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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, 18 March 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, 18 March 1994

18 March 1994

I am pleased to welcome you at this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia.

You will undoubtedly remember the sombre outlook we shared at our last meeting, on 19 November 1993, when we feared that many men, women and children in Bosnia and Herzegovina might not survive a second winter of war, for want of food, heating and proper care. Today, we are finally looking at a brighter picture. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Last night I returned from a four day visit to the region, and everywhere I went I sensed an overwhelming hope for peace. This was the first time I could walk through Sarajevo without wearing a bullet proof vest. Together with Generals Rose and Soubirou I walked over the bridge of Brotherhood and Unity to a Serb held part of the city. I saw the tramways running again. Electricity came back to significantly more of the city earlier this week. Unfortunately, bad weather prevented me from flying to Mostar where I had planned to meet with the Bosnian government authorities, as well as with the Croat authorities in the western part of the town. However, I know that children are playing again in the streets after having survived for months in basements. And I find a very strong symbol in the story of a Croat man who recently crossed the frontline at Vitez, to embrace his Muslim wife for the first time in ten months. All this represents enormous encouragement for the future. We are entering a new phase, and I should like to explore with you the implications for the humanitarian assistance effort.

But before doing this, let me first look back at the winter. As you know, political, military and administrative obstruction of access, as well as attacks on UNPROFOR and humanitarian personnel, have been continual and serious handicaps in the international relief effort. But notwithstanding these problems, particularly in central Bosnia, we achieved a substantial increase in deliveries of both food items and non food items. We believe that the sustained pressure on the Bosnian parties contributed to these achievements, particularly the agreement reached on 18 November 1993 in Geneva, the confirmation of their assurances during the 29 November meeting initiated by the European Union, the position taken by the North Atlantic Council, and the constant and forceful support by Mr. Akashi, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, and the military leadership of UNPROFOR. Where access has been limited, such as in the Tuzla region, the agricultural produce of seeds distributed by UNHCR and other agencies has helped out. I am grateful to the gods of winter: they have been relatively mild. But I am also immensely appreciative of all those participating in, or supporting the relief effort, be it through UN or NGO convoy operations, or through the airlift and the life-saving airdrops by American, French and German planes to areas which could not be supplied by land. The resilience and courage of the victims and the perseverance of those helping them have prevented the humanitarian catastrophe which we all feared.

Since last month the prospects for humanitarian assistance have improved markedly with the Sarajevo ceasefire agreement, the 23 February ceasefire agreement between the Bosnian army and the HVO, the 1 March Preliminary

Agreement between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats, and the commitment of the Bosnian Serbs to cooperate with the opening of Tuzla airport for humanitarian purposes. Convoys are running smoothly in most areas, as they have never done before. During the first half of this month, UNHCR has delivered almost 22,000 MT, or 95% of the target. Some key routes are already open. There are good prospects for the most important of all, the Mostar/Sarajevo road, on which UNPROFOR is working intensively. The opening of this lifeline to Sarajevo and beyond would make a wealth of difference.

Progress is being made regarding the opening of Tuzla airport for humanitarian purposes, an issue which I discussed with President Izetbegovic in Sarajevo, President Milosevic in Belgrade and Mr. Akashi in Zagreb. As you know, the airport is now under UNPROFOR control, and intensive efforts are being made to prepare it for relief flights. I should like to thank those governments that have offered aircraft for the Tuzla airlift in response to UNHCR's request of 28 February.

As I said, convoys are running smoothly in most areas. The most noticeable and worrisome exception concerns the Maglaj/Tesanj/Usora pocket in northern Bosnia, which continues to be under attack by Bosnian Serb forces. Humanitarian convoys have been unable to reach this area since October 1993. The airdrops have been of life saving importance for the estimated 60,000 inhabitants of mainly Muslim and Croat origin, but conditions are dire. Earlier this week a UNHCR convoy was again denied entry, in defiance of the strong support for humanitarian access expressed in the Security Council Presidential Statement of Monday 14 March 1993. However, President Milosevic informed me that all Bosnian Serb military operations around the pocket were to be frozen, and he promised to follow up with the Bosnian Serbs to grant unimpeded access. With UNPROFOR's support and determination, as discussed in Sarajevo with General Rose, and bearing in mind also operative paragraph 7 of Security Council resolution 900, we hope to be able to reach Maglaj soonest.

The ceasefire between government and HVO forces has already greatly helped humanitarian assistance operations, but the restoration of commercial traffic, from the Dalmatian coast up to Sarajevo, Vitez, Zenica and Tuzla, would be the real measure of freedom of movement and of success of the ceasefire agreement. Commercial traffic would to a large extent help cater for the needs of 1,5 million people, as it did until April 1993, when fighting broke out in central Bosnia. We strongly supported the inclusion of provisions on free commercial access in the annex to the ceasefire agreement of 23 February between the commanders of the government and Bosnian Croat forces.

In my discussions with President Izetbegovic and his colleagues on Wednesday, we agreed on the importance of helping those who have had to depend on relief to start becoming productive and self-sufficient again as soon as possible. The restoration of commercial and trade links will be the single most important factor, but a redirection of the relief effort can also be catalytic. A key objective for the coming weeks will be to complete distribution of nearly 5,000 MT of seeds, for small scale subsistence farming throughout Bosnia. This programme also includes assistance to poultry production. Another important objective is to finally deliver the essential supplies and spare parts for the mines and power stations.

Hundreds of tonnes of these, valued at millions of dollars, have been blocked all winter.

Tomorrow a new inter-agency mission will leave for Zagreb. ECHO, which has made such an important contribution to the international relief effort, will participate in this mission, which is to prepare the revised consolidated appeal covering the second half of this year. I expect from this mission a careful assessment of the different options, which will be reflected in the new appeal.

I believe we are at the start of a new phase, a phase of peace, reconciliation and rehabilitation which would require a different type of international involvement. Today in Washington, President Izetbegovic, President Tudjman and the Bosnian Croat leadership are entering a new era, and I sincerely hope that the Bosnian Serbs will fully join the drive for peace, so as to render it truly irreversible. In view of this momentum, and even in order to sustain it, the international community must think ahead and prepare to shift from emergency assistance to full scale rehabilitation. An interim coordination body including the IMG, UNPROFOR, UNHCR, other UN agencies and NGOs has already been established in Sarajevo, for the restoration of essential public services in the city. In accordance with Security Council resolution 900 a Senior Civilian Official will be appointed as Special Coordinator, under the authority of the Special Representative of the Secretary General. As I discussed yesterday with Mr. Akashi in Zagreb, more permanent arrangements will be necessary for the whole of the country. When we met on 16 July last year, UNHCR proposed the creation of what evolved, after a technical meeting two weeks later into the International Management Group for infrastructure in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We hoped then that the group would soon play an important role in the transition from relief to recovery. That hope may now be realized. Last week the General Manager of the IMG presented proposals to the European Commission for the strengthening of the IMG, while retaining its international character. We are discussing with those concerned, and will convene another technical meeting shortly. We also hope that governments other than those already participating in the IMG would be brought into the process, with their important resources and expertise.

Rehabilitation and reconstruction will be of obvious importance for the return of refugees and displaced persons. As you will remember, return and rehabilitation formed the last component of the Comprehensive Humanitarian Response which my Office launched in July 1992. I know that many people are looking forward to the day that they can return to where they came from. Let us help them. But as I discussed in Sarajevo with President Izetbegovic and members of his government, it is important that return should be on a voluntary basis, under conditions of safety and dignity. As I said, there are very positive developments, but the ceasefires in central Bosnia and in Sarajevo must be consolidated and expanded to areas where there is still fighting. As to the new Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the boundaries of the different cantons are not yet known. And let us help people return to real homes, not to camps, or temporary settlements.

While hoping that we can work together, in close consultation, towards the return of the refugees, I also believe that the time has come to review their situation and prospects meanwhile. I am confident that the meeting on temporary protection, to be held on 23 March in the framework of this Working Group, will be a fruitful one.

Since the beginning of the crisis in former Yugoslavia I have urged governments to admit persons fleeing from war and persecution to safety, and to respect the principle of non-refoulement. Reports have just come in of new human rights abuses, including cases of murder and sexual abuse, having been committed in the Serb-controlled region of Banja Luka. In Belgrade I have asked the authorities, again, to do everything possible to stop this. In Zagreb I have urged the authorities not to close the border for those fleeing. For their part, third states are requested to apply more flexible criteria and more rapid procedures, especially in the context of family reunification, so that people in danger can be admitted to safety.

Let me now turn briefly to the other countries in the region. Everywhere I went, I was again impressed by the efforts made by the authorities for refugees, and by the hospitality of host families, in spite of varying difficulties facing all of these countries. I started my mission in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is living through a very difficult period, both politically and economically. In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, sanctions have seriously decreased standards of living and continue to negatively affect the well-being of the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, children and refugees, notwithstanding the best efforts of humanitarian organizations. I should like to make special mention here of Montenegro, which has kept its borders open for new refugees and where refugees, as in Serbia, have the right to work. I ended my mission in Croatia, where the authorities will proceed with a new refugee registration exercise later this month. This is a most welcome development, as it will enhance the protection of refugees hitherto unregistered. While in Croatia, I visited both sides of the frontline in the United Nations Protected Area West. I was encouraged to learn from the Mayor of Pakrac that many people had come back to that part of the town which is under Croatian control. But I could also sense the pain of far larger numbers of Croatian and Serbian displaced persons and refugees who in the absence of peace are unable to return to their homes. I therefore sincerely hope that the forthcoming meeting in Zagreb between Croatia and the local Serb authorities in the UNPAs will pave the way towards a political solution.

I am happy to end my introduction with a note of optimism, of cautious optimism. This was the term used by many of those I met, including the participants in the inter-agency meeting which I chaired yesterday in Zagreb. Pending the political settlement of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the international community must sustain the solidarity to provide assistance to the victims. I am pleased to report that UNHCR's financial needs for the first and second quarter of this year are now lower than those projected in the last appeal, but there is still a shortfall of USD 52 million. I am immensely appreciative of the financial support provided hitherto, and I therefore know that I can count on you also this time.