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"Humanitarianism in the Midst of Armed Conflict" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., 12 May 1994

Speeches and statements

"Humanitarianism in the Midst of Armed Conflict" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., 12 May 1994

12 May 1994

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today on the challenges of humanitarianism in the midst of armed conflict. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees I would like to approach the subject from the perspective of displacement and flight of refugees.

Under international law a refugee is by definition a person outside his country of nationality. Although refugees have long been the product of wars and internal conflicts, international protection and assistance of refugees have been traditionally carried out in the relatively peaceful environment of a neighbouring country of asylum. That scenario is now changing dramatically with the proliferation of internal conflicts and escalation of population movements, as well as greater willingness on the part of the international community to address these problems within borders.

In my presentation I would like to study the implications of this change. I will analyze some specific cases to illustrate the challenges and constraints of humanitarian action, as the UN increasingly engages in politico-military operations with a prominent, if not pre-dominant humanitarian objective. Finally, I would like to draw some conclusions on how to confront the challenge, while safeguarding the specificity, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action.

Let me begin by briefly describing the background to the growing prominence of humanitarian issues on the international political and security agenda.

The end of the Cold War has unleashed, and in some cases intensified, internal conflicts, particularly ethnic ones, on a scale rarely seen before. Massive population displacement is a direct consequence, and sometimes, as in former Yugoslavia and Georgia, the very objective of the conflict. In the past two years, UNHCR has had to respond to several major humanitarian emergencies, at least three of them affecting over a million persons. In April 1991, 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran or the Turkish border. UNHCR is assisting over a million Somali refugees in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. In former Yugoslavia, we are protecting and assisting over 1.5 million refugees in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro as well as almost 3 million displaced and affected population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last November, in the space of one fortnight, some 600,000 persons fled ethnic killings in Burundi to seek refuge in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire. Only a fortnight ago, 200,000 persons fled from Rwanda to Tanzania to escape a gruesome massacre of civilians.

In addition to the millions of refugees, there is probably an equal, if not greater, number of internally displaced persons in refugee-like conditions. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for this group of persons, at the request of the Secretary-General we are protecting and assisting the internally displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Sri Lanka. Our action on behalf of the internally displaced has been encouraged and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, particularly when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem.

UNHCR's growing involvement with the internally displaced persons is both a response to the enormous humanitarian needs of the persons and an integral part of UNHCR's three-fold strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions. We should make every effort to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are then, we must meet their humanitarian needs and promote conditions which will allow them to return home in safety and dignity. UNHCR has actively seized the opportunities for voluntary repatriation in the wake of peace settlements, for instance in El Salvador, South Africa, Mozambique and Cambodia. In this way, UNHCR is complementing its efforts to secure asylum abroad with prevention and solution-oriented activities inside the country of origin of refugees and displaced persons.

Prevention and solution, and particularly our work with the internally displaced and returning refugees, are drawing us more directly into situations of internal conflict, and thus bringing us closer to the UN's own efforts to prevent and address threats posed to international peace and security by such situations.

Action by the Security Council to resolve internal conflicts, enforce peace or implement peace settlements can no longer ignore coerced population movements. Security Council resolution 688 found the exodus of 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds in April 1991 to be a major threat to international peace and security. Whether in Namibia or Nicaragua, Cambodia or Mozambique, Rwanda, Liberia or Georgia, the Security Council has consistently recognized the importance of resolving the humanitarian problem, as part of the effort to promote reconciliation and reach a political settlement. Indeed, in the case of former Yugoslavia and Somalia, the Security Council has moved even further, justifying political and military action for humanitarian purposes.

UNHCR welcomes the greater interest of the political arms of the UN in humanitarian problems. For UNHCR, close cooperation with the UN's political initiatives is essential in terms of solving the refugee problem or preventing it from arising. We recognize that humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action, it can help to create an environment conducive to political negotiations. At the same time however, I am acutely conscious of the risks of politicizing humanitarian mandates. Political and humanitarian objectives are not necessarily coincidental. Repatriation of refugees may be politically desirable but unsafe. Evacuation of civilian population may meet humanitarian needs but not be politically acceptable.

In analyzing the interface between peace-keeping and humanitarian action, a number of categories can be discerned. I would like to discuss three different categories of operations. The first is one in which the peace-keeping and the humanitarian form major components of an overall political framework. The case of UNTAC in Cambodia and ONUMOZ in Mozambique come to mind.

UNTAC represents a well planned and structured set-up among the different components, including the military and the humanitarian. The key to success was the Paris Peace Agreement, which comprehensively addressed humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems. UNHCR, which was mandated to repatriate 370,000 Cambodian refugees, could clearly define its autonomy, neutrality and impartiality under the UNTAC umbrella. It was able to maintain its credibility and confidence with all the parties, including the Khmer Rouge, even at times when UNTAC's own relations with the Khmer Rouge was strained.

Mozambique, which I visited in February, also represents a comprehensive peace implementation scheme by the U.N.I was encouraged by the progress on the peace process, particularly the strong political commitment of the parties to the agreement. From UNHCR's point of view it is a more complex operation than Cambodia, involving repatriation of about 1.5 million refugees from six countries to Mozambique. About 900,000 people have already returned to their villages of origin where UNHCR is establishing micro-projects for reintegration. While most of the returns from Malawi are spontaneous, UNHCR is organizing return movements from Swaziland by train, from Zambia and Zimbabwe by bus, from Tanzania by boat and from South Africa through the Kruger National Park!The security conditions created by ONUMOZ will determine the pace of return, as will the ability of ONUMOZ to de-mine the access roads and demarcate the mined areas. I hope that ONUMOZ, like UNTAC, will demonstrate the positive interface between peace-keeping and humanitarian action.

The second type relates to peace-keeping and humanitarian operations in on-going conflict situations. UN involvement in former Yugoslavia is the case in point. UNHCR's operation in former Yugoslavia predates the deployment of UNPROFOR. It started in November 1991, following a request from the then Yugoslav government and the UN Secretary-General to protect and assist persons displaced by the war in Croatia. In spring 1992, when the fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, UNHCR found itself working for the first time in the midst of raging war, and not only for refugees and displaced persons, but also the besieged population. To distinguish between refugees, displaced persons and affected local people was futile when they all needed our protection and assistance.

Former Yugoslavia has starkly exposed the limits of humanitarian action in the absence of political will to end the conflict. It has highlighted the dilemma created in ethnic conflict situations between the right to seek asylum and the right to remain in one's own home. If we evacuate people, we encourage ethnic cleansing. If we don't, we endanger lives. While we have done what we could to protect people in their homes, our main objective in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been to save lives.

The strong insistence on humanitarian assistance in the absence of a political strategy has been perceived in some quarters as a cover for lack of political will or leadership. At the same time, combining humanitarian objectives with military mandates have confronted an organization like mine with serious problems.

UNHCR's humanitarian activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are closely linked with the military in two ways. Firstly, military resources greatly enhance our capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance. Under Security Council resolution 764 of 29 June 1992, UNPROFOR ensures the security and functioning of Sarajevo airport in order to enable us to operate the airlift, which now exceeds that to Berlin in 1948. The airlift itself is implemented by air force staff from a number of contributing countries working under UNHCR's authority and control. UNPROFOR also supports humanitarian activities through demining, repair of roads and utilities, and the running of convoys in some areas. Outside the UNPROFOR structure, UNHCR has benefited from seconded military staff for telecommunications and logistics. The airdrops operation is also coordinated with UNHCR and has been a lifeline for many besieged cities.

It is the protection element of UNPROFOR's mandate that is more controversial. Security Council resolution 776 of 14 September 1992 expanded UNPROFOR's mandate to include protection of humanitarian activities. However, humanitarian access has been largely based on negotiations, with military escorts acting as a deterrent. Access has been problematic and open to manipulation by the parties. The level of risk has been high, with 12 UNHCR and other humanitarian staff killed in the past two years. The non-use of force to obtain access has been criticized but would the use of force in itself have improved access, without clearer long-term political objectives?

UNPROFOR is also mandated under Security Council resolutions 819 and 824 to protect designated "safe areas" in which Muslim civilians are under siege by the Bosnian Serb forces and added a further mandate to UNPROFOR to protect these areas. Security Council resolutions 836 and 844 of June 1993 authorize the use of air power in and around the safe areas to support UNPROFOR.

While it is true that our humanitarian capacity has been considerably strengthened by the military, the use or threat of use of military force in recent weeks has confronted us with a major dilemma. The risk of retaliation towards civilian humanitarian staff has grown. What are the limits to which a civilian-run operation can expose its people? How would military action affect the ability of UN humanitarian organizations to operate with neutrality and impartiality on all sides of the conflict? Can the UN's humanitarian mandate be upheld in the midst of military action against one of the parties?

In Somalia, the U.N. authorized and used force for humanitarian purposes. The move to justify enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was based on the argument that no government existed in Somalia that could request and allow the use of force, and that the situation in the country should be considered a threat to regional peace and security.

The Somalia experience highlighted both the difficulties of providing humanitarian action in the midst of total anarchy as well as the limits of humanitarian action when Chapter VII action is used. The use of force against one party inevitably affects the perceived impartiality and neutrality of the UN, and by implication also of UN humanitarian organizations associated with the operation. It will take some time to restore the confidence of the Somali people towards the UN.

I should mention that UNHCR does not have a large operation in Somalia. We are, however, assisting one million Somali refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. Furthermore, we have since 1992 engaged in a cross-border operation from northern Kenya into Somalia to provide assistance to those who might otherwise feel compelled to leave Somalia.

Let me now move to a third and emerging category, which is still somewhat inconclusive. It involves a combination of UN and regional actors. Under this category I would like to present the cases of Liberia and Tajikistan, each of which has produced differing results so far.

Liberia has been torn by civil war since December 1989, displacing half a million people internally, and forcing another 700,000 persons to flee to neighbouring countries. Fearing a threat to regional peace and stability, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) intervened militarily in 1990, (although it is unclear under what authority).The initial objective of the ECOWAS mission was to monitor a cease-fire, but being composed of troops from neighbouring countries, it was not perceived as neutral by all the factions. It was attacked, and soon found itself drawn into the fighting.

More recent efforts have sought to combine the ECOWAS initiative with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the UN in a combination of peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-enforcement. A political agreement was signed by the factions under the auspices of the three organizations in Cotonou in July 1993. The agreement provides for a peace process including cease-fire, disarmament, demobilization, humanitarian assistance, repatriation of refugees and the holding of national elections. In September 1993, a Security Council resolution established the UN observer mission in Liberia (UNOMIL).

The Cotonou Agreement draws interesting distinctions between the roles of ECOWAS and UNOMIL. ECOWAS' composition has been expanded to include troops from other OAU countries outside the region in an effort to enhance its neutral image. ECOWAS has the primary responsibility for ensuring implementation of the military provisions of the Agreement, through peace enforcement. In contrast to ECOWAS, UNOMIL's role is to monitor the implementation of the various processes in order to verify their impartial application. UNOMIL is independent of ECOWAS, although they work in close cooperation. Indeed, UNOMIL is required to withdraw from areas where ECOWAS takes enforcement action.

This separation of peace-enforcement and peace-monitoring functions could be expected, at least in theory, to improve the ability of UN humanitarian agencies to operate with neutrality and impartiality. The main problem has been the failure to ensure the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement. Thus, continued insecurity and violence have hampered our efforts to assist the victims or help them to return home.

If NATO and UNPROFOR provide one model in Europe, and OAU, ECOWAS and UNOMIL provide another in Africa, then Tajikistan provides yet another instance of regional and international cooperation to forge a comprehensive response.

The civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 displaced over half a million persons and forced another 60,000 refugees to flee to northern Afghanistan. Right from the beginning, UNHCR supported an integrated approach to address the political, military and humanitarian aspects simultaneously. In November 1992, the Central Asian States and the Russian Federation adopted the Alma Ata Declaration in which they agreed to take joint peace-making and peace-keeping initiatives in Tajikistan, and deployed troops along the Tajik-Afghan border. The UN Secretary General sent a "Good Offices" mission, in which UNHCR participated. UNHCR sent an emergency team to Tajikistan in December 1992, and worked actively to promote conditions which would allow the refugees and displaced persons to return home. The Secretary-General appointed a Special Representative to pursue political negotiations with the parties. UN military observers were deployed to monitor the situation.

I believe the joint efforts helped to create a climate of confidence which in turn has encouraged most of the displaced and refugees to return home. Today, our main task is to monitor their safety and human rights in a situation which is still fragile, pending the outcome of UN-sponsored political talks in Moscow. Unfortunately, shortage of funds may force us to curtail our activities severely.

I am convinced that the integrated approach in Tajikistan has helped to contain the crisis and also to encourage an early search for political solutions. A carefully balanced combination of the humanitarian, political and military components, as in Tajikistan, may be worth pursuing in some other situations.

Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia and Tajikistan offer several important lessons.

  • first: autonomy, impartiality and neutrality are easier to maintain in peacekeeping operations where political objectives of the deployment are clear and accepted by the parties, as in Cambodia and Mozambique. When political objectives are unclear and peace-keeping is launched in the midst of a conflict, as in Somalia or former Yugoslavia, tensions can and do arise between the political, military and humanitarian components.
  • second: whatever the type of operation, it is essential for the humanitarian organizations to maintain the strictly non-political, neutral and impartial nature of their mandates. It must not only be done, it must be perceived to be done. Thus, when force is used under Chapter VII, it may become necessary for UN humanitarian organizations to distance themselves from the military operation, if they are to preserve their mandates.
  • third: the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality need to be clearly understood and respected by all, because at stake is the protection of people. Humanitarian action is not only about the delivery of relief but first and foremost about ensuring the basic human rights and security of the victims on all sides of a conflict.
  • fourth: I foresee a greater move towards cooperation between the UN and regional organizations in peace-making and peace-keeping. There are both opportunities and limits to such cooperation. The lessons of past experiences should be evaluated carefully in order to see how best such inter-action can be developed for the benefit of regional peace and stability as well as effective humanitarian action.
  • fifth: closer consultation and coordination between the political, military and humanitarian components are essential at every phase and level of the operation. This is particularly so when the three components comprise the overall effort to achieve peace and security. Coordination is best achieved when the objectives of the particular operation, and the roles and responsibilities of each component of the operation are set out clearly, the leadership is defined and structures are created to allow open communication among the various components.
  • sixth: military resources and expertise are a useful means to accelerate and augment the emergency response capacity of humanitarian organizations. However, military resources for humanitarian purposes should be under civilian command and control.

Finally, let me say, as inter-ethnic conflicts spread against a background of declining state power, and the media expose the human suffering, public pressure for humanitarian action will increase. However, the call for humanitarian action is unlikely to be accompanied by the necessary political will or action to resolve the conflict. Major countries are turning inwards, preoccupied with domestic issues. In such situations there is a risk that humanitarian action could become a camouflage for political inaction. It could lead to prolonged operations, draining our limited resources, which, unlike peace-keeping, are almost entirely based on voluntary contributions.

Former Yugoslavia has starkly demonstrated that without peace, humanitarian assistance alone cannot avert disaster. UN peace-keeping and humanitarian activities are of vital importance, but if peace is not forthcoming, they can themselves become hostages of war. There is no other substitute for the political will to find a political solution. Political commitment is essential if humanitarian action is to remain effective in the midst of conflict, and to reinforce the process towards peace.