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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 11 March 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 11 March 1993

11 March 1993

Mr. President, Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

I am very grateful for this new opportunity to address the Security Council. I also wish to express my thanks for the strong support my Office is receiving from the Council, not the least through recent statements on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Let me begin by briefing you on conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my view, the situation can best be characterized by steady deterioration.

First of all I am deeply concerned about new waves of refugees and displaced persons, resulting from indiscriminate fighting and further increases in "ethnic cleansing". My staff has recorded forcible expulsions of Muslims from villages in the Serbian controlled Banja Luka area, where furthermore a general climate of intimidation and fear is forcing the remaining non-Serbian population to flee, either to Croatia or - across front lines - into central Bosnia. They have, however, also reported instances of expulsion and violence against ethnic Serbian citizens in the city of Mostar in Herzegovina, which together with the ECMM and others, they are trying to address through the local authorities.

The establishment of ethnic purity is not only an odious objective of politicians and extremists, but is also a product of the spiral of violence and reprisals, which is often nourished by deliberate misinformation. I worry greatly that this spiral is growing fast, undermining further the common sense of ordinary people who thus far have refused to give in to dreadful political manipulation.

World conscience has been shocked by reports of wide spread sexual abuse. I find it equally unacceptable that after months of international pressure, and despite the arduous efforts of the ICRC, some 2,500 registered persons continue to be held prisoner by the three parties. In reality the number of detainees may be much higher.

My second point concerns humanitarian access to the victims. Access remains our number one problem and concern. I am proud and relieved that the provision of food, medicine and winterization material has prevented mass death and starvation during the past winter months.

However, there can be no room for complacency. On the contrary, as I wrote on 15 January, 23 February and 5 March to the Secretary-General, political and military manipulation and obstruction are continuously stretching the relief effort to its limits. During the past few weeks, UNHCR has delivered less than half of its target of 8,000 mt per week. In January, I had to temporarily withdraw international staff from the Banja Luka region, the main theatre of "ethnic cleansing", because of security threats. In early February, I had to suspend operations on the crucial Mostar road leading to Sarajevo and central Bosnia, after the killing of one of our drivers. On several occasions, I had to suspend the airlift to Sarajevo because of military threats, most recently on 6 February when a German relief plane was shot at. On February 17, I was forced to temporarily suspend relief to eastern Bosnia and Sarajevo when for several days we had not been allowed access. On 4 March, a French relief worker was killed by a direct shot in the head on the road between Sarajevo and Split. Relief officials are threatened and insulted, local drivers are arrested because of their ethnic origin, and UN vehicles are stolen at gunpoint.

Many of these examples concern access to Sarajevo and to government controlled central Bosnia. However, together with UNPROFOR, we are still managing to reach these areas. My biggest concern remains the government held enclaves in eastern Bosnia, where access has not only been hampered and delayed, but in many instances has been denied altogether. I have been increasingly disturbed by the prohibition of relief as a weapon of war and of "ethnic cleansing", the creation of yet another fait accompli. We have, however, lately been able again to reach the enclaves of Gorazde and Zepa, both of which we are trying to serve on a weekly basis. But, as you know, the enclave of Cerska was taken in the course of last week. Access to the larger enclave of Srebrenica continues to be denied since the last convoy of 10 December 1992. This area is reportedly under serious military threat, and conditions are said to be dire. I am very pleased that the American air drops are relieving the suffering there, but, as also said by the U. S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, they cannot become a substitute for access by land.

Of immediate concern is the evacuation of wounded persons and of other vulnerable groups from Srebrenica and from Konjevice Polje. Both areas are accommodating large numbers of displaced persons from the enclave of Cerska and from other areas. Dr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, promised me last week that he would do everything possible to grant access to UNHCR and the ICRC. However, during negotiations in the field, even the evacuation of wounded persons, a recognized practice under the Geneva Conventions, has been made contingent on exchanges of population and other totally unacceptable conditions.

A presence of UNPROFOR in eastern Bosnia, as called for by this Council in last week's Presidential Statement, is more important than ever. Such presence would facilitate our task, and could perhaps also have a restraining impact on military attacks and violations of humanitarian law. However, recalling the example of Banja Luka where UNPROFOR was denied access, I am not necessarily optimistic. Meanwhile, to ensure as much access as possible, we shall need maximum cooperation in terms of planning, negotiations in the field and at the political level. I am pleased to report that the establishment of a Joint Planning Cell in Zagreb has enhanced the coordination between UNPROFOR and UNHCR.

The continuation of armed attacks and persecution, and the obstruction of humanitarian access lead me to my third point. What was left of the local economy, is collapsing in many parts of the country. This applies in particular to the northern part of government held central Bosnia, the region of Tuzla.

Tensions between Bosnian Croat forces and the government side are severely hampering the free circulation of commercial goods, which is exacerbating the situation. People are out of work, food and other reserves are depleting rapidly, and energy shortages are to be expected. As a result, following the assessment of a recent inter-agency mission including UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, DHA and WHO, the number of beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance in Bosnia and Herzegovina is being increased from 1.6 to 2.28 million persons. This is a startling figure, amounting to 50% of the original Bosnian population (4.3 million), and to more than two thirds of those having remained inside the country. The number of beneficiaries of our assistance programmes in the whole of ex-Yugoslavia is now 3.8 million, up from 500,000 in December 1991 when UNHCR began to operate in the region.

These figures and the enormous suffering and devastation they represent underscore the critical importance of an immediate cessation of hostilities. I am determined to carry on with my humanitarian mission and count on the support of UNPROFOR. However, in the absence of peace, the international relief effort cannot be sustained for long, at least not in its present form. I am therefore anxiously following the peace process at the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia. Progress in the next days and weeks are indeed crucial.

Let me now turn to the future. Although we must be ready to cope with a prolonged emergency situation, we also have to think ahead and prepare for conditions which will allow refugees and displaced persons to return home. The re-establishment of peace and security in the region is essential, but durable stability may be difficult to achieve without the return of refugees and displaced persons. I would hope that the Security Council reaffirms their right of return, not only to their country but also to their original places of residence. I would also hope that any plan of implementation of the peace package for Bosnia and Herzegovina will include adequate protection mechanisms, so as to render the return in safety and dignity a realistic option to all victims of the Bosnian conflict.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the front-pages, but other refugee situation around the world equally command our constant attention and action.

Three weeks ago, I visited four countries in Africa, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Burundi. My visits to Djibouti and Burundi brought home to me, once again, the extraordinary generosity of the smallest countries carrying some of the largest refugee burdens.

I visited Somalia to get a quick look at a situation which has caused more than one million people to flee to neighbouring countries. I was most encouraged by my brief stop-over in Bardera. It was obvious that a semblance of normalcy was beginning to return to the city. I was deeply impressed by the efforts of UNITAF which has clearly been the major factor in pulling Somalia back from the brink of total collapse. UN agencies and non-governmental organisations were working closely together sharing a common tented compound. The UNHCR cross-border operation has begun to show its effects with some 68 quick-impact projects in the fields of health, water, sanitation, education and agriculture, coordinated out of three recently-opened UNHCR offices in the Gedo region.

But the extreme fragility of the many encouraging signs we observed has been highlighted by new disturbances in Mogadishu and Kismayo. It is evident that physical and material security will be the crucial element in the prospect for the return of some 300,000 Somali refugees from Kenya and similar number from other countries neighbouring Somalia. I believe the return of Somali refugees could accelerate in 3 to 6 months time, provided adequate security arrangements are in place at the Kenya-Somalia border as well as in the areas of origin of the refugees. President Moi of Kenya agreed with my assessment and also reassured me of Kenya's intention to proceed with return operations on a voluntary and purely humanitarian basis. I have also shared my impressions with the Secretary-General and emphasized the importance of peace-keeping deployment in the border regions. I hope the Council will give attention to this issue.

Let me add that some 35,000 refugees have returned from Kenya to Ethiopia since we began the repatriation operation some two months ago. As a result, we expect to close three camps in northern Kenya within the next month.

I want to take this opportunity to draw the Council's attention to recent developments in Togo which have caused an exodus of more than 200,000 refugees into neighbouring Benin and Ghana - with the influx continuing at a daily rate of up to 1,000 persons. UNHCR is providing initial emergency assistance and WFP is delivering basic food to the refugees. I should also mention that the dramatic events in Angola have temporarily halted the return of refugees and have trapped some of the returnees in the areas of combat. On a more optimistic note,

UNHCR is intensifying its preparations for the repatriation of over 1.5 million Mozambican refugees, while at the same time expanding existing assistance programmes to cater for some 300,000 spontaneous returnees.

Let me finish on a positive Note. Earlier this week, the Council adopted a resolution calling on UNTAC to make every effort to create and maintain a neutral political environment conducive to the holding of free and fair elections in Cambodia. I am happy to report that despite all problems and constraints, some 315,000 Cambodian refugees have now returned from Thailand to Cambodia since we launched the repatriation operation on March 30 last year. On the anniversary, I shall be in Thailand to close the last and largest refugee camp, Site 2. Refugees have already voted with their feet.

Their return is significant also in the crucial process of reconciliation. I count on your determination to maintain peace and stability in Cambodia, as those returning should not risk the fate of exile again in their lifetime.

Our recent experiences in protecting and assisting refugees have proven the essential links between peacemaking, peacekeeping and humanitarian action. A link which has brought my Office into closer contact with the Security Council. I wish to conclude by expressing my warm thanks for your continuing strong support for the humanitarian mission of UNHCR.