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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 former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 7 July 1994

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 former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 7 July 1994

7 July 1994

Let me welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia. Each time we meet, I am again heartened by the continuing interest in the humanitarian aspects of the terrible tragedy which has been plaguing the Balkans now for almost three years.

I have called this meeting to discuss with you the prospects for return of Bosnian refugees and displaced persons, a subject that has gained prominence in recent months, as well as the alarming state of funding of UNHCR's operation in former Yugoslavia, and, more generally, to take stock at this critical juncture. As regards the first subject, my Office has shared with you a Note setting out UNHCR's views on assistance to voluntarily returning refugees and displaced persons in the present situation. Let me not repeat what has been explained in this Note, but rather highlight a number of points in the context of current overall developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

First, I believe that we must be realistic and careful. As you will remember, I expressed cautious optimism when we last met, on 18 March, after my return from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb. This was shortly after agreement had been reached on the establishment of a Federation between two of the parties. Since then there has been steady improvement in many Federation areas, but this process is necessarily complex and thus slow. Commercial activity is growing, basic services are improving and civilian movement, based on visiting rights, between predominantly Bosniak and Bosnian Croat areas is increasing. Numbers are, however, very limited and all men of military age, i.e. between 18 and 55, remain excluded from any freedom of movement.

We very much hope that the strenuous mediation efforts of the Contact Group and of the Co-Chairmen of ICFY will now bear fruit. But it is of course very worrisome that there is still no overall peace settlement, and that various statements made by Bosnian government as well as Bosnian Serb officials in recent weeks clearly allude to the possibility of more widespread and intensive war. I was hopeful when on June 8 Mr. Akashi managed to broker a one month cease fire, but recent military offensives in northern Bosnia, this time resulting in the displacement of thousands of ethnic Serbs near Mount Ozren, demonstrate how volatile the situation is. Fighting can break out in unexpected locations, it can spread, and it can also undermine, and be meant to undermine, the rapprochement and process of normalization taking place elsewhere.

This brings me to my second point. The return of victims of war and persecution must be humanitarian in its objectives. It should represent a solution to human problems, it is not a military or a political tool. The return of refugees and displaced persons, and international assistance rendered for that purpose, should not become part of strategies aimed at continuing armed conflict. Returns should not be used either to repopulate areas, so as to preserve or gain control over such areas or to consolidate military conquests. Although aware of the fact that many Bosnian Serbs too have no homes to return to, I am indeed deeply concerned about what seems to be an ongoing process of relocation of refugees and displaced persons in areas and homes vacated by minority populations in the course of "ethnic cleansing", especially but not exclusively in Bosnian Serb held areas. Policies aimed at ethnic based repopulation, to complement and finish the job of ethnic based depopulation are reprehensible. In the Bosnian conflict already too often people have been used as pawns. I am also concerned by reports indicating that pressure has been exerted on displaced persons in government held Sarajevo to return to their damaged homes in front line areas of the city.

My third point is closely linked to the second. Not only should the return of refugees and displaced persons have a humanitarian objective, that is to bring an end to flight and to the human suffering which goes with it, but it should also be as humanitarian as possible in its implementation. Many Bosnians have now spent two years in exile; let us not add avoidable problems on return to their tremendous suffering, in the form of insecurity, uncertainty about rights and obligations, and the lack of essential services.

In this context I should like to call on the Bosnian government to give positive consideration to the protection safeguards my Office has proposed in a draft agreement on voluntary return, in accordance with the practice developed in many repatriation programmes worldwide. I attach particular importance to the proclamation of an amnesty, excluding war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined in the Statute of the ad hoc Tribunal in the Hague, but including draft evasion and desertion. I know that the latter is a sensitive point. Not so long ago a student, branded as a draft evader and traitor, was beaten to death by an angry mob of soldiers in Kiseljak. But it is precisely in order to prevent such misdeeds, to prepare for returns in safety and dignity, and in general to lead the way to reconciliation, that I hope the government will be prepared to take steps that are courageous and humane at the same time, and mobilize public opinion and the media to promote tolerance.

As set out in UNHCR's Note for this meeting, I also believe in the importance of the early establishment of a sizeable international human rights monitoring mission. UNPROFOR Civil Affairs is elaborating plans to this effect, in close cooperation with the UN Centre for Human Rights and UNHCR. Returning refugees and displaced persons, whose treatment will be actively monitored by UNHCR, would certainly benefit from such initiative, and from close cooperation between the various national and international actors involved. If returns to non-majority areas in the Federation are to be given a chance, not to speak of those to Bosnian Serb held areas, an effective field monitoring presence to promote international protection is a minimum prerequisite. I invite the donor community to provide the necessary financial and human resources for this project once finalized.

When talking about return to non-majority areas, I want to be frank with you: I am rather pessimistic. Even within the Federation, depending on the areas concerned, there is already some resistance, accompanied by attempts, of a quasi legal, administrative or physical nature, to frustrate the return of members of the "other" ethnic group. My Office will closely follow developments in the Mostar area, and as I discussed with Mr. Koschnick yesterday, will cooperate fully with the European Union Administration there. The memorandum of understanding signed on 5 July confirms the right of return under international supervision, including by a Western European Union police contingent. This is an important step forward.

But what about return of non-Serbs to the Bosnian Serb held areas? This right is inalienable, yet how can one conceive what is often termed as "the reversal of ethnic cleansing", when ethnic persecution continues today? There must be safeguards for the implementation of the rights already enshrined in various constitutional arrangements and Security Council resolutions, safeguards that have to include international supervision. At the same time policy makers should recognize the right of people not to return to areas where personal safety cannot be guaranteed or where traumatic past experiences have left deep scars and fears. When people are able, alone or with outside assistance, to find alternative solutions and to settle elsewhere in the country, they should not, for political reasons, be prevented from doing so, and be kept for prolonged periods of time in limbo, with the status of displaced persons. As I stressed earlier, the non-political human dimension of the problem of refugees and displaced persons, of each of them individually, must take precedence.

The timing of any organized return programmes should be realistic, and the objectives and implementation of such programmes should be humanitarian. Within these broad parameters, I want to assure you that when the time comes my Office, having undertaken in the former Yugoslavia one of the largest and most complex humanitarian operations ever, is fully prepared to lead this new endeavour, in close cooperation with all authorities concerned. The return of refugees and displaced persons was the seventh and last component of the Comprehensive Humanitarian Response, that you endorsed two years ago and which has continued to guide our actions in the former Yugoslavia. I would urge all governments to maintain the multilateral approach, and to pursue the path of international coordination through the United Nations. Much is at stake for the victims of this conflict as well as for the peace process, and uncoordinated initiatives must be avoided.

As regards the link with temporary protection, let me also assure you that, when the time comes, I shall not hesitate to make known that we are ready to encourage returns, and thereafter for an end to the temporary protection that I asked governments to provide and that has been and remains so important to the victims.

Proper timing implies timely preparation. As I said, we have, already during the month of May, submitted a draft agreement to the Bosnian government. I mentioned to you the work on the international human rights monitoring mission. On the ground we are involved in the negotiations towards liberalizing civilian movement. I should also like to mention that we are actively examining the establishment of an information network for potential returnees. The Note prepared for this meeting furthermore confirms our willingness to provide material assistance to those deciding to return already at this stage. I believe that it would be useful to establish a smaller group at expert level, which could discuss more in detail, with all authorities concerned, the many assistance, protection and management related aspects of repatriation. We plan to convene a first meeting of this group in late August.

The encouragement of return, in due time, is closely linked to efficient initiatives regarding reconstruction and rehabilitation. While these are beyond UNHCR's mandate and capacity, and while recognizing the fragility of the situation, I hope all actors concerned will make progress in the joint thinking about an appropriate future structure. To contribute to this, I also intend to call for a working level meeting on the future of the International Management Group for Bosnia and Herzegovina, once my Office has received your feedback on the recently issued discussion paper suggesting to focus the IMG's role on assessment, planning and advising.

Turning now to a more general review of the overall situation, you will find the latest details in the UNHCR Information Notes. While there have been significant positive changes, some things, sadly, are unchanged. I want to highlight, again, our concern over the ongoing ordeal of remaining non-Serbs in the Banja Luka region. According to reports, measures taken by the authorities have improved physical security in Prijedor, but overall we see no evidence that the plight of non-Serbs is fundamentally changing for the better. Either violently or more silently their life is rendered impossible. Two days ago forty persons waiting in front of UNHCR's office were attacked with rifle butts: three persons were hospitalized. I call, again, on the Bosnian Serb leadership, and on the government in Belgrade, to reverse this situation, and as a sign of their good will to authorize the immediate entry of UNCIVPOL and of human rights monitors. I call in particular on the Bosnian Serb leadership to stop the rounding up of men for forced and sometimes fatal labour at dangerous front lines or elsewhere. This is an unacceptable practice, which in the past few weeks has reportedly intensified. Although the situation of Serbs in government held areas is by no means comparable, I also call on the Bosnian government to counter any pressure against them, in areas such as Hrasnica in Sarajevo, and not to discriminate in the granting of exit permissions. Let me also urge all parties concerned to cooperate fully with the ICRC, and to finally, and unconditionally, release all civilian detainees.

I should like to use this opportunity to encourage the government of Croatia to keep its doors open to refugees from the Banja Luka region. Forcing victims to stay, by closing borders, does not stop those involved in "ethnic cleansing", it punishes the victims. Access to safety remains vital. Only thereafter can problems be addressed: this year more Bosnian refugees have been resettled from Croatia than have arrived. I should like to impress upon all donor governments the need to re-intensify efforts of sharing Croatia's burden, both financially and through more flexible admission policies, e.g. by allowing expanded family reunification on an emergency basis for refugees in Croatia. Let me emphasize here that burden sharing should also continue to apply with regard to Yugoslavia, where recently new groups of Bosnian refugees have started to arrive. There may have been some improvement in living conditions in Yugoslavia, but the most vulnerable, especially including the refugees, continue to need humanitarian assistance.

Let me finally try to place our current assistance operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in perspective. Until this spring, active confrontation lines in central Bosnia had meant that there was no alternative to international convoy teams, often needing close escort from UNPROFOR. Now, commercial traffic moves relatively freely, and represents by far the largest part of all traffic. Prices are almost normal, for those who have hard currency. The prospects for the harvest look good. The provision of support, for example fuel, to essential services to the victims met a need that could not otherwise be addressed in the immediate aftermath of fighting or as long as access was denied to all but international humanitarian convoys. For large areas, this is no longer the case. But despite these developments, there are many who remain vulnerable and in need of outside assistance, and the developments themselves could quickly be reversed by political and military events.

A major re-evaluation of the content and scope of the humanitarian programme is underway. This will include an FAO/WFP crop-assessment mission, now starting. The intention is to concentrate on those needs that cannot be met except through outside support, a targeted rather than a general and undifferentiated approach.

Two difficult years have passed, including two winters of conflict. I have greatly appreciated the extraordinary partnership with UNPROFOR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, the ICRC, IOM and many NGOs. An emergency relief operation should, however, not be carried on indefinitely, and must adapt itself to changing realities. Otherwise political leaders start counting on it in their decision making and ordinary people develop dependence on it, or, like farmers, may even find it a disincentive. In this context, I would also recall that the concept of "safe areas", including the provision of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, was adopted to respond to an emergency situation, put within the framework of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, and, in the words of Security Council resolution 836, "should not in any way be taken as an end in itself".International, large-scale emergency operations for nationals must be temporary, lasting only for as long as there is no alternative. Most importantly, it is now possible for the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina to take responsibility for primary assistance to the great majority of their own civilians. Only for Bihac and the eastern enclaves do active frontlines still have to be crossed, and these are indeed still the major problem areas that we are also reviewing.

As you know, obstruction of access and serious harassment of humanitarian personnel by the Bosnian parties, have been constant hazards in the international humanitarian effort. They have by no means disappeared. In addition, the use, or threat of use, of air power has created new problems for staff security. In both February and April humanitarian staff were held hostage by the Bosnian Serb army, which chose to perceive UNHCR, outrageously, as a direct party to the conflict. In saying this, I am in no way pronouncing myself on the question of international use of force, but making a statement of fact: if the parties opt for war, these problems are likely to intensify. In such an environment continuing our operation would become impossible.

Finally, I have to express again my great concern about our financial resources, another important reason for convening this meeting. On this year's total budget in the former Yugoslavia of USD 338 million, there is a shortfall of some USD 200 million. In view of the current re-evaluation of needs, we foresee a downward adjustment of the budget, of which you will be informed after the summer months. Until then, as I said in my recent letter to major donor governments, UNHCR urgently requires a minimum of USD 50 million to get through the summer months. The funding of this operation has never been so low and alarming. Due to lack of funds, we were already obliged to postpone the purchase of essential commodities such as fuel, needed for the convoy operation. I must warn you that we will be compelled to discontinue important activities if substantial financial resources are not coming forward immediately. I was very pleased to note that at last week's Conference in New York USD 68 million were pledged for the reconstruction of Sarajevo; the early restoration of public utilities, such as the gas, water and electricity supply will certainly make a big difference next winter. I count on you to show the same generosity for humanitarian assistance, as long as this is necessary.

The coming weeks are again critical. I should like to end this introduction by calling on the Bosnian parties, as I have done on many occasions, to show moderation, to think of the victims of prolonged war, and to make peace.