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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Steering Committee of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 December 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Steering Committee of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 December 1992

16 December 1992

Of all the emergencies confronting UNHCR today, the humanitarian crisis in former Yugoslavia is undoubtedly the largest and possibly the most challenging. Just over a year ago, the Secretary-General asked my Office to take the lead in bringing relief to persons displaced as a result of the conflict in what was then Yugoslavia. At the time, the number of displaced was around 300,000. Today, the refugees, displaced and other affected population in former Yugoslavia exceed 3 million.

Sixteen weeks have passed since the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia established the Humanitarian Issues Working Group. The Programme of Action on Humanitarian Issues agreed between the Co-Chairmen, my Office and the Parties to the Conflict sought to enhance the delivery of humanitarian relief and seek the early release of detainees. I believe the time has come to honestly assess the impact of our humanitarian activities on the protection and assistance of the victims of the conflict.

Firstly, on protection: In an effort to resist "ethnic cleansing" and keep alive the prospects for early return, UNHCR has sought to protect and assist people as close to their homes as possible. Some 1.7 million persons are being assisted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and almost 1.3 million refugees and displaced persons elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. In comparison, around 600,000 persons have found refuge in other European countries. We must continue, to the extent possible, to pursue the strategy of helping people where they are. But we must also recognise the harsh and rapidly deteriorating realities on the ground, marked by massive violations of human rights, intensified military offensive and the onset of severe winter. New waves of refugees and displaced persons have been created in recent weeks as a result of the fighting. Many of the displaced have sought sanctuary in central Bosnia and in the region of Herzegovina, stretching existing accommodation facilities to the limit. As the military situation further deteriorates, we anticipate more movement in the coming weeks.

Moreover, despite greater international condemnation, "ethnic cleansing" and terror tactics continue to force people from their homes. The reports of systematic rape and sexual abuse of girls and women are particularly shocking. All sides are guilty of atrocities, all populations are affected, but undoubtedly, the Moslems are suffering the most.

The situation on the ground makes international presence more critical than ever. UNHCR has assigned over 300 staff, spread over 22 locations. The enhanced presence of UNPROFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been helpful. We expect more from them and count on their support to ease our access to people in need. In this context, I am deeply concerned that some UNPROFOR troops are being prevented from full deployment outside the Bihac enclave and in the Banja Luka region.

Despite these problems, I continue to believe that international presence and humanitarian assistance has made a difference, and therefore must continue to be strengthened. But let us have no illusions on the limitations of a humanitarian protection role which cannot be enforced. UNHCR has examined the feasibility of the safe area concept with care, but also with caution, and we have shared our views with the UN Secretary General and the ICRC, as requested by Security Council resolution no. 787.

My second point is on assistance. I am very grateful to the governments and the European Community for their financial contribution of 344 million US dollars, bringing the shortfall for needs until March 1993 to 50 million US dollars. I should stress, however, the continued need for funds in the sectors covered by UNICEF, WHO and WFP.

On logistics, thanks to generous donor contributions and the recent arrival of UNPROFOR's transport battalion, we have closed much of the previously existing gap between the needs, and our capacity to deliver. We now have 317 trucks and delivery capacity of 3,553 MT. It is therefore greatly frustrating that we have been able to meet only about 80% of the objectives in the food sector and about half the objectives on winterisation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Furthermore, the quantity of relief reaching the most vulnerable population in Sarajevo and eastern Bosnia remains far below requirements, putting at serious risk some 800,000 persons.

Our main obstacles are military and political. I am in regular contact with the leaders of the Bosnian parties to insist on their commitments to ensure safe and unhindered passage of relief convoys, and to discuss the priority areas of assistance. We have made some progress in establishing a network of reliable access routes, based on negotiated safe passage to reach all those who need our help. But there are still too many occasions when we receive assurances at the table, only to find them ignored or broken as soon as our convoys hit the roads. Treacherous winter conditions are a minor impediment compared to the threats and harassment of our staff, diversion of relief goods and delays at checkpoints, to say nothing of mines and fighting, political manipulation and hostile emotional behaviour of the local population.

Renewed fighting around the airport has interrupted the airlift to Sarajevo for almost a fortnight, while the military offensive has affected access of our land convoys through the Mostar Road and from Belgrade.

Routes to eastern Bosnia remain precarious, and our ability to deliver relief under constant pressure. After persistent efforts, we have been able to reach Gorazde, Srebrenica and Tuzla recently. We must continue to press forward on every opportunity to open new routes to reach all needy population, whether Moslem, Serb or Croat.

To this picture of infrequent and interrupted delivery and distribution must be added the dire needs in the sectors of energy, public services and infrastructure. They threaten the very survival of many cities and areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the midst of winter. I urge the donors to respond rapidly and bilaterally to these needs which go beyond the capacity and mandate of humanitarian organisations.

The Plan of Action on Humanitarian Issues covers also the release of detainees on which I know Mr. Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, will address you. Let me just say that, despite the initial slow response, we have now received over 6,000 offers of places for transit and temporary protection of former detainees. As the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina worsens, I expect governments to respond generously to the admission of abused and vulnerable cases as well as others who need temporary protection. In this context I welcome the recent conclusion adopted by the European Community Ministers of Immigration, and reiterate my call for open borders, as well as enhanced efforts to assist neighbouring countries which bear the heaviest burden of refugees.

Let me sum up by saying that twelve months ago UNHCR went into former Yugoslavia, at the request of the Secretary-General, in an attempt to prevent further displacement as well as to protect and provide relief to the displaced, in cooperation with UNICEF, WHO, ICRC and numerous NGOs. We cannot claim success. In fact, our achievements have been modest, but, I believe, they have not been without value in an increasingly grim situation. We have not been able to prevent displacement within the former Yugoslavia - but nor have we seen massive flows outside the region. We have not been able to reach all those in need of relief - nor have we, until now, witnessed widespread deaths from cold, disease or hunger.

But for how long can we continue? There are growing demands for more resolute intervention to end the crisis. I shall listen with the greatest care to your statements today. But may I add that any debate on enforcement action should take into account the security of our highly exposed and unarmed staff and the humanitarian implications for the victims of the conflict.

Through the past year, we have bought time and space for the political process. We have done so on the strength of our neutral and impartial activities, and by drawing on the courage and hopes of the displaced. In the process we have exposed our colleagues to danger and have been deliberately targeted in several shooting incidents. Our ability to operate is being limited by manipulations of the parties to the conflict. It will be an uphill battle for humanitarian organisations as winter sets in, the infrastructure deteriorates and hostilities continue. Time is running out. Humanitarian space is shrinking fast. I believe we are coming almost to the end of the humanitarian road.