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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 20 November 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 20 November 1998

20 November 1998
Overview of the situation in the Province of KosovoSustainable return movementsPeople Displaced Outside the Kosovo ProvinceUpdate on implementation of UNHCR's regional strategyConclusion

High Commissioner Robinson,
Special Representative Rehn,
Deputy High Representative Bearpark,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to welcome you here today to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group.

At the last meeting of the HIWG in June, I asked whether a region where 1.8 million people continue to live away from home can be called "normal." Five months later, some 1.7 million people from the earlier conflicts, and over 300,000 people displaced within and from the province of Kosovo and Metohija within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have yet to return to their pre-conflict homes. Those seeking to return continue to face threats and intimidation. But, as I informed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council two days ago, the return continues, showing the desire to go home and a willingness to brave the odds.

Today, I shall focus on the latest humanitarian developments in the province of Kosovo and the priority humanitarian programme, as well as some protection-related implications. I will then provide an update on implementation of UNHCR's regional strategy for return, which was endorsed by the June meeting of the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council and at the last HIWG meeting in Geneva. Finally, I will cover the next steps in addressing the challenges ahead.

Overview of the situation in the Province of Kosovo

Since June, the Kosovo crisis within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has remained of deep international concern. When we last met, some 77,000 people had been displaced by the conflict: 12,000 into Albania and 65,000 within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At that time, I warned that the consequences of the violence could be grave, with destabilizing effects in the entire region. I therefore urged an early political solution.

The period from June until October saw a spiral of violence, with a heavy impact on civilian populations. Many observers confirmed reports of indiscriminate shelling and excessive use of force by government security forces. It included the wilful destruction of homes and property, as well as the killing of livestock and the burning of crops. Grave human rights violations were attributed to the Kosovo Liberation Army, as well as governmental forces. When I visited the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in September, I urged President Milosevic to do everything in his power to contain the violence and to bring back people who were displaced in the open.

The period since the last HIWG meeting witnessed a steep rise in the number of those displaced by the conflict, impacting the entire region, including the Republic of Montenegro, as well as Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. While attempting to meet the needs of its own returning refugees and displaced persons, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also become an asylum country for persons fleeing from Kosovo.

The October 13 accord between US Special Envoy Holbrooke and President Milosevic, as well as related subsequent agreements, have raised hopes for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The pullback of Yugoslav Army units and Serbian security forces from villages and highways in Kosovo which began on October 27, combined with the worsening weather conditions, have led to significant return of displaced persons.

We estimate that some 175,000 people remain displaced inside Kosovo. Those living in the open have either returned to their villages or found temporary shelter with family or friends. But over half of Kosovo's municipalities have been affected in some way. Many people are either displaced themselves or hosting displaced persons. Municipalities outside the conflict-affected area also host displaced persons or have been indirectly affected by the conflict.

The first phase of an inter-agency shelter survey has assessed over 35,000 houses in damaged villages. Some 30 percent of the homes surveyed so far are destroyed, 30 percent have varying degrees of damage and 40 percent are undamaged. We are focusing our efforts on urgent repairs to protect against winter conditions. During the winter months, we will identify housing that can be made habitable with more substantial work, and support a start to this where possible. Significant local self-help capacity exists and is already evident.

Sustainable return movements

Return movements in the province of Kosovo will remain fragile unless and until a solid foundation for a political settlement is created. Let me now focus on the crucial elements needed.

First, safe conditions for return must be set and respected by both sides. The "reprisal killings" by government authorities and Kosovo Liberation Army members, and other violent breaches of the cease-fire must stop. While government forces have withdrawn from some areas, their presence still inhibits return in others. Incidents, such as the governmental authorities' overnight detention last week of an entire village population only serve to spur fear and renewed displacement. Able-bodied men are particularly targeted for suspected allegiance to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Here, the rapid adoption of a genuine amnesty is crucial. Of course, further stabilization of the security situation is linked to compliance with the cease-fire by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Second, it is vital that the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission be urgently and fully deployed. Monitoring of compliance by both sides with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions must begin as soon as possible. A fully deployed OSCE verification staff will also provide a sense of security to all communities where it is present. My Office has flagged priority areas to which OSCE verifiers should be deployed. In addition, our liaison officers maintain daily contact with OSCE to support needed, viable coordination. The Head of my Office in Pristina is today with Ambassador Walker at OSCE headquarters in Vienna. And we will contribute to the induction of verification staff, which starts soon. Meanwhile, the current reinforcement of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission, which will be absorbed by the OSCE mission, is most welcome.

Third, for return to be sustainable, land mines and other unexploded devices must be urgently identified and removed. The tragic loss of life when an ICRC vehicle exploded a mine on September 30 a distressing reminder of the daily risks faced by humanitarian staff and civilians in the province of Kosovo. While numbers are thankfully apparently not large, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines are present, as well as booby-traps in villages vacated by the police. Here, I welcome the United Nations initiative to dispatch a special mission of the Mine Action Service to survey mine risks in the region.

People Displaced Outside the Kosovo Province

Of those displaced by the conflict in Kosovo, we estimate there are some 60,000 persons elsewhere in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, some 35,000 in neighbouring countries, and some 40,000 who have sought asylum further away. Creating conditions for sustainable return should, of course, allow the voluntary repatriation of these persons too. In the Republic of Montenegro, the total number of displaced is estimated to have decreased to 40,000, with over 2,000 persons apparently having returned to the Kosovo province.

However, I am convinced that the extremely fragile conditions for return now in place do not allow for the promotion of their voluntary repatriation at this time. UNHCR will of course provide support, if necessary, to those already choosing to return. Nonetheless, I would recommend that we use the winter months to focus on the return of the internally displaced within Kosovo and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among them, while planning for overall repatriation

During this fragile period between the containment of the Kosovo conflict and continued peace efforts, UNHCR and its partners have markedly increased the delivery of relief supplies in Kosovo. Supplies are reaching areas that were inaccessible during the conflict. UNHCR staff in Kosovo now number some 70, with offices in Pristina, Pec, Prizren and Mitrovica. In this context, we continue close coordination with our partners, governmental authorities, and representatives of those we seek to help, as well as the KDOM and OSCE.

However, I must emphasize that UNHCR's role as lead humanitarian agency must remain clearly distinct from the KDOM, OSCE and NATO missions. Theirs are political missions. Our duties, however, are closely related, and we are fully committed to continued close coordination.

We must also look beyond winter to assistance towards economic recovery and development needs that go outside the scope of humanitarian action. If - as we all hope - progress is made towards a lasting and just peace, early consideration of these needs by the Government and international community is important. Non-discriminatory employment opportunities and services will be a necessary component of any sustainable settlement for the Kosovo region and elsewhere.

Update on implementation of UNHCR's regional strategy

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to the principal focus of today's working group: the implementation of the regional strategy for return presented by UNHCR to the June meeting of the PIC Steering Board in Luxembourg. You have before you a paper reviewing progress in and prospects for sustainable return and solutions.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the concerted efforts of the international community under the lead of the High Representative have advanced post-war normalization. Freedom of movement has been improved by introduction of common vehicle license plates. Advances were also evident in the conduct of the second post-Dayton national elections and in strengthening institutions for democratization and human rights.

I have been heartened to see the courage and determination of those wishing to return home despite the risks - even to places that have experienced violence. Arson, grenade attacks and acts of harassment continue to seek to dissuade the exercise of the rights set out in Annex 7. Nevertheless, my colleagues have reported a sharp increase in the number of assessment visits and preparations for return in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a strong indication that people have not given up hope in Annex 7.

In Croatia, international attention has focused on the implementation of the Government's Return Programme, approved by the Croatian Parliament on June 26, 1998, the day the HIWG met last time. Small-scale but significant return movements are taking place from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But return to Croatia from the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to begin in earnest - although a first group returned this month. We look to the Government Return Commission to make a more concerted effort to address obstacles to return.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia continues to shoulder the burden of hosting over one-half million long-term refugees, which is the largest refugee caseload in the entire region. Although the small-scale return of refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia has continued - and even accelerated - departures have been offset by new arrivals from the Danube region of Croatia. Developments this year in Kosovo have raised serious concerns for the safety of Croatian Serb refugees in that province, and UNHCR has increased its efforts on behalf of those among them who may qualify for third-country resettlement.

Throughout the region, many obstacles to durable solutions that we identified in June are still there. Those responsible for the armed conflict are in power and do not encourage ethnic reconciliation. Opposition to the return of displaced people, combined with continued harassment and intimidation of ethnic minorities, persist. The adoption and implementation of internationally acceptable property and housing legislation is still needed. Return is also hampered by the dire economic situation and poor employment prospects in the region.

Indeed, the challenge facing Dayton implementation in 1999 is to make the peace self-sustaining. Return is sustainable if it is accepted rather than imposed. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia, we must help create an open environment for minority returns. I greatly welcome the commitment of the international community, voiced through High Representative Westendorp, to achieve a much needed breakthrough for minority returns in 1999.

As I have repeatedly indicated, however, there are two major pre-conditions to achieve such a breakthrough: that the security of minority returnees - and of minorities in general - be maintained, and that property and especially housing problems be tackled through a comprehensive and, if possible, regional approach.

Security means that violence and intimidation must end. Police must protect all citizens. An independent judiciary must impose respect for the rule of law. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, SFOR must continue to substantially contribute to creating a secure environment. In this context, I welcome the timely deployment of the Multinational Specialized Unit of SFOR. By being able to step in in cases of local police inaction, the Unit can prevent violence in key areas and increase confidence within communities. The contribution of the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the International Police Task Force which it oversees will continue to be vital, as I know you will hear from Mrs. Rehn.

Regarding property - simply put - people need a physical home. Many remain unable to establish or enforce their ownership rights, or to enjoy their property even after ownership has been confirmed. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Commission for Real Property Claims can substantially contribute to improving housing management and creating a functioning property market. I would urge States to fund the Commission generously, as a means to support minority returns. For property in Croatia, there needs to be an effective mechanism performing functions similar to those of the Bosnian Commission.

While significant progress on security and property would create the initial breakthrough, we all appreciate that this alone will not be enough. Respect for human rights, good governance and open societies are basic needs for post-conflict recovery, reconciliation and sustainable return. Much depends on the authorities to achieve the necessary progress. The will to do so must be theirs. Progress made cannot any longer be imposed - for the most part - by the international community.

The actions of the international community will, however, remain of critical importance, and I should like to focus briefly on these.

First, if we are to achieve our committed breakthrough in minority returns in 1999, even greater coherence and unity of purpose is needed among international actors. The right of return should not bow to political considerations.

Second, the international community must uphold basic principles, such as the freedom to choose where to live. "Project-driven" returns have generally proved less effective than efforts to support the wishes of individuals and groups. Resources must follow the returnees. We must resolutely reject conditions and reciprocities to the right to return often invoked by authorities. Finally, we must not accept any linking of return to ethnic ratios or numerical limits.

Third, the international community must work to de-politicise local and nationalist return agendas that seek to advance political and territorial goals. Increased pressure for minority return can easily be manipulated.

Fourth, the RRTF has made great strides in identifying return-related needs and mobilizing international support. Coherent and well-prioritized support will continue to be needed, along with consistent and robust political action. UNHCR is of course working closely with the Office of the High Representative in the 1999 OHR/RRTF Action Plan.

Finally, we must not forget those who would freely choose to settle elsewhere than their original homes, even after a breakthrough on minority return. As we focus on achieving this breakthrough in 1999, we know that we cannot leave others in limbo much longer.


My Office, which has the humanitarian lead role in the region, as well as an institutional mandate on protection of refugees and returnees, will continue to seek solutions for those who remain displaced. In 1998, unfortunately, we have had to meet the needs of those newly displaced. I hope we do not see the repetition of such ordeal in the new year.

I am deeply grateful to donors for providing continued political support to UNHCR and our partners. The 1999 Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal will be issued by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in early December, and will also cover the province of Kosovo. I am confident it will enjoy the necessary support. Many donors have much larger and longer term commitments to the region that would be compromised if humanitarian action is not properly funded.

I am also extremely grateful to the High Representative and his Office, to NATO, the OSCE, ECHO, the Council of Europe and other European institutions, and to all UN, international and non-governmental organizations for their continued engagement in resolving the problems of displacement. New displacement in the region has compounded the search for durable solutions, but we will not be swayed in our determination to help people find solutions and get on with their lives. The hopes of hundreds of thousands of people to forge a better future for themselves and their children - for most by returning home - hinge on the success of our efforts to make the peace sustainable.

Thank you.