topmost priority of the day.

The operation in Cambodia has been selected because it represents a different case. We chose it to counter-balance the seemingly unmanageable nature of, as it were, "new generation" conflicts. Without going into the historical complexities that gradually sucked Cambodia into the war in Indo-China, it is a fact that the conflict in that country - including the US and Vietnamese interventions in the seventies - essentially belongs to the Cold War era.

It took twenty-three years to extract Cambodia from war and for the international community to resolve its humanitarian problems, is a clear indication that political settlements are possible only when the resolve of international and national actors converge. It should also serve as a warning to those who may think that protracted humanitarian disasters, as well as their root causes, can in future be allowed to last for decades.

The fact that the Cambodian operation was successfully concluded does not mean that there were no hard choices, both operational and humanitarian, that had to be confronted. However, the overall political framework, together with clear UN division of responsibility and cooperation, greatly facilitated the pursuit of joint efforts.

The Cambodian example, like the one in El Salvador and, it is hoped, soon in Mozambique, draws the way forward. Indeed, irrespective of the generation to which the conflict belongs, a comprehensive political settlement remains the crucial key to solution of humanitarian crises.

For me and my Office, the striking difference between Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia is that, in the former, we played our role in a global - however difficult - conflict resolution endeavour, whereas, in the latter, our role is being played within the logistical micro-management of a major humanitarian operation at the periphery of a political vacuum.

The intimate relationship between the humanitarian and the political is, or must be made evident. I agree that the radical distinction between the two, as propounded and hypocritically practised since the Second World War, is obsolete. But the linkage must be reestablished without the specificity of humanitarian mandates being overlooked and their neutrality and impartiality being compromised.

This specificity is particularly important because humanitarian assistance is much more than relief and logistics. It is essentially and above all, about protection - protection of victims of human rights and humanitarian violations.

Working to protection nationals in their own country in the midst of conflict, whether they be returning refugees as in Cambodia or internally displaced and besieged population as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has challenged many existing dogmas and doctrines of national sovereignty and international responsibility. It has posed moral and legal dilemmas for UNHCR: how to protect lives and prevent even greater displacement, how to promote repatriation in the face of uncertainty and instability. There are no easy answers to these problems, but they do highlight very strongly the tension between the political and humanitarian that we are here to measure and address.

I am convinced that short, intense and representative dialogues of the type we are about to have are a necessity if we wish to exercise a modicum of control over events that most of the time seem to control us. I very much hope that this Conference will be a first, intellectually-rewarding step towards greater international responsibility - especially on the part of the political and humanitarian organs of the UN and of the various United Nations protagonists - in preventing or resolving conflicts with their host of human tragedies. We must constantly act in the knowledge that behind our efforts lie millions of human lives.