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Statement of Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Peace Implementation Council (Brussels)

Statement of Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Peace Implementation Council (Brussels)

24 May 2000

Minister Gama,
High Representative Solana,
Commissioner Patten,
High Representative Petritsch,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Four and a half years after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, we can at last say that the process of return of refugees and the displaced is starting to work. So far this year there have been four times as many registered minority returns as there were in the same period last year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More and more displaced take their destiny in their own hands and are returning, including to areas where some of the most brutal ethnic cleansing took place during the war, and where we could not have imagined that this would have been possible only a year ago. The Banja Luka Declaration on the return of 2,000 refugees to and from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia has also opened up fresh opportunities for return. In Croatia, the new Government has demonstrated genuine commitment to welcome refugees back to their homes and to restore their civil rights. We trust that this commitment will soon be translated into concrete results on the ground.

Of course, there is a long way to go. There are still several hundred thousand people displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina and another several hundred thousand refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia. Obstruction of the return process still continues - at all levels. Government authorities need to continue to make progress in demonstrating the political will to accelerate minority returns, and on the strict implementation of property laws. Returnees must also be granted non-discriminatory access to education facilities and employment, which are essential to rebuilding their lives. Another problem, which is increasingly forgotten, is landmines: two children, while they were picking strawberries, were killed by a mine close to Tuzla last Sunday. Their deaths serve as a tragic reminder of the ongoing threat still posed by landmines in the region, and the impediment they pose to return to many areas. But in general there is every reason to be encouraged: headway is being made in a task that many once thought impossible.

One of the main reasons for the increase in returns is the improvement in the security situation across Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this context, let me express our thanks to SFOR and IPTF, which provide returnees, especially in minority areas, with an increased feeling of security. Another key factor is the stricter implementation of the property laws. In Bosnia and Herzegovina this will require continued commitment from local authorities, and continued close attention and monitoring by the international community. In welcoming overall progress on return, I would like to express UNHCR's gratitude for the personal involvement and active support of the High Representative, Mr. Wolfgang Petritsch. His commitment and his interventions, for example the removal of public officials who have blocked return, have been a key factor in the current positive developments. We also greatly welcome the support of the OSCE as well as that of Jacques Klein and UNMIBH in this area.

The coming two years will be crucial to accomplishing our joint common goal of accelerating the return process. The Stability Pact has widened the scope of the international community's efforts, and important new contributions have been pledged for the return programme at the recent pledging conference in Brussels. With many returns already occurring, any delays in disbursement of donor funding will inevitably adversely affect the rate and sustainability of returns. Now that many political obstacles in the way of return are being overcome, it would indeed be a great pity if we fail to deliver on the necessary financial support in time. We must not forget that each return is a victory over ethnic cleansing. One crucial area where there have been shortcomings has been the lack of adequate and timely funding for the reconstruction effort, despite the first-class efforts of the local Reconstruction and Return Task Forces to promote reconstruction assistance to support returns. UNHCR is concerned to avoid a situation where returnees might face the coming winter without adequate shelter. There is therefore an urgent need for flexible funding to support reconstruction and infrastructure repair. If this does not happen, this year as well as in the year 2001, UNHCR fears that returns will grind to a halt. In this respect, UNHCR will continue to actively support and cooperate with the Special Co-ordinator of the Stability Pact, Mr. Bodo Hombach, and in its capacity as Vice Chairman of the Steering Group for Return, with Mr. Hans Koschnick.

We have said it before. Without the return of refugees and displaced persons there can be no lasting stability in South-Eastern Europe. As we finally start to see progress, we have reached a watershed in our common objective to reverse wartime ethnic cleansing. It is imperative that we do not miss the opportunity to give this process a decisive push.

Thank you.