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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Meeting on former Yugoslavia with the European Union, the Co-Chairmen and the parties, Geneva, 29 November 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Meeting on former Yugoslavia with the European Union, the Co-Chairmen and the parties, Geneva, 29 November 1993

29 November 1993

I am most grateful to the EU for convening this meeting. The humanitarian stakes could not be higher, and time has all but run out. While there are major humanitarian needs in other republics of former Yugoslavia, I shall limit myself to the situation in BiH.

Since the meeting here on 18 November, convoys have begun running again to central Bosnia, and have continued to run to other areas. Over 3,000 metric tonnes of food and winterization materials have been delivered by road, and we have had access by a new route and for a limited amount of some of the materials previously refused access. Almost one third of this total reached central Bosnia. The airlift to Sarajevo has continued, though the weather and essential runway repairs are limiting its capacity. The air drop operation has continued, and is ever more vital for those we cannot otherwise reach. I had the opportunity to visit these remarkable operations in Ancona and Frankfurt one week ago. We have made available a special issue of our information notes that provides details.

These are impressive achievements measures against the obstacles we face, but they are very far from enough. The meeting on 18 November sought and obtained from the parties to the conflict solemn commitments to remove these obstacles.

Let me give you a brief report on the status of the humanitarian assistance operation, set against the situation prevailing prior to the suspension of convoys to central Bosnia on 25 October, and in particular against the solemn commitments made by the parties in this room on 18 November.

The parties undertook then to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance by suspending hostilities and allowing free and unconditional access by the most effective land routes. Hostilities have not been suspended even locally, and we have continued to be denied use of vital routes. The HVO cited military activities as the reason why the main available access route from the coast was not opened until 24 November. Probably for the same reasons, it was then restricted by the HVO to one humanitarian aid convoy per day in each direction.

The BS authorities have denied access to the enclave of Maglaj and Tesanj, and through the Brcko corridor, citing conflict along the routes. Convoys to Mostar have been fired upon. When the first assistance from the coast in a month was being distributed in Vitez, a town being fought over by the BiH and HVO, there was a noticeable increase in the amount of small arms fire.

Detailed discussions on the delivery of humanitarian aid within the framework of the 18 November Joint Declaration took place at Sarajevo on 25 November at a meeting convened by General Briquemont with General Delic of the BiH army and General Petkovic of the HVO. Generals Delic and Petkovic signed an agreement, witnessed by General Briquemont, on the implementation of the 18 November Joint Declaration.

The parties' commitment to ensure complete and secure freedom of movement for all personnel of the UN and international humanitarian organisations has not been honoured. Like UNPROFOR, our movements have continued to be obstructed and are frequently deliberately made dangerous. As examples among many, the BiH army has denied access to the Bakovici hospital, we lost yet another vehicle at gunpoint on the night of 25 November in Kiseljak. The following day the vehicle was seen in the town, repainted, with HVO licence plates and driven by an HVO soldier. Mr Abdic's authorities detained civilian drivers who were engaged in the distribution of UNHCR assistance, and are denying access for that assistance to the areas of the Bihac pocket outside his control. Throughout the areas controlled by the BS authorities we face increased restrictions and delays.

Of critical importance, with winter now upon the victims of this conflict, is the commitment of the parties to allow UNHCR and ICRC to determine what is needed and where. This is directly linked to the undertaking to allow unconditional access, which should, of course, involve the absolute minimum of administrative and clearance procedures. The reality is that one of the largest humanitarian assistance operations undertaken by the international community remains conditional on ever-more complicated and arbitrary procedures, imposed at will by the very people who have created the victims we try to reach. These requirements at best treat our assistance with extreme suspicion, but are often clearly designed to obstruct it. BS and HVO authorities still require 48 hours notice for clearances; in practice it often takes much longer to learn if clearance is given or denied. These procedures must be radically simplified immediately.

First indications of the impact of this commitment are mixed. We have delivered one convoy to the eastern enclaves with winterization materials previously blocked by the BS. A fuel convoy reached Sarajevo on the week-end after having been blocked at Zvornik for two days. On 22 and 23 November, five convoys from Belgrade were blocked at that border by new "export" customs procedures, which we fear will again block convoys from tomorrow. Even when access from the coast is increased, we are not confident that clearance will be given for the vitally needed engineering spares and supplies for the coal mines and power stations. At a meeting on 23 November, the HVO stated that no clearance would be given until HVO engineers had inspected the spares and certified that they could not be used for military purposes. This is directly contrary to the Joint Declaration. All humanitarian agencies are agreed that domestic heating is the most immediate need. The urban heating system in Tuzla has yet to begin operating; that in Zenica is providing just enough warmth to stop pipes freezing, but not to heat homes. Fuel is now the most important need of the health services. We have seen renewed insistence from the political and military leaders that they, not we, should decide who gets what. As a test of the parties' commitment, a convoy with building material will leave for Srebrenica on Wednesday 1 December.

In the above circumstances, and with the conflict continuing, it remains very difficult for us to monitor the parties' respect for their commitment to ensure assistance reaches its intended civilian beneficiaries and is not diverted to the military or others.

The commitment to release all civilians unlawfully detained has been vigorously followed up by the ICRC, whose President, Mr Sommaruga, was in former Yugoslavia from 19 November until yesterday. The HVO and BiH are to meet today with the ICRC in Medugorje. We shall have to await the outcome of that meeting, and others involving the BSA, before we can assess the degree of respect for this commitment.

The last commitment entered into on 18 November was to ensure that the military and civilian administrations at all levels honour the other commitments, and those made previously. Respect for freedom of movement and other human rights was specifically mentioned in the joint declaration. Of great concern is continued ethnic cleansing by both Bosnian Croats and Serbs, but minorities in some BiH controlled areas are also affected. In the summer, those thus rendered homeless did not risk death from exposure. Now they do. For the old and vulnerable, freedom of movement may effectively equate with the right to life. Yet over one thousand persons wishing and ready to leave Sarajevo since Friday remain trapped today by political considerations and obstruction. Our largest, single medical evacuation took place on 24 November, but only after repeated interventions.

Demonstrably, therefore, this last commitment, which covers all others, is not yet being honoured. Addressing the HIWG of the ICFY on 19 November, I said "as I told the parties yesterday, I am not asking for new promises but for deeds. In the coming weeks, as we try to accelerate our delivery, we shall be observing closely to what extent they adhere to their commitments."Far from being able to accelerate, it is the conclusion of my colleagues on the ground that - even discounting weather - things have not yet shown any significant improvement.

In the preamble to their Joint Declaration, the parties recognized that a humanitarian catastrophe in B & H cannot be averted this winter without peace, and stated that they were conscious of the humanitarian disaster already upon the civilian population with the onset of winter. This brings me back to the objectives of today's meeting, which are to further both the humanitarian and the political cause. In spite of the often highly political environment in which the international relief effort has to operate, I have always tried to separate the two. But I have never denied one stark reality: to avert further catastrophe, a political solution has to be found at short notice. With the strong support of WFP, WHO, UNICEF and the NGOs, the international relief effort will continue to try to reduce the suffering. At this very moment, war and persecution continue to drive people from their homes on a daily basis. Many others are desperate to flee, retained against their will. Relief convoys can save lives, but they will not alter the fate of traumatized mothers and children living in basements in sub zero temperatures. Their agony represents the reality of Bosnia and Herzegovina in may areas. Our convoys, even if they will be allowed to pass, will not change this. That is why I am repeating that without peace there will still be catastrophe. Relief convoys cannot be a substitute for peace.