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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 25 March 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 25 March 1993

25 March 1993

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since we last met, on 4 December 1992, the situation in former Yugoslavia has deteriorated further. The worst of winter is over, but the arrival of spring has brought no signs of hope.

In Croatia, serious fighting erupted near UNPA South in late January, compelling hundreds of newly displaced persons to flee. With only a few days to go before the expiration of UNPROFOR's mandate on 31 March, a ceasefire is still to be established.

In Yugoslavia, intimidation, often perpetrated by paramilitary groups, is on the increase in Kosovo and the Sandzjak.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are new waves of displacement. The last survivors of "ethnic cleansing" are being forced to flee the areas under Serbian control. Only two weeks ago, five of the mosques were blown up in a village in the north-eastern part of the country. My staff have also reported instances of harassment, violence and expulsion against ethnic Serbs in the town of Mostar. Despite public outrage and the arduous efforts of the ICRC, 2,700 persons continue to be held prisoner in inhumane conditions by all three parties. The real number of detainees may be much higher. The wanton destruction of Sarajevo and the killing of its inhabitants goes on. The advance by Serb forces on government enclaves in eastern Bosnia continues unabated.

Indeed, even as we meet, new villages are being overrun in the Srebrenica enclave, forcing the survivors - at the rate of hundreds per day - to seek refuge in Srebrenica town, which is under regular bombardment. We are being prevented from bringing food and medical care to the civilian population. Only one convoy was allowed to reach Srebrenica since last December. This was on 19th March, after much lengthy and confusing negotiations on the ground and at the political level. But since then no convoys have been allowed to proceed. Reports indicate that the situation has worsened in the past 24 hours. While new arrivals continue to pour into Srebrenica, those already there are desperate to leave. You will have followed the press reports about the deliberate shelling of helicopters which were trying to evacuate the wounded yesterday.

It is against this deeply distressing background of intensified fighting that we must focus on the international humanitarian effort to relieve the suffering of the victims on all sides of the conflict. Let me first turn to the situation in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. So far, our efforts have largely concentrated on meeting the survival needs of the refugee population. In the absence of peace and political settlement, I am afraid that we are confronted with a prolonged refugee situation in these countries. Therefore, while the emphasis for the rest of 1993 will remain on emergency relief, especially in the sectors of food and shelter, we intend at the same time to provide increased support in the field of public health, education and community services. UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO will also try to strengthen local infrastructures in the field of medical care and social services in favour of the many traumatized victims of war, including victims of sexual abuse. Let me take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for the efforts of WHO, UNICEF and WFP, as I am for the contribution made by a number of international and local NGOs, with whom we work in close partnership.

We must also recognise the very heavy burden which the large numbers of refugees place on Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and the risk that remains of massive secondary displacement towards other European states. As a preemptive measure I believe it is crucial to expand the assistance given to host families, who are carrying the main cost of the hospitality in these republics. I call on the Sanctions Committee not to block this essential and purely humanitarian contribution to the host families in Serbia and Montenegro.

While our strategy should continue to aim at providing protection and assistance to the victims as close as possible to their homes, let me express my appreciation for the ongoing dialogue between my Office and a large number of interested States, on the notion of temporary protection in other countries for those fleeing former Yugoslavia. I hope that this afternoon's meeting will be a fruitful one, exploring further the standards of protection in a humanitarian spirit. I trust that all States which have introduced visa requirements will apply them in a liberal manner and will pay due respect also to the principle of family unity.

Let me now share with you my concerns on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Following the assessment of the inter-agency mission, the number of beneficiaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina has risen from 1.6 to 2.28 million persons. This is a startling figure, amounting to 50% of the original Bosnian population of 4.3 million, and to more than two-thirds of those who have remained inside the country. These figures represent the enormous suffering and devastation resulting from the war and the virtual collapse of the local economy, particularly in the Tuzla region. Tensions between Bosnian Croat forces and the government side are severely hampering the free circulation of commercial goods in central Bosnia. People are out of work, food and other reserves are depleting rapidly, and worse energy shortages are to be expected. In the light of these increased needs I am concerned about the serious shortfall in pledges of food aid. According to WFP only 63.000 mt have been pledged for the period April-June, against a monthly minimum requirement of 57.000 mt. Unless more pledges are forthcoming, we will be forced to suspend the airlift because the warehouses will soon be empty.

Clearly, the relief effort requires the sustained support of the donor community. The assistance received thus far, has been impressive. I hope, that your response to the revised consolidated inter-agency appeal, which we have issued jointly with DHA, will be equally generous, enabling all participating organizations to implement their planned activities.

While I am proud and relieved that the provision of food, medicine and winterisation material has prevented mass death and starvation during the winter months, I continue to be deeply concerned about the political manipulation and military obstruction of our relief efforts.

The list of security incidents continues to grow. In early February, one of our staff members, a local driver, was tragically killed while pursuing his duties. On 4 March a French relief worker was killed by a direct shot in the head on the road between Sarajevo and Split. On 19 March, a UK relief flight to Sarajevo was shot at by anti-aircraft fire when approaching Sarajevo airport, forcing me (yet again) to interrupt the airlift operation, just hours after it marked the 3,000th sortie.

Despite these difficulties, we are managing to reach Sarajevo and central Bosnia, thanks also to the efforts of UNPROFOR. I am pleased to report that the establishment of a Joint Planning Cell in Zagreb last January, has improved the coordination between UNPROFOR and UNHCR. We look forward to further enhance our cooperation with UNPROFOR in terms of planning, negotiations in the field and at the political level.

My biggest concern remains the government-held enclaves in eastern Bosnia where access has not only been hampered and delayed but in many instances denied altogether. I have already spoken of the dire conditions in Srebrenica. I am very grateful for the air drops conducted by the US government but, as we all recognise, they cannot be a substitute for access by land.

In our attempts to gain access to central Bosnia and the eastern enclaves, we are also being blocked by local warlords who purport to levy tax on our relief by demanding that we unload part of the cargo at their checkpoint. Let me make it clear that we do not succumb to such blackmail. While we are even-handed in providing relief to those in need on all sides of the conflict, it has been and will remain our clear policy to resist all attempts to force us to hand over any part of our goods at checkpoints, even if failure to do so might mean having to turn back our convoys. The alternative - to give in to blackmail - would be the beginning of a rapid slide into total anarchy on the humanitarian front.

I find it equally unacceptable that access and the evacuation of wounded persons and other vulnerable groups, a recognized principle under the Geneva Conventions, are now being made contingent upon politically motivated exchanges of population. This is what has happened in the case of Srebrenica. We must be allowed, as a minimum, to bring relief to people in distress and, if necessary, to ensure the safe passage of persons forced to flee. Humanitarian access must be unconditional; any other policy would be legally and morally wrong and politically dangerous. It would expose the entire relief effort to blatant and continuous pressure. I reject attempts by any party to link humanitarian access to other issues. I have constantly and forcefully been raising these issues with the political leaders on the ground. Right now, as I am speaking, my Special Envoy, Mr. José-María Mendiluce, is meeting with President Milosevic to push the same points. I have asked Mr. Mendiluce to insist with Mr. Milosevic that he uses his undoubtedly considerable leverage to guarantee the safety of the civilian population in Srebrenica and their safe passage if they are compelled to move. I have also asked my Special Envoy to report to me immediately on his meeting and I may have further information for you in the course of this morning. We have also drawn up contingency plans on the ground, in close consultation with UNPROFOR, ICRC and Médecins sans Frontières, to bring emergency assistance to the some 30,000 people in Srebrenica, both where they are now and in case they have to move.

I am pleased that the Security Council has condemned the sinister combination of military attacks and denial of humanitarian access. International organisations must be allowed regular access to and a permanent presence in these enclaves. I very much hope that UNPROFOR will also be able to ensure a firm presence in eastern Bosnia, before more time passes and more victims perish.

The concerns which I have highlighted underscore the critical importance of an immediate cessation of hostilities on all sides, and of a political breakthrough. I am therefore anxiously following the peace process in New York and the Croatian-Serb negotiations in Geneva. It is now clearer than ever before that only the political decision makers can put a halt to the suffering, violence and persecution.

I am afraid the prospects are grim. The number of beneficiaries of our assistance programme in the whole of ex-Yugoslavia is now 3.8 million, up from 500,000 in December 1991 when UNHCR began to operate in the region. The signs ahead are of a prolonged and worsening emergency. But we are determined to carry on with our humanitarian mission. I hope I can count on your sustained and generous support.

Thank you.