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"Challenges to the United Nations: A Humanitarian Perspective" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics, 4 May 1993

Speeches and statements

"Challenges to the United Nations: A Humanitarian Perspective" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics, 4 May 1993

4 May 1993

I am very pleased and privileged to have the opportunity to address this distinguished gathering at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance. My lecture will focus on the humanitarian challenges posed to the United Nations in the post-Cold War era. I hope to examine the ways in which they have been affected by the efforts of the United Nations to establish peace and security, and reflect on the inter-relationship between political and humanitarian action as the United Nations strives to bring order to a world in transition.

We are living in a period of rapid change, in which international security has become more complex and national boundaries more permeable and mutable. On the positive side, adversarial attitudes of the Cold War have been replaced by a new willingness to cooperate. The reduction of East/West tensions has led to the resolution of many regional and internal conflicts and disputes. From central Europe to Latin America, from Thailand to Mali, old assumptions and structures are being challenged and authoritarianism is giving way, in varying degrees, to more democratic forms of government and more open economies. Trade and commerce, modern transport and communications are blurring national boundaries, just as global concerns on drugs, aids, environmental degradation and international migration are drawing Governments together into new forms of cooperation.

On the negative side, political and economic reform is proving to be a painful, sometimes violent process, as shown in Haiti, Zaire and other parts of Africa. Underlying these political conflicts or independent of them, ancient feuds are being rekindled by nationalistic, ethnic, cultural and religious rivalries, leading to violence, sometimes culminating in the fragmentation of states, as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Within these "new" states, more seeds of strife are being sown among insecure minorities. Former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example - but unfortunately not the only one - of the atrocious policy of torture, rape and murder to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another. Wars which were previously fuelled by the Super Powers are continuing even after the withdrawal of their patrons. In Somalia, and to a large extent also in Afghanistan, violence and anarchy have destroyed any semblance of governmental authority. These dangerous and destablising trends could have repercussions far beyond the borders of the conflict-ridden countries. Even in those countries, such as Cambodia and Angola, where the end of the Cold War had led to the settlement of internal wars, a new period of uncertainty is demonstrating the fragility of the peace process.

Political instability is feeding and, in turn, is itself being exacerbated by the problems of poverty, growing population pressures and environmental degradation which, of course, predate the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the relationship between North and South is being challenged in a world in which the division between East and West no longer exists. Countries which have lost their strategic use as Super Power pawns find themselves largely ignored by their former patrons. Furthermore, in many industrialised countries, public support for foreign aid programmes is becoming difficult to sustain in the midst of economic recession.

On the humanitarian scene, large-scale refugee movements and population displacement are being generated by political and ethnic conflicts. The world refugee population has grown from some 13 million in 1989 to almost 19 million today. In the course of the past year alone, my Office has mounted emergency programmes for 3.8 million people in the former Yugoslavia, for some 260,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, and 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. In early December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. In recent months we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

People are being forced not only to cross borders and become refugees but also to be displaced inside their own countries. The conflict in Tajikistan last year produced 500,000 internally displaced persons as well as 60,000 refugees who crossed into Afghanistan. Violence and anarchy in Somalia have caused some one million refugees to flee to the neighbouring countries and another million to become internally displaced. In Mozambique there are 3 million internally displaced persons in addition to about 1.5 million refugees in Malawi and other African countries. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 2 million people have become internally displaced, in addition to over a million refugees in Croatia, Serbia and other neighbouring countries.

In the face of such political instability, economic uncertainty and humanitarian crises, the euphoria which greeted the end of the Cold War has been overtaken by a sober reassessment of the new geopolitical realities. The risk seems not so much of hegemonic dominance but more of the consequences of its absence, with no Super Power willing nor able to impose order. Against this background of a power vacuum, how can the United Nations achieve the original objectives of its Charter, which are to maintain international peace and security, and promote human rights and economic cooperation? How does the United Nations balance the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the state with the need to address threats to international peace and security resulting from internal conflicts? How does an organisation like UNHCR, whose mandate was carefully crafted to respect State sovereignty by providing international protection and assistance to refugees only after they have left their country, respond to the humanitarian needs of those who have been displaced but are still within their national borders?

These are enormous challenges for a United Nations stultified for four decades of Cold War. In the past, peace-keeping operations tended to freeze the frontlines but let the conflicts fester, while humanitarian action took care of the refugees but immobilised refugee situations. By focusing on asylum and the maintenance of refugee camps across the border, attention was deflected from the country of origin, where the source - and hence the solution - of most refugee problems lay. Yet there was little else that the United Nations could do, in the absence of the political will to resolve the problems which led to refugee flows in the first place.

Today, the static framework of the Cold War has been replaced by a more dynamic situation, in which the risks of conflicts and refugee flows have been revived, but equally, the opportunities to address them have been renewed. Agenda for Peace, the report put forward by the UN Secretary-General last year, advocates an active engagement by the United Nations to ensure world security through preventive diplomacy, peace-making or conflict resolution, peace-keeping and peace-building or post-conflict rehabilitation. There is clearly a new willingness in the Security Council to examine internal situations and civil wars as threats to international peace and security. There is a new emphasis on early warning and preventive action, as shown by the preventive deployment of peacekeepers to Macedonia last December. New demands are being put on the United Nations, as peace becomes a multi-dimensional concept in a complex security framework. In countries as far apart as Namibia and Nicaragua, El Salvador and Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique, Somalia and former Yugoslavia, the UN is brokering peace, supervising ceasefires, demobilising soldiers, assisting refugees to return, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and protecting the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

As in the case of peace-keeping, so too for humanitarian action, new imperatives and new opportunities are defining a post-Cold War strategy. Like peace-keeping, humanitarian action is having to focus on internal rather than inter-state problems, whether in the context of returning refugees - who numbered around 1.5 million last year - or internally displaced persons. This means not only responding to refugee situations in countries of asylum, but also preventing and resolving them in the countries from which refugees originate. We must seek to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are, then their humanitarian needs must be met and conditions created to allow them to return home in safety and dignity. This is the three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions which I have launched. It complements asylum outside the country of origin with prevention and solution-oriented activities inside the country of origin.

As the focus of our activities shifts gradually from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin, it becomes linked to the political efforts of the United Nations to bring about peace and security. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the former Yugoslavia where humanitarian operations are working closely, on the one hand, with the political process of the International Conference co-chaired by Mr. Vance and Lord Owen, and on the other with the UN peacekeeping mission on the ground.

Humanitarian assistance, primarily designed to protect victims, can help defuse tensions and prevent conflict if provided in an impartial manner. After conflict has broken out, humanitarian aid to population in need on both sides of a conflict can meet emergency needs as well as contribute to an environment conducive for peace talks. Once a peace settlement is achieved, humanitarian assistance can help the return of refugees and displaced persons as an essential component in the implementation of the peace agreement and provide a bridge to long-term development.

It is clear that the implications and inter-relationships between political and humanitarian action are as complex, as implementation problems are manifold. Let me point out three main issues.

The first relates to the evolution of mandates for the protection of the displaced and other population affected by internal conflict. Despite the provisions of humanitarian law, the framework for the protection and assistance of the internally displaced is unclear because of the sensitivities of national sovereignty. Nevertheless, as part of our strategy to prevent refugee problems and address them before people cross the border, and at the request of the Secretary-General and the government concerned, UNHCR has undertaken an active role for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people, for instance in Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. We have also launched humanitarian programmes in Somalia from across the border in Kenya so that people are not forced to leave their country solely for lack of international assistance. Furthermore, when refugees return to areas where there are internally displaced persons, UNHCR has sought to assist both groups, in an effort to stabilise communities and promote an early durable solution. This is our approach in Afghanistan, Angola and the Horn of Africa.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has added a new category to our list of beneficiaries. These are people who are under siege or otherwise being pressurized to move but have not yet been displaced. Assisting people to remain where they are is an important - indeed crucial - function in a war, the primary objective of which seems to be the expulsion of minority groups. Normally such activities are carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but are now falling also to UNHCR as the UN becomes more engaged in internal conflict situations. Thus, mandates and modes of cooperation are developing out of the operational realities with which we are being daily confronted.

UN peacekeeping missions themselves are also undertaking human rights monitoring. In El Salvador, under Security Council Resolution 693, UN observer missions (ONUSAL) were deployed to verify the undertakings made by the government and the FMLN to respect human rights. The responsibilities of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia also include a human rights component, the effectiveness of which has been challenged, however, by the recent attacks on the Vietnamese minority in that country. Last month the UN despatched the first group of human rights observers to Haiti as a confidence-building measure in the negotiation process. The relationship between such operational human rights monitoring mechanism and the regular UN human rights machinery is not always obvious, however.

Not only are institutional mandates evolving, but so too are practical mechanisms to protect the people in the absence of clear legal standards and implementation machinery. My second point therefore is about the use of international presence as a tool for protecting internally displaced persons. For instance, in Sri Lanka UNHCR has set up Open Relief Centres in northern Sri Lanka which are accepted and respected by both warring parties as havens of safety for displaced persons, although the centres have no legal status as such. Political developments permitting, UNHCR is negotiating a humanitarian corridor for the free movement of civilian population in northern Sri Lanka.

Elsewhere massive presence in the context of an assistance programme can act as a confidence-building measure to enhance security. During 1991 and 1992 in northern Iraq, UNHCR deployed some 180 staff, augmented by hundreds of NGOs and the innovative use of some 500 UN guards.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are some 600 UNHCR staff, who not only help to distribute relief to the displaced and besieged, but also monitor their protection situation. In the context of current realities in Bosnia, international presence, accompanied by massive life-sustaining assistance, may be the only practical form of protection for the besieged population. With this humanitarian purpose in mind UNHCR has sought to negotiate regular access to all parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and particularly the eastern enclaves. On 16 April, the Security Council adopted a resolution (SC res. 819) requesting the Secretary-General to increase the presence of UN peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica town, in order to monitor the humanitarian situation. The Council demanded that all parties treat Srebrenica as a "safe area" free from armed attack or other hostile acts. What is unclear is whether the UN troops would be given the mandate or the additional capacity to carry out the protective task.

I have already mentioned the use of human rights observers in the context of UN peace plans. The lessons from these various operations should be used to strengthen the principles and mechanisms for protecting the internally displaced and other affected population. New approaches should be explored which ensure effective international presence by bringing together human rights observers, humanitarian organisations and peace-keeping forces.

Generally speaking, UN humanitarian organisations have obtained access based on negotiations and consent of the parties. However, there is now a growing debate on the use of force to obtain access. My third point, therefore, is about the use of military force in the context of humanitarian access. You will recall that on 5 April 1991 the Security Council created a precedent by adopting resolution 688, linking human rights violations to threats to international peace and security. The resolution demanded that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq. The resolution encouraged the Coalition Forces to intervene militarily to create a safety zone in northern Iraq for those who could not obtain asylum in Turkey. It was a clear indication that the issue of humanitarian access challenged the traditional inviolability of national sovereignty.

Interestingly enough, UNHCR's activities in northern Iraq were not based on resolution 688, nor on the Coalition intervention, but on a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq. There is, of course, no doubt that the adoption of resolution 688 and the apparent determination of the international community to enforce it influenced the outcome of the negotiations.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community has sought to strengthen humanitarian access by linking it to the mandate of the UN peace keeping mission (UNPROFOR). Security Council resolution 572 of 15 May 1992 authorised UNPROFOR to protect Sarajevo airport and access to the city so that UNHCR could continue to protect and assist those in need. Through Security Council resolution 776 of 14 September, UNPROFOR's mandate was extended to support UNHCR's humanitarian activities and provide military cover to relief convoys. Although existing rules of engagement allow UN peacekeeping forces to open fire if armed persons attempt by force to prevent them from carrying out their orders, the protection and delivery of humanitarian assistance by UNPROFOR have so far been based on consensual arrangements with the parties involved.

Obtaining consent can be difficult not only because of governmental intransigence but also because of the multiplicity and confusion of non-governmental factions, groups and warlords who may control territory. The chain of command is unclear and discipline weak, making negotiations, whether on ceasefires or humanitarian access, difficult and dangerous. This has certainly been the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) and UNHCR staff have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort to gain assurances, only to have them broken as soon as our convoys begin rolling.

The issue of enforcement action by the Security Council has therefore emerged in situations where secure conditions for humanitarian action no longer exist. It was the total breakdown of law and order combined with the starvation of the Somali people which prompted United Nations intervention in Somalia last December. Following the failure of the advanced team of peace-keepers to take control over the airport and the seaport to allow delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the continued defiance of the Somali warlords to accept full deployment of the United Nations peacekeepers, the Secretary General recommended to the Security Council to move into enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Secretary-General's judgement was based on the conclusion that Somalia lacked any governmental authority with which to reach agreement, and therefore the United Nations had to forcefully create conditions for the uninterrupted delivery of relief supplies to the starving people.

In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, all three parties have finally signed the peace accord promoted by the co-Chairman of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia. The viability of the Accord remains to be tested on the ground and will determine the ability of the United Nations operations to continue their activities. Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting for more resolute political and military action to assure ceasefire and compliance of the parties to the commitments they have signed. The impact of military intervention on the activities of the peace-keeping forces on the ground as well as on humanitarian agencies need to be cautiously weighted. The humanitarian imperative demands that the protection of the victims of the conflict - refugees, displaced, civilians, women and children - be scrupulously upheld, while the political imperative requires resolute results even at some cost to the victims.

Northern Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Somalia have indicated the emergence of the humanitarian domain as a source for Security Council decision-making. However, consensus has yet to emerge on the norms, rules and decision-making process involving political and military action for humanitarian purposes. As humanitarian action becomes dynamically linked to peace-making and peace-keeping, UNHCR must endeavour to seek political support for its activities. At the same time, it must make all efforts to ensure that the neutrality, impartiality and humanitarian nature of its operations which allows it to address the victims on all sides of a conflict are strongly upheld. It seems to me that the time is ripe for a broad range of decision-makers to address the principles which could reconcile humanitarian action with Chapter VII enforcement action, whether military, economic or of another form.

In conclusion, let me stress that in a world without hegemons, the challenges for the United Nations are manifold. The threats to international peace and security in today's world do not, in most instances, come from outright military aggression across national borders, but primarily from the internal situation of sovereign States. The most frequent cases are caused by misgovernment or disintegration of State power - internal conflicts, breakdown of law and order, collapse of economic and social systems, mass displacement of people. Nor can such threats be dealt with solely as a matter between States, for the issues of today do not arise from nor affect only the relations between States but also those between State and individual, between State and group and between groups within States.

The system of collective security will have to be both renewed and reinforced to meet this changed situation. Effective early warning and preventive action must be at the core of maintaining international peace and security. The United Nations will have to devise rapid response mechanisms. The setting up of UN "peace enforcement units", proposed in the Agenda for Peace could be one such measure. For refugee related emergencies, UNHCR has installed five "emergency preparedness and response teams" for rapid deployment of staff and goods. For various crises in other realms - natural disaster, nuclear calamity, financial market crash, etc. - effective countervailing measures will have to be installed, because emergency in one realm tends to trigger emergency in others. Together with early warning and emergency response mechanisms must be developed legal principles and practical mechanisms which recognise the evolving nature of State sovereignty and international responsibility for human rights. States' concerns for territorial integrity must be balanced with the protection needs of minorities and individuals.

Thus the challenge for better global governance in today's world is to develop a system that recognises the changing relationships between the actors on the international scene and meets the multiple nature of threats that confront the international community. It is a challenge that can be met only through concerted efforts on the part of governments, international agencies and the thinking public. I welcome the active input of the esteemed Centre of the London School of Economics in our search for better governance of a turbulent world ahead.