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Statement by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group at the Peace Implementation Council (Geneva)

Statement by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group at the Peace Implementation Council (Geneva)

8 December 1999

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

An extraordinary year for South-Eastern Europe is about to end. The Kosovo crisis challenged the international community in ways that are unprecedented even in this troubled area, and the situation remains very fragile. Kosovo, however, marked a turning point in the history of the region. The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe is not only a comprehensive response to the Kosovo tragedy - it is also an ambitious and visionary attempt to manage the crises that have shattered the Balkans since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Clearly, it is important to be realistic, and be prepared for the possibility of further instability and population displacement. But we also have to look to the future with a sense of hope and confidence. I believe that the risks of further humanitarian crises in South-Eastern Europe can be reduced. The opportunity to scale back humanitarian assistance and consolidate efforts toward recovery and rehabilitation - and, eventually, prosperity and integration in Europe - may finally be at hand.

The Stability Pact has widened the scope of problem-solving efforts in the region, and has given them a framework. It is therefore very important that the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, too, re-positions itself in this broader context. Not only should it continue to focus on the search for solutions for those still displaced and otherwise affected by wars and persecution; but it must also emphasize, more decisively, the impact of these solutions on the stability and security of the entire region. The future of South-Eastern Europe depends also on resolving problems of forced human displacement.

The Kosovo crisis and its aftermath

In our last two meetings, the focus of our attention was on Kosovo. In fact, our April meeting took place at the peak of the refugee crisis, and upon leaving it, I flew directly to the region. I will not repeat facts that all of you know too well. Let me just mention, so that everybody is clear on the magnitude of the issue, that in the course of three months, 900,000 Kosovars fled or were deported from the province. A few weeks later, following the Military Technical Agreement, most of them returned. It was one of the largest and fastest population movements that UNHCR had ever dealt with.

The response to the refugee crisis was also one of the most complex humanitarian operations in modern history. It eventually succeeded because so many got involved quickly and generously: neighbouring countries which hosted most of the refugees, particularly Albania, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Montenegro in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; other governments; United Nations and international organizations; many NGOs; and military contingents. All deserve praise for their invaluable contribution.

At times, however, the large number of organisations did impair operational coordination. Kosovo was, indeed, an over-crowded emergency. The often-competing objectives, approaches and methods of operation distracted attention from the overall goal, even if the global effort significantly contributed to minimizing the hardship and loss of lives.

But for the humanitarian community, the Kosovo crisis was not just a very large and complex emergency. The nature of the exodus itself, the multiplicity of actors and the extraordinary public interest, also raised fundamental questions about our own work - with a particular focus on issues such as cooperation with the military, and the role of bilateral action. The debate itself is - I believe - useful and interesting. I have already spoken about these issues at the annual meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee, in October, and I think that all of us should continue to reflect upon them. I trust that the independent evaluation of UNHCR's response to the crisis, which, as you know, I commissioned in June, and which will be made public by February 2000, will be an important contribution to the discussion.

Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the situation has undoubtedly improved for the ethnic Albanian majority. Most of those who fled, and who have now returned, are facing many difficult problems in an environment that is physically and economically destroyed, at the onset of the harsh Balkan winter. However, they do not have to face the massive violations of human rights to which they were subjected until the spring of this year and during the war, and which an OSCE report, released earlier this week, carefully documents. This is an extraordinary change.

But not all the problems have been resolved. Let me focus on two in particular.

First, the harassment, murder, expulsion and flight of non-Albanian minorities continues. This is in stark contrast to one of the declared purposes of the international intervention, which was to preserve the existence of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo. The situation of minorities who remain in the province, especially the ethnic Serbs, and the Roma, is very precarious. A second OSCE report clearly presents the cycle of violence and intimidation which has continued, particularly against the Serb and Roma population, since the June settlement. This is unacceptable. Returning refugees must not become the new perpetrators of abuse, or the refugee cycle will indeed be unending.

As a result of this situation, up to 200,000 ethnic Serb displaced people have fled to other parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and especially to Serbia. There are now over 700,000 refugees and displaced people in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (including those from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina), which makes it one of the largest refugee-hosting countries of the world. The situation of these people continues to deteriorate. Because of decades of under-investment, new damage from the war, and growing competition for the limited social support and job opportunities, every effort must be made to further expand the impartial humanitarian relief efforts.

Second, it is necessary to accelerate the smooth transition from emergency humanitarian activities to longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction, under the leadership of specialized agencies and regional organisations. While this complex transition takes place, urgent humanitarian requirements will have to be met. The most pressing need is adequate shelter for those whose homes were destroyed, or are unusable this winter. As you know, UNHCR, ECHO and USAID launched emergency shelter programmes, to help people repair at least one room for winter. The target was to reach 60,000 families (approximately 350,000 people). Over 40,000 winterization kits have been distributed so far. The programmes also provide assistance to a similar number of people whose homes have been completely destroyed. They live with host families, in collective centres and other temporary accommodation.

These efforts, clearly, are of an emergency nature. They will help many people survive through the winter, but they were never intended to achieve the reconstruction of Kosovo. It is imperative that the European Union, in coordination with UN development agencies and the World Bank, is enabled to implement reconstruction and development activities immediately.

Substantial funds have been pledged at the Brussels donor conference of 17 November. It is now essential that pledges be followed by concrete action, failing which there will be a protracted humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe. I am sure you will agree with me that this is unacceptable. There must not be a second emergency winter in Kosovo. With this in mind, and counting on an early response by bilateral donors, and by development and reconstruction agencies, UNHCR is planning to phase out humanitarian rehabilitation activities in the province by mid-year 2000. We shall of course continue to deal with refugees, displaced people and related protection and legal issues of concern to my Office. This will include dealing with problems related to minorities in Kosovo. Although they are essentially human rights concerns, they are also closely linked to problems of displacement. UNHCR will therefore continue to do all that it can in support of the rights of minorities, and to cooperate with other institutions - especially the OSCE - in finding solutions to their plight.

The broader context: searching for new solutions to problems of displacement

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to the broader situation of human displacement in the region as a whole. Exactly four years ago, I addressed the Peace Implementation Conference at a time when our hopes for a speedy return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes were high. Progress has been made, but many of those problems continue to challenge us today. Kosovo clearly demonstrated that in this region, unless root causes are addressed, lingering problems can always erupt, with incalculable consequences.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia, the return and reintegration of refugees and displaced people have progressed much more slowly than anticipated. During the first ten months of 1999, about 60,000 people returned to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as opposed to 140,000 in 1998 - and less than half, about 28,000, were minority returns. Also, during 1999, less than 8,000 people have returned to Croatia, while more than 13,000 had returned in 1998. Almost two million people continue to live away from their homes throughout the region. There are still many obstacles, which we have discussed in every session of this Working Group since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. It is imperative that the international community, together with responsible leaders in the region, finds new ways and approaches to overcome the obstacles.

In June 1998, in a meeting of this Working Group, UNHCR launched a "Regional Strategy for Sustainable Return". You have before you the "Update on Durable Solutions in the Post-Dayton Context", which is an addendum to the 1998 strategy document. Let me stress one fundamental point: the right to return to pre-war homes, which was at the core of the strategy, must remain a fundamental tenet. We must not give up on minority returns or any other difficult objective set by Dayton.

However, perhaps we have not been concrete and realistic enough in assessing the potential and actual possibilities of return. One issue is clear. Minority returns have been less of a success than we hoped for. We must now focus more decisively on one concept. Return is not an abstract issue. Return will, above all, depend on the respect for the real aspirations and choices of refugees and displaced people. If we want returns, including minority returns, to succeed - and we do - we must therefore recognize and reflect such aspirations and choices in a more concrete, realistic manner.

I felt this very clearly during my visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in June. Some people wish to return to their pre-war homes: this remains a priority, and we must do everything to ensure that they are allowed to do so in safety, and in full respect of their rights. Others, however, are prepared to opt for different solutions - for example return to other places, where opportunities are better and the environment more secure. Such choices, too, must be supported, including the integration of people in areas where they did not live before the war, should that be their free choice. Those still displaced are people whose lives have been changed, families broken, and property lost during the years of conflict. They have not, however, given up their fundamental right to choose their future, and should be helped to do so.

A recent survey by the Commission for Real Property Claims shows that the percentage of those who want to return to their pre-war homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina is 61%. This survey reflects of course the current situation, and it will be necessary to constantly update it, but one fact emerges very clearly: if we want to make real progress in resolving displacement, we must try harder to match realistic and available options with the wishes of the displaced people.

To this end, UNHCR and governments in the region will be undertaking a series of tripartite consultations in order to resolve the displacement problems of specific groups of people, for whom we have clearly identified solutions. I am pleased to announce that the first of a series of meetings will take place tomorrow with the governments of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. UNHCR will present the aspirations of identified groups, and will seek to secure commitment by governments to implementing concrete action plans, with measurable timeframes. UNHCR will furthermore seek support for the objectives of these plans among Stability Pact member states and organizations.

Let me make some final, but important observations on the causes preventing people from returning home. After the end of the Bosnian war, insecurity was the main factor discouraging returns. Some very serious incidents reinforced the conviction of many refugees and displaced people - especially from minorities - that returning would expose them to intolerable risks. I have previously made this very clear in my statements to this Working Group. Another obstacle to return has been unresolved property issues - the provisions of existing laws and the decisions of established commissions have not been fully implemented. I have often expressed concern about the catastrophic consequences of "chains" of displacement situations, linked to "chains" of houses occupied by people whose rightful property was occupied by somebody displaced from another place.

On both issues, progress has been made. There is perceptibly less insecurity. Property laws, however, have yet to be implemented; should this not occur, thousands of people will be deprived of a fundamental right, on which their return depends. The most serious obstacle, however, is now clearly the lack of jobs. The time has come to examine seriously the issue of economic opportunities. Both in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, young people are not returning to areas where there is no employment, no opportunity to bring up families, and no non-discriminatory schools or hospitals.

Joblessness is nowadays one of the main reasons for the failure of promoting returns and, more broadly speaking, inter-communal cohabitation. So, why not launch together an initiative that we could call "Jobs for Coexistence"? Why not explore together the possibility of creating jobs for a number of people in areas that have undergone severe inter-communal violence and link the project to ethnic coexistence, by providing equal opportunities to members of different communities? Why not target groups that may play a useful role in creating opportunities, and connect this initiative with previous ones, such as the Bosnian Women Initiative? I am aware that unemployment is not going to be resolved by finding jobs for a handful of particularly deprived people. However, do not underestimate the impact of - say - an inter-ethnic shoe factory, or of inter-communal production of food or bricks.

To launch such an initiative - not only in Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but eventually also in Kosovo - it will be important to involve the private sector. I have recently spoken about this proposal to representatives of the business community, in the United States and in Italy, and I have found their responses encouraging. They understood that any such project could be like a "seed" for the promotion of peace-building and refugee return in areas of fragile peace, for the prevention of further refugee flows, and - ultimately - for the creation of an economically viable environment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the economic field, as in other areas, what has been missing in South-Eastern Europe is a regional approach. This year, for the first time, our efforts to resolve problems of forced human displacement - and the efforts of others to create economic opportunities - may have found a much-needed overall framework to sustain and direct them. The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe provides an ideal context to foster regional stability, peace, democracy, and prosperity. It brings new opportunities into play, particularly in offering mechanisms for reform, reintegration, and ethnic coexistence. If I may be blunt, the Stability Pact could finally provide an exit strategy to humanitarian agencies still heavily involved in a region which needs - more than ever - reconstruction and development.

To the renewed commitment of the international community, however, the countries in the region, and their leaders, must respond with more decisive efforts. People in South-Eastern Europe have to shape their own future, and they must be encouraged to grasp the opportunities at hand. The international community, including UNHCR as the lead humanitarian agency, may be determined to assist, but the ultimate responsibility for return, recovery, and especially reintegration and peaceful coexistence, rests with the people and their leaders. Brave local leadership is the greatest hope for a prosperous future.

Let us today make known our commitment to work together so that the Kosovo crisis will be the last refugee exodus in European history. The wounds of wars heal slowly, but they can heal, if treated effectively. In spite of all the problems, I remain personally optimistic about a better future for the people of the region. As I said, we are putting forward today some new initiatives to reinvigorate our 1998 strategy. UNHCR cannot fulfil these initiatives alone. This can only be done in continued partnership with UN and international agencies and NGOs; through cooperation with Stability Pact member states and organizations; and most importantly, with the full involvement and commitment of responsible leaders and the people of the region.

Together, we can and must create new opportunities and foster hope for refugees and displaced people who are still in need of solutions. We must strengthen the rule of law, support political institutions protecting individual and group rights, remove obstacles to the repossession of property, and expand new horizons of socio-economic opportunities. And as I said, we must also widen the scope of our approach, especially in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, by promoting new inter-communal contacts, and recognizing, and supporting the integration of those returning of their own free choice.

If we succeed in these difficult endeavours, we will generate stability and create conditions for the region to be part of a broader, more prosperous and more peaceful Europe.

Thank you.