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Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 27 June 2002

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Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 27 June 2002

27 June 2002
Humanitarian Issues Working Group

(Check against delivery)

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by welcoming all of you. This will be, as you know, the last meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group.

The first of these meetings was held in 1992. We have come a long way since then. More than 2 million people who were forced to flee their homes during the wars of the last decade have returned to their homes; democratic governments have replaced authoritarian regimes in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; there is greater pluralism in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the reconstruction of Kosovo is proceeding apace; and peace has been restored in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Indeed, a safe and secure environment has been restored throughout most of the region, and the time has come to scale back the emergency relief activities that have characterized the last decade.

It has been a long road to get here. In 1996, my predecessor, Sadako Ogata, told this Working Group that UNHCR had one clear objective for the peace consolidation period in the former Yugoslavia: to achieve - or ensure satisfactory progress towards achieving - solutions for all refugees and displaced persons by the end of 1998. Before the end of 1998, however, it had become evident that this would not be possible, due to continued political obstructionism, lack of effective security for minorities, and the high level of physical destruction.

Today, nearly seven years since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, it is clear that considerable progress has been made in making it possible for refugees and internally displaced people to return. Although over a million people remain uprooted in the region, without having found lasting solutions to their plight, and although in many parts of the region there is still a long way to go to re-create genuinely multi-ethnic societies, the returns that have taken place are significant. They show that over time it is possible for the wounds of war to be healed, that reconciliation is possible, and that people can return to live in peace amongst their former adversaries.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, until 2000, insecurity and obstruction by local authorities were the main factors discouraging returns. Since then, the security situation and freedom of movement has dramatically improved. Hard-line local authorities are no longer obstructing returns in many areas. The chain of illegally occupied property is also being solved, with increasing numbers of displaced people repossessing their properties. Altogether, some 850,000 refugees and internally displaced persons have returned since 1996. This figure should reach one million by early 2003. With continued implementation of property laws and political commitment at the local level, we expect that by the end of 2003, most of the displaced will have either returned home, or have decided to integrate locally in the municipalities and villages where they have been living for the last few years.

I am particularly pleased that those involved in the Property Law Implementation Plan in Bosnia and Herzegovina have accepted that returning refugees and internally displaced people who are at present living in collective centres will be given priority in the repossession of their houses or flats. This is yet another important step which will encourage more refugees in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will also help to reduce the number of people still living in collective centres.

In Croatia, we have also seen many positive developments, with the Government encouraging refugees to return. Croatian Serb refugees, in particular, are showing increased interest in returning. Some 23,000 returned last year, and higher levels of return are expected in the coming two years. However, much work is required at the local level to translate the Croatian Government's commitment to the return of refugees into concrete results on the ground. The inability of refugees to return to their pre-war homes continues to pose a major obstacle to returns. The property restitution process needs to be considerably accelerated to allow the Government to meet its announced deadline of the end of this year for all private property claims to be solved. As in Bosnia, this means that illegal occupants must be evicted. This is often difficult to carry through, but it must be done if returns are to proceed. The situation of former tenancy right holders must also be addressed. Permanent and appropriate alternative accommodation must be provided to former tenancy right holders who are refugees and who want to return.

Last week the Governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia signed an agreement on cooperation in legal and criminal matters. This is indeed good news. All official documents issued by either the Federation or the Republica Srpska are now fully recognized by the Republic of Croatia. With this latest development, a major hurdle in the return of refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia has been overcome.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a significant number of refugees have decided - like many other displaced people in the region - not to return home but to integrate locally. Many of them have already established new roots in the communities where they are now living. We must respect and support the decision of those who wish to build on the lives they have established during their years of displacement. Local integration initiatives must be supported, with development funding allocated for specific programmes to support the integration of refugees and the internally displaced. This is necessary to bring the standard of living of the displaced population to the same standard as other nationals.

I welcome the National Strategy of the Government of Serbia. This document, drawn up with the cooperation of UNHCR and UNDP, is of great significance in securing solutions for refugees and internally displaced people in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and particularly for the 60,000 who are still living in collective centres, often in depressingly poor conditions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have made considerable progress in achieving - or ensuring satisfactory progress towards achieving - solutions for those forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. UNHCR has carried out the tasks set out under Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreement to coordinate the return. Our plan, as set out in the background documentation for this meeting, is therefore to phase out our field presence and our humanitarian assistance activities in 2003. As it was your Governments who assigned many of the responsibilities to UNHCR in the first place, your endorsement of this approach during our discussions today is important.

Unfortunately, since the background documentation for this meeting was drawn up, the funding shortfall for UNHCR's programmes globally - including the South-Eastern Europe operation - has become so acute that we will have to cut back on some of our operations even before the planned phase-out dates. I announced to the Standing Committee of UNHCR's Executive Committee earlier this week that measures were necessary to manage the US$ 99 million shortfall we face this year. I said that we will have to reduce further and even stop some operations altogether, including in Croatia and perhaps also in Kosovo. Today, I have to say that unless additional contributions are received for our programmes in South-Eastern Europe in the coming weeks, and by 15 July at the latest, I will suspend our programmes in Croatia and Kosovo at the end of July this year.

As you will see from the figures in the budget tables being distributed to you today, we require additional contributions of US$ 4 million, of which US$ 2 million is for Croatia and US$ 2 million is for Kosovo. Our total 2002 budget for South-Eastern Europe is US$ 88 million. Of this, only US$ 49 million is currently available. My request for additional contributions of US$ 4 million should therefore be seen in the context of this overall funding gap for the region of US$ 39 million.

If we are forced to suspend our programmes in Croatia and Kosovo, this will have a considerable impact. In Croatia, transport for returning refugees from the border to their villages will no longer be provided; immediate assistance such as beds, mattresses and stoves for winter will be stopped; repairs to damaged houses, aimed at enabling returnees to reoccupy their homes, will be stopped; and our mobile health services in remote return areas will be stopped. This will also have an impact on our local and international NGOs who implement the majority of these programmes on our behalf. The return process, which is already struggling in Croatia, may come to a complete standstill. A commitment by donors to provide funds to maintain our presence and activities in Croatia is therefore urgently required before 15 July to prevent this.

Let me add here that as a European myself, and knowing that this is a European problem and that the European Union is so nearby, I would find it extremely painful if - amongst others - the European Commission were not able to help UNHCR out of this difficult predicament.

If we do not receive the required funds and therefore have to suspend our programmes in Croatia, I would welcome your views on what the impact of this would be on the return process, and whether the gap we leave could be filled by others. I will come back to this later in my remarks on Kosovo.

Let me now turn to the situation in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where we have also made significant progress in solving the displacement problem. More than ninety per cent of those uprooted by the conflict last year have now been able to go home. Of the 170,000 people who fled their homes during the seven-month conflict last year, some 150,000 have returned. Life is gradually returning to normal, with houses being repaired, schools and hospitals re-opened, and fields re-planted with crops. Parliament has taken some important steps to amend laws as required under the Framework Agreement.

More work still needs to be done to address problems regarding personal documentation and lack of effective citizenship for ethnic minorities. This is needed to consolidate the return and peace-building process, and to address the inter-ethnic tension which still exists in the country. In addition, reconstruction of housing, as well as de-mining and elimination of unexploded ordnance, are pre-requisites for further returns to take place. In this context, I have noted with appreciation the reports on recent efforts to accelerate the delivery of longer-term European assistance and financial support through European agencies in the field. Indeed, the renewed commitment of donors to support the peace process in fYROM is a welcome development.

In view of the encouraging progress in fYROM, my Office anticipates that by the end of this year the majority of the remaining refugees and internally displaced people will have returned to their homes of origin, or will be well on the way to finding a lasting solution. We therefore anticipate that by the end of the year the responsibilities given to my Office under Annex C of the Framework Agreement for the return of refugees and the internally displaced will have been largely discharged, enabling us to phase out our activities there. Again, I look forward to your endorsement of this approach in our discussions today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have come to a turning point where solutions are in sight for the majority of those uprooted by the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and fYROM. But this is not a time for complacency; there is much we still have to accomplish if we wish to see our investments resulting in sustainable peace. Success depends on the following key factors: first, elimination of the remaining political and legal obstacles to return; second, the availability of reconstruction assistance; and third, provision of the necessary support to make return and local integration sustainable.

Our objective must be to ensure that those returning have a roof over their heads and the basic means to enable them to begin rebuilding their lives. One of the major stumbling block for returns is the lack of means for people to rebuild their homes. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we estimate that some 16,000 houses need to be re-built on a priority basis this year alone, to accommodate those who have already returned. Similarly, in Croatia there are some 40,000 applications for housing reconstruction assistance from Croatian Serb refugees. In fYROM, the lack of shelter is the only obstacle to returns to remote mountain villages. Adequate funding and a more effective strategy is needed to ensure that reconstruction activities keep pace with the rate of returns.

More efforts must also be made on social and economic reconstruction throughout the region. Unemployment continues to affect a high percentage of returnees, making job creation an urgent priority. Schools and public services must be supported so that communities can provide for their basic needs. Both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, young people will not return to areas where there is no employment, no opportunity to raise families, and inadequate access to education, health-care and public utilities. Similarly, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, refugees require jobs and housing so that they can integrate fully into their new societies, rather than remaining as marginalized outsiders whose standard of living is well below the national average.

The Stability Pact - and in particular the Regional Return Initiative under Table 1 - provides an ideal framework for regional initiatives in this area. And I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, the new Chairperson of the Regional Return and Migration and Asylum Initiatives.

Let me now turn to the situation in Kosovo, where non-Albanians - particularly the Serb and Roma communities - continue to face serious problems. More than 230,000 non-Albanians have fled or been driven out of Kosovo. Many fled immediately after the NATO air campaign. Those who remained have faced an ongoing cycle of violence and intimidation. They live in mono-ethnic enclaves without freedom of movement, and under the protection of KFOR troops. It is unacceptable that this situation still continues more than three years after the vast majority of the Kosovo Albanian refugees returned. The violence must be stopped, and the prevailing culture of revenge and impunity must be overcome. The commitments made by Kosovo Albanian leadership to create conditions for minority returns must now be translated into concrete action at the community level. We know from experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina and fYROM that this can be done.

The Secretary-General's Special Representative for Kosovo, Mr. Michael Steiner, has identified minority returns and freedom of movement as some of the top priorities for UNMIK. I welcome UNMIK's inclusion of return as one of the key issues to be addressed before Kosovo's final status can be resolved. I look forward to hearing more from Mr. Steiner on this. Depending on the availability of funds, UNHCR plans to continue working closely with UNMIK to ensure that the necessary conditions are created so that displaced minorities can exercise their right to return to their homes. This will require our ongoing involvement and field presence for at least the next 2-3 years.

However, as I mentioned earlier, UNHCR's funding shortfall has now required us to identify our operation in Kosovo as one of those which will have to suspended if additional funds are not received by 15 July at the latest. Concretely, this means that we will no longer be able to arrange for internally displaced minorities to undertake visits to their home areas; food assistance to vulnerable and isolated minority communities will cease; community shelters for homeless internally displaced people and returnees will be closed down; and programmes under the Kosovo Women's Initiative will be suspended, such as projects to provide women with income-generating activities and training, or free legal aid services. Our local NGO partners who implement the majority of these programmes on our behalf will be badly affected. For example, some 50 local women's groups will no longer be able to implement small scale income generation projects.

Just at the very time when there is a glimmer of hope that international efforts to promote returns to Kosovo might bear some fruit, the suspension of our programme might bring the process to a grinding halt. Again, I would like to ask for your reactions to this. What do you think the impact of suspending our programme in Kosovo at the end of July would be? Are there others who might be able to fill the gap which would be created? I would urge you to discuss these issues with your Governments to see whether additional contributions can be made before 15 July to prevent the suspension of this programme.

I should also add here that, quite apart from the UNHCR's programmes, reconstruction assistance to support the return process must also be provided as a matter of urgency. Last month UNMIK and UNHCR held a donor briefing in Pristina to present the immediate requirements, which amount to US$ 16 million. I count on the donor community to make the required funds available.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The progress achieved so far in the return of those displaced across South-Eastern Europe should give us a sense of hope and confidence for the future. We need now to harness all our efforts and capitalize on the momentum which has been achieved on returns. It is important that the international community continue to honour its commitments under the peace agreements, and provide the ongoing financial and political support to make the final stage of the return process work.

UNHCR is committed to continuing its programmes until the phase-out dates mentioned in the documentation which was sent out to all of you for this meeting. However, we will only be able to do this if the necessary funding is made available. As I have mentioned, our operations in Croatia and Kosovo are under particular threat at the moment, and will have to be suspended at the end of July unless additional funding is made available by 15 July at the latest.

The Governments of the countries in South-Eastern Europe must also do their part. More decisive efforts are needed from them, if they are to shape the future of their countries for the better. They must be encouraged to grasp the opportunities at hand. My Office stands ready - as long as it is adequately funded - to continue its efforts, together with our partners and in the framework of the Stability Pact, to assist them in the tasks ahead.

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to all those who have contributed to the progress which has been made in returning peace and stability to the region. I would like to thank UNHCR's many valued partners who have aided our efforts to provide protection and solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons, including Governments, our sister UN agencies and field missions, UN and international military forces and civilian police, the OSCE, ICRC, the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and numerous national and international NGOs.

On behalf of those forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflicts in the region, we seek your support to bring this tragic chapter to a successful conclusion. Together we can, and must, create the opportunities for a peaceful future for refugees and internally displaced people who are still in need of solutions.

Thank you.