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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council and the Stability Pact (Geneva)

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council and the Stability Pact (Geneva)

11 September 2000

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group. I wish to begin by paying tribute to our three UNHCR colleagues, Samson Aregahegn, Carlos Caceres and Pero Simundza, who were brutally murdered in West Timor last week. Pero was Croatian, and he served with my Office for seven years in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania before joining the Timor operation. My earnest hope is that these three courageous people did not die in vain. We must press for a more serious international response to the security threats facing humanitarian workers in many parts of the world.

Today, for the twentieth and last time, I am chairing a meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group. In December, I will be leaving office. Before moving to the present situation, therefore, I would like to reflect for a moment on the long, difficult road we have travelled together since 1992.

When the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia established this Working Group, war was raging in Europe for the first time in nearly fifty years. In the darkest days, some four million people were uprooted within Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia or had become refugees. Ethnic cleansing, massacres, shelling, sniping and the denial of humanitarian access were our daily bread. Our focus was on saving lives.

My Office led a humanitarian relief operation of unprecedented scale and complexity. At its peak, more than 3,000 humanitarian personnel from over 250 organisations worked together under UNHCR's umbrella. UN peacekeepers and international military forces supported us on the ground and in the air - most notably by keeping the besieged people of Sarajevo alive with the longest-running airlift in history. The international community responded generously, supporting the humanitarian operation and giving asylum or temporary protection to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In late 1995, the Dayton peace agreements opened a new chapter in our work, bringing this Working Group within the framework of the Peace Implementation Council. The fragile peace held and people were no longer dying. But the challenges we faced in implementing Annex 7 were no less complex. Indeed, the expectations upon us were greater. Our common objective was the speedy return and reintegration of refugees and displaced people in their homes.

I told this Working Group in 1996 that UNHCR's aim was to ensure that all refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia would have found a solution, or would be firmly engaged in the process of doing so, by the end of 1998. We took immediate initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the inter-entity bus lines, which restored freedom of movement and brought people into closer contact. When it became clear that few minorities were returning, we launched the Open Cities initiative to promote international assistance for communities willing to take back minority residents.

In 1998, the Peace Implementation Council asked UNHCR to develop a regional strategy for the sustainable return of people displaced by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The Council's Steering Board endorsed the strategy in June of that year. I welcomed this belated recognition of the obvious fact that forced displacement and, thus necessarily, solutions have a regional dimension. Creation of the Stability Pact in mid-1999 reaffirmed and broadened the notion that a regional approach was essential to consolidate peace and prevent future displacement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The paramount problem facing us since 1996 has been minority returns. Progress has been painfully slow. Our efforts have been frustrated by continuing ethnic tensions, the lack of basic security for minorities, political obstruction by hard-line nationalist leaders and the physical destruction and economic stagnation resulting from the war.

Today, nearly five years after Dayton, I am pleased to report that minority returns are finally a reality. When I visited the region in March, the progress was already visible, especially in Republika Srpska. The Assistant High Commissioner, Søren Jessen-Petersen, has just returned from the region very encouraged by the changes that he saw. At last week's Millennium Summit in New York, I was able to meet and exchange views on these developments with President Mesic of Croatia and President Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After years in limbo, the refugees and displaced people are tired of waiting. They are going back to Sarajevo and Banja Luka. Minorities are even returning to Bijeljina, Foca, Prijedor and Stolac - towns that were virtually synonymous with ethnic cleansing during the war. The rebuilt mosque in the village of Kozarusa near Prijedor offers a sight that seemed unimaginable only a short while ago. Security is better, bringing a greater climate of confidence. In most areas where minorities have gone back, people are living peacefully alongside each other. Even isolated incidents of violence - such as the vicious attacks that occurred in Janja in July - have not slowed the momentum. People are bravely taking their lives in their hands and going back. They need and deserve our support.

We also see an increased commitment to return among political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Local officials that once obstructed minorities from coming home, now at least accept that return is inevitable. A few do remain mired in hatred, but they are becoming increasingly isolated in today's Bosnia and Herzegovina. Authorities in both entities - as well as their constituents - are less focused on the tragic past and are much more concerned about the immediate challenges of enforcing property rights, building housing, restoring utilities and fostering economic revival. The language of political discourse and the atmosphere have changed remarkably.

The Government of Croatia has also created a more positive environment with clear statements encouraging refugees to return. The Parliament has taken welcome steps to amend discriminatory laws. However, translating the new political commitment at the national level into concrete action locally will require greater efforts. Finding solutions for the Bosnian Croats that remain in Croatia, either through repatriation or local integration, will be a key part of this equation.

For their part, Croatian Serb refugees are showing greater interest in going home. Registered returns from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could reach 20,000 this year, while spontaneous return movements are likely much higher. The Assistant High Commissioner visited returnees in one village near Glina last week. About half of the 100 Serb families who lived in the village before the war were back. None reported facing any security problems. The presence of younger families with their children is an especially encouraging sign of confidence in the future.

New registration exercises in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will give us a clearer picture of the numbers of refugees and displaced persons who still need solutions, as well as their intentions and aspirations. Many undoubtedly still wish to go back to their pre-war homes. But we anticipate that many displaced people in Bosnia and Herzegovina will have decided not to return. Their freely made choices will now have to be recognised, respected and, in concrete ways, supported.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have reached a turning point in the search for solutions to forced displacement in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The obstacles to return are now more practical than political. A real window of opportunity has opened.

To seize it, I believe that we must greatly expand and accelerate our efforts in three critical areas: property restitution, housing reconstruction and economic revitalisation. Quite simply, people need a roof over their heads and economic opportunities to begin rebuilding their lives.

The major barrier to return in urban areas is now the slow pace of property restitution. The basic legal framework and administrative mechanisms are largely in place. Determined efforts are needed now to ensure enforcement at the local level. The Housing Commissions in Croatia do not yet function efficiently, and local officials do not always enforce eviction orders. They must be made accountable for respecting and restoring property rights. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 8,000 properties have been vacated by eviction this year, and some 30,000 properties have been repossessed to date. But this figure represents only 10 per cent of the total number of claims. The High Representative's firm approach with uncooperative officials in Bosnia is having an impact, and I believe this will help to speed up the process.

Increased aid for reconstruction, particularly of housing, is also needed immediately. Many refugees and displaced people might willingly vacate occupied houses and apartments, if they only had some place to go. Responsibility for providing alternative accommodation lies primarily with the national authorities, but the international community must help more.

Most worrying are the cases where people have gone back, expecting help with reconstruction that has never materialised. We estimate that 23,000 minority returnee households in Bosnia and Herzegovina need assistance with house repairs. Only 5,000 are receiving it, leaving a gap of 18,000 houses. Dramatically, some 1,000 Bosniak families who returned this year to eastern Republika Srpska are living in tents. With cold weather just weeks away, they may be forced back into exile. This would be a major setback. More housing reconstruction is also needed in Croatia to free up room for returning refugees. The implementation of reconstruction projects under the Stability Pact and under bilateral arrangements must move forward urgently.

Sustainable return depends upon economic revitalisation and the creation of jobs. The economy will ultimately make or break the peace, and the international community must see this as a priority. Most refugees and displaced people return with little and receive minimal, if any, assistance. They are returning to places where the economy barely functions. Unemployment in some returnee areas in Croatia may run as high as 70 per cent. The general lack of employment opportunities in Bosnia and Herzegovina also impacts disproportionately on minority returnees. The aid community has responded with income generating projects, but these are modest. People will not stay if they see no economic prospects for themselves or their children.

Economic opportunity also keeps people focused on the future. At our last Working Group meeting, I suggested launching an initiative called "Jobs for Co-existence". This year, I can point to examples in the field. In the Mostar region, a very successful farming co-operative has some 900 members from all three communities. After an initial investment of one million Deutsche Marks, the cooperative has developed on its own and has plans to produce food for the European market. In Drvar, Croat displaced people and Serb returnees are operating a fast-food business in shared premises. The Bosnian Women's Initiative has also fostered co-existence through projects employing women from different communities.

My Office is launching a project called "Imagine Co-Existence" to better understand what promotes or discourages co-existence in divided communities and to develop more effective programme responses. "Imagine Co-existence" will draw upon the experiences and lessons learned by communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda and will support community-level pilot projects in those countries.

The breakthrough examples of economic co-operation in Bosnia must be supported and replicated. They show that co-existence is more than a goal, it can be a reality. But still they are exceptional. The situation for most returnees is far less encouraging. Unemployment breeds a sense of frustration and hopelessness, which in turn provides fertile ground for the negative, virulent nationalism that is our worst enemy.

The next two years will be the most crucial in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Stability Pact has raised expectations. Donors must work together with governments in the region to translate promises into houses, electricity, clean water, schools and, most critically, jobs for returning refugees, displaced people and their neighbours. New money is needed to cover the mounting needs. Now is the time.

I am concerned about the international community's level of commitment. Resources came readily for our humanitarian programmes during the war, as well as for reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts immediately afterward. Now, just when real progress is within reach, the world's attention has shifted elsewhere and resources are drying up. We must see the return process through, or the massive investment made in helping victims and bringing peace and stability to the region over the past nine years will be wasted.

UNHCR must continue to provide returnees with the immediate, short-term help they need when arriving back home. We need resources to respond rapidly and flexibly when people take the initiative and open up new areas for return. Such assistance typically includes emergency shelter repair materials, blankets, mattresses, stoves and cooking sets. But it can also extend to the purchase of a tractor to put the farmers in a small village back into business. The aim is to make a quick impact on the quality of people's lives and, thereby, anchor return. But the global funding shortfall facing my Office may force us to cut back further on our programmes. The result will be greater hardship for people who are already returning to a very precarious existence.

During our recent meeting, President Izetbegovic saw such reductions in essential assistance in a broader context. He worried that the lack of adequate support for the return process could provide an opening for the ever-present forces of extremism to manipulate and destabilise the situation. I share his concern. The positive trends that I am reporting today are not yet irreversible. Complacency would be dangerous.

UNHCR will continue to provide leadership within the Stability Pact framework on the protection and return of refugees and displaced persons in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will remain at the forefront of efforts to mobilise international support and to co-ordinate the search for solutions to displacement. However, as humanitarian responses give way to longer-term efforts aimed at reconstruction and economic revitalisation, we look to the concerned governments, development actors and the international financial institutions to provide the resources, expertise and leadership required. Our own operational role in these two countries will focus increasingly on protection and legal support activities.

I would like now to turn to other developments in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and particularly in Kosovo.

The massive international relief operation in Kosovo is now winding down. My Office was designated by the Secretary-General to lead the humanitarian effort, with Mr. Dennis McNamara as head of the Humanitarian Affairs Pillar of UNMIK. I wish to thank Mr. McNamara and all his collaborators for their work in achieving the basic objectives of the relief operation. Under extremely difficult conditions, they co-ordinated the emergency winter shelter programme, protected and assisted minority communities and oversaw mine action efforts.

It is a tribute to their success that, two months ago, the Humanitarian Affairs Pillar ceased to exist as a formal component of the UNMIK structure. Credit for this achievement must be shared with the people of Kosovo themselves, whose resilience and determination has been extraordinary. Needless to say, humanitarian agencies will continue to complement UNMIK's work, as it rises to the challenge of managing a very delicate peace process.

UNHCR's major preoccupation in Kosovo will be the protection and assistance of minorities. The continuing cycle of violence and intimidation is now directed at non-Albanians. Serbs and Roma live in a virtual state of siege in mono-ethnic enclaves under heavy KFOR guard. UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies sustain these isolated communities with food and basic assistance. To give non-Albanians access to shops and markets, health care and other services, UNHCR provides protected freedom of movement bus lines.

Many non-Albanians fled Kosovo immediately after the NATO air campaign. Harassment, forced evictions, physical attacks and murders have since forced most of the rest to flee. More than 210,000 people displaced from Kosovo have registered in Serbia and Montenegro. They require support, along with the half million refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina - the largest refugee population in Europe. Deteriorating social and economic conditions in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are hitting the most vulnerable hardest.

For minorities to go home to Kosovo, violence must be contained and the climate of revenge and impunity overcome. The treatment of minorities will be the litmus test for the re-establishment of the rule of law and human rights in Kosovo. Enabling the small remaining non-Albanian communities to stay is the first crucial step. The Kosovo Albanian political leadership must commit itself to community-level action aimed at achieving this goal and creating the conditions for eventual return by those displaced elsewhere in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

My Office is working to improve relations between the Kosovo Albanian and Roma communities. We initiated a series of roundtable discussions between the leaders on both sides. These meetings resulted in a joint declaration condemning violence and supporting tolerance and return, as well as the adoption of a Joint Platform of Action for addressing the problems of the Roma community. Concrete steps are needed now to implement the agreed measures.

The UNMIK Joint Committee on Serb returns is also an important initiative. But reconciliation between the Kosovo's Serb and Albanian communities will not come soon or easily, as the tense situation in Mitrovica illustrates so clearly.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During the past decade, my Office and I personally have relied upon the support and collaboration of a myriad of partners. I do not want to close my final address to this Working Group without acknowledging and expressing my profound gratitude for the contribution that you all - and so many outside of this room - have made to our common humanitarian endeavour.

The constellation of partners changed over time, as we moved from dire humanitarian emergencies to efforts to consolidate peace and foster rehabilitation and recovery. During the successive emergencies, we developed innovative ways of operating on the ground with our humanitarian and military partners, and we redefined humanitarian action for a more dangerous time. When war turned to fragile peace, we adapted our strategies and forged new partnerships with regional organisations, development actors and the international financial institutions. The lessons we learned, whether through success or by painful failures, will continue to inform and guide our work around the world for years.

The roll of our valued partners is far too long to read here, but it includes governments, their agencies and officials at every level, the European Union, OSCE, ICRC, IOM, the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, our sister UN agencies and field missions, UN and international military forces and civilian police, national and international NGOs and countless individuals who aided our efforts to protect and assist refugees, the displaced and the vulnerable.

I would also like to recognise the thousands of humanitarian personnel, including my own staff, who have worked valiantly over the years - often under extremely difficult conditions and at great risk to their own lives. Just three weeks ago, Bengt Olsson, Bozidar Vlaski and Voislav Gavrilovic, who worked for the NGO "HELP", were killed while clearing mines from a house in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their tragic deaths demonstrate the bravery of those involved in the humanitarian effort, as well as the continuing threat posed by landmines in the region.

Finally, I must not fail to mention the people of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Their will to overcome conflict and restart their lives lies at the heart of any success we have achieved together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia presented the most defining humanitarian challenge of the past decade. We are now meeting at a decisive moment. The chance to achieve real progress has never been greater. At the same time, we must remain vigilant regarding the potential for renewed instability and massive displacement in parts of the region that continue to be volatile.

I am personally optimistic about the prospects for the people of the region to enjoy a better future. But the commitment and determined engagement of everyone here today will be needed. I hope that my Office will continue to receive your support - moral, political and financial - as we seek lasting solutions for those displaced.

Thank you.