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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Information Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 26 February 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Information Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 26 February 1993

26 February 1993

May I welcome you to this information meeting of the Executive Committee. I am pleased that so many of you were able to come at such short notice. I feel it is important to inform you of recent developments regarding our operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I will also take the opportunity to report on my mission to Africa last week.

Firstly, on Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have been greatly heartened by the strong expression of support from the Security Council, the Secretary - General, the Presidency of the European Community, a number of Governments, Ambassadors, NGOs and others.

As you know, for some time now I have been deeply preoccupied by the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 15 January I wrote to the UN Secretary-General on the increasingly unacceptable conditions under which UNHCR was having to operate, including intimidation, targeted shelling and shooting of our staff and UNPROFOR, harassment at check points and obstruction of our convoys. In late January I undertook a mission to the area to review, in consultation with UNPROFOR, the security of the relief operation, obtain additional assurances of access and safe passage, and show support to more than 600 UNHCR staff in 22 locations in former Yugoslavia. On my return, I informed the Secretary-General that while I was proud of our humanitarian efforts and appreciative of the assurances from all parties, as well as President Tudjman in Zagreb and President Milosevic in Belgrade, I remained deeply concerned about the continued deterioration of the security environment.

On 2 February, I had to suspend our operations around Mostar after our convoy was attacked, killing a driver and seriously wounding the Danish convoy leader. On 6 February, we had to suspend the airlift operation to Sarajevo when a German plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery. We subsequently decided to move the air base from Zagreb to Ancona. Events took a further dramatic turn for the worse when, despite repeated assurances from Dr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs refused us access to the besieged enclaves in eastern Bosnia where a major Serb offensive is under way. Then, on 12 February, the Bosnian Government announced its refusal to distribute aid supplies in Sarajevo in solidarity with the population of the besieged enclaves. For five days our trucks were lined up, waiting for a breakthrough, as my Special Envoy desperately sought to negotiate with all parties concerned.

I was deeply frustrated and angry at the political manipulation of humanitarian relief by all sides, and our inability to reach all those in need. It was against this background, and after having shared my thoughts with Mr. Cyrus Vance, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and the co-Chairman of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, that I decided on a partial suspension of our humanitarian operation on 17 February.

We decided to suspend delivery to Sarajevo since we were no longer allowed to distribute goods and more than five-days' supply was lying at the airport with no storage capacity for further goods.

We decided to suspend our convoys in the east since we could not operate and in order to sensitize the international community to the desperate plight of the people in the besieged enclaves. Furthermore, to leave the trucks lined-up in the middle of a war zone was an unnecessary security risk and an affront to the image and authority of the UN.

We did not stop our activities in central Bosnia and continued to operate in areas where we could still deliver.

I have been obliged to take similar operational decisions in the past, suspending the airlift and land convoys for several days because of security incidents and/or operational obstacles. I saw the decision on the 17th as an extension of my earlier decisions.

When announcing my decision I made it clear that we were ready to resume immediately in Sarajevo as soon as the government lifted its boycott. And in the east, as soon as we obtained clear guarantees that we could move unimpeded into the enclaves.

Upon my return to Geneva late last Saturday, I was informed by my Office:

  • that the Croats had pledged in writing their full support for free passage and access; and
  • that Dr. Karadzic had pledged the same to the EC Presidency, which coupled with assurances that we have received, should strengthen our position. Indeed, on Sunday morning I learned that a UNHCR convoy had arrived in the besieged Zepa enclave where more than 30,000 people had received no aid since January 17.

Also on Sunday morning, Vice President Ganic of the Bosnian Government visited our office in Zagreb to inform that President Izetbegovic had recommended an end to the boycott of relief supplies in Sarajevo and requested resumption of the airlift as soon as possible. He especially appreciated the fact that the temporary suspension had focused world attention on the serious plight of the eastern enclaves. Dr. Ganic also mentioned that the unilateral cease-fire announced by the Presidency was an effort to allow delivery of assistance to the enclaves - a decision that could be seen as an indirect response to our suspension.

It would thus appear that our decision to partially suspend, combined with the strong supporting statement from the Security Council as well as the EC Presidency, and the involvement of the Secretary-General, had produced the desired effects. On Sunday afternoon I called the Secretary-General to inform him of the new developments and of our decision consequently to resume the suspended operation with immediate effect.

The airlift to Sarajevo resumed on Monday morning. We reopened the Mostar route two days ago with improved security procedures. Yesterday afternoon the convoy for Gorazde finally reached its destination.

Despite these positive developments, I must reiterate the very dramatic plight of the population in the eastern enclaves of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While we are continuing to reach the area with land convoys, heavy fighting and road conditions hinder our access. All reports indicate that the conditions in the Cerska, Kaminica and Srebrenica areas are dire, in both military and humanitarian terms. I am afraid a large exodus from eastern Bosnia into the adjacent areas could be imminent, and we are in the process of making emergency preparations.

Under these circumstances, we welcome all other means of delivering food to the enclaves, including through airdrops. I was in touch last night with the Secretary-General and the Under-Secretary-General for Peace-keeping Operations on the plan for airdrops. I was advised that such an operation would be temporary and supplemental to land convoys, in accordance with existing procedures, that is purely humanitarian, even-handed and based on consultations with and assurances from the parties. We have reached an agreement with the US Government to provide a team of inspectors, including those from the parties concerned, to ensure the humanitarian content of the airdrops. We hope the team will be in place very soon. We hope that the conditions on the ground will allow us to continue most of our operations in Bosnia while the airdrops are going on.

Let me now turn to Africa, where last week I visited four countries - Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Burundi - in five days.

My visits to Djibouti and Burundi brought home to me, once again, the extraordinary generosity of the smallest countries carrying some of the largest refugee burdens. Djibouti, at the centre of the turbulence in the Horn of Africa, has received over 50,000 refugees, which is equivalent to 10 per cent of its population. UNHCR is currently assisting some 20,000 Somali and Ethiopian refugees. We have also agreed, in the context of a wider UN effort, to transfer 30,000 displaced persons from Djiboutiville to reception centres, pending a durable solution. Following my visit to the refugee camp at Aour Aoussa and talks with the President and Foreign Minister of Djibouti, I am determined to pursue all options for repatriation of these refugees whose future lies at home rather than in desolate camps in Djibouti.

In Burundi, where UNHCR opened its first sub-Saharan field office some 30 years ago, I found a country in the arduous process of national healing and reconciliation. Some 40,000 refugees have returned, and more are on their way home. Burundi might emerge as a flash of hope in this increasingly tumultuous part of Africa. I should mention that I was briefed on the recent disturbances in Rwanda which have provoked the internal displacement of some 700,000 to 900,000 persons. We have decided to support ICRC in its efforts to bring aid to these people and propose to address any future needs as part of a larger UN effort. I will receive a Rwandese Cabinet Minister next week for further discussion.

Turning now to Somalia, I was most encouraged by my brief stop-over in Bardera. It was obvious that a semblance of normality was beginning to return to the city. I met the local authorities and U. S. Ambassador Oakley. I was deeply impressed by the efforts of UNITAF which has clearly been the major factor in pulling Somalia back from the brink of total collapse. The UNHCR cross-border operation has begun to show its effects with some 68 quick-impact projects in the fields of health, water, sanitation, education and agriculture, coordinated out of three recently-opened UNHCR offices in the Gedo region.

But the extreme fragility of the many encouraging signs we observed has been highlighted by the new disturbances in Mogadishu and Kismayo in the last couple of days. It is evident that physical and material security will be the crucial element in the prospect for the return of some 300,000 Somali refugees from Kenya and an equal number from other countries neighbouring Somalia. I believe the return of Somali refugees could accelerate in 3 to 6 months time, provided adequate security arrangements are in place at the Kenya-Somalia border as well as in the areas of origin of the refugees. President Moi of Kenya agreed with my assessment and also reassured me of Kenya's intention to proceed with return operations on a voluntary and purely humanitarian basis. I have also shared my impressions with the UN Secretary-General and emphasized the importance of peace-keeping deployment in the border regions.

Let me add that some 35,000 refugees have returned from Kenya to Ethiopia since we began the operation some two months ago. As a result, we expect to close three camps in northern Kenya within the next month.

I want to take this opportunity to draw the Committee's attention to recent developments in Togo which have caused an exodus of more than 200,000 refugees into neighbouring Benin and Ghana - with the influx continuing at a daily rate of more than 1,000 persons. UNHCR is providing initial emergency assistance, so far funded with US $ 1 million from the Emergency Fund, and WFP is delivering basic food to the refugees. I should also mention that the dramatic events in Angola have temporarily halted the return of refugees and have trapped some of the returnees in the areas of combat. On a more positive note, UNHCR is intensifying its preparations for the repatriation of over 1.5 million Mozambican refugees, while at the same time expanding existing assistance programmes to cater for some 300,000 spontaneous returnees.

Despite the mixed picture, I remain encouraged by my visit to Africa. I dare to hope that the tide of human misery in Somalia may be turning. It is important that the international community and the United Nations are willing and prepared to seize this humanitarian window of opportunity. As always, my Office stands ready to play its part.

I have spoken of some of the greatest challenges which confront UNHCR on two continents. With your continued support and guidance, we are ready to continue our difficult and diverse tasks of protection and assistance.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.