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 meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 July 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 July 1993

16 July 1993

This Wednesday I went to Sarajevo. Only two days before my arrival, 12 civilians queuing for water had been killed by a grenade in yet another vile and cowardly act of violence. Since 20 June, there has been no electricity. The hijacking at gunpoint, some two weeks ago, of a UNHCR fuel convoy marked a new escalation in the pressure being exerted on the population. I am pleased to say that during my visit to the city yesterday, my Special Envoy was able to obtain the release of all the fuel. Without fuel, there can be no electricity, gas or drinking water. The bakery cannot function, doctors cannot operate, relief cannot be distributed, stoves cannot be used to cook. The potable water per person per day is often less than half a litre. I was therefore glad to note on Wednesday that water had just come back to parts of the city.

I am sure that many of you will share my feelings of apprehension and despair. My apprehension stems from the intensification of war and persecution, and the prospect of still more forced population transfers. My despair is caused by the fact that humanitarian organizations are not allowed to bring even minimal relief to those who suffer, and by the impending catastrophe if we have to go through another winter of war.

Since April, fighting between the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Army has reached dramatic proportions in central Bosnia and in the Mostar Jablanica Konjic region. Tens of thousands of civilians, on both sides of the many frontlines, have fled or are still trapped in besieged pockets, unable to flee. In northern Bosnia, attacks on Maglaj have driven another 10,000 people to Zenica. Some 15,000 ethnic Croats are displaced in Varez, under difficult conditions. The relative peace and calm in the Bihac pocket was shattered last week as shelling resumed. Gorazde, a designated safe area, continues to be subjected to frequent artillery fire. Whereas international attention has long focused on "ethnic cleansing" practiced in Serb-held areas, ethnic and religious persecution in other areas have increased.

My Office continues to coordinate the international relief effort in an inflamed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Let me quote one of my staff:

"I have a personal and philosophical unrest in my mind, when we neither can protect the people nor agree to inhumane policies. All I try to remember every day is that we are here to save as many lives as possible and to alleviate the suffering".

I think my colleague spoke for all my staff. We want to carry on, but the parties are rendering impossible our work in many areas. Never have the obstacles and risks been so dreadful and unacceptable as during the last two months. The international relief effort has little access, little mobility and little security. For all parties we are perceived as feeding the "enemy". We are either being accused of taking sides, or of being too neutral. Food, shelter, water, fuel, electricity, and even the evacuation of wounded persons and of mothers and children are being manipulated to impose ethnic division by force.

Any excuse, ranging from military to bureaucratic, is being used to prevent the free flow of assistance. Earlier this year, it took days and weeks of negotiations, backed by public pressure and Security Council action, to obtain access to the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, which became a symbol of resistance to military attacks and "ethnic cleansing". More recently UNPROFOR escorts were denied access to Gorazde. Recently attempts were made to levy "road taxes" on foreign convoy vehicles, and to require visas for the drivers. Large convoys, destined for Sarajevo and central Bosnia, have been denied entry from the Dalmatian coast into Herzegovina. The main lifeline to Sarajevo and central Bosnia, via Konjic, remains cut off. For some time now my staff have been prevented from going into Mostar. In many areas, monitoring the distribution of aid is impossible, either because staff movements are officially restricted, or because they are simply too dangerous. The Sarajevo airlift - which marked its first anniversary on 3 July 1993 - has encountered 81 serious incidents, most recently earlier this week, not counting the numerous threats by small arms fire.

Security risks are at unacceptable levels everywhere, but particularly in the Mostar region and in central Bosnia. Since the start of the relief effort, eight persons have been killed and many more wounded in the UNHCR operation. Most dramatic was the killing, on 1 June 1993, of two Danish drivers and an interpreter of the European Community Task Force, near Maglaj. The ICRC too has had serious casualties, as have many NGOs, the last victim being a female British aid worker killed by a sniper in Sarajevo on 5 July. Many journalists have lost their lives. I pay tribute to all these courageous men and women, as I do to the 51 UNPROFOR soldiers who died in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the UNPAs.

In spite of the magnificent job done by the UNPROFOR soldiers, there is a limit to the protection they can provide when convoys and relief staff become a deliberate target. Last week my Office in Medugorje, close to Mostar, received bomb threats directed at the local staff because of their ethnic origin. In reaction, part of my staff had to be relocated, thus further hampering our activities in the region. I have requested my Special Envoy to assess the situation on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with UNPROFOR and the convoy leaders. As a result our convoy movements recently had to be severely curtailed.

Lack of access, mobility and security has meant that in the last few months, we have not been able to distribute the targeted amount of relief supplies.

If we are unable to alleviate the plight of thousands of victims now, I fear the worst for the months to come, particularly when the autumn and winter set in. Last year, we feared the potential death of 400,000 people. That catastrophe was averted. But what about the coming winter?

Without freedom of movement for civilians and unhindered humanitarian and commercial access, the situation in the three eastern "safe areas" of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde will become even more disastrous. Under present conditions these areas are neither safe nor economically viable. Evacuation' of the civilian population, particularly from Srebrenica, where conditions are most dire, may soon prove to be the only life-saving alternative.

Nor will Government-held central Bosnia be able to take care of the spiralling numbers of totally destitute people, and to feed and shelter thousands of Muslims who continue to flee from Serb-held areas. There is a risk of more being forced out of Herzegovina in the south. The entire area is already asphyxiated. Insufficient access of relief convoys is exacerbated by the complete blockade of commercial traffic.

I am greatly concerned at the situation in parts of Herzegovina, where the Bosnian army is reportedly on the offensive and where fighting is spreading, causing new displacement on all sides. In Mostar, 25,000 Muslims are trapped on the besieged east bank ' living in basements and destroyed houses. Reports of expulsions of Muslim residents and displaced persons have been followed by widespread arrests of draft-aged Muslim males, and evictions of women, children and the elderly. I felt encouraged when the Bosnian Croat authorities released 1,300 people from detention at Rodoc, some time after their arrest in May. Now reports have come in of at least 2,000 Muslim men held in captivity at the same facility, under dreadful conditions. Evictions of local residents and displaced persons have also been reported from Capljina and other areas in Herzegovina. I appeal to the Bosnian Croat leadership to prevent the "ethnic cleansing" of tens of thousands of Muslim residents of Herzegovina, just as I appeal to the Bosnian Government to ensure the safety of the ethnic Croat and Serb populations in areas under its control.

And then Sarajevo. After 15 months of siege, can this city and its courageous population of Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews and others survive another winter? Unless the situation improves, Sarajevo will die, as will Srebrenica, the east bank of Mostar and many other places in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During my visit to the Kosevo Hospital in Sarajevo, I realized once again that the needs for medical evacuation are rising. More offers for medical reception and treatment in third countries would therefore be appreciated.

In recent days there has been speculation in the media about a possible withdrawal of the United Nations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, portrayed as a bargaining chip on the negotiating table. I don't manipulate nor like to be manipulated. I have said many times that humanitarian action cannot and must not be a substitute for decisive political action. What counts for me are the daily needs of women, men and children on all sides of the conflict. As far as my Office is concerned, if the United Nations were to retreat from Bosnia, it would be because of those who have rendered its mission impossible. Mr. Stoltenberg and I are in full agreement on this.

Indeed, we are determined to continue where and when we can, but we need the cooperation of all concerned. First, the humanitarian organizations need full access and security to bring in food, medicine, shelter material and fuel. Second, the complete isolation of central Bosnia needs to cease at once by the lifting of the commercial blockade, and thirdly all parties must implement the resolution on safe areas urgently and respect their humanitarian commitments. Only if these conditions are met, will we be able to provide relief in a meaningful manner and mitigate a wider catastrophe during the coming winter.

Current conditions do not allow me to make realistic proposals for the winter period at this point in time. Together with our partners, we intend to establish a consolidated plan by October. The provision of emergency shelter will be a high priority, for which UNHCR proposes a consortium of interested States and agencies. I invite you all to participate in this endeavour.

While large parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina are descending into anarchy, it is imperative that both the adjacent countries and the rest of Europe remain accessible to people fleeing war and persecution. The right to seek asylum must be upheld more than ever.

The provision of temporary protection remains an essential element of the Comprehensive Response, and is extensively covered in the Working Document for this meeting. I am very grateful that recently, Croatia, despite a sizeable new refugee influx from Travnik, has again admitted Muslim refugees at its Dalmatian border, at least on a transit basis. Montenegro, although impoverished, has kept its borders open. I trust that Serbia will continue to admit refugees despite its new refugee regulations.

At the same time I appeal to all States in the region, to maintain basic standards of protection and adhere strictly to the principle of non-refoulement. Refugees must not be forcibly recruited into Bosnian armies. All steps should be taken to avoid creating feelings of insecurity among the refugees, however high emotions may run in the region. I deeply appreciate the cooperation extended by all regional governments to UNHCR, and I would like to pay special tribute both to Croatia, which permitted the registration of a hundred thousand unregistered refugees, and to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for its enormous effort on behalf of its refugee communities.

I regret the imposition and expansion of visa requirements in, Western Europe because they affect the willingness of neighbouring countries to allow refugees to enter, even for transit. However, I welcome the initiative of some States to agree to accept refugees from neighbouring countries, thereby facilitating transit movements. I consider this an important form of burden-sharing.

The reunification of refugees with their families i s important. I appeal to all States to be' more generous in allowing admission based on family reunion. After so many months, the additional ordeal of separation is a terrible one, and a generous approach will also help reduce the burden of the regional countries of asylum.

Another form of burden-sharing continues to be international assistance. For lack of resources we have been obliged to scale down assistance programmes in Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In recent months refugees in all countries of the region have started moving to third countries. I fear that this trend will continue and accelerate,. unless there is increased support, including to the host families who can no longer make ends meet, and to the health sector.

I am not sure for how long we can continue speaking of protection being temporary.... Therefore, I fully support ' those governments which have decided to process asylum requests under their regular procedures. However, we must carefully follow political developments and continue to affirm the right of return of refugees and displaced persons. This concerns not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also the United Nations Protected Areas in Croatia. I am grateful for the support of the Security Council in this regard.

Finally, as lead agency for the United Nations relief effort in the former Yugoslavia, I must take this opportunity to appeal to the international community to continue providing all participating humanitarian agencies with the necessary resources. We are spending only 14 cents per victim per day. UNHCR still needs 195 million dollars for the remainder of 1993. Furthermore, according to the Department for Humanitarian Affairs, the outstanding needs of our main partners are as follows: 100 million dollars for WFP, 39 million dollars for UNICEF and 37 million dollars for WHO. Without your generous support to overcome the current financial shortfall, the entire relief effort will soon grind to a halt.

With the full cooperation of all parties on the ground, and with your ongoing commitment and support, the UN agencies and our partners can continue their vital work on the ground. But we must not lose sight of the fact that what is needed most of all is peace. Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the UN Protected Areas. Despite all the daily suffering, I was struck by the hope which the people of Sarajevo still have. As long the victims have hope, we cannot and must not give up.