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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Peace Implementation Conference for Bosnia and Herzegovina, London, 9 December 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Peace Implementation Conference for Bosnia and Herzegovina, London, 9 December 1995

9 December 1995

I am very pleased to address this important meeting. This is the moment we have all been waiting for. For almost four years my Office, together with UNPROFOR and numerous organizations, has tried to care for the victims, and to ensure protection for those fleeing from fighting and persecution. Whereas war and persecution might not have been halted, we did save countless lives. Now my Office can start working on the return of refugees and displaced persons. Though formidable, I accept this challenge with the full support of my staff.

Civilians, not soldiers, were the principal and often intentional victims in the Bosnian conflict. Forced displacement was not just a by-product but an objective of military action and persecution. Those responsible, as well as the international community, owe it to the uprooted men, women and children of Bosnia and Herzegovina to let them rebuild their lives in peace and security. Far from being only a matter of justice and morality, I am convinced that adequate solutions for refugees and displaced persons are indispensable for the process of psychological healing and reconciliation, which in turn would be instrumental for attaining lasting peace in the Balkans. The prominent attention given to the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in the Dayton Agreement is therefore wholly justified.

Under Annex 7 of this Agreement my Office has been entrusted with two major tasks: to continue to lead the humanitarian assistance operation, and to design and implement a return plan. I appreciate the confidence placed in my Office by the parties and the international community.

The international provision of basic relief items by UNHCR, other UN agencies, ICRC and NGOs will indeed remain crucial during the current winter period. However, our aim is to reduce the scale of this assistance as soon as possible, in the course of the spring. The implementation of the peace agreement should restore civilian freedom of movement and the full resumption of commercial traffic. In carrying out our humanitarian operations we were up till now greatly helped by UNPROFOR. We have already held discussions with NATO, and we count on IFOR's support especially in facilitating the movement of our convoys, although military escorting should in principle no longer be necessary.

I shall now try to comment on UNHCR's planning for implementing return of refugees and displaced persons. During the first part of this week I travelled to Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade, and was struck anew by the immensity and complexity of our task. Potentially we are dealing with 2.7 million people, of whom 1.2 million are displaced within Bosnia. Accurate planning is difficult, because many factors remain uncertain, namely first, the wishes of the refugees and displaced persons themselves; second, the evolution of the security situation following the deployment of IFOR; and third, the availability of adequate shelter.

Annex 7 clearly leaves the choice of destination of refugees and displaced persons up to the individual or family concerned. They have the right to return to their homes of origin, but may also settle elsewhere. This reflects a sense of realism. Given the trauma's of the past and possible feelings of apprehension for the future, many people may, at least initially, prefer to return to their majority Entity. Their wish should be fully respected. Whereas ethnic depopulation was an objective, of some parties, during the war, ethnic repopulation should not become an objective during peace.

As a first step, I intend to obtain accurate data regarding places of origin, the preferred place of destination, and the availability of at least provisional private accommodation upon return. We are already assisting the Federation authorities with the organization of a census among the internally displaced, and have requested the Bosnian Serb authorities to do the same. I would strongly suggest that those European and other asylum countries which have not already done so, also try to obtain sound data regarding all Bosnians staying there. Full registration could be of equal benefit to the holding of fair elections under Annex 3 of the Dayton Agreement, which in turn would serve as a stimulus for refugee repatriation.

As to the evolution of the security situation and the creation of safe conditions for return, I would hope for a widespread deployment of IFOR. I also hope that IFOR, if necessary, will readily agree to prevent interference with return movements and to respond, as appropriate, to any "deliberate violence to life and person", in accordance with its supporting functions under Annex 1-A. It will be of critical importance that the parties establish the confidence building measures for the protection of minority groups, foreseen in Annex 7, and that, as agreed in Dayton, a genuine Amnesty be proclaimed as soon as possible, except for war criminals. On UNHCR's part, we will step up and gear our current protection monitoring activities towards the proper treatment of returnees, including respect for their human rights. We shall closely cooperate with any future human rights monitoring mission and with the International Police Task Force.

Regarding the provision of adequate shelter and essential services, I must highlight that the current absorption capacity particularly of the Federation, is extremely limited. To enable large scale return and especially resettlement within Bosnia, a major housing repair and reconstruction effort will have to be undertaken, in both Entities. Given the urgency, I am examining the possibility of establishing a special Trust Fund, to jumpstart house repairs as soon as possible. UNHCR's involvement would be of limited scale and duration, pending the establishment of large-scale reconstruction projects through the World Bank and other actors, with whom we are already in close consultation.

Let me now share with you our thinking about the organization of the return process. Whereas many refugees may decide to return spontaneously, I cannot over-emphasise the need for return movements to take place as much as possible in an organized and phased manner, as spelled out in the Dayton Agreement. Following my discussions in the region, it has become even more evident that rushed and uncontrolled movements could destabilise what is still a fragile peace. Let us not jeopardise it. At the same time we should be pragmatic and flexible. Initially, I intend to concentrate on the decongestion of collective centres in both Entities, which are overcrowded with displaced persons, and on a return of professional talents programme, in cooperation with IOM. My Office is also prepared to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees, from regional countries of asylum or from further away, when private accommodation is at their disposal, be it with friends or relatives. Let me state clearly, that we counsel against the establishment of refugee camps or holding centres in Bosnia, which, in the absence of solutions, would lead to prolonged suffering and could generate dangerous pressure. For minority groups wishing to return to their original home areas, confidence building through a step by step approach will be crucial. I appeal to the parties to respect their commitments, including within the Federation where attempts to organize the return of minority groups, for instance in Mostar and Jaice, have thus far regrettably failed.

I am very grateful for the temporary protection extended in Europe and elsewhere to the victims over the past few years. The end of hostilities in the context of the full implementation of the military provisions of the Dayton Agreement will bring us close to the end of temporary protection, but not quite. For the time being, there can be no doubt that returns to Bosnia must be voluntary and based on informed decision making. In cooperation with all concerned, my Office wishes to ensure that those benefitting from temporary protection have access to relevant information. Any premature lifting of temporary protection could result in an avalanche of asylum requests, which this concept was precisely intended to render unnecessary. At the same time it should also be recognized that once temporary protection ends, there may be persons in need of continued international protection.

In view of the issues at stake, I intend to hold regular consultations with all countries concerned to facilitate, within a multilateral frame work, the return of refugees. I shall therefore convene on 16 January next a special meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group under the aegis of this Conference.

As we prepare for return, new, involuntary displacement must be avoided. I am concerned about the continuing pressure on Muslims and Croats to leave the Banja Luka region, and about the possible outflow of ethnic Serb populations from areas in Sarajevo which are to be transferred to the Federation. As a contribution to international confidence building, we have in the course of this week, opened two offices in these areas. I hope that all concerned will refrain from inflammatory statements, and that the old, multi-ethnic spirit of Sarajevo will not be further destroyed, but restored.

I have come to the end of my Statement. I wish to thank the British Government for its initiative to organise this Conference, and the UN Secretary-General for requesting my Office to continue its humanitarian coordination role. I also wish to congratulate the High Representative on his appointment. He can count on our full cooperation in his efforts of overall civilian coordination. While we are counting on his support on the ground, we shall also look to the Secretary-General and the Security Council in New York, to make sure that the parties honour their commitments under Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement. My Office is determined to do whatever it can, but at the end of the day it is the cooperation of the parties that matters most. If they really want peace, they must create the conditions necessary for humane solutions for refugees and displaced persons. After four catastrophic years they owe it to them.

Thank you.