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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the NATO Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Brussels, 14 January 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the NATO Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Brussels, 14 January 1998

14 January 1998

Mr. Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

I wish to thank you for this opportunity to address the NATO Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and to discuss implementation of Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreement for which my Office is responsible. As we enter this new year, the third after the end of the bitter war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I would like to review the achievements, but also to point out the difficulties still ahead of us.

First, however, I would like to express my deep appreciation for the excellent work of NATO and SFOR in support of my Office's responsibility to help return refugees and internally displaced persons to and within Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through ethnic cleansing, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina aimed at separating communities and at dehumanizing relations so that people could not live together again. UNHCR has been at the forefront of international efforts to provide protection and humanitarian relief to millions of civilian victims since the outbreak of fighting in 1991. The return of uprooted people to their original communities therefore has a particular significance for us. It is, moreover, of critical importance to ensuring a secure, stable and multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. In peace time, the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be prevented from achieving what they failed to gain through arms during the war.

SFOR's mandate will officially end in June. As you know, I have appealed on various occasions for the continuation of a multinational military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina not driven by unrealistic deadlines. I am, therefore, very pleased that active planning is underway to determine the mandate and composition of a multinational follow-on force to SFOR beyond June 1998. I also appreciate the close consultations with my Office in this effort.

Before turning to how I see that follow-on force supporting return, allow me briefly to describe where we stand with implementation of Annex 7. Over the past two years there has been progress in the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Freedom of movement has improved. Human rights standards are slowly progressing. Police forces are being trained and reformed. Joint institutions are beginning to take shape. In my mind, there is no doubt that IFOR and SFOR have made a critical contribution by providing a security umbrella. Much of the success also stems from the international community's more robust and uncompromising position on implementing Dayton. The message has been clear - there is no way around the Peace Agreement and there must be no way back to war and partition.

At the Peace Implementation Council's Steering Board at Sintra and at the meeting of the Council in Bonn last December, strong messages were delivered to the political leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina that commitments made at Dayton must be implemented. With respect to the implementation of Annex 7, I told the delegates of Bosnia and Herzegovina attending the Humanitarian Issues Working Group last December that it is ultimately the responsibility of their political leaders to ensure that refugees and displaced can indeed return to their homes. All sides must put an end to the discriminatory practices, administrative and legal barriers hindering people from returning home. The rhetoric blaming the international community for failing to do more must also cease. We should not be blamed for the failures and shortcomings of the parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its future lies with its own leaders and people. Our task is to assist them when allowed and to ensure that basic principles are respected.

Since December 1995, some 400,000 refugees and displaced persons have returned home. In 1997 alone, 110,000 refugees repatriated, mainly from Germany. The majority returned to the urban areas of Sarajevo, Una Sana and Tuzla-Podrinje Cantons. The returnees did not face grave human rights problems as they were returning to communities in which they are part of the majority. For these so-called "majority returns" the main issue has been reconstruction and employment opportunities. In short, jobs and shelter are the principal challenges, and the international community has made major efforts to address these needs.

However, the possibility to return to former homes remains an unkept promise for some 1.4 million people, 800,000 of them displaced inside Bosnia and Herzegovina and 600,000 living as refugees outside the country. Almost all of those still awaiting return, either as refugees or as displaced persons, will be members of minorities in their original communities. The easier majority returns are now largely over. For returns to occur on a larger scale in 1998, the deadlock on minority returns must be broken. I have set this as our major objective for this year. This is not to say that minority returns have not taken place - but the number has been disappointingly low. Only 35,000 such returns have occurred since the Peace Agreement was signed, primarily older persons and individual members of larger family groups.

Despite the odds, however, recent developments show that minority returns can take place. When 25 houses were burned down in May 1997 to prevent the return of seven Serb families to the Croat-dominated town of Drvar, who would have believed that 650 people would return by mid-January? When, in July, the first returns to the Jajce area were met with hostile demonstrations and violence, who expected that the eleven municipalities of the Central Bosnia Canton would sign up to a return plan between Bosniacs and Croats? Who would have believed just a few months ago that Bosniac families would actually return to the hard-line Croat town of Stolac and that Bosniac policemen would now be part of the local police force in that town? From my many visits to the region, I have a profound sense that significant changes are taking place at the grass roots level and the international community should take advantage and support these developments. Instead of working primarily through the established leadership, many of whom pre-date Dayton, UNHCR is working "from the ground up."

As I described in some detail during the recent meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, I intend to take several steps in an effort to achieve a breakthrough in the return of minority populations.

First, I believe that it is important to set a credible objective against which progress by the parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be assessed. A total of some 50,000 displaced persons or refugees returning as minorities between January and June 1998 would be an important indicator. We would also hope to see the return of whole families. Moreover, minority returns should take place to both Entities, redressing the present imbalance where by far the greatest number of such returns are to areas of the Federation administered by the Bosniac community.

Should there be a breakthrough on minority returns, UNHCR believes that as many as 220,000 refugees could repatriate in 1998. Without it, repatriation will be substantially lower, barely surpassing 1997 levels.

Second, UNHCR's Open Cities Initiative aims at breaking the deadlock of minority returns at the municipal and cantonal level. The programme seeks to encourage those municipalities that demonstrate a willingness to support return and respect the rights of all pre-war residents, by applying so-called "positive conditionality" and by rewarding their efforts through accelerated material support by the international community.

UNHCR has now recognized eight Open Cities, two of them - Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo - located in western Republika Srpska. As mentioned earlier, Central Bosnia Canton has developed its own return plan and I am hopeful Sarajevo will also do the same. It would be a strong signal indeed to other cities throughout the country if not only Sarajevo, but also Banja Luka, could be added to the list of Open Cities. These are the two largest urban areas, each with a long tradition of multi-ethnicity, cultural openness and tolerance.

Third, there must be a collective effort to monitor human rights: to ensure freedom of movement; to address discriminatory legislation, including that relating to property and amnesty; and to document violations and abuses and, as required, to take disciplinary measures. I also believe that more robust action to apprehend those indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal is needed to enhance confidence among the returning population and to emphasize that impunity will no longer be tolerated. I welcome the new powers given to the High Representative, including his authority to suspend or remove municipal and police authorities who consistently obstruct returns.

Fourth, jobs and other sources of income must make returns sustainable. Recent studies indicate that more than 90 per cent of those returning are unemployed. This may be a cause of increasing tensions and conflict among the communities if not addressed urgently. I am hopeful that the Return and Reconstruction Task Force mechanism will contribute significantly toward our goals.

Fifth, concerted action among all actors present in Bosnia and Herzegovina is essential. In the Zone of Separation at the end of 1996, in Drvar and in Jajce, as in Stolac, Mostar and Brcko in 1997, returns have occurred when the Office of the High Representative, SFOR, the UN-IPTF, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and UNHCR joined their efforts, took a common stand toward local and national authorities on key issues, and worked together to mobilize additional political and economic support from the international community.

None of the steps I have highlighted would be possible, however, without the overall security umbrella provided by SFOR or a strong, credible and pro-active follow-on force. Over the past two years, the return of minorities has been one of the major causes of security-related tensions and incidents in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From Jusici and Mahala to Drvar, Stolac, Jajce and Brcko, the frustration and impatience of individuals - and, at times, their manipulation by political leaders - or the intolerance of those who advocate separation and ethnic cleansing - have made necessary the intervention of SFOR and IPTF. We must now strengthen and intensify this collaborative effort. 1998 must be the year in which our former investments and sacrifices yield decisive results, especially in the crucial area of minority return.

In addition to maintaining a secure environment within which civilians agencies like UNHCR can operate, I would like to draw your attention to several ways in which SFOR and its follow-on force can play a vital role in support of the work of my Office.

First, through a pro-active and flexible deployment policy, the force can seek to prevent or contain any civilian disturbance relating to minority returns, working in close cooperation with IPTF. Readiness to increase patrols in given areas or react promptly to any major threat or act of violence should therefore be maintained. Likewise in remote and isolated areas where time-consuming repairs to homes are needed to enable minority returns, the presence of SFOR or its follow-on force can contribute toward creating a climate conducive to minority return. Such a presence may be tapered off once returnees are able to remain in their villages and protect their own property.

Second, a "discreet" SFOR or follow-on force will also be required in the UNHCR recognized Open Cities. I use the word "discreet", since a heavy armoured presence may send the wrong message to would-be returnees about local security. However, incidents - if they remain uncontrolled - can represent a major setback for the overall plan. Similar support will be required if we want to reactivate returns to the Zone of Separation by next spring or if the installation of newly elected authorities in certain municipalities results in openings for returns.

Third, landmines are a major threat to the life and limb of returnees and the population. SFOR and its follow-on force must continue to work toward eliminating this scourge by continuing to supervise and engage in targeted mine marking and clearance activities, while assisting the Entity authorities to comply with the terms of the Ottawa Treaty. UNHCR will work closely with the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre and the UN Development Programme to create a local demining capacity. The plan is to recruit, equip and train local people from each ethnic group to form demining teams available to UNHCR. Six of these teams will be operational, each with the resources and skills to survey and mark mined areas, instruct returnees and local inhabitants on the risks and remove unexploded devices.

We have benefited over the recent period from a pro-active SFOR. The months ahead will be crucial in intensifying the close cooperation between SFOR and all civilian agencies. The full participation of SFOR in a concerted planning exercise in support of Open Cities and other minority returns must be a priority for 1998.

As a final remark, Mr. Secretary-General, I wish to underline the importance of the regional dimension in our search for solutions. I have alluded already to the possible negative consequences in other countries of the region of a failure to promote return possibilities for minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Conversely, the international community should continue to closely monitor developments in neighbouring countries. On 15 January, the mandate of UNTAES will cease and the Government of Croatia will re-establish its authority over Eastern Slavonia. The successful end of the Transitional Administration is a major achievement for the international community. I am happy that what could have been another major exodus has been avoided. For peace and stability to be sustainable, however, it is essential that security is ensured and that administrative and bureaucratic barriers to two-way returns are effectively removed. Meanwhile, the situation of the 550,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the largest refugee population in the region without an immediate solution, is worrisome. Also an easing of tensions in places like Kosovo, would make our task in Bosnia and Herzegovina much easier. Already in 1996, my Office initiated a dialogue between Ministers and Commissioners responsible for refugees and displaced persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This is a process I now wish to intensify on the basis of the Bonn PIC conclusion inviting UNHCR to lead the elaboration of a strategy for solutions to the plight of refugees in the entire region.

Since the start of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, UNHCR has developed a close and positive working relationship with the military forces of the many troop-contributing nations. I am confident that I can continue to count on this relationship. My Office will make every effort to strengthen our cooperation. Our shared experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina contain many lessons which are useful for our collaboration in other operations. As you know, on many occasions I have called for the establishment of a rapid international deployment force, of a military or police nature depending on the specific circumstances, to assist humanitarian action in situations where, for example, the security of refugees and humanitarian workers is endangered. I am convinced that closer cooperation between the military and civilian organizations will remain a feature of tomorrow's humanitarian action. I am therefore grateful to the Council for this opportunity to focus on our cooperation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Thank you.