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"Humanitarian Challenges of Today" - Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit, Bern, 20 March 1998

Speeches and statements

"Humanitarian Challenges of Today" - Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit, Bern, 20 March 1998

20 March 1998
Conflict situations and humanitarian crisesA humanitarian space in post-conflict situationsConclusion

President Cotti, Ambassador Fust, Members of the Swiss Disaster Relief Agency, Friends and Colleagues from the International Organizations, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In opening our round table discussion, I would like to thank the Swiss Government for inviting us to celebrate this important twenty-fifth anniversary. I do not need to recall the role played by Switzerland in the humanitarian arena. As we all know, some of the fundamental humanitarian concepts and initiatives of the last 150 years saw the light in this country.

I am also sure that I speak on behalf of colleagues from other agencies if I state that we all greatly value the moral and material support provided us by the Swiss Government, in particular through the Swiss Disaster Relief Unit. I say this on the basis of my experience: my Office has had a cooperation agreement with the Unit for 17 years, and we have worked side by side in many refugee emergencies and repatriation operations around the world - most recently in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Mozambique repatriation, several operations in West Africa, the Caucasus and former Yugoslavia. I have found the secondment of technical staff from the Unit to UNHCR to be a particularly effective model of cooperation between a government and an international organization.

It is therefore fitting that "Today's Humanitarian Challenges" is the topic of my brief introduction. I have chosen to focus on what is probably the most serious of such challenges - the impact of conflict situations on humanitarian activities, both during conflicts and in the phase immediately following them.

Conflict situations and humanitarian crises

Humanitarian action has always been linked to conflicts. Until recently, and with the notable exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, most humanitarian agencies did not work in conflict situations. In the days of the Cold War, when, as the Economist wrote recently, a "frosty clarity" prevailed, the work of humanitarian agencies matched the geopolitical environment. Refugees, for example, crossed international borders which were also ideological boundaries. Polarization made political solutions difficult to achieve. Humanitarian action was needed to save lives, and it was relatively easy for humanitarian work to be perceived as neutral.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. In humanitarian terms, the crisis in Northern Iraq, less than two years later, was a turning point. The Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line - they massively fled an internal conflict. The interest of the international community was for them to return home, and most of them indeed returned, as quickly as they had fled. Operation Provide Comfort gave rise to the illusion that in the New World Order there would be space for a New Humanitarian Order.

This illusion was short lived. The end of Cold War polarization allowed countless internal conflicts to explode - confused, violent, in which human displacement was not only the consequence of conflict, but often its very objective. In Somalia, the international community attempted to replicate the relative success of Northern Iraq. Troops sent in to support humanitarian agencies found themselves mired in a civil conflict of unexpected complexity. Rightly or wrongly, they were perceived as taking sides. Casualties among the soldiers created resistance in the public opinion of western States against further military interventions in internal crisis situations.

The failure in Somalia undermined international efforts to mobilize military support to humanitarian action. Interventions, when they occur, have usually become constrained by limited mandates. This trend has had very negative consequences also - but not only - in humanitarian terms.

It is essential to recognize that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve the fundamental social and political root causes of conflicts. When humanitarian agencies are left alone addressing problems requiring political and military responses, they might even unwittingly compound such problems. They risk being identified as party to a conflict, and eventually becoming the scapegoat for political inaction. The experience of Eastern Zaire, in this respect, has been a very difficult one for all humanitarian agencies, and for UNHCR in particular.

Under these circumstances, what options should humanitarian agencies seek? Should we refuse to intervene, as some suggest? I rather believe that we should re-examine the entire range of international security support to humanitarian operations in complex emergencies. In this respect, I believe two observations must be made.

First, we should start thinking of a more diversified type of support than simply the short-term deployment of large and expensive military contingents. What we are increasingly looking at is a ladder of options, which also includes - for example - the utilization of civilian police, armed or unarmed; of UN guards, as in Northern Iraq; of international police or military contingents for the training or supervision of local forces. It should of course become possible to intervene through agreed rapid deployment mechanisms, the establishment of an emergency fund and the identification of stand-by human and material resources. Setting up such arrangements on a regional basis can be very useful. I am following with interest the on-going consultations on the creation of an African rapid-deployment force.

Second, external interventions should aim primarily at building national law enforcement mechanisms which have often collapsed in conflict situations, and at making them sustainable through the provision of training, funds and equipment. Capacity building should be aimed in particular at restoring the two key elements needed to enforce law: an effective national police force and a fair, well functioning judicial system. This capacity building element can constitute a measurable objective, even in terms of time-frame, for the deployment of support forces, thus limiting the risk of "mission creep"; and can provide constructive value to external interventions, making them more useful and acceptable to the countries where they occur.

A humanitarian space in post-conflict situations

Let me now turn to the other end of what we could define as the "conflict cycle". Conflicts create such formidable and visible humanitarian challenges that we often lose sight of the problems which humanitarian actors face in the post-conflict phase.

My Office is increasingly challenged by situations which follow the end of conflicts. The repatriation of refugees provides a very good perspective indeed on the complexity of post-conflict issues. The succession of its various steps - the return of refugees, their reintegration in communities of origin, and hopefully the possibility for divided communities to live together again - is very often one of the most important elements of the immediate post-conflict process undergone by entire societies. Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda are just some examples of this challenge.

When repatriation starts, refugees and displaced persons return to their communities of origin. For them, a new life begins - hopefully in peace - together with those who have not left. This situation, however, is fraught with uncertainties. Bitter memories of violence and forced displacement may be too difficult to overcome. Returnees and their communities must learn to coexist again - this is an essential pre-condition for immediate post-conflict reconstruction. To address its complexities, it is therefore imperative that rehabilitation efforts focus squarely on the rebuilding of communities.

Based on our experiences in situations of mass return, such as Mozambique, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda, I believe that humanitarian agencies can make an indispensable contribution to rehabilitation of societies in the immediate post-conflict phase. An essential feature of our work is to operate in close contact with people and communities. In repatriation operations, UNHCR's primary objective is to ensure that our beneficiaries return to their country in safety and dignity. We accompany returnees on their journey home. We try to ensure that they suffer no discrimination during the reintegration phase.

Our work with returnees and their communities, allows us to play a role in bringing together groups divided by conflict, by providing opportunities for reconciliation, an indispensable premise to both peace and prosperity. It is important to note that this work is carried out at the grassroot level, and is the result of many small but concrete projects, often implemented through community based groups, and very frequently, as for instance in Bosnia, by those members of the community who have the highest stake in reintegration and reconciliation - women.

Let me also add that helping people start new lives and re-learn to live together in post-conflict situations are crucial activities for humanitarian agencies. Successful, genuine reconciliation represents indeed the most effective barrier against the recurrence of conflicts, and can therefore help prevent fresh humanitarian crises.

A typical situation is represented by Rwanda, which I visited last month, and where over a quarter of the population has returned from exile in recent years. The government, I believe, understands the dynamics of development: they want to reconstruct their country, and they know that they must establish structures able to sustain long-term development. But Rwandans have urgent needs, which must be met now. Over 200,000 returnee students, for example, need schools - not a very favourable situation to the sound development of an education system. People need roofs, and they need roofs to be put on their houses, now. How can long-term development resume if such basic requirements are not met?

In defining the concept of "humanitarian space" in post-conflict situations, it is obviously imperative to bear in mind that its crucial objective is not to substitute, but rather to support and eventually converge with reconstruction processes. Reconstruction and development encompass societies as a whole, and not just returnees or other beneficiaries of humanitarian action. They also require the establishment or re-establishment of functioning government institutions. For these reasons it is essential that developmental actors - in bilateral or multilateral fashion - intervene rapidly to accelerate reconstruction efforts. From our perspective, it is important to note that humanitarian actors, far from undermining or obstructing reconstruction efforts, can contribute to bringing communities, at the grassroot level, to the point where development mechanisms interrupted by conflicts can take off.

One could therefore say that a "humanitarian space" exists in the phase which immediately follows conflicts. In this space, organizations working at the grassroot level, with people and through communities, can substantively contribute to consolidate solutions to conflict-related problems, such as alienation, division and forced displacement. They ultimately contribute to prevent new crises and can effectively support wider efforts aimed at restarting the developmental process.


In concluding, I would like to return to my initial point: humanitarian action is closely linked to conflicts and to their consequences. This link continues (and will continue) to be the main challenge faced by humanitarian agencies. It is a challenge which humanitarian agencies must confront if their role is to remain significant. But they cannot confront it alone. Humanitarian agencies can be effective only when their efforts complement those of others: of political and (if necessary) military actors during conflicts, when crises need solutions; and of development actors after conflicts, when the focus is on reconstruction, the rebuilding of divided communities, and ultimately the prevention of further crises.

Thank you very much for letting me participate in your 25th anniversary.