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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Plenary Session of the Peace Implementation Council of the Dayton Agreement, London, 5 December 1996

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Plenary Session of the Peace Implementation Council of the Dayton Agreement, London, 5 December 1996

5 December 1996

Mr. Chairman,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the Peace Implementation Conference last year, my Office was given the lead responsibility for the implementation of Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement concerning the return of two million refugees and displaced persons to their homes or to places of their choice. As I noted already in Paris last month, success in the implementation of Annex 7 requires the full commitment of the respective authorities, sustained efforts by my Office as well as close coordination with other key implementing agencies of Dayton. I welcome, in particular, the proposal to improve linkages between economic reconstruction and the political efforts of the High Representative on one side and the return of refugees and displaced persons on the other.

Four years ago, the conflict ravaging former Yugoslavia led me to propose a comprehensive humanitarian response. In addition to sustained emergency relief benefitting victims of the conflict, the comprehensive response also involved calling on States to provide temporary or other forms of international protection to those who were forced to flee their homes to other countries.

Many States in Europe responded to that appeal, opening their doors to streams of refugees - over half a million of them - fleeing war and human rights atrocities. Some of these States generously decided to grant protection under the 1951 Convention or analogous rights to certain categories of victims. Others, with equal generosity, accepted large numbers under the régime of "temporary protection". They helped save countless lives.

Today, the situation has changed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the whole region. War no longer prevails. Fierce fighting, massive violations of human rights and the humanitarian crisis have abated. While many problems remain unresolved, there is now real hope that the absence of war following the Dayton Agreement will turn into genuine peace and reconciliation during the two-year consolidation period.

The past few years have required special and unusual measures of international solidarity beyond the conventional responses. These were fully justified by the intensity of the conflict, the magnitude of human suffering and the uncertainties of a newly created but fragile peace. With the adoption in Paris of thirteen clear-cut objectives for a two-year consolidation period, the international community has signalled its commitment to seeing this process through. Continued international solidarity will still be crucial, although it can now take different forms.

We must move ahead with large-scale returns starting next Spring, once the harsh winter is over. Our aim must be that all refugees and internally displaced persons from Bosnia and Herzegovina find a durable solution by the end of 1998 or, at least, be firmly engaged in reaching a satisfactory solution.

The need for an across the board special régime of protection has ceased to exist. This does not imply that everyone can return forthwith. But it does mean that more precise guidelines can now be developed, addressing the specific situation of each particular group and building on the two fundamental principles of the Dayton Peace Agreement: namely, the right to return to one's home and the right to choose a place of future residence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I also wish to propose that, in addition (and subject to the agreement of States concerned), we acknowledge the wish of some of the refugees to settle permanently in a new country and we need to support programmes facilitating local integration or resettlement in places where conditions or affinities are conducive to these durable solutions. There is also no doubt that, among the refugees, there are individuals and groups with a well-founded fear of persecution or acute humanitarian needs for whom return will not be safe or feasible. These persons should be granted continued protection or permanent resettlement to third countries.

It is critical that we begin with what is most feasible and safe, keeping in mind the reality on the ground as well as the paramount objective of not undertaking anything that would carry risks of unsettling the fragile stability achieved in the first post-Dayton year. At the next meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, endorsed at last year's Peace Implementation Council as one of its three working groups, and which I am convening in Geneva on 16 December 1996, I intend to elaborate on the proposed guidelines for repatriation and other solutions over the next two years. I wish to mention, however, some essential elements of this plan today.

I believe that, in 1997, the focus needs to be on helping organized returns to majority areas, on assisting those who freely opt to relocate to different areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina where they feel secure and on initiating integration projects for those who decide to settle permanently in neighbouring countries.

This will require a carefully orchestrated and comprehensive plan to be developed over the coming months in full consultation with countries of origin, of asylum, as well as with reconstruction agencies. The implementation of this plan will require closer cooperation on sharing information on the profile of refugees, and improved coordination of the mechanisms set up to facilitate returns from host countries.

Expanding the capacity of Bosnia and Herzegovina to absorb returnees through continuing support to the housing sector and increasing rehabilitation activities and job creations in the Target Areas identified by UNHCR will remain central to achieving a sustainable solution. UNHCR-sponsored programmes have already resulted in providing shelter for some 20,000 families in 1996. These efforts will continue in 1997 and should be supplemented by other programmes. Activities aimed at building confidence among communities and promoting reconciliation must also be part of our approach. The very important Bosnian Women's Initiative will be expanded to cover more programmes empowering women.

While our emphasis will be on returns to majority areas, this should not be interpreted as our giving up hope for groups who genuinely wish to return to their former residences in regions or Entities where they do not form part of the majority. We will continue, indeed, with confidence - building projects for returns to the zone of separation, following the recently agreed procedures. But our experience has clearly shown that such returns to be effective and sustainable will require more than the verbal commitment of leaders. The issue has to be put squarely back into the political rather than humanitarian arena. I have no choice but to count on the political will expressed by the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the determination of this Council, and on the political good offices of the High Representative to make the return of minorities a realistic and viable option. My Office stands ready to support returns of minorities - be they refugees or internally displaced persons - to their places of origin when the political and security obstacles have been cleared. It is my hope that sufficient progress will be achieved toward meeting the thirteen objectives of the consolidation period during the course of 1997 to allow significant returns of minorities to take place in 1998.

Mr. Chairman,

I have briefly outlined the way ahead for achieving solutions to the problems of human displacement in the former Yugoslavia. I should like to add a word on the regional dimension of the problem, particularly with regard to the refugees and displaced from Croatia.

How the situation unfolds in Eastern Slavonia may have a major impact on the region. During the twelve months ahead, we must capitalize on progress made so far and achieve the return of those Serbs who want to go back to their homes elsewhere in Croatia as well as that of Croats wishing to return to Eastern Slavonia. Equally important, we must ensure that the Serb inhabitants of Eastern Slavonia can remain as stipulated in the Erdut Agreement as well as in the recent normalization agreement between Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. There must be no further displacement in this time of peace.

Allow me finally to mention another condition for success, namely funding. Continued support to my Office as well as to our partner agencies is essential. In this connection, I should like to draw attention to the recently issued United Nations Consolidated Appeal and, at the same time, express my appreciation to countries who have so generously supported our efforts in the past, directly or through the European Commission.

There must be an end to the plight of the victims my Office has assisted throughout the past several years. There must be continued solidarity with them as well as determined efforts to achieve sustainable solutions.

Thank you.