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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Regional Conference on Assistance to Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in the Great Lakes Region, Burundi, 15 February 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Regional Conference on Assistance to Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in the Great Lakes Region, Burundi, 15 February 1995

15 February 1995

Let me start by welcoming the impressive number of delegations attending this Conference, and by expressing my profound gratitude to the President and the Government of Burundi for hosting it and to the Organization of African Unity for playing such an important role in organizing it.

Having just returned from Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda, and having visited the United Republic of Tanzania last summer, I am strengthened in my feeling that this Conference provides a unique opportunity for the international community to focus attention on the immense human suffering which has been bestowed on the Great Lakes Region, and to undertake together, the search for humanitarian solutions. These should bring not only the massive internal and external displacement of 3.8 million people to an end, but should at the same time help to prevent the outbreak of new catastrophes. 1959-1962 in Rwanda, 1972, 1988, 1991 and 1993 in Burundi, and finally 1994, again in Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands of civilians were ruthlessly murdered, in spite of the Arusha Peace Accord of 1993. The genocide in Rwanda is one of the darkest chapters in modern history. Never should this happen again. There has been enough violence and chaos. I therefore call on all people in this region, and especially on their politica leaders, not to allow hatred and war to dominate, but to walk the path of national reconciliation.

This is not a political Conference. I hope that soon a broader Conference will be held to promote lasting peace, security and development in the region, as called for by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. In that context, all possible root causes of conflict, be they historical, socio-political, developmental, demographic or other, would hopefully be examined. Let me confine myself here to making a few comments only. First, to present the upheavals in this region as 'ethnic warfare' seems to be a misleading simplification, used by the ignorant, and exploited, as the genocide in Rwanda has shown, by those wanting to stir up hatred. The latter category of people have to be brought to justice, and it is my conviction that full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal, as required by the Security Council, is the best way to achieve this goal. Second, whatever the root causes, without serious dialogue, in accordance with the best African tradition, there can be no reconciliation either. All segments of the populations of Burundi and Rwanda, including all refugees of goodwill, must be invited to freely express, in a spirit of tolerence, their traumas regarding the past and their views and hopes regarding the future.

The international community, and especially all regional political leaders, can be of help, as was proven at the Nairobi Summit of last month, and as the Presidents of Zaire and Uganda promised me during my visit to these two countries on my way here. The good offices of the Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General in both Rwanda and Burundi and of the OAU, in particular its efforts of conflict management and resolution, are extremely important. But reconciliation and peace cannot be imposed from outside. I am therefore heartened by the courageous position of the political leadership of Burundi to pursue the efforts of reconciliation and nation-building, and to refuse to give in or resort to confrontation. I was equally impressed by the statement of reconciliation pronounced by the Prime Minister of Rwanda at the Round Table Conference in Geneva, the essence of which was repeated to me by the President on Monday in Kigali. In sum, justice to the victims and dialogue between those of goodwill, in full respect for the human rights of all, should break the spiral of impunity, violence and displacement, and lay the foundation for lasting peace and development.

The two elements which I mentioned, justice and dialogue, are mutually reinforcing and should be promoted simultaneously. They should be combined with the third element, humanitarian solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons, two objectives which unite us here today. The return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons should contribute to the process of national reconciliation. However, as I said in the various capitals of this region, I am convinced that the reverse is at least as true. Therefore, return and reintegration should both result from and promote national reconciliation.

Before discussing voluntary repatriation, let me first turn to the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons in the region. Last week, after having visited several refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania in July 1994, I was able to see for myself in Goma and Bukavu the results of the tremendous efforts made over the past few months to ensure minimum living conditions for the refugees there, in terms of basic shelter, food and health services. Mortality rates have dropped substantially since the catastrophic cholera epidemic of July 1994, although dysentery has still not been completely eradicated. Living conditions in refugee camps in Tanzania and Burundi, and for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in Rwanda and Burundi have equally reached minimum humanitarian standards.

I wish to commend all regional States and local communities for extending their hospitality to the men, women and children who have sought refuge during different periods since the early sixties until the present day. The international community must be fully aware of and help to attenuate, in a spirit of international solidarity and burden-sharing, the severe effects which massive displacement continues to pose on the national resources and the natural environment of the asylum States. I should also like to use this occasion to pay tribute to the meritorious work of WFP, UNICEF, WHO, IOM and other international agencies, as well as to the relentless efforts of numerous NGOs. With impressive donor support, all these agencies have provided life saving humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons. I should further like to mention the ICRC for its efforts to improve prison conditions and for the assistance provided to internally displaced persons in both Rwanda and Burundi, and UNAMIR for its role in enhancing the security of such persons and in facilitating their safe return home in Rwanda. The coordination of complex humanitarian emergencies is a difficult task, but has by and large been successful in the asylum countries. It is also making progress with regard to internally displaced persons in Rwanda under the facilitating responsibility of UNREO.

Whereas the humanitarian assistance situation has improved, conditions of security in the Rwandese refugee camps have for a long time deteriorated. Banditry, gang attacks, extortion and diversion of assistance from the most vulnerable, harassment of humanitarian personnel and the elimination of any form of dissent or perceived dissent, have marked the past few months. Many refugees have been killed or threatened. In the UN Secretary-General's report of 25 January 1995 to the Security Council, and in UNHCR's documentation prepared for this Conference, the various démarches made to remedy this unacceptable situation have been amply described and analysed. I regret that the various proposals for effective security measures as formulated by the UN Secretary-General in close cooperation with UNHCR, have proven not to be feasible.

I am, however, pleased to note the improvement of security conditions in camps in Tanzania, due to the increased and professional involvement of the Tanzanian police. Thanks to the support of the Government of the Netherlands in particular, which is channelled and coordinated through UNHCR, the Tanzanian police contingent will hopefully be further strengthened shortly. In Burundi, the situation in the refugee camps seems to be stable, since the vicious armed attack on one of the camps in November 1994. In Zaire, the refugee leadership has recently shown an increased level of cooperation. At last, the entire refugee population in the Goma camps could be counted and registered. A very welcome development is the conclusion, on 27 January 1995, of an agreement between the Government of Zaire and UNHCR regarding the deployment of 1,500 Zairean security personnel, to work in close liaison with the technical and monitoring team of 50 international security advisers of UNHCR. During my visit to Gbadolithe last wek, the President of Zaire assured me of his country's commitment to this plan. Last Sunday I witnessed the deployment in Goma of a first Zairean security force of 100 men. I am encouraged by the forthcoming deployment of 16 Dutch experts who will be arriving next week. I call on the international community here present to provide the necessary logistical and financial support as requested by my Office, as soon as possible.

As also stressed by the Security Council in its Presidential Statement of 10 February 1995, urgent implementation is indeed needed, because in spite of the recent improvements, overall security conditions remain fragile. The presence in refugee camps of persons having committed crimes against humanity, or other serious crimes, has given rise to legal and ethical dilemmas, which continue to be agonizing for the entire humanitarian community, including UNHCR. But let me emphasise here first of all that my Office is convinced that the large majority of the camp populations are bona fide refugees. Second, I wish to underline that while UNHCR has a supervisory mandate, primary responsibility for any individual exclusion from refugee protection and assistance lies with the competent authorities of the countries of asylum, in accordance with the pertinent clauses of the Refugee Conventions of the UN and the OAU. In terms of responsibility there is an analogy between the questions of exclusion and of security, whch in this case are closely linked: UNHCR is not a judge and certainly not a police force. The exclusion from humanitarian assistance has in practice been impossible, given the numbers and serious security risks involved. The early and effective functioning of the International Tribunal or of appropriate national procedures, and the separation and relocation of persons suspected of having committed heinous criminal acts - as agreed upon at the Nairobi Summit by the countries concerned, would help in future to reserve refugee protection and assistance to those deserving it, and to facilitate effectively refugee repatriation.

As far as I am concerned, the foregoing does not mean that the international community should continue providing humanitarian assistance for years to come, under the current circumstances. The prolonged stay of hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps is not a viable option. Let us all rather concentrate on solutions, which applies equally to all internally displaced persons, and to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi. The durable integration of refugees wishing to remain in their country of asylum because of established links, or of refugees having compelling reasons out of previous persecution for not returning to Rwanda or Burundi, may provide a solution to perhaps some of them. However, as confirmed during my recent visit to the refugee camps, I am convinced that the large majority would wish to repatriate, and to retrieve their properties as soon as possible, provided they are reassured that they can depart from the camps in safety and can arrive home without fear of persecution, retribution or hunger.

In order to ensure the voluntary and safe return home of Rwandese and Burundese refugees and internally displaced persons, I should like to urge this Conference to endorse the comprehensive strategy outlined in the Conference document presented by UNHCR. My Office has already started with its implementation. During the month of January 1995, 8,000 Rwandese refugees were assisted with security precautions to repatriate from the Goma area. During the first week of February, a first return convoy of 87 refugees was organised from northern Burundi to southern Rwanda, a modest figure, but a significant event. Also recently, the number of Burundese refugees returning from Zaire to north-western Burundi has increased. Inside Rwanda, UNHCR, IOM and UNAMIR jointly assisted, in the context of "Operation Retour", some 23,000 internally displaced persons to return from camps in the south west during the month of January, a record high. It is hoped that similar returns will take place in future for the displaced in Urundi.

All concerned should build on this momentum. But let us be realistic: there may be many obstacles on the way forward, including disinformation and intimidation in the camps, instability in parts of Rwanda and Burundi, and incidents of revenge or other violations of human rights. We must proceed with a degree of caution, and assist those wishing to return at the present stage, preferably on a community basis, to areas which are stable and where an international presence can reassure the returnees, both in terms of protection and assistance. While short term rehabilitation of community services is well underway, any material assistance to individual returnees should be temporary, so as to avoid dependency and in order to revive the local agriculture and food production as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, and in order to prepare for and achieve large scale repatriation, the countries of asylum and of origin must undertake and accelerate a number of important confidence building measures. For the former this includes measures to provide security to candidates for return, to suppress incitement to ethnic hatred, to stimulate regional dialogue, to ensure the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps, and to prevent refugees and others from engaging in subversive activities against their country of origin. Needless to say, they should also protect refugees against any outside armed attack. In this context, all regional countries of asylum will hopefully also consider the possibility of relocating camps away from the border, in conformity with the OAU Refugee Convention and traditional practice in Africa.

As to the countries of origin, I very much appreciated receiving again, during my visit to Kigali, the assurances of the Rwandese Government to uphold the safety and fair treatment of all returnees. Let these assurances be repeated solemnly and publicly, also in Burundi, and be combined with openings towards dialogue with all bona fide segments of the refugee population. In its Presidential Statement of 10 February 1995, the Security Council reaffirmed its view that such dialogue was necessary in the context of a resolution of the refugee problem. As I said earlier, without dialogue it will be difficult to achieve national reconciliation. If possible, the authorities of both countries should undertake confidence building visits to refugee camps, as the Rwandese authorities have already done in refugee camps in Burundi. While the impunity of perpetrators of serious violations of human rights must be terminated, practical measures undertaken by the Rwandese government must be intensified to prevent any arbitrary arrest, based on abusive denounciation. Rumours spread easily, and withhold refugees from returning. Prison conditions must be improved, and international assistance is urgently needed to assist the Rwandese Government also in that regard. Let me use this occasion also to state that, while incidents of revenge still occur, the restraint shown by most in Rwanda should be regarded as remarkable, given the horrors of April and May last year. The Government and the army should therefore continue their warnings against any acts of reprisal.

I should like to underline that, as anywhere else, the local authorities in both Rwanda and Burundi are responsible for ensuring the physical, legal and material security of returning refugees and internally displaced persons, and of all other citizens. At the same time, I am convinced that in Rwanda UNAMIR, UNHCR, the United Nations human rights monitors and others can assist with building confidence and with countering any abuses. I am therefore appreciative of the full access granted thus far to my Office for returnee monitoring purposes. The same applies, by and large, to UNHCR's activities in Burundi. In that country, however, there would seem to be an urgent need for an effective international human rights monitoring presence, and for a further strengthening of the important role of the civilian and military observers of the OAU.

While in north Rwanda, I saw many refugees who left Rwanda in the early sixties, or their descendents, returning from Uganda with their impressive herds of cattle. I am pleased that after so many years they too would be entitled to an end to exile, which was a major subject under the Arusha Peace Accord of 1993. I am, however, concerned about the fact that these refugees, upon their return from Uganda, Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi or elsewhere, are continuing to occupy houses and land belonging to those who fled more recently, often in the absence of alternatives. I wish to call on all regional countries of asylum to counter any inter-communal or other pressure on these refugees to leave to Rwanda, so rapidly, and not to exclude local integration, through naturalization if requested, or otherwise, in accordance with the Dar-es-Salaam Declaration of 1991. I am requesting the Government of Rwanda to ensure a balanced approach with regard to the return of all refugee groups, to intensify its efforts to settle these returnees on unallocated land or to provide other forms of compensation, to publicly reiterate and implement the assurances given to the more recent refugees and internally displaced persons regarding their right to restoration of property, and to establish fair and expeditious dispute resolution mechanisms.

Finally, UNHCR's comprehensive strategy on voluntary return does not only require the full commitment of the countries of asylum and of Rwanda and Burundi, but also of the international community. Its key contribution should include political backing for initiatives of national reconciliation, assistance to the countries of asylum for establishing security in the refugee camps and for redressing the adverse effects of hosting large numbers of refugees, active support to the International Tribunal for Rwanda and national or international investigation procedures in Burundi, and assistance for the restoration and strengthening of the judicial system, for the reintegration of returnees, and for rehabilitation and economic recovery. The Round Table Conference for Rwanda having produced promising results, I hope that similar support will be forthcoming for Burundi. I also hope to be able to count on generous donor support for the activities of all agencies under the United Nations Consolidated Inter-Agency Appel for 1995. As to UNHCR's share, there is a worrying shortfall of USD 233 million on the total requirement of USD 280 million.

I have reached the end of my introduction. In the Great Lakes Region, 1993 and 1994 were years of catastrophe. May the year of 1995 become a turning point towards durable peace and an end to human suffering. With the determination of all partners of goodwill, and in spite of the hurdles ahead of us, I am confident that hope can be restored to millions of uprooted people.

Thank you.