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"On the Humanitarian Frontlines: Refugee Problems between Changing Wars and Fragile Peace" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of California at Berkeley, California, 17 March 1999

Speeches and statements

"On the Humanitarian Frontlines: Refugee Problems between Changing Wars and Fragile Peace" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of California at Berkeley, California, 17 March 1999

17 March 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you today and I wish to thank Professor Kreisler in particular for organizing this event. Being here has a very special meaning to me: it is somehow a homecoming. As you may know, in 1963 I obtained a doctorate in political science at Berkeley. My visit today brings back many fond and significant memories of a crucial, formative period of my life. I hope that your own association with Berkeley will bring you the same wealth of knowledge and academic experience that has been so important to me over the years.

Let me begin with a realistic consideration. Fundamental flaws continue to exist in the manner in which the international community addresses conflict and post-conflict situations. In many cases the lack of geopolitical interest means that humanitarian action is the only real response to grave crises of human security. Absent, weak, or piecemeal political efforts frequently compel humanitarian agencies to operate much closer to the heart of conflicts than in the past - as in Kosovo, Central Africa, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Afghanistan, for example. These are conflicts that the lack of political and often military solutions have made virtually unwinnable, and prone to a pattern of recurrence, with an especially negative impact on civilians, and on population movements.

There is much discussion on the nature of contemporary conflict. Can we say that war, traditionally an inter-state affair, is becoming internal - between ethnic, social, political groupings of a same state? This is frequently true, from former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, from Sierra Leone to Angola and Somalia. But all these internal conflicts are also caught in a complex tangle of international, or at least regional interests, of a political, and also, increasingly, private economic nature. This variety of "levels" at which wars are fought, contributes to make them unwinnable, and to make peace, in turn, unattainable. It has become difficult to convince a widening number of actors, interested in war for different reasons, to make peace.

Peace processes, therefore, do not end with peace agreements. In the best circumstances, they start there - think of the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia. Peace building is therefore of the utmost importance. Yet, it remains a largely unsupported process in many situations. For reasons justified only from a very narrow, economically cautious perspective, the international community hesitates to invest in countries emerging from conflicts. Peace therefore remains fragile, and the way for further conflict is paved.

The consequence of this situation for agencies like UNHCR is that our work must be carried out in situations of prolonged or recurrent war, or fragile peace. Humanitarian action, however, does not address the causes of the problems it deals with: it treats the symptoms, not the disease. This is why in unresolved conflict situations, it can become - unwillingly, of course - a factor prolonging war; and in post-conflict contexts in which long-term reconstruction has not yet started, it can - again, as an undesirable consequence - have a delaying effect in creating conditions for development.

But, to take the example of UNHCR, refugee protection and assistance will continue to remain necessary, as long as conflicts, violence and persecution oblige people to flee across borders. It is however essential that adequate conflict resolution mechanisms and post-conflict peace building efforts be put in place as well: they are the main pre-requisites for refugee protection to be useful, effective and meaningful.

Obviously, the picture is far from uniform. In certain crises the international community exerts considerable and comprehensive efforts to try to resolve problems. But this does not happen everywhere. If you analyze the main political and military crises of the last few months, the disparity of such efforts in the different geopolitical areas is striking, and it is all the more striking if you look at them from the viewpoint of an agency dealing with humanitarian and refugee problems.

In Kosovo, for example, the international community has dealt more vigorously with the situation, in spite of its complexities, and even though a political solution on the status of the province and of its ethnic Albanian majority - the key to the problem, of course - has not yet been found. There may have been fewer killings and less physical destruction in Kosovo than in other conflicts, but its geographical location, the presence of Albanians in several countries in the sub-region, and the general proximity of the conflict to Western Europe, have made of this situation one of highly strategic interest to the western powers. And although the flow of asylum seekers from Kosovo to the European Union has been relatively limited so far, the likelihood that it may increase is another factor determining the priority interest of European countries in resolving the crisis.

The gravity of the situation, however, is not purely a question of perception. An even more serious outbreak of hostilities in Kosovo would undoubtedly be extremely destabilizing, perhaps for Europe as a whole. And civilians have suffered - are suffering - in great numbers. UNHCR, the lead humanitarian agency in the province, estimates that 400,000 people, or about 15% of its population, are in need of assistance. I therefore welcome the strong international interest and involvement in conflict resolution efforts.

The agreement between Yugoslav President Milosevic and US Special Envoy Holbrooke, in the fall of last year, contained the conflict, avoided a major humanitarian catastrophe, and allowed for the deployment of international civilian observers, but did not tackle the basic problem of a political settlement. In the absence of such a settlement, and with observers deployed unarmed, the framework put in place after September remained fragile, and started to collapse earlier this year. A more vigorous attempt to reach a settlement was then organized, culminating in recent talks at Rambouillet, and currently in Paris, which have produced an agreement but have not succeeded in having the Yugoslav government, and the ethnic Albanians, sign it. On the humanitarian side, violence against civilians has not ceased, fresh displacement has occurred, and the situation remains very tense and dangerous, with civilians being killed every day - but - so far, at least - one might say that another major outbreak of war has been avoided.

It is interesting to note that a crucial factor of conflict resolution efforts in Kosovo is the threat to resort to NATO air strikes against military targets should the parties, or one party, refuse to cooperate. The success of a political settlement also rests on an international military peacekeeping presence in Kosovo. NATO military force, and the political power of the Contact Group, obviously far outweigh the military and political strength of the parties to the conflict. However, a settlement has not yet been reached. True, there are differences of opinion in the international community, which make its action sometimes less decisive than some of its members would like. But what is perhaps more relevant is that the Kosovo conflict is technically an internal one. This makes any military intervention very problematic, both politically and from the security point of view.

There is a remarkable disproportion between a "small" but very complex internal conflict, and a powerful but perhaps too large mechanism trying to resolve it, particularly seen from the ground, where one quickly realizes how localized, almost "personalized", is an ethnic-based conflict. Obviously, the priority for Kosovo today is that current peace-making efforts succeed in bringing about a political settlement as painlessly and rapidly as possible, so that refugees and displaced people can return home, and reconstruction can begin. The broader question of the adequacy of international conflict resolution mechanisms, however, remains.

This said, I trust that peace negotiations will eventually provide a framework allowing humanitarian action to be, as I said before, effective and meaningful - and even more so if a political settlement is reached. From a humanitarian agency's perspective, the Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement last year, as the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, are important precedents. By stopping the fighting (temporarily in the case of Kosovo, more permanently in the case of Bosnia) these political agreements allowed humanitarian agencies to concentrate on protecting and assisting civilians, with a diminished risk of prolonging or exacerbating the conflict - let me insist, however, that only political solutions can create durable conditions for peace and reconstruction.

If the former Yugoslavia offers examples of at least some attempts by the international community to resolve and even prevent conflict, Africa continues unfortunately to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. Situations, however, are not homogeneous. Let me take West Africa as an example.

There have been numerous, and sometimes very violent conflicts in West Africa this decade. Although mostly internal, all of them have had a regional dimension as well. They have also forced people to flee their homes, either as internally displaced people or refugees. Unlike in the former Yugoslavia, international attention has been erratic, and very limited. However, most conflicts have been resolved or at least contained: in Mali, Niger and Liberia, for example. Only in Sierra Leone, and to a certain extent in Guinea Bissau, the situation remains unsettled, although some efforts are on-going.

What is remarkable about West Africa is that the pattern of conflict resolution, in the absence of coordinated international involvement, has been a regional one. In spite of very limited means, ECOWAS, the economic organization of West African states, with the military support of ECOMOG, has played a key role in peace-making efforts.

I am fully aware of the limitations of a regional approach to conflict resolution and peacekeeping, and not only in West Africa. States closer to a conflict frequently have political and economic interests at stake in the conflict itself. Ethnic affiliations also play a very important role in regional interventions. In West Africa, for example, ECOMOG's peacekeeping missions have been supported to a great extent by Nigeria, the main regional power. This has often been interpreted as Nigeria's interference and expansionism. Let me however look at the situation with humanitarian, rather than political, eyes: whatever the motivations, ECOMOG's interventions, and ECOWAS's political efforts, have been the determining factor in containing some conflicts, and stopping others. For all the limitations and imperfections of the regional approach, what other alternatives has the international community made available? Without regional forces and support, humanitarian agencies would have been left alone again. I therefore welcome these efforts.

Less than two weeks ago I travelled through four countries in West Africa. I saw at first hand how essential regional conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts have been, in this area, in spite of very limited support by the international community. From my viewpoint, this is particularly important, because without these efforts there will be no solution to the plight of about 450,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia - well over 10% of the overall population of Sierra Leone.

I believe that West Africa's regional conflict resolution capacity has potential, and can also provide a useful model for other regions. In order for this potential to be fully developed, however, the international community must give - I think - three types of support: coherent, firm political backing to the political efforts of ECOWAS; material, logistical and training support to ECOMOG; and substantial resources to sustain post-conflict peace-building activities, for example in Liberia, and in the future, hopefully soon, in Sierra Leone. International support can also help address some of the flaws of a regional approach, making it more balanced, and more acceptable to the warring parties.

Central Africa offers a bleaker example. Let me start from an episode of a few years ago. In October 1993, the President of Burundi was assassinated. This political murder resulted in the explosion of ethnic tensions in that country, and caused the outflow of large refugee groups. We appealed for international help but also pointed out that it was essential to address the root causes of the crisis: long-standing ethnic tensions and political imbalances between ethnic groups, a dramatic scarcity of land and resources, high population growth. We stressed that unless these problems were tackled quickly, the Burundi crisis would be destabilizing for the entire region.

Burundi is one of the smallest countries in Africa, landlocked and with few economic resources. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its strategic interest, even regionally, is minimal. The international community did very little. The events of October 1993 were one of the triggering factors of a series of major catastrophes in the following months and years: the genocide of hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsi and moderate majority Hutu people in neighbouring Rwanda; the flight of millions of Rwandan Hutus to neighbouring countries and particularly to the former Zaire - those responsible for the genocide mingling with refugees; the civil war in Zaire, which started with the attack by Rwandan government forces and Zairean rebels on refugee camps; the dramatic dispersion of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans and Burundians in the Zairean rain forest, and beyond, to a dozen Central African countries; the destabilizing effect of the presence of former Rwandan military and militia on some of these countries, and their involvement in military activities in Congo Brazzaville, Angola, the Central African Republic, Uganda...

Even the worst expectations of late 1993, in terms of instability for the Great Lakes region of Africa, have by now been exceeded. Civil conflict has engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the second time since 1996 and at least six nations, if not more, are providing troops and materials to either side. The war is closely linked to conflicts and tensions in neighbouring Angola, Congo Brazzaville, the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan. The Congo war is the largest regional conflict fought on African soil since the struggle for independence, and Central Africa has virtually become a huge theatre for a network of conflicts. It is a most fertile terrain for illegal traders in arms and diamonds. Defeated armed groups and militias find employment as mercenaries. International and local interests mingle, with only one objective in common: perpetuate conflict. Refugee movements have been a constantly complicating factor in this situation of insecurity. Conflict and instability, in turn, have produced refugee flows.

In spite of this, international attention remains limited. Unlike in West Africa, regional efforts to address the conflict - or, I should say, the conflicts - have not yielded significant results. Direct involvement in the war by some of the states in the region has actually made solutions more distant and complex. Because the control of economic resources is a key objective of war in this mineral-rich region, and also to materially sustain the various military forces, civilians are attacked; towns and villages are pillaged; the economy is ruined. This occurs in a context of virtually general indifference of international public opinion.

It is a very worrying situation, made even more preoccupying by the undecisiveness of the international community. Unless they are tackled in a comprehensive manner, ethnic and nationality problems, the flow of small arms, and the threat of uncontrolled armed groups, will continue to fuel war, inflict untold suffering on civilians and cause displacement. The cycle will not end, and instability will spread further through the African continent.

The lack of conflict resolution mechanisms in Central Africa - even on a regional basis - is striking. The end of the UN peacekeeping mission in Angola dramatically symbolizes how in many situations humanitarian agencies remain the only international involvement on the ground. We can bring temporary relief to those who suffer, but we will not prevent their plight from continuing. We will inevitably face the dilemmas we faced in the former Zaire, or in Bosnia, when left alone without political support.

For years, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have been calling for "political support to humanitarian action". But what does this exactly mean? Let me say right away that humanitarian work is separate and distinct from political action. No political motive should be a pre-condition, for example, to refugee protection, or to assistance to the victims of conflicts. These are unconditional responsibilities of the international community, and it is the recognized mission of agencies such as my Office, or the International Committee of the Red Cross, to carry them out, or help states to do so. "Political support" is necessary, rather, to create the conditions for these responsibilities to be carried out successfully, and eventually to eliminate the causes of crises requiring humanitarian action. In this respect, and going back to the perspective of UNHCR and refugee protection, I would like to draw three conclusions.

First, insufficient and inadequate conflict resolution mechanisms mean that humanitarian action will continue to be required, and in particular, states will have to continue to fulfil their obligations in terms of international protection of refugees. The persistence and recurrence of conflicts, and the cycle of war and displacement, have weakened the resolve of many states to uphold internationally agreed refugee principles. This cannot be accepted. UNHCR, on its part, is prepared to help states meet their obligations, and has recently launched a "protection outreach" campaign to enhance mutual cooperation and dialogue on this issue - not only, by the way, with governments, but also with elements of civil society such as NGOs and business corporations, that have increasingly important responsibilities for fulfilling obligations towards refugees and other displaced people.

Second, security aspects of humanitarian situations must be addressed as a matter of priority. UNHCR has been working in recent months with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to develop appropriate mechanisms for the wide range of security needs in the context of humanitarian responses. Earlier, I have questioned the adequacy and effectiveness of traditional, large, costly and politically unwieldy international peacekeeping arrangements to address very localized conflicts.

I am not arguing against international peacekeeping. What I wish to say is that conflict resolution instruments devised to preserve security on a global scale may not be best suited to tackle the complex range of ethnic divisions and economic interests in which conflicts are often rooted today. A few days ago I heard Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister and High Representative in Bosnia, say that what the world needs today are not high-tech military tools - we rather need, he said, good and effective mechanisms for crowd-control! Peacekeeping must not be eliminated but adapted. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently said that the future of peacekeeping, "will depend in large part on whether we succeed in mobilizing new forms of leverage to bring parties towards a settlement".

From our perspective, I suggest that besides traditional, "hard" peacekeeping options, involving international military forces, lower intensity conflict resolution (and prevention) options be developed in support of humanitarian action: I am thinking for example of the "soft" option of strengthening national law enforcement mechanisms such as the police and judiciary; or of the "medium" option to provide material and logistical support to regional peacekeeping institutions, like ECOMOG in West Africa. A more systematic approach by the international community in these areas may help peace processes even in regions, for example Central Africa, where it is unrealistic to think that "hard" options will ever succeed, or will even be resorted to.

Third, the international community must pay much closer attention, and give much more coherent support, to communities emerging from conflict. Peace-building in the phase immediately following the end of conflicts is a very weak link in the international cooperation system, although it is a vital one, since it connects conflict resolution with development efforts. I am very concerned by the gap which currently exists between humanitarian intervention during conflicts, and the beginning of long-term development programmes. We are particularly worried about this gap because very often recently returned refugees are among those who suffer most from the lack of resources available to build peace. This in turn does not help prevent the recurrence of conflict and of refugee flows. Together with other UN agencies and institutions, the World Bank and a group of key donor governments, UNHCR is currently trying to explore ways to improve both institutional and funding arrangements to address the gap in this transition phase.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Asking for political support in the manner and forms which I have described does not mean receding from our primary responsibility to be with the men and women whose protection and welfare we try to ensure. As we often say - with justified pride, let me add - our work is field-based. Refugee protection is first and foremost presence on the ground, to witness, intervene, and negotiate solutions to concrete problems of individuals for whom we are often the only hope of safety, and the only source of livelihood. This difficult work requires courage and determination. The complexity of war and peace today also means that the services we provide must be diversified, from emergency rescue operations, such as the one we carried out for Rwandans in the former Zaire, to institution building, such as we do in many states of the former Soviet Union - with many other activities between these two, like assisting refugees in camps, organizing repatrations, helping returnees rebuild their lives, and so on.

This means that UNHCR, and its partner agencies, will continue to be on the frontlines of humanitarian work. Left alone, however, we will fail. We need support. And political support requires political will.

Mobilizing political will to resolve conflict and build peace in Kosovo will be much easier than in other situations, such as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan or Congo. Yet, security has become too interdependent to think that instability in certain regions will have little or no effect on global stability. It is essential that political leaders and the civil society in developed countries - including in the United States - be visionary enough to provide support to social and economic reconstruction, and to the reconciliation between divided communities, even in countries and regions which are of less immediate strategic interest to them. Only by putting an end to the recurrence of conflicts and of refugee flows everywhere, will global security be ensured.

Let me conclude with a personal observation. Coming from Japan to America in the Fifties, I found an open environment, tolerant people, liberal academic circles. You could almost breathe America's growing confidence in its ability - and indeed, its duty - to lead the world. I was impressed by the extraordinary openness, and true international spirit that prevailed, particularly during my Berkeley years. I hope this spirit is not lost. And as I said at the beginning, I also hope that your association with this university will allow you to absorb its values and make them real. Building and mobilizing political support to humanitarian action is also the responsibility of all of you - especially you, university students, who must shape and lead the society of the future.

Thank you.