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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 4 December 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 4 December 1992

4 December 1992

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

May I welcome you to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia. May I say how pleased I am that my friend, Mr. Vance, has found the time to be with us today.

Ten days ago the first snow of the season fell on Sarajevo. Winter is now joining forces with war to deepen the plight of the population of former Yugoslavia. It was in anticipation of that lethal combination that UNHCR launched the Comprehensive Humanitarian Response at the International Meeting for Aid to the Victims of the Conflict in Former Yugoslavia on 29 July this year. In those eighteen weeks we have mobilized massive international support. After the establishment of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia in August, I have had the privilege of working closely with the Co-Chairmen whose strong and unstinting support of our humanitarian endeavours has been invaluable. But during those eighteen same weeks, the numbers of refugees, displaced and other affected persons have increased from 2.6 million to over 3 million persons. We have relentlessly struggled, together with UNICEF, WHO, the ICRC and numerous NGOs, to meet the priority needs for survival and safety of the people. Daily our principles have been tested, our staff have been harassed, our work has been obstructed. For the past eight weeks we have waited impatiently for the deployment of the UNPROFOR troops to enhance our capacity and effectiveness. Most of the troops have finally come, but so has winter. And the war continues.

The purpose of this meeting is to take stock of where we are today, of what we have been able to achieve so far, what more can we do and what others must now do. The working document which we distributed earlier this week reviews each element of the Comprehensive Humanitarian Response in the light of developments on the ground. The achievements have been significant, but they are in stark contrast to the bleak security and human rights situation. We are now very close to the limits of what UNHCR can be asked to do as a humanitarian organisation, in the face of escalating disaster and with prospects of peace or political solution still elusive. Let me highlight my five main concerns.

Firstly, we have been able to protect and assist people as close to their homes as possible, either in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself or in the neighbouring countries. We are assisting over 1.7 million displaced and other affected people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and almost 1.3 million refugees and displaced persons in the other republics of former Yugoslavia. In comparison, around 600,000 persons have found refuge in other European countries. Therefore, with the help of the countries in the region and the international community, the refugee problem has been contained, but it has been hardly reduced, and certainly not prevented.

While we must continue to help people, to the extent possible, where they are, our pursuit of this strategy should not blind us to the harsh and rapidly deteriorating realities on the ground, marked by massive violations of human rights, as well as the intensified military offensive. New waves of refugees and displaced persons have been created in recent weeks, as frontlines are shifting in central Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still more could be uprooted. The fall of Jajce, for example, forced an additional 40,000 persons to flee. Many of them sought sanctuary in central Bosnia and in the region of Herzegovina. Together with UNHCR, the ICRC and the UNPROFOR troops, the authorities in control of these areas are trying their best to provide shelter, but existing accommodation facilities are stretched to the limit.

Moreover, despite greater international exposure and stronger condemnation, "ethnic cleansing" and terror tactics still proliferate in order to force people from their homes. Last Saturday many of you read the chilling account in the press of the systematic murder, rape and torture which goes on. All parties are guilty of atrocities, all populations are affected but undoubtedly, the Moslems are suffering the most.

International presence on the ground has become more critical than ever. UNHCR has assigned over 300 staff, spread over 22 locations. It is thinly spread, but I believe it is nevertheless important in our endeavour to help those who are in need of safety to find it. The enhanced presence of UNPROFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina is an important buttress, which I welcome. It is therefore deeply distressing that some UNPROFOR troops are being prevented from obtaining full access to their area of deployment in the Bihac enclave and parts of the Banja Luka region. I understand some troops are now permitted to enter Banja Luka town, which is a positive step but clearly not enough.

I continue to believe that international presence, humanitarian commitment and assistance can make a difference, and therefore must continue to be strengthened. But let us have no illusions. There are very clear limitations to a humanitarian protection role which cannot be enforced. These constraints must be clearly recognized when we talk of possible safe areas, as must the many complex military, political and humanitarian considerations. There are no easy or simple answers to protecting people in the midst of conflict. Therefore we are studying the concept of safe area with care but also with caution, in close consultation with the UN Secretary General and the ICRC, as requested by Security Council resolution no. 787.

Secondly, assistance is equally fraught with difficulties, but here let me express my appreciation for one bright spot. With generous contributions from a number of governments and the European Community, and with the recent arrival of UNPROFOR's transport battalion, we have closed much of the previous gap between the needs on the ground and our capacity to deliver. We now have 317 trucks with the delivery capacity of 3,553 MT. Financially too we are grateful for the resources we have received, leaving a shortfall of 55.6 million US$ for needs until March 1993. The estimated needs for the rest of 1993, which for UNHCR alone amount to an additional 202 million US$ are being presented to you today by Mr. Lamunière of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. I should however stress that the needs in the sectors covered by UNICEF WFP and WHO continue to go unmet for lack of adequate funds, and I would appeal to donors for their urgent attention to this matter.

By and large, however, the problem is not of money, trucks and drivers, but of overcoming the military, logistical and political obstacles in order to get the relief to the people who desperately need it. Mr. Mendiluce, my Special Envoy for the former Yugoslavia, and I are in regular contact with the leaders of the Bosnian parties to remind them of their commitments to ensure safe and unhindered passage of relief convoys, and to discuss the priority areas of assistance. There is much talk right now about safe corridors. What we are establishing in fact is a network of reliable access routes, based on negotiated safe passage to reach all those who need our help. There has been some progress, but all too often we are given assurances at the table, only to find them ignored or broken as soon as our convoys hit the roads. Treacherous winter conditions are a minor impediment compared to the harassment, diversion and delays at checkpoints, to say nothing of mines and fighting, political obstacles and hostile emotional behaviour of local population, which block the relief pipeline to many besieged cities. In the space of one week, UNHCR staff came within metres of shelling on four separate occasions. All those involved in the relief effort are risking their lives. Some, in fact, have lost their lives.

Despite an agreement on safe passage, a UNHCR convoy for Srebrenica was blocked last week by local military officials and crowds of angry women and children. It took three attempts and more than four days of tough negotiations, including my own intervention, before the convoy finally reached Srebrenica on 28 November. Another UNHCR supply convoy from Belgrade to Gorazde hit a land mine on 25 November. Fortunately, there were no injuries and the convoy was able to make its delivery to Gorazde - only the third one since last summer. Recently, a UNHCR convoy was again targeted on the Mostar road, which is our priority access route to Sarajevo and central Bosnia. Cities such as Tuzla are finally being reached, but not often enough and still with great difficulty.

The airlift operation to Sarajevo has also been affected by the renewed fighting around the approach to the airport, damaging three aircraft in the past ten days and interrupting flights.

To this picture of infrequent and interrupted delivery and distribution, add the dire needs in the sectors of energy, public services and infrastructure which remain largely unaddressed. The technical meeting of 29 October rightly recognized that this enormous, yet essential area goes beyond the mandate or capacity of UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations. If the cities and population centres of central Bosnia are to survive the winter, donors must respond rapidly and bilaterally to the needs.

The third point I would like to stress is the increased need for temporary protection outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. While I have asked all governments to keep their borders open, naturally the heaviest load has fallen on the neighbouring countries. With admission to safety at stake, efforts must be enhanced to help these countries. Increased assistance should be provided to host families in Croatia and Yugoslavia.

It may also be necessary to consider other measures of burden-sharing in a spirit of solidarity among a wider group of European governments. The public sympathy for the plight of the refugees and the displaced in former Yugoslavia has been impressive. It may be timely, with intensified war and the onslaught of winter, to translate that sympathy into a more tangible willingness to receive refugees among a wider number of European countries. I hope this can be reflected in a more flexible application of visa requirements. In this context, I welcome the recent conclusion adopted by the European Community Ministers of Immigration, both for its greater readiness to offer temporary protection to those fleeing the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and for its recognition of the need to provide wider benefits, including employment and training, until the people can return home.

In the face of mounting pressure for evacuation, UNHCR has been very cautious in seeking temporary protection for vulnerable categories. However, as the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina worsens, as more and more people seek to escape besieged cities, I expect governments to respond generously to the temporary protection needs of vulnerable cases, whether individually or in a concerted arrangement. I remain at the disposal of governments, should they wish to explore these and other ideas further.

This leads me to my fourth point on vulnerable groups - the detainees - whose plight has attracted much international concern. Thus far, 2,928 persons, mostly Moslems, have been released from among the 10,273 detainees registered by the ICRC at 31 October. Despite the continual reminder to all parties of their commitment to proceed unconditionally with the release of all detainees, in practice further releases appear increasingly to be made contingent upon reciprocity. There have been no releases since 14th November.

I was frankly disappointed with the initially slow and measured response to our request for temporary protection of former detainees. It reached a point in late October when ICRC was obliged to delay release because Karlovac reception centre could not be emptied fast enough to receive the new people. Fortunately, the situation is now much improved with increased offers, reaching over 5,309 places in recent days, as well as more transit facilities, notably in Switzerland and Hungary. Ironically, now that we have sufficient places, release has slowed down for other, more political reasons. I strongly urge all parties to release the detainees as rapidly as possible.

We have assigned a team of social workers in Bosnia-Herzegovina to identify the needs of the various vulnerable groups, including women who have been assaulted or raped. I am acutely aware of the special attention which their plight deserves, and of our own over-stretched resources. l hope that this can be an area where we will benefit from greater cooperation with and contribution by NGOs.

My fifth and final point is on voluntary return, on which very little progress has been made despite the Quadripartite Mechanism agreed on 30 September. As chair of the Mechanism, UNHCR continues to keep this matter under close and constant attention. We are pursuing all possibilities at the local level, but the continued insecurity and the serious human rights abuses in the UNPAs make returns unrealistic for the time being, except in the Western sector, where some people have visited their homes and are rebuilding them.

Although I have largely concentrated on Bosnia-Herzegovina where the needs are the greatest, the tensions in some other parts of former Yugoslavia cause serious concern. The pursuit of dialogue in Kosovo, Vojvodina, Sandzjak and Macedonia, assisted by the London Conference, deserves support. Some courageous efforts by the Yugoslav Federal Government to reduce tensions at the local level also deserve recognition.

Finally, let me say, today we are taking stock, but the inventory clearly shows we have come to a turning point. Humanitarianism cannot withstand the tide of misery for much longer. Through the humanitarian protection and assistance of victims, the international community has been able to buy time for the political process. Not just for eighteen weeks, but much longer. Let us not forget that it was in November 1991 that UNHCR, at the request of the Secretary General, became the lead agency for the UN relief effort in what was then still Yugoslavia. We have seen the operation swell to horrendous proportions, testing our capacity to respond as much as our ability to innovate, and seriously jeopardising the lives of our staff. Of course we will still do what we can to bring relief to the victims on all sides, but the answer lies not just in increasing emergency capacity.

If the Humanitarian Response is not to become a humanitarian alibi for the worst case scenario, we need:

  • an urgent and widespread cessation of hostilities;
  • a renewed commitment by all parties to respect safe passage of relief goods and non-disruption of public utilities;
  • full access of UNPROFOR to their areas of deployment;
  • unequivocal undertaking by all parties to respect the security and neutrality of UNHCR and other humanitarian officials; and
  • the commitment of all concerned, inside and outside the region, to keep borders open for those fleeing in search of safety.

The hostilities, the human rights abuses, the forcible expulsions must stop, and stop now. There will be several ministerial meetings in the coming days. I call upon the political leaders to seize those opportunities for urgent and decisive action before it is really too late.