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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Geneva, 17 February 1997

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Geneva, 17 February 1997

17 February 1997

Let me start by saying how pleased I am with the attention the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict wishes to devote to the contributions of humanitarian action in the field of prevention. I know that this is due at least in part to Dr. Hamburg, who is an eminent member of my own Advisory Group.

My Office has an obvious interest in the prevention or mitigation of deadly conflict. Not only are we in direct contact with the suffering of those who manage to escape persecution and mass violence, but we also witness the shrinking willingness to offer them sanctuary. We see how refugee emergencies can export violence and spread conflict; the conflagration in the Great Lakes region is not the only example. We experience the uphill battle of reconciliation, once the guns have fallen silent, in traumatized and divided societies. We know the huge costs of treatment and cure, diverting meagre resources. It is for all these reasons that I have continuously advocated a three pronged strategy which combines refugee protection with a pro-active search for solutions and creative initiatives in the field of prevention.

Let me begin with some general observations. First on the causes and types of conflict. While the danger of conflicts between states - over territory and natural resources, such as water and oil - should not be overlooked, current attention is focused on internal wars. Preventive diplomacy and traditional methods of conflict resolution may have proven their worth in international disputes, but their effectiveness seems to be far less clear for intergroup disputes. Increasingly moreover, these disputes spill across borders, impacting on or exacerbated by inter-state relations. In many cases the distinction between internal and international conflicts is fading. This grey zone raises well-known questions as to which norms of security should apply: is the issue one of national or of collective security? The grey zone between internal and international conflicts makes it also more difficult to distinguish between "bad guys" and "good guys", or the aggressors and the victims. In practice, even more seriously, it complicates external offers of help and their effectiveness.

Internal conflicts, with or without international dimensions, are of course not new. In many such conflicts - for example in Rwanda and Burundi, ethnic or other group factors overshadow fundamental disputes over political and economic power. In several cases inter-group strife involves claims of self-determination, secession and state formation. Many are unresolved, from Cyprus to Sri Lanka and the Caucasus. But I am even more worried by new patterns of violence in countries such as Liberia where state structures have unravelled and violence seems to become an end in itself, as it profits warlords and their factions. I fear that this type of conflict, which is protracted and very difficult to resolve, will spread. How to prevent or at least contain it?

I am afraid I am raising more questions than providing answers. With the prolongation of internal conflicts and the distinction between civilians and soldiers becoming blurred, humanitarian aid ends up in the wrong hands and becomes part of the dynamics of war. At the very least we should try to accelerate the total banning of anti-personnel mines and take steps to curb the nefarious proliferation of small arms. Arms embargoes in the earliest possible stages of a crisis can make a difference, but ensuring their observance is often difficult. Monitoring and intervening against hate media is crucial. For many child soldiers today, "thou shall not kill" is no longer the norm; it is not even a pious wish. I also hope that progress will be made towards a permanent International Criminal Court, to help break vicious cycles of impunity and violence and to reaffirm basic rules.

Whereas these measures can contribute to less deadly violence, they do not address its causes. In spite of much research, do we have enough insight into the causes and dynamics of conflict? I doubt it. We do know how difficult it may be to pinpoint causes and to agree on them, as demonstrated by the varied interpretations of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. As analysis by states risks being influenced by their own agendas and constituencies, I see here an important role for objective research by academics and the UN. Where there are profound differences over the diagnosis, this itself will add to the controversy and aggravate the conflictual situation. It is not the absence of compassion but the absence of convergence of views and interests which in my opinion delayed decisive steps in the Balkans.

My quick survey of the conflict terrain leads me to several important challenges. First, how can we expand and strengthen the interest of the international community in preventing or at least containing deadly conflict? Whether in Tajikistan, Sierra Leone or Sudan, when influential powers perceive no direct self interest or their interests do not converge, humanitarian aid is often left to fill the vacuum. There are clear danger signs of such trend. Apart from the difficulty of mobilizing determined and concerted political action to prevent and resolve conflicts, the enthusiasm of the early nineties for humanitarian interventions also seems to be ebbing. We need enlightened leadership. The role of the media to expose attacks on the security of people remains crucial. We also may need to lower expectations about the ability of outsiders to decisively control crises, once violence has broken out. At the same time, it is important to remind ourselves that many lives have been saved in places such as Somalia and Bosnia.

Linked to what I have just said, a second challenge is to ensure effective protection of people during conflict. In my view the humanitarian interventions of the nineties signify enormous progress. Out of compassion as well as self-interest, the international community was on several occasions no longer willing to stand by and watch the widespread human suffering that often went unseen or unnoticed in the past. The record in providing physical security - as distinct from material assistance - has, however, been poor. The security of intervening forces as well as of relief workers, seems to be the overriding priority. How to improve? One lesson from Srebrenica is the difficulty of ensuring protection, if safe areas are the objective of territorial claims in fierce inter-group conflict. By definition the protection of the inhabitants of such areas cannot be neutral, a fortiori when they are not demilitarized. A lesson from the killings in Kibeho, which was guarded by UN peace keepers, is the issue of sustaining protection, when a solution to the underlying problem remains elusive. The mixing of innocent groups with criminal or armed elements exacerbates the situation. Sarajevo in August 1995 demonstrates in my view the most important lesson, that a people and their city can be saved when the major powers agree to act. The threat of force, and the will to use it, becomes indispensable where consensual arrangements have no chance of success. Enforcement is a critical issue. It may complicate the arduous efforts of conflict mediators, it may undermine neutrality and engender risks for impartial humanitarian action and access. Let me be provocative. Are sticks not often necessary to achieve a political breakthrough? Are strict neutrality and effective protection not often incompatible? Are the risks in enforcing justice not less than the real cost of tolerating a - humanitarian supported - status quo? We must get the priorities right. Humanitarian responses should serve first of all the protection of people. They should not be an excuse to avoid action to provide security to the people humanitarian agencies try to save.

Early forceful action often deters escalation. That is why many observers believe not intervening in Vukovar in late 1991 was a mistake. I therefore hope that a rapid reaction capability will one day be at the disposal of the Security Council. Such a mechanism should reduce the reluctance of states to take risks, of which the premature termination of the Multinational Force for eastern Zaire has been a stark recent example.

A third challenge I should like to mention today, is to tackle effectively the militarization of refugee camps, an issue of immediate concern to UNHCR. The mixed nature of refugee populations causes an obvious dilemma. Humanitarian agencies cannot simply abandon the civilian and innocent majority of such populations, yet we frequently cannot help them without also helping the military among them. When asylum states either lack the capacity or, for political reasons, are unwilling to assume their international responsibility, how can UNHCR ensure the civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps? One of the most crucial lessons of the current conflagration in the Great Lakes is the threat to national and international security when this problem is left unaddressed. I have warned about this on many occasions. We expect that there will be more of such refugee situations in future, especially in weak states of asylum, and insecurity will spread to neighbouring states as a result. In terms of preventing deadly conflict, this is an area which deserves much more attention. The rapid reaction capability, which I mentioned earlier, should therefore also have the functions of demobilization and separation.

Let me now concentrate on the contributions humanitarian actors can make in the field of prevention. I should start by asking what exactly my own Office should prevent, given its mandate and resources. Let me be clear: preventing people from seeking safety and protection abroad is never UNHCR's goal. This also means that as long as operations in countries of conflict do not ensure the effective material and physical security of people, the asylum door must remain open.

In terms of preventing incipient conflict, the role for my Office seems much less direct. I do, however, believe that together with other humanitarian actors we can play a meaningful indirect role in helping to promote the rule of law, tolerance and civil society. Examples are the promotion of new legislation, training of judicial and police personnel and financial support for local NGOs and government structures dealing with refugees and human rights. These are key aspects of the Programme of Action endorsed by the Conference on Displacement in the CIS, which we organized last year with the OSCE and IOM. Another relevant element of the Programme of Action is the attention paid to minority rights, including freedom of movement across borders. By facilitating contacts between ethnic groups spread over either side of the border, such groups may be less inclined to claim political union with their brethren. I believe that the promotion of such concepts can have important preventive effects.

UNHCR's potential is greater in tackling the proximate rather than the root causes of involuntary displacement, by helping to remove, mitigate or avert the recurrence of factors which compel people to move. Our work teaches us that the roots of conflict and the reasons for displacement are not identical. Let me elaborate four areas of that contribution:

First, early warning. With early action being a priority challenge, I believe early warning should be revisited. Humanitarian agencies are present in many areas away from capitals, where others are not. We are perhaps able to credibly highlight situations in which forced displacement is likely. These are important warnings, but in order to make them credible, the analytical capacity of humanitarian agencies must be improved and channels for transmitting analysed information must be linked to the political decision-making bodies.

Second, what I have called indirect or "soft" intervention. Through their presence in areas of tension, humanitarian agencies can provide confidence. On the periphery of conflict, it may often not be the threat of violence which compels people, especially those already displaced, to move across borders, but lack of food, medical care and schools due to the conflict. Humanitarian work to address these needs can stabilize outflows, as we found in northern Somalia. In some regions, such as the Rakhine State in Myanmar, we must simultaneously use our presence to address human rights concerns. I see many opportunities for creative initiatives in these situations, as long as local authorities are receptive. This was one problem with our protection attempts in parts of Bosnia during the war, because many authorities were co-responsible for the abuses. The term "preventive protection" was unfortunate and has given rise to misunderstanding, as if we ever pretended to be able to provide effective protection against virulent persecution. People forget that we were constantly clamouring to get refugees admitted to Croatia, and that together with the ICRC we were often the only ones present to raise voices, both locally and internationally.

Third, early repatriation. When refugee outflows and prolonged stay in asylum countries risk spreading conflict to neighbouring states, policies aimed at promoting early repatriation can be considered as serving prevention. This was an important rationale in the case of repatriation to Tajikistan in 1993. It is also what motivated, in addition to the refugees' own safety, UNHCR's policy of encouraging repatriation from Zaire and Tanzania to Rwanda, even though human rights concerns in Rwanda never disappeared. There is a difficult balance to strike in these situations. Often however, our options are limited. When Turkey closed its borders to 400,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1991, and the allied forces offered them protection in northern Iraq, we had to help them come down from the mountains back into Iraq: there was no other option.

Fourth, rehabilitation and reconciliation. Humanitarian work in the fragile transition from war to peace, in order to avoid the recurrence of forced displacement, is probably the most important and visible contribution humanitarian actors can make. By anchoring returnees in their communities and by supporting their protection, they can help to build the confidence necessary for peace to take root and for people to stay. With a timely presence and rehabilitation activities, humanitarian action can show early dividends of peace. In most situations, genuine peace will require humane solutions for those uprooted, which will depend also upon reconciliation between the people who were separated or opposed during conflict. The outreach of humanitarian action into the communities and the contact with individuals provide opportunities that must be seized. Ensuring that the education syllabuses for refugee children - and their teachers - preach reconciliation not division, is an obvious example.

Before concluding, let me add a few words regarding the normative framework within which we operate. There are universal standards, but they are not always clear enough. Do existing standards provide an answer to the many tortuous dilemmas of current reality? During the conflict in Bosnia, I propagated "the right to remain", not because the existing body of human rights is insufficient, but as a simple conceptual response to the ethnic cleansers, who invoked freedom of movement and even the right to flee to facilitate their heinous acts. Unless the international community wants to acquiesce in the transfer of populations and ethnic division, we need clear messages about the right to remain as well as to return, in dignity and with security. The Dayton peace accord is ambiguous, in proclaiming both the right to return and to relocate. It gives room for policies of ethno-political inclusion as well as exclusion. Humanitarian actors need political guidance on these fundamental questions, but they themselves can also be powerful advocates.

Let me close my remarks on a positive note. Despite all the constraints of modern conflict, preventive action is the future, not in Utopia, but for today and tomorrow. We are still at the beginning, and must build it up. We need enlightened and courageous leaders, and perceptive inputs from concerned academics and practitioners like yourselves. I am convinced that there is enormous potential for successful pursuit of this goal, and humanitarian actors are ready to make useful contributions.

Thank you.