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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 10 October 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 10 October 1995

10 October 1995


Let me welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia.

You will recall that, when we last met in July, just after my return from Tuzla, I gave you a sombre assessment of the situation in the region. The Srebrenica crisis had just taken place and another one was unfolding in Zepa. There was widespread fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina and our humanitarian assistance operation was virtually crippled by obstructions placed by the parties. Tensions in Croatia were high. The future looked bleak.

Since then, there have been dramatic and, indeed, contrasting developments in the former Yugoslavia.

On the one hand, the region has been gripped by more violence resulting in massive further population movements. More than 200,000 Serbs fled the Krajina region in August when it was recaptured by the Croatian Army, 170,000 of whom found refuge in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the rest in the Banja Luka region. Another 127,000 Serbs were displaced within north-west Bosnia last month following Bosnian Serb military losses there. More than 20,000 Croat and Muslim minorities were expelled from the Banja Luka region. About 20,000 Muslims escaped from Velika Kladusa across the border to Croatia. The associated human cost has been enormous.

And yet, in recent weeks there have also been encouraging changes. The peace process, stalled for so long, has begun to move forward. Today, I would have liked to have welcomed a cease-fire across Bosnia and Herzegovina and silencing of guns throughout. In spite of the postponement, I hope the momentum for peace is maintained, for we must see an end to this terrible tragedy which has plagued the Balkans for the past four years.

The purpose of our meeting today is two-fold. First of all, I would like to provide you with my assessment of the main humanitarian issues facing us today, as the winter sets in. Secondly, I would like to share with you my thoughts about the challenges ahead, with particular emphasis on repatriation.

Let me begin with a review of our major concerns.


Firstly, I am most disturbed by what I see as a serious aggravation of the problem of ethnic intolerance and persecution in recent days.

Human rights violations in the Krajina

I am particularly appalled by the widespread violations of human rights that have been taking place in the Krajina region since it was recaptured by the Croatian Army in August. Burning and looting of Serb homes have been carried out on a massive scale. The remaining Serbs, most of whom are elderly persons, are being terrorised. There have been numerous killings. My Special Envoy for the former Yugoslavia has visited the area and I have been most distraught by his reports about what he saw.

I therefore strongly renew my appeal to the Croatian Government to ensure that the physical well-being of the remaining Serb population is guaranteed and their property is protected. In this connection, I also wish to express my concern about the law on the temporary appropriation of abandoned property in the Krajina recently enacted by Croatia, and which could have a detrimental effect on the prospects for repatriation. The Croatian Government and parliament must re-examine this law.

Ethnic cleansing in Bosnian Serb-held areas

Likewise, I am deeply distressed that the influx of Serb refugees from the Krajina into the Serb-held Banja Luka region in August has resulted in a dramatic deterioration in the situation of the Croat and Muslim minorities there. Extremist elements among these refugees have been carrying out a widespread campaign of terror against them, involving evictions, beatings and even killings. The local Serb authorities have failed to put a stop to these brutal acts and, as a result, many Croats and Muslims have felt compelled to flee. Since mid-August, more than 22,000 of them have crossed from the Banja Luka region into Croatia in a movement organised by the local Serb authorities.

Also, more than 4,000 Muslims and Croats have been expelled from Serb-held territories in Bosnia to Federation areas. In the course of these expulsions, the victims have often been robbed of their belongings, beaten and forced to walk across active frontlines. At a time when principles have been formally agreed to in Geneva and New York, the Bosnian Serb authorities must put a belated halt to ethnic cleansing.


Secondly, I have been appalled by recent incidents of refoulement.

In the past two months more than 3,000 Bosnian and Muslim refugees have been forcibly returned from Croatia to towns in western Bosnia and Herzegovina recently captured by Croat and Muslim forces, such as Glamoc, Bihac, Velika Kladusa, Bosanski Petrovac and Kluj. Some of these areas are close to frontlines and are believed to be heavily mined.

Moreover, recently the Government of Croatia has decided to revoke the status of refugees originating from the Federation and newly captured territories in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a plan to begin returning them home. I fully appreciate that the more than 200,000 Bosnian refugees in Croatia represent a great burden on the country's resources. However, I also strongly believe that repatriating large numbers of them at this time, when neither a comprehensive peace has been achieved, nor rehabilitation work has yet begun, would be premature. The refugees have already suffered enough in exile. Let us not compound their plight by returning them to an area which is neither safe nor ready to receive them.

I therefore once again appeal to the Croatian Government to re-consider its decision and to continue to display the same generosity in the treatment of Bosnian refugees it has shown in the past four years.

In this context, I also urge the Bosnian Government not to go ahead with its stated plan to return some 100,000 displaced persons from central Bosnia to the newly re-captured territories in the western part of the country soon.

The coming winter

Thirdly, I am concerned about the humanitarian situation over the coming winter.

The large-scale displacement of population we have witnessed in recent months means that the number of those who rely on the assistance of the international community has swollen. Ensuring their survival through the harsh winter ahead will be a real challenge for UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO and the other humanitarian organisations. My Office is working to preposition supplies such as food and shelter materials in key locations. It will also carry out minor repairs to collective centres and provide heating materials to those most at risk.

There are two groups which I am most concerned about, in view of their particular vulnerability. The first is the estimated 127,000 Serbs who are displaced in the Banja Luka region in north-west Bosnia in the past month. Many of them fled their homes with nothing and are now living in semi-destroyed homes and buildings, or in some 105 ill-equipped collective centres. The second is the more than 20,000 refugees who fled Velika Kladusa in August and are now in a camp near the town of Vojnic, in Croatia. The site where they are congregated is totally unsuitable for such a large number of people. But, in spite of repeated requests from UNHCR, the Croatian Government has not agreed to find an alternative location for them. As the majority of the refugees are not yet willing to repatriate, they will most likely have to spend the coming winter in what will no doubt be very difficult if not life threatening conditions in the present camp.

On the other hand, I am hopeful that in the winter months ahead the people of Sarajevo might not have to endure the kind of hardship they have experienced in the past three winters. Following the recent positive political developments, the humanitarian situation in Sarajevo has significantly improved. Today, the UNHCR airlift, which was suspended for more than four months, is back on. Our aid convoys are reaching the city without any hindrance. Commercial traffic into the city is growing and there is more food available in the markets. Hopefully, the supply of water, gas and electricity to the city will be restored very soon.

Likewise, humanitarian access to the enclave of Gorazde, where the population depends exclusively on our assistance, has improved. I am particularly pleased that, as part of the cease-fire agreement that should come into effect soon, provision is made for free and unimpeded road access to Gorazde to be restored. This will certainly make a big difference to the population there this winter.


This brings me to the issue of funding

Given the dramatic escalation of the humanitarian needs in the region in the past months, the UN agencies have had to adjust their programmes and budgets for the remainder of the year. Therefore a Supplement to the Revised Consolidated Appeal was issued on 15 September, where the overall budget was increased by US$ 44.8 million to US$ 514.8 million. At the present time we are preparing a new Appeal which will cover the first four months of 1996. In view of the critical need to continue to provide humanitarian assistance during those difficult months, I hope that I can count on your continuing generosity.

I have given you an assessment of the current problems facing us. I would now like to share with you my thoughts about the possible future prospects.


I am encouraged by the progress being made toward reaching a political settlement in the former Yugoslavia. Finally, we might be nearing the end of this cruel war which has brought about so much misery. In spite of many hurdles that still have to be overcome, I hope that progress will continue and that soon a comprehensive peace agreement will be signed.

Allow me now to elaborate on the issue of peace and the return of refugees. Four years ago, when my Office became involved in the former Yugoslavia, we were determined to protect and assist the millions of victims uprooted by a cruel conflict. In the course of these four years, we lost 12 colleagues and subjected many many more to the danger of working in a war zone. I wish to express my appreciation to the dedication of brave colleagues, not only of UNHCR, but also of my UN partners from WFP, UNICEF, WHO, as well as of other international organisations, particularly ICRC and IOM and many NGOs. I would like to give special tribute to UNPROFOR and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Akashi for their extraordinary support. However, I wish also to reiterate that helping victims in the course of the conflict was never the end in itself. Our ultimate goal was, and has been to solve the problems of the victims through returning them safely to their homes. UNHCR is, therefore, fully prepared to carry out its responsibility in the post-peace settlement, together with our agencies' colleagues. You may recall that the Secretary-General in his letter of 18 September 1995 to the President of the Security Council has recommended the continuation of the humanitarian work by the UN.

In order to carry out the return operation, I must emphasise the importance of having internationally recognised humanitarian principles. First of all, it must be voluntary. People must not be used as pawns. The interest of every individual refugee should be the motivating force behind any repatriation process and not political considerations. For example, returns should not be used to repopulate areas so as to consolidate military conquests. Conversely the voluntary return of minority populations must be facilitated, despite military gains.

Secondly, repatriation must take place in an organised, phased manner. If it is to take place in dignity, attention must be paid to ensuring that, for example, adequate accommodation and basic essential services are available in the places of return. In this context, I should stress the importance of mine awareness and mine clearance as an integral part of the repatriation process. This requires preparation. Returning large numbers of refugees to areas which are not yet ready to receive them can have very serious consequences not only for the refugees themselves, but for the stability in the area concerned. I am thinking particularly of the still fragile situation in the area of the Federation.

I envisage the repatriation process broadly taking place in three phases. The first should be the return of displaced persons within Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. During this initial post-settlement period, there are also likely to be further population movements as a result of the territorial adjustments between the parties. This phase should also include a return-of-professionals programme from third countries, carried out jointly with IOM, indispensable for the recovery of the region. My Office has already recently been involved in facilitating the return of a group of medical professionals. The second phase would involve repatriation from other Republics within the former Yugoslavia and the third return from countries which have granted temporary protection or resettlement.

On this last point, I trust you will continue to provide temporary protection until we are ready to encourage returns. I also urge you to keep us informed of any bilateral discussions on repatriation between your governments and the authorities in the Republics in the former Yugoslavia. I do hope you will also appreciate that, even in the event of a comprehensive peace, there will be certain groups with special protection concerns for whom resettlement to a third country, will continue to be the best durable solution.

To ensure the safety and rights of returnees, as well as of remaining minority populations who might otherwise be forced to leave, my Office plans to conclude agreements with the parties. These should cover key provisions such as right to return and freedom of movement and residence; an amnesty, with the necessary exclusions; the right to retrieve property or to compensation; military service; the respect and monitoring of human rights; and the dissemination of relevant objective information to potential returnees.

While on this cardinal issue, let me emphasise the importance of the early establishment of an adequate international monitoring presence to ensure the parties abide by their commitments. In view of the magnitude of challenge, this will require the deployment of complementary bodies, including UNHCR, as well as close coordination, clear reporting channels and mechanisms for redressing grievances. The key issues of concern to UNHCR will be the physical security, confidence and basic rights of returnees and minorities. UNHCR will therefore support activities aimed at creating a climate of confidence and reconciliation. The presence of international civilian mechanisms, including civilian police forces - and military contingents, with adequate human rights training, will be essential in fulfilling these tasks. In the coming days, I intend to review this matter from an operational perspective with my colleague the High Commissioner for Human Rights, interested governments, inter-governmental bodies and NGOs.

Turning to another key aspect, I should like to stress that the return of refugees and displaced populations must take place in parallel with rehabilitation and reconstruction work. At the same time, we should recognise that, notwithstanding the war devastation, the States that emerged from the former Yugoslavia are not developing countries, but industrial ones with advanced technological capacities. Our approach must therefore take this into account. In this context, I fully support recent efforts to build financial, economic and social parameters into the overall peace settlement. This should bring the affected countries rapidly to a level that would make humanitarian assistance redundant.

In closing, let me make a few observations. Implementing the comprehensive peace settlement will require coordinated collaboration among the military, political, economic and humanitarian participants. The political, constitutional, territorial as well as economic provisions of a comprehensive settlement, cannot be expected to provide a solid basis for lasting peace unless the underlying human dimensions of the conflict are fully addressed. If ethnic cleansing marked the process of war that we all endured, ethnic respect and reconciliation, will have to be the cornerstone for lasting peace. I wish to thank the members of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group for having so long upheld the concerns and principles on the basis of which victims have to be assisted and peace should be established. May I ask for your continued commitment so that we move towards the consolidation of peace in the coming months.

Thank you.