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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 17 December 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 17 December 1997

17 December 1997

Ladies and gentleman, once more may I welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group.

I recently visited Bosnia and Herzegovina - for me a reality check. I have travelled there many times. However when I walked through the streets of Sarajevo this time, I saw a vibrant city abuzz with commercial activity. There was an atmosphere of normalization.

The lives of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are improving. Their strength and industriousness, which once helped them cope with the ordeal of war, has now become the driving force of peace. Every construction site, every field under cultivation, every new shop and business is a vote for peace and normality - a step away from renewed confrontation.

But there are no quick fixes after four years of bloodshed, hatred and despair. Behind the signs of normalization, many wounds remain and much must still be done. As we enter the third year of peace, return remains an unkept promise for some 1.4 million people who lost their homes.

At the Peace Implementation Council's Steering Board at Sintra and at the meeting of the Council in Bonn last week, the international community delivered strong messages to the political leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina: that stalled commitments made at Dayton must be implemented. In April, at the last meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, we highlighted three key issues which would allow refugees and the displaced to return to their homes in a safe and orderly manner: namely, freedom of movement, security and the right to return to both majority and minority areas.

What has been the progress on these key issues for return during 1997?

There has been some improvement in freedom of movement - largely due to the reform and training of local police forces undertaken by IPTF and the deployment of joint police forces in key areas like the Central Bosnia and Neretva Cantons and Brcko. There is, however, still a need for UNHCR's bus services. For more than 9,000 people they are the only secure means to cross the IEBL every week. This indicates that we still have a long way to go before full freedom of movement exists in Bosnia.

On the second issue, security, there is a growing consensus that the security umbrella involving SFOR must remain in place well beyond June 1998. For the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina the continuing presence of SFOR proves the international commitment to peace and stability.

The right to return to both majority and minority areas, the third key issue, has faced many obstacles. During the war more than 1.2 million refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina sought refuge in neighbouring countries and further afield. 110,000 Refugees will have repatriated in 1997, with 95,000 returning from Germany alone. Regrettably, few have repatriated from the principal asylum countries of the region.

Not unexpectedly, 1997 has primarily been a year of majority returns. Nearly 98 per cent of all returnees travelled to "majority areas," with most arriving in the urban areas of Sarajevo, Una Sana and Tuzla Podrinje cantons, although for many, these were not their areas of origin. Moreover, unemployment affects 96 per cent of returnees, making job creation an urgent priority. UNHCR continues to support job creation, the rebuilding of social infrastructure and reconciliation through the successful Bosnian Women's Initiative.

A positive feature has been that the percentage of those participating in assisted movements and benefiting from the national repatriation incentive programmes offered by asylum countries increased from 30 per cent in 1996 to 60 per cent in 1997. Given the shortages in shelter and the high unemployment rate, the repatriation incentive schemes have proven their value and their scope should be extended.

Majority returns, however, have now been largely exhausted. Almost all of those still awaiting return, both refugees and internally displaced persons, are members of minorities. With respect to the more than 1 million internally displaced persons at the end of the war, practical and legislative obstacles to minority returns have blocked those wishing to return to their homes of origin. Of the estimated 866,000 displaced persons at the beginning of 1997, only some 60,000 have returned to their home areas during the year. Some twenty five thousand of them returned as minorities and mainly to the Federation. These returns were predominantly older persons.

UNHCR for its part, as we said at the April HIWG meeting, will work "from the ground up" to achieve a breakthrough on minority returns in 1998. How will we define such a breakthrough? Our goal will be 50,000 persons returning between January and June; they must be complete families with young children, not only the elderly; and there must be sustainable returns to all three ethnic communities.

We plan to work closely with those communities and authorities at the municipal and cantonal levels where positive change is possible and where people can go home regardless of their ethnicity. UNHCR's primary role in this process must be in identifying openings for minority returns and in promoting the integrated approach needed to make those returns take place in conditions of safety and dignity.

Where is this happening? In 1997, ordinary people in six such communities have declared that they are committed to openness, freedom of movement and to return. Before being declared "Open Cities," these communities met UNHCR's basic criteria: genuine and consistent political will demonstrated by local authorities to support all members of the population for which they are responsible, to equal rights and opportunities for minority returnees in employment, education and appointment to public office; confirmation that minority returns are occurring or will take place without any abuses of those minorities and that the community is willing to allow them to reintegrate; above all, freedom of movement and respect for human rights.

The six recognized Open Cities are now receiving preferential and fast - tracked international assistance. In Bihac, Busovaca, Vogosca, Gorazde, Konjic and Kakanj, returnees and their neighbours are beginning to get on with their lives. Housing and infrastructure are being restored and demining is underway. Many more communities are under active consideration as Open Cities.

In this same spirit, in Central Bosnia Canton we have seen what is possible when local authorities join with the international community to reverse ethnic cleansing in recent months. Inspired by the outstanding mediation efforts of the late Ambassador Gerd Wagner, eleven municipalities came to an agreement on an integrated cantonal plan for all ethnic minorities to return. Phase one of the plan, currently underway, foresees the return of over 4,000 families. Despite the expected initial problems, it sets an important precedent for how minority returns may be managed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the future.

However, from my perspective, these efforts to promote minority returns would strengthen tremendously if Sarajevo and Banja Luka - with their long traditions of multi-ethnicity and cultural tolerance - were declared as "Open Cities."

During my recent discussions with the President of the Republika Srpska in Banja Luka, she indicated that all original inhabitants of that city would be welcome to return, while noting that solutions would need to be found for refugees and the displaced in that community. The need for solutions for those living in the homes of potential returnees is of course not unique to Banja Luka. Nevertheless, this stated willingness to begin the process of opening the community while seeking solutions for all, is positive.

In Sarajevo, President Izetbegovic also declared his willingness to see Sarajevo an Open City. In this spirit, I particularly welcome the Sarajevo Return Initiative proposed by the United States of America, within the framework of the Return and Reconstruction Task Force. Its aim is to create an "Open Canton" by setting up a mechanism, with precise targets and deadlines, for the return of all minorities to the city and surrounding areas. There can be no more symbolic Open City than Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In addition to the points I have made earlier, we can take additional concrete steps to achieve a breakthrough in minority returns. The international community must show its commitment for the Sarajevo Return plan and all parallel Open Cities initiatives at the return-related donor meeting scheduled for early 1998. UNHCR recommends that in the months leading up to this meeting, detailed planning efforts centre on recognized and potential Open Cities in the Republika Srpska, especially Banja Luka, and in the Federation, the Tuzla - Podrinje Canton and Sarajevo.

More concretely, at the municipal and cantonal level, support is needed in certain key areas: with respect to security and the maintenance of law and order, the active joint efforts among SFOR, IPTF, the local police and officials can be strengthened. Regarding human rights observance and monitoring, greater efforts in the important areas of minority rights, freedom of movement as well as property and amnesty legislation will be necessary. Violations and abuses must be documented and disciplinary measures taken, while at the same time community - based reconciliation activities are encouraged. Improvements in vital infrastructure and shelter remain key.

Demining in areas of potentially large-scale returns is equally important. In October this year, UNHCR published its new policy and strategy on demining. We will work with the UN Mine Action Centre (UNMAC) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to create a local demining capacity within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The plan is to recruit, equip and train local people from each ethnic group to form a UNHCR demining force. Six 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. All UNHCR return projects will have a "mine plan."

UNHCR together with the authorities, the Office of the High Representative and other members of the Return and Reconstruction Task Force (RRTF) will work through the regional RRTFs. They should also incorporate actors with competence in security matters and demining, as well as NGOs with a solid knowledge of local conditions and realities. The involvement and indeed the leadership of local and cantonal authorities is indispensable.

UNHCR will also reallocate its human and financial resources in 1998. To emphasize speed and flexibility of response, we will refocus our field presence, creating light satellite offices in areas of actual, potential minority return, or in hot spots, to allow for a more pro-active stance needed to broker minority returns. We will pursue aggressively all openings for minority returns.

UNHCR will allocate 80 per cent of its funding for 1998 to Open Cities and potential Open cities (including municipalities in Central Bosnia Canton). We will retain an unallocated rapid response capacity to support new openings for minority returns. UNHCR invites all donors and institutions participating in the reconstruction efforts to allocate a part of their resources to this rapid response capacity.

The deadlock on minority returns will not be broken unless a number of obstacles are removed. Freedom of movement and security need to improve significantly as I have already noted. In addition, discriminatory practices, administrative and legislative barriers to return must be removed. It is the responsibility of the political leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina to remove these obstacles, to put an end to obstructionism and to the rhetoric of blaming the international community for failing to do more. My message is: your country, your economy and people are in your hands. We can support your efforts, but we cannot be a substitute for your inaction.

Although UNHCR will focus on minority returns in 1998, the difficult issue of relocation must be considered in our planning and policy efforts. UNHCR strongly opposes relocation that is enforced or politically manipulated. At the same time, we acknowledge the reality that significant relocation movement has already taken place - that is of people to areas where they have not lived in the past. This has been confirmed by a recent study sponsored by UNHCR and the Commission for Real Property Claims. The relocation of people has been compounded by post war movements from rural to urban areas and the impact of the return of refugees on displaced persons who occupied their housing and who, in turn, were relocated as a consequence.

UNHCR endorses only voluntary relocation. Where it occurs, we shall channel our material assistance to instances linked to minority returns by, for example, creating new accommodation for those dislodged by such returns. We may also assist with accommodation where people are dislodged following the election of a new municipal authority. In summary, UNHCR insists that relocation must be voluntary and to either newly constructed property or to existing accommodation fully respecting existing property rights.

In this context, UNHCR also recommends that a code of conduct for international support for the construction of new housing be developed through the Return and Reconstruction Task Force. Such a code of conduct should underline the voluntary character of relocation and that, as long as there is no real breakthrough in minority returns, support for new construction should be primarily to areas accepting minority return projects.

Turning to the region, we recognize and will commit our efforts to implement the Conclusion of the Bonn Peace Implementation Conference which calls upon UNHCR to develop - in cooperation with the authorities of each country of the region and with relevant international organizations, including the High Representative's Office - a regional strategy for return of refugees for presentation to the Steering Board.

We have long known that the issue of displacement in the former Yugoslavia is profoundly intertwined. Despite the many obstacles, there are positive signs.

Croatia is re-establishing its full authority over Eastern Slavonia. There have been considerable efforts made in recent months to promote and safeguard durable solutions for persons displaced from that region and for those displaced into Eastern Slavonia - so called "two-way returns" under the Joint Working Group on Returns (JWG) Agreement in April 1997. Three weeks ago, UN Transitional Administrator Walker and I urged renewed progress in the implementation of two-way returns in a joint letter to the President of Croatia. Returns have indeed occurred, some 10,000 persons, with a significant acceleration since this summer.

To ensure a sustainable return process, UNHCR will maintain a strong presence in Croatia - not only in Eastern Slavonia but also in all areas of return. We will co-operate with the Croatian authorities and our international partners in joint efforts to promote sustainable returns beyond the planned withdrawal date for UN forces and the conclusion of the Transitional Administration.

The post-UNTAES situation in the Croatian Danubian region, and the situation of returning minorities elsewhere, will require close monitoring of human rights standards. UNHCR is committed to supporting a collaborative approach with the OSCE, ECMM and others in monitoring minority and human rights. By combining our efforts and resources, we will enhance our monitoring and reporting on housing and living conditions, security, property and tenancy rights, citizenship, detention and social rights, and enabling us to take pro-active steps to seek the removal of barriers to return.

We particularly commend the creation of the Committee to Establish Trust, Accelerated Return and Normalisation of Living Conditions in the War Affected Regions of the Republic of Croatia. It is extremely important that the Government of Croatia makes clear, in this way, its commitment to returns well beyond the normalization process in Eastern Slavonia. While there has been a degree of progress to date, we need to see a determined and sustained effort, a genuine national commitment to tolerance and inclusiveness. Peace processes and voluntary returns do not become irreversible until there is reconciliation.

This commitment to returns and reconciliation should be extended to all Croatian nationals. Those in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and those in Bosnia and Herzegovina have an equal right to return and to enjoy the protection of their country of origin. There have been inspiring examples in recent days. One week ago, 37 Croatian Serb refugees currently living in the Republika Srpska were able to visit their homes in Pakrac and Lipik in Croatia without incident. This followed intense mediation and logistical efforts by staff from UNHCR and OHR. This was the first such cross-border visit and it was successful. A second such movement is expected today, and we welcome this development.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which continues to host 550,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing the largest refugee population in Europe without a solution, the humanitarian needs of the vulnerable remain a serious concern. I think here of the desperate conditions which I have witnessed in collective centres in Serbia. In this context we commend the continuing commitment of ECHO.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, general economic difficulties facing the country have meant a progressive deterioration in the living conditions of many people, particularly for the large refugee population, 45 per cent of whom originate from Bosnia and Herzegovina and over 53 per cent from Croatia. The authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are increasingly concerned at having to meet the needs of this refugee population. At the same time, voluntary repatriation of refugees to either Bosnia and Herzegovina or to Croatia has been minimal because of procedural blockages.

In 1998, UNHCR will continue to promote voluntary repatriation, to disseminate information on places and conditions of return, to organize "go and see" visits and to arrange transport for those who wish to return with UNHCR assistance. UNHCR has proposed a set of procedures for returns from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to Bosnia and Herzegovina to be considered by the national authorities for possible adoption. While immediate prospects for large-scale return remain limited, UNHCR programmes in FRY will also emphasize self-reliance and the local integration of refugees.

However, without the engagement of national leaders, our efforts alone will not succeed. In particular, we stand ready to assist in tripartite efforts to encourage the return of refugees from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to Croatia. At the same time we will be working toward resettlement to third countries - still a necessary option for a limited number of persons.

In all countries of the region, the key to solutions lies in respect for minority rights. This same theme of minority rights is also the key to averting new displacement. Three weeks ago, together with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, I launched an appeal for $406 million for the 1998 programmes of the United Nations Agencies working in the region of former Yugoslavia. On behalf of those minorities and all others from the region whose rights we are tasked to protect, we seek your support, political, financial and moral.

Thank you.