Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 25 November 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 25 November 1994

25 November 1994


I should like to say how pleased I am to welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia. It takes place at a critical moment for the humanitarian and indeed, UNPROFOR missions.

When we met here on 18 March, after my return from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb, I expressed cautious optimism about the future in the region. When we met again on 7 July, my assessment of the situation was less optimistic. There was clearly the possibility of more widespread and intensive war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I warned at that time that if this happened, the problems facing our humanitarian operation there were likely to intensify.

Our meeting today takes place against the distressing background of a dramatic increase in military activity in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, renewed deliberate attacks on innocent civilians in places such as Bihac, Sarajevo and Tuzla, further displacement of population and denial of humanitarian access to those in need, and new and grave problems in the United Nations Protected Areas of Croatia.

Today, I should like to share with you our assessment as we face these problems, and of course the winter. There are positive developments. The situation in the contiguous Federation territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to improve. As a result we were able to preposition the needed winterization materials in our warehouses in Zenica and Tuzla. Furthermore thanks to a successful seed programme in the spring and autumn and the resumption of commercial traffic, this winter fewer people in central Bosnia will rely on external aid. The situation of refugees and displaced persons in the other republics is more or less stable, and the numbers in need of international humanitarian assistance are decreasing. But for the beneficiaries in greatest need of our assistance, - those in Sarajevo, Bihac and the other enclaves, those near the active frontlines, those most recently displaced, the minorities in Bosnian Serb controlled areas, the refugees in UNPA North - their prospects are grim. Although our efforts are at present severely hampered and we are aware of our limitations, my message is that we are nevertheless determined to continue our work, helping those whose situation is now worse than ever before. I believe, therefore, that today's meeting is most timely. I should like to start with a review of our major concerns.


(i) Plight of most recently displaced

As winter sets in, I am deeply concerned about the plight of the many thousands recently uprooted from their homes as a result of military activity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the last month, some 15,000 mainly Serb civilians have fled Bosnian Government advances from Bihac in the north-west and in the Kupres area of central Bosnia.

Some 13,000 of them were displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the other 2,000 crossed into UNPA South. UNHCR and ICRC have been able to provide limited food and shelter to the newly displaced. Where their home areas have now been retaken by the Bosnian Serbs, many of these displaced persons are anxious to return. However, many of their houses have been looted or burnt. We are trying to provide basic shelter repair kits.

(ii) Bihac and UNPA North

The most pressing needs are, however, those of the civilian population of the Bihac enclave. As a result of the fighting, many more civilians have fled and need immediate assistance. Critical negotiations to consolidate and extend the cease-fire for Bihac that came into force this morning are continuing. As soon as conditions allow, we have convoys ready to go. Minimum security is if course a prerequisite. So is the consent of the parties. For months, UNHCR food convoys have been denied access to the enclave by the Croatian Serbs. There is a very real risk that, unless this access is granted immediately, many people in Bihac will face starvation this winter.

Another major concern is the situation of the refugees in UNPA North. Some of those who fled the Bihac enclave in August and demanded UNHCR's help as refugees have now joined the fight against the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby disqualifying themselves from UNHCR's protection and assistance. There are others, however, who still seek asylum and safety. Among these refugees are those who sought to avoid forcible conscription by the rebel leader and the Croatian Serbs. Their future is bleak. Voluntary repatriation is not a viable option for them at present in view of the current situation in the enclave. Unless they are admitted to territory controlled by Croatia, we shall not be able to solve their problem, and may not even be able to support them through the winter.

(iii) Enclaves and Sarajevo

Civilians are again being targeted in Sarajevo. Only a few days ago we saw the shocking image of a young boy shot dead in the streets of the Bosnian capital. But the people of Sarajevo remain prey not only to the attacks of snipers. Last month, the Bosnian Serbs deliberately cut utilities to the city, leaving thousands without electricity, water or gas. A repeat of this in the harsh winter months would, of course, have disastrous consequences. Commercial access to Sarajevo remains blocked, with the population entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. This month the UNHCR airlift has again been targeted and therefore temporarily suspended. New obstacles to the free movement of humanitarian aid workers and supplies into and around Sarajevo have also recently been enforced by the Bosnian Serbs.

Obstruction of access to Gorazde Srebrenica and Zepa, where the people depend exclusively on humanitarian aid, is a recurring problem. Passage for shelter items, food, clothing and shoes is often denied. In September and October, only fifty percent of the food delivery target for the three enclaves was met. The population does not have sufficient reserves if convoys are not regular. Fuel is essential for secondary distribution and for the heating of collective centres and health facilities in the winter. For the eastern enclaves, airdrops can be used as a last resort but cannot meet all needs.

I am particularly concerned about recent threats by the Bosnian Serb authorities that, unless UNHCR increases humanitarian assistance to the areas under their control beyond that assessed as justified by UNHCR, access through territory controlled by them will be denied. Such linkage is, of course, unacceptable.

In my presence on 18 November 1993 here in Geneva, the leaders of the parties to the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a joint and solemn commitment to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance by suspending hostilities and allowing free and unconditional access. One year later, more now than ever before, this is a commitment that must be honoured and re-enforced.

(iv) Ethnic Cleansing

Human rights abuses against minority groups in Bosnian Serb held areas remain pervasive. More than 3,300 people, the great majority Muslim, have been forced to leave Banja Luka since July. Some 6,000 have also been expelled from Bijeljina and Janja and forced across the frontline into Tuzla. Draft-age males continue to be separated from their families and sent to forced labour, often on the front line. The plight of these minority groups is such that recent arrivals in Tuzla speak of "being reborn" after escape from the harassment and intimidation they are subjected to in their home areas. One man from Bijeljina recently forced across a frontline minefield to the Tuzla area described the situation at home to one of UNHCR's field staff in these shocking terms: "There are no more children, no more friends, no more information, no more life, no more mosques and no more graveyards".

I am particularly worried by the potential effect of Bosnian Serb reaction to military developments on the minorities remaining in the Banja Luka region. Last March we saw a tragic example of the direct correlation between casualties suffered by the Bosnian Serbs and extremist actions against the minorities. I appeal yet again to all responsible to show tolerance and respect for the rights of minority groups.

At a time when the tide of intolerance and violence is unabated, I should like to pay tribute to a major expression of tolerance. Many thousands of families throughout the region continue to accommodate in their own homes those displaced by the conflict. For many, a generous gesture of human solidarity, that they surely expected was necessary at most for only a few months, now extends into a fourth year.

(v) Continuing need for Asylum

I also urge the Government of Croatia to speed up admission into Croatia to refugees from the Banja Luka region. This is particularly important in view of the fact that conditions in UNPA West, despite the full support of UNPROFOR, are not satisfactory for the refugees. I also urge other Governments to continue to share Croatia's refugee burden through more flexible admission policies.

I appeal to countries hosting refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue extending temporary protection under the present circumstances. I fully appreciate the length of time refugees have been compelled to stay and that temporary protection was initially foreseen for a much shorter period. However, the causes which led to the establishment of temporary protection have not yet disappeared. Given the continuation of the conflict, I also trust that measures will be introduced to enable these refugees to have access to education, the labour market and family reunification in those countries where this has not already been done.


The situation of refugees and displaced persons in the other republics is more or less stable. In Croatia, as a result of a registration conducted by the Government with the support of UNHCR, the number of beneficiaries has decreased to 380,000 persons. In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the number of actual beneficiaries has significantly decreased to 272,000, as refugees have returned home, or departed for other destinations, or become less dependent as the economy stabilized. A limited reduction in the numbers of those requiring international humanitarian assistance has been experienced in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia.


(i) Lack of prospects for peace

We have all shared the hope that the continuous efforts of the Contact Group and the Co-Chairmen of ICFY would by now have borne fruit. Developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina appear to dampen expectations for an overall peace settlement, at least in the short term. Despite raised hopes for a political settlement in Croatia, recent developments in the Serb-controlled territories there seriously threaten to undermine the international community's efforts. All this has a direct impact on two important related concerns, repatriation and reconstruction.

(ii) Repatriation

In the absence of real peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the UNPAs of Croatia, UNHCR is still not in a position to promote repatriation. Some spontaneous returns have taken place within the Federation areas, but the relatively small numbers (an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 since the summer) reflect uncertainty about the future, continuing ethnic tensions, insecurity and limitations to the freedom of movement linked to the continuation of the conflict. Few persons are approaching UNHCR for assistance to or on return.

UNHCR continues the planning phase for the recently initiated Repatriation Information Programme for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The aim is to design a network to provide potential returnees with information on various aspects of concern, including security, housing, services and entitlements, through the possible use of regionalized databases and international communication systems. This network would be activated as soon as conditions permit. Interested Governments and counselling services would also have access to the system.

We also continue our discussions with the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the safeguards and arrangements for larger-scale return when this becomes possible. Although sadly overtaken by events, I should like to express my appreciation for the measures taken, including amnesty and suspension of military conscription, to promote return to the Bihac enclave. I hope that our working group on repatriation can meet early next year to review the situation and move forward on further preparations for a possible repatriation.

(iii) Reconstruction

This brings me to the issue of rehabilitation and reconstruction. The lack of an overall peace settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to make it difficult for the emphasis of international assistance to be shifted from emergency relief to reconstruction on a country-wide scale. However, some modest reconstruction efforts have started. For example, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Sarajevo, Mr. Eagleton, is striving to restore essential public services in the Bosnian capital. Mr. Koschnick, the European Administrator for Mostar is working to bring Mostar back to life through the provision of material assistance and confidence building among the two communities.

Reactivation of the local economy has also begun in parts of central Bosnia. UNHCR is providing limited assistance to some small-scale industries to re-start production in Federation areas, where ever possible.

While recognizing that reconstruction was beyond UNHCR's mandate and that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina remained fragile, on 7 July I expressed my hope that progress would be made in the joint thinking of a future overall structure to coordinate reconstruction efforts in the country. I also informed you of my intention to contribute to this process by calling a working-level meeting to review the future of the International Management Group for Bosnia and Herzegovina (IMG-IBH).I am pleased to report that this meeting took place this morning and that as a result IMG-IBH has been granted a legal status and will now function as an independent body until such a time as an overall coordination structure can be established. I should like to express my appreciation to the many governments that declared their support.


Funding the humanitarian assistance programme in the former Yugoslavia remains a major preoccupation.

In September 1994, we issued an Updated Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal. Improvements in the situation in Central Bosnia enabled the participants to revise their budgets from 1994 downwards from an initial US$ 892 million to US$ 721 million. Even with this reduction, the programme has faced funding problems. A few weeks ago, we did not know whether we would have enough funds to keep the operation running up to the end of the year. Fortunately, we now know that this will be possible. I am also relieved that our partners, WFP and UNICEF, have also succeeded in obtaining appropriate funding. However it is also important that contributions be received in a balanced way, since all programme activities within the interagency appeal are closely interrelated. I would therefore appeal that the needs of WHO, IOM and UNV, among others, may also receive your full attention.

I should like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the very close cooperation that characterizes our joint efforts in this great humanitarian endeavour, in which the ICRC is, of course, also a major player.

Earlier this month, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Peter Hansen and I issued the ninth Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for former Yugoslavia, covering the period January to June 1995 and indicating total requirements of approximately US$ 242 million out of which some US$ 95 million will be needed to fund UNHCR programmes. Pro rata the target of the new Appeal is significantly lower than the one for 1994. This reflects reductions in the needs which must still be met by the international community, particularly in the food aid sector, as well as a more focused and effective approach by the participants. In this connection I am pleased to draw your attention to the fact that FAO has agreed to take over from UNHCR the successful seed programme. Their experience will undoubtably assist in reducing dependency on international assistance. Fully conscious of the many other major demands on Governments to respond to humanitarian emergencies worldwide, the needs in the new Appeal have been pared to essentials. I must stress that these are indeed essentials, and that, unless fully funded, critical life-sustaining activities may have to be discontinued. As we recognized in the preface to the new Appeal, the donor community has so far been very generous, and it is imperative that this generosity continues.

We have chosen to limit the new Appeal to a period of six months in the hope that within this time-frame, political negotiations will lead to a comprehensive and peaceful solution, creating conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation and paving the way for the rehabilitation phase. Meanwhile, I am very worried at the prospects for 1995. We have assurances from donors for funding that will enable us to start the programme in 1995, but not yet to continue into the second quarter of the year. Our own commitments, and those to our NGO partners, are having to be limited accordingly. Additional pledges are therefore urgently needed.


I am deeply distressed that attacks on humanitarian workers have continued. Last month, a local driver was killed when three trucks carrying out secondary distribution from the UNHCR warehouse in Gorazde came under fire. Earlier this month, a UNHCR driver was injured in Sarajevo by glass fragments when bullets pierced the cabin of his truck narrowly missed his head.

Here, I should like to pay tribute to the enormous resilience and courage shown by those affected by the war as well as by those who work so hard at the local level to help us help them. Many are themselves displaced persons. In addition to the immediate tragedies of the victims of the renewed violence in Sarajevo, the dashed hopes of summer represent a psychological blow to the spirit of its citizens, who are the epitome of this resilience and courage. How much longer can they find hope to cling to?


I have given a necessarily very sombre assessment of the humanitarian situation. If there was light at the end of the tunnel, it is now extremely faint. My message is stark and simple.

To the international community that has so generously supported our efforts to date, I say: please continue that support, first, financially, to the new appeal;second, through continued asylum for both old and new refugees;and, third, morally, in sparing no effort to achieve the just and lasting political solution that alone can give real hope for the future.

To the leaders in the region, I say once more:honour your repeated commitments to humanitarian values and your many promises to respect and assist our efforts to help the victims without discrimination. Above all, make peace, or else these efforts will surely fail those who need and deserve them most.

While the victims wait for a lasting peace that cannot come too soon, we must all continue to alleviate their human suffering. The humanitarian space is shrinking. With your active support, we can and will keep it open.