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

26 June 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, and welcome in particular to the delegations arriving from capitals, as well as to Mr Bernard Miyet, United Nations Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations. Let me introduce - although most of you know him quite well - my Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Nicholas Morris. His predecessor, Carrol Faubert, left the operation in March, after one and a half year of very dedicated work. Let me also introduce Barry Rigby, my new Chief of Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The situation in the former Yugoslavia has considerably evolved, with substantial humanitarian consequences - particularly in terms of continued or renewed forced displacement of civilians. This meeting is therefore quite timely.

Some of you have recommended that discussions be open and informal. I could not agree more. Therefore, while for obvious reasons our debate has to be kept within the framework of a set agenda, I would like to urge all of you to be as frank and concrete as possible in a forum which is a working group, and not a formal conference.

Let me open the meeting with a real story. Two months ago, I met a displaced woman in the Bosnian town of Trebinje. She lived in a collective centre - a crammed room with no privacy and in poor hygienic conditions. I asked her why she did not return home. She said she had tried, but had decided to come back to Trebinje. I asked why. She said that returning home had been her worst experience as a refugee. She had been sneered at and threatened. But the worst had been to discover that her neighbour - a friend with whom she had grown up - would not speak to her any more.

During the month of April, I travelled throughout the five republics of the former Yugoslavia and met with all their leaders. I visited the Knin area and the Danube region in Croatia; Vojvodina and Kosovo, as well as the Republic of Montenegro, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; the Sarajevo and Banja Luka areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the capitals of Slovenia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Except for some areas, such as Kosovo or the Danube Region, I had the impression of a region which is striving to return to normality.

But I keep thinking of what that woman in Trebinje told me. Can we speak of "normality" if refugees are afraid to return home? Can a region where 1.8 million people continue to live away from home be called "normal"? can we, under such circumstances, indeed talk about "peace"?

This Working Group was established in 1992 under the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, to discuss all humanitarian issues in the entire former Yugoslavia. It precedes the Dayton Peace Agreement and the establishment of the Peace Implementation Council. Although, since 1995, the HIWG has mostly debated problems linked to the implementation of Annex 7 of the Peace Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I feel that the regional character of forced displacement requires that we reinforce the regional dimension of its discussions.

Upon request of the Peace Implementation Council, my Office has developed a regional strategy for the sustainable return of those displaced by conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It was presented to the Ministerial Meeting of the Council's Steering Board in Luxembourg on 9 June. I am pleased that the Meeting endorsed the strategy and called upon all the parties to co-operate in its implementation.

The strategy document, which is before you, should therefore guide us in our debate today, and we should focus on concrete measures to implement it. I suggest that we discuss two main sets of displacement problems. First, we should examine unresolved problems of displacement. Second, I would like to draw your attention to new situations.

I shall begin from the lingering problems of displacement. A majority of the people awaiting solutions are from Bosnia and Herzegovina: over 800,000 are displaced in their own country (often across inter-entity boundary lines), about 270,000 are refugees in the other republics of the former Yugoslavia, over 250,000 are refugees outside the region. But displacement affects Croatians, too. There are 350,000 Croatian refugees, mostly of Serbian origin - over 300,000 live in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and 40,000 in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are also more than 80,000 displaced people in Croatia itself. All these figures are staggering. I regret to report that they have not undergone any significant change since our last meeting.

The problem of minority returns in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to be the most serious displacement issue. You will recall that I wished 1998 to be the year of minority returns, with at least 50,000 as our mid-year target. I have to report that this figure remains below our expectations, around 10,000 persons so far. Why? Because - as in my true story - the attitudes, and often even the people, responsible for the displacement in the region, still prevail, and prevent returns. The bulk of our efforts, for the time being, has therefore been on trying to create the conditions, and to expand the opportunities for return.

A main obstacle to minority returns remains insecurity. Minority returnees continue to be threatened and sometimes attacked, as has recently occurred in Drvar, Derventa and Stolac. These episodes are not generalized. During my recent visit to Banja Luka, I was encouraged by the spirit of cooperation and dialogue which I observed among a group of displaced leaders of different ethnic groups. But threats and violence are not spontaneous, either. They are usually well organized and precisely timed and targeted. Many, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, continue to oppose the re-establishment of a multi-ethnic society. Having had to abandon the wartime techniques of ethnic cleansing, they now resort to less visible, but equally effective methods to prevent the peaceful coexistence of different communities. Such methods can be as ruthless as ethnic cleansing. Burning houses and even - as in Drvar - killing people, are not unusual.

My first and most pressing appeal today is therefore to mobilize all possible resources to address security problems in areas of minority returns. Security continues to depend on the presence of international military forces, and I was relieved by the decision to extend the mandate of SFOR beyond next week. SFOR is absolutely indispensable to protect returnees, among other people, and to help create conditions favourable to further returns.

At the same time, it is equally essential that the national law enforcement capacity be built up as swiftly as possible. It is vital that there is an effective, multi-ethnic police force on the ground. The UN International Police Task Force, under the direction of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, has continued its commendable efforts to achieve this goal. UNHCR has also launched a demining programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which focuses specifically on areas of return. Other measures are needed to address the problems of insecurity and to promote safe returns. Since security incidents are usually created by a relatively small number of criminals, these people must be identified and brought to justice.

I have often emphasized the importance of our "Open Cities" initiative. A year has now passed since the first municipality - Konjic - was recognized as an "Open City". The number of minority returns to the 11 "Open Cities" recognized so far, however, has been lower than expected - just over 9,000. Although this is disappointing, we should not forget that minority returns to "Open Cities", based on co-operation between municipal authorities, majority and minority leaders, and international organizations, are the most sustainable. We remain committed to this initiative which would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of key cities - such as Sarajevo, Banja Luka,Mostar, Tuzla and Brcko - which have not yet met its criteria. UNHCR will continue to rigorously assess compliance with the "Open Cities" benchmarks, but de-recognize those which have ceased to fulfil them, if necessary. In a parallel effort aimed at further reducing displacement problems, we are attempting to progressively close down collective centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our target is to find solutions for 50% of those living in collective centres in 1998.

The problem of minority returns, however, is not limited to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Displacement clearly reflects a chain-like pattern, with people occupying houses and property of other people displaced elsewhere. From a regional perspective, there are three levels of obstacles that must be tackled: political, administrative and psychological.

At the political level, minority returns to both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia obviously depend on the willingness of the respective authorities to accept them. The gap between the formal commitment to facilitate return at the central level, and the obstructive attitude by local authorities, is evident in many areas, for example in Knin and in the Danube Region of Croatia. Bridging this gap is the responsibility of the local authorities themselves. However, it is also incumbent on governments - particularly in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina - to exert more efforts in convincing the local authorities to respect and facilitate minority returns, and to set the example at the state and entity levels. It is also essential that the international community continue to monitor compliance with return-related provisions of the Dayton and Erdut peace agreements, and to intervene as appropriate in the case of non compliance.

Obstacles at the administrative level are often a consequence of the lack of political will to resolve displacement. They are very frequent in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cumbersome procedures to obtain public documents, and the impossibility for many returnees to have equal access to pensions and other social benefits, are two notable examples. Although these issues are complex, they are unnecessarily complicated by an evident lack of commitment to resolve them to the benefit of minority returnees. None, in any event, is beyond resolution, if the successor States to the former Yugoslavia address them in a coordinated manner.

Property questions are a particularly complex administrative problem. Because refugees and displaced people often occupy the house of others who are displaced elsewhere, property disputes are - by definition - a regional issue. When I discussed it with the US Secretary of State, she said: "most people have a house somewhere in former Yugoslavia, but not everybody has a home". Mrs Albright's statement is very true. Near Knin, in Croatia, I met a returnee belonging to the Serb minority. He told me that before fleeing, he had three houses. One had been destroyed. One was occupied by a Croatian family who had turned it into a shop: this was unlawful, but he had no means to pursue the issue legally. The third house had been assigned to a Bosnian refugee family who could not return home because their own house in Bosnia was occupied by displaced people. Although he owned three houses, the man was therefore homeless.

This example clearly shows that property disputes can be resolved only if they are addressed regionally. Greater and firmer commitment by all states in the former Yugoslavia is required to implement decisions related to property (including evictions, whenever necessary), adopt fair property laws and encourage the establishment of a free property market. Not only must the Commission for Real Property Claims in Bosnia and Herzegovina be supported, but I propose that similar and complementary arrangements be established for Croatia.

A third level of obstacles - perhaps the most complex - concerns psychological barriers to the return of those displaced. Reconstituting a multi-ethnic society after years of inter-communal conflict is a daunting task. It is made much more difficult by those who have an interest in perpetuating divisions and mistrust. On the one hand, in areas of potential return, they create a climate of discrimination or, worse, violence against minority returnees. On the other hand, they deliberately spread biased information concerning conditions in places of return. Misinformation is often spread by word of mouth, but frequently also through the media. It is essential that national authorities take strong and exemplary measures to prevent it. The international community must ensure that this is done, closing down persistent offenders.

The actions required to remove and overcome these obstacles have been set out recently in the declarations of the Sarajevo and Banja Luka conferences, the regional strategy before you, and the Luxembourg declaration. Some have specific deadlines, as for example the adoption of property laws, measures to ensure access to personal documents, and the establishment of multi-ethnic police forces. Many require immediate implementation. Most depend on political action outside UNHCR's power to influence, yet all affect the success of the return strategy.

UNHCR will, of course, continue to carry out activities within the scope of its mandate and of its ability to implement concrete projects at the grassroot, community level. Perhaps, given the regional dimension of displacement, the time has come to expand some of these initiatives beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina. One example is to turn the inter-entity bus lines (which transported almost 30,000 people last month) into inter-state bus lines.

Successfully addressing all the obstacles will however be insufficient to sustain - alone - return to areas where the economy barely functions. The work of the Return and Rehabilitation Task Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a positive example of how resources can be prioritized and the needs of returnees addressed within the wider context of economic reconstruction. Yet again, the link between returns and reconstruction cannot be limited to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Conditions in areas of potential return in Croatia are dismal. Together with our partners, we are seeking ways to replicate the work of the Relief and Rehabilitation Task Force in these areas.

I would also like to stress that voluntary return - although by far the most desirable option, and the preferred choice of most refugees and displaced - is not the only solution to problems of displacement envisaged in UNHCR's regional strategy. Local integration in places where people have sought refuge, resettlement to third countries and voluntary relocation are other possible options, and for some will be the preferred solutions. It is, however, of critical importance that the choice of a solution other than return home, is made as a real choice, and not just made because of despair at the obstacles that I have described. In this respect, I would like to make a few remarks.

First, it is important to ensure that returns be voluntary. I urge governments of countries of asylum to refrain from exerting undue pressure on refugees to return. Premature repatriation is seldom sustainable in the long run.

Second, UNHCR continues to support return to areas different from the place of origin of returnees, provided that relocation is freely chosen, and does not block solutions for others, as is often the case today.

Third, the same criteria of free, voluntary and informed choice must be the basis for opting for local integration in the country or place of refuge, whenever this choice is available. This applies to some Croatian Serb refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I would like to commend the Yugoslav authorities, particularly in Vojvodina, for the integration opportunities which they provide to Croatian refugees.

Fourth, we should not overlook the resettlement solution. While it cannot resolve large scale displacement, it provides protection and security to especially difficult cases, whose lives in places of refuge may be at serious risk for various reasons. Last month, I visited a post-trauma rehabilitation centre for refugees in Chicago. Many of the patients were resettled refugees from the former Yugoslavia. They told me the horrifying stories of violence and exclusion which had led them to flee. I believe that resettlement can at least offer them the opportunity to be treated, counselled, and to resume a normal life.

Let me now turn to the new situations of displacement. They are of concern to this Working Group, not only because of their humanitarian implications, but also since all forced population movements in the former Yugoslavia have an impact on other, related situations of displacement. On 21 April, I shared with the United Nations Security Council my concerns for the humanitarian consequences of violence in Kosovo and of discrimination against the Serb minority in the Danube Region of Croatia. I regret to report that in both areas, the situation has worsened, and more people have been forced to flee. It is the first time since the Dayton and Erdut peace agreements that I have to report on new substantial displacement in the former Yugoslavia.

Some 77,000 people have been displaced so far by escalating violence in Kosovo. About 12,000 are refugees in neighbouring Albania, and another 65,000 persons are internally displaced - of whom 10,000 have fled to the Republic of Montenegro. In early May UNHCR, in coordination with international and United Nations agencies and NGOs, started implementing existing contingency measures, including the dispatch of emergency staff. The influx of displaced people - belonging to different ethnic groups, including the Serb and Roma minorities - into the Republic of Montenegro has been handled so far very effectively by the Office of the Commissioner of Refugees, with the support of UNHCR. In Albania, refugees continue to arrive in one of the poorest areas of Europe. UNHCR has assisted the Albanian government in building capacity to cope with this influx, and in responding to the immediate needs of refugees. Both in Montenegro and in Northern Albania, however, it is the exceptionally generous attitude of the local people that has contributed to mitigate the impact of flight. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly commend the hospitality of those hosting civilians fleeing Kosovo. To support their effort, together with our partners, we have recently launched an inter-agency funding appeal seeking 18 million US dollars. I would also like to make a strong plea to donors to support attempts by humanitarian agencies, particularly in Northern Albania, to address comprehensively the needs of refugees and those, equally dramatic, of the local population, taking into account the long-term consequences of large-scale humanitarian assistance on an undeveloped area and on still fragile institutions.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has expressed willingness to work with my Office in support of the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes in Kosovo. I appreciate this positive attitude. UNHCR is fully prepared to continue to work with the authorities. We are already attempting to assist communities cut off by fighting in Kosovo. Yesterday, for example, field staff of the ICRC and UNHCR jointly delivered humanitarian assistance in Junik. In this respect, however, I should like to make three points: first, it is indispensable for my Office and other humanitarian agencies to have full and unhindered access to all affected civilians in Kosovo - this is not yet the case. Second, the organized return of refugees and displaced can only occur when conditions in Kosovo stabilize and the security of returnees is assured - again, this is not yet the case. Third, the safety and security of 14,000 mostly Croatian Serb refugees in Kosovo - whom my Office has assisted for three years, and who risk being caught up in the fighting - must be ensured, as I told President Milosevic in April, asking him to support the repatriation to Croatia for those who wished to return, or the relocation to safer areas for those exposed to insecurity.

I fear that the burden on host communities and institutions will soon be too heavy to sustain, if the violence does not end immediately. The consequences could be very serious, with destabilizing effects in the entire region. The efforts of those who strive to resolve the conflict through negotiation must be firmly supported. The international community cannot and must not tolerate another protracted conflict and refugee crisis in the Balkans. An early political solution is imperative.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Danube Region of Croatia has also become - again - a reason for serious humanitarian concern, as the recent report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on the United Nations Police Support Group makes clear. The Joint Working Group arrangements for the two-way return of people to and from this region, an essential element of the Erdut Peace Agreement, remain blocked. As in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, security and property problems continue to discourage the return of refugees and displaced people. Local, low-profile, ethnic-based discrimination, however, often of an administrative nature, is so frequent that not only is the number of returns insignificant, but a steady outflow of refugees is also occurring to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and further afield, to Western European countries.

I hope that Croatia will step up measures to stop this "silent exodus" and to encourage the return of those who have fled. While I welcome the recent, constructive dialogue on the Programme of Return proposed by the government of Croatia, security and property-related obstacles to return to the Danube Region - and, incidentally, also the Knin area - must be swiftly removed, as repeatedly requested by the international community. It is essential that the Croatian government issue clear instruction to local police forces to take serious preventive and corrective action against discrimination and other forms of harassment. It is essential that a comprehensive and non-discriminatory property legislation be passed. Above all, the government must take active measures to build trust among different communities and to ensure the maintenance of an ethnic balance in all towns and villages in the Danube Region.

During the war, the urgent, dramatic, but also clearly identifiable need to assist the victims of conflict and displacement, as well as the absence of political action, defined UNHCR's role, and the role of its humanitarian partners, in relatively precise terms. The situation has changed. In Banja Luka, for example, there were only three international institutions during the war: the ICRC, military observers and UNHCR. Today, there are 97. While this situation has many positive aspects - not least the indication that the international community remains committed to sustain and implement peace - it creates scope for confusion, duplication or simply uncoordinated work. It makes it difficult, for each institution, to focus the attention of those providing political and financial support on the specificity of its own action.

My Office, which has the humanitarian lead role in the region, as well as an institutional mandate on refugees and returnees, will continue to seek solutions for those who live away from home, and will try to meet the needs of those who are - regrettably - newly displaced. I am grateful to donors for providing continued support to UNHCR in this region. I am also extremely grateful to the Office of the High Representative, to NATO, OSCE, ECHO and other European institutions, and to all UN, international and non-governmental organizations for paying continued attention to the problems of displacement.

This support must continue, not only in financial and operational terms, but also - and especially - in the form of political action aimed at creating conditions conducive to the sustainable return, or to other solutions, for the 1.8 million refugees and displaced people of the former Yugoslavia. I recommend that in the immediate future, the main task of this Working Group be to oversee the implementation of the regional strategy, reviewing it periodically whenever necessary, and at least twice a year at its regular meetings.

Let me conclude by repeating what I said at the beginning. A region with 1.8 million people who do not want, or simply cannot return home, is not at peace. To postpone solutions for these people will compound the existing tensions and create conditions for further displacement. I am asking you to help hundreds of thousands of people forge a better future for themselves. For most of them, this means returning home - the exercise of a most basic right. For others, it means not having to become new refugees and displaced persons. We may be close to our last opportunity to bring about a lasting peace.