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"Challenges to the United Nations: A Humanitarian Perspective" - Inaugural Lecture of the Sylvia Ostry Foundation by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ottawa, 19 May 1993

Speeches and statements

"Challenges to the United Nations: A Humanitarian Perspective" - Inaugural Lecture of the Sylvia Ostry Foundation by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ottawa, 19 May 1993

19 May 1993

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to present the inaugural lecture of the Sylvia Ostry foundation before such an impressive gathering. I am deeply honoured by the presence of Dr. Ostry, for whom my husband and I share the greatest admiration. She is one of those rare individuals who has been able to combine practical experience of international and domestic policy-making with academic research covering macro and micro economic issues. During her distinguished career, Mrs. Ostry has been a powerful and persuasive advocate of coordinated international policies and freer multinational trade.

My lecture will address the enormous challenges posed to the United Nations in the post-Cold War era, particularly from a humanitarian perspective. I hope to examine the ways in which humanitarian issues have become linked with the efforts of the United Nations to establish peace and security, and reflect on the inter-relationship between humanitarian and political action as the United Nations strives to bring order to a world in transition.

We are living in a period of rapid change, in which international security has become more complex and national boundaries more permeable and mutable. On the positive side, adversarial attitudes of the Cold War have been replaced by a new willingness to cooperate. The reduction of East/West tensions has led to the resolution of many regional and internal conflicts and disputes. From central Europe to Latin America, from Thailand to Mali, old assumptions and structures are being challenged and authoritarianism is giving way, in varying degrees, to more democratic forms of government and more open economies. Trade and commerce, modern transport and communications are blurring national boundaries, just as global concerns on drugs, aids, environmental degradation and international migration are drawing Governments together into new forms of cooperation.

On the negative side, political and economic reform is proving to be a painful, sometimes violent process, as shown in Haiti, Zaire and other parts of the world. Underlying these political conflicts or independent of them, ancient feuds are being rekindled by nationalistic, ethnic, cultural and religious rivalries, leading to violence, sometimes culminating in the fragmentation of states, as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Within these "new" states, more seeds of strife are being sown among insecure minorities. Former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example - but unfortunately not the only one - of the atrocious policy of torture, rape and murder to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another. Wars which were previously fuelled by the Super Powers are continuing even after the withdrawal of their patrons. In Somalia, and to a large extent also in Afghanistan, violence and anarchy have destroyed any semblance of governmental authority. These dangerous and destabilising trends could have repercussions far beyond the borders of the conflict-ridden countries. Even in those countries, such as Cambodia and Angola, where the end of the Cold War had led to the settlement of internal wars, a new period of uncertainty is demonstrating the fragility of the peace process. Currently, the United Nations is engaged in heroic efforts in these countries to maintain peace and order while attempting to establish democratically-elected governments.

Political instability is feeding and, in turn, is itself being exacerbated by the problems of poverty, growing population pressures and environmental degradation which, of course, predate the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the relationship between North and South is being challenged in a world in which the division between East and West is gradually disappearing. Countries which have lost their strategic use as Super Power pawns find themselves largely ignored by their former patrons. Furthermore, in many industrialised countries, public support for foreign aid programmes is becoming difficult to sustain in the midst of prolonged economic recession.

On the humanitarian scene, large-scale refugee movements and population displacement are being generated by political and ethnic conflicts. The world refugee population has grown from some 13 million in 1989 to almost 19 million today. In the course of the past year alone, my Office has mounted emergency programmes for 3.8 million people in the former Yugoslavia, for some 260,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, and 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. In early December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. In recent months we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

People are being forced not only to cross borders and become refugees but also to be displaced inside their own countries. The conflict in Tajikistan last year produced 500,000 internally displaced persons as well as 60,000 refugees who crossed into Afghanistan. Violence and anarchy in Somalia have caused some one million refugees to flee to the neighbouring countries and another million to become internally displaced. In Mozambique there are 3 million internally displaced persons in addition to about 1.5 million refugees in Malawi and other African countries. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, about 2 million people have become dependent on international assistance being internally displaced, or having to survive in besieged cities. In addition, over a million refugees are in Croatia, Serbia and other neighbouring countries.

In the face of such political instability, economic uncertainty and humanitarian crises, the euphoria which greeted the end of the Cold War has been overtaken by a sober reassessment of the new geopolitical realities. The risk in today's world seems not so much of hegemonic dominance but more of the consequences of its absence, with no Super Power willing or able to impose order. Major countries are turning inwards and are preoccupied with domestic concerns. Against this background of a power vacuum, the United Nations is increasingly expected to contain and control conflicts. How can the United Nations be strengthened to perform the primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security? How does the United Nations balance the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the state with the need to address threats to international peace and security resulting more and more from internal conflicts? How does an organisation like UNHCR, whose mandate was carefully crafted to respect State sovereignty by providing international protection and assistance to refugees only after they have left their country, respond to the humanitarian needs of those who have been displaced but are still within their national borders?

These are enormous challenges for a United Nations stultified for four decades of Cold War. In a bipolar world, it was not possible to eliminate the root causes of refugee movements because they clearly derived from ideological and political confrontation. Peacekeeping operations tended to freeze the frontlines but let the conflicts fester, while humanitarian action took care of the refugees but immobilized refugee situations for decades, e.g. in Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cambodia. Humanitarian action on behalf of refugees was undertaken without reference to the political situations which had given rise to the refugee flow. UNHCR's mandate was interpreted as protection of refugees after they had left their country. Prevention and solutions were considered beyond UNHCR's area of competence. By focusing on asylum and the maintenance of refugee camps across the border, attention was deflected from the country of origin, where the source - and hence the solution - of most refugee problems lay. Yet there was little else that UNHCR could do, in the absence of the political will to allow the United Nations to prevent conflicts not to speak of tackling the root cause which led to refugee flows.

Today, the static framework of the Cold War has been replaced by a more dynamic situation, in which the risks of conflicts and refugee flows have been revived, but equally, the opportunities to address them have been renewed. An Agenda for Peace, the report put forward by the UN Secretary-General last year, advocates an active engagement by the United Nations to ensure world security through preventive diplomacy, peace-making or conflict resolution, peace-keeping and peace-building or post-conflict rehabilitation. There is clearly a new readiness in the Security Council to examine internal situations and civil wars as threats to international peace and security. There is a new emphasis on early warning and preventive action, as shown by the preventive deployment of peacekeepers to Macedonia last December. New demands are being put on the United Nations, as peace becomes a multi-dimensional concept in a complex security framework. In countries as far apart as Namibia and Nicaragua, El Salvador and Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique, Somalia, former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan, the UN is brokering peace, supervising cease-fires, demobilising soldiers, assisting refugees to return, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and protecting the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

These developments have had enormous implications for my office. New imperatives and new opportunities are defining a post-Cold War strategy for humanitarian action. Like the new generation of peace-keeping, humanitarian action is having to focus on internal rather than inter-state problems, whether in the context of returning refugees - who numbered around 1.5 million last year - or internally displaced persons. This means not only responding to refugee situations in countries of asylum, but also preventing and resolving them in the countries from which refugees originate. We must seek to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are, then their humanitarian needs must be met and conditions created to allow them to return home in safety and dignity. In order to cope with the changing realities, I have adopted a three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions. It is an attempt to complement the existing ensurance of asylum outside the country of origin with prevention and solution-oriented activities inside the country of origin.

As the focus of our activities shifts gradually from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin, it becomes more and more linked to the political efforts of the United Nations to bring about peace and security. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the former Yugoslavia where humanitarian operations are working closely, on the one hand, with the political process of the International Conference co-chaired by Mr. Vance (now replaced by Mr. Stoltenberg) and Lord Owen, and on the other with the UN peacekeeping mission on the ground.

It is clear that the implications and inter-relationships between political and humanitarian action are as complex, as implementation problems are manifold. Let me point out three main issues.

The first relates to the political and legal problems of protecting displaced people in their own country who are affected by conflict. Unlike refugee law, humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, contains provisions for the protection of civilians in internal armed conflicts, which are of great value to the internally displaced. These provisions do not, however, apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, and isolated and sporadic acts of violence, which often cause people to flee.

Thus, it is left to human rights law to provide the necessary protection to internally displaced persons. Yet many of the human rights are subject to derogation during a period of public emergency, exactly at a time when the need for protecting the displaced is the greatest. This is a lacuna in humanitarian and human rights law which needs to be addressed.

In addition to the legal gap, the framework for the protection and assistance of the internally displaced is unclear because of the sensitivities of national sovereignty. Protection of human rights of an individual within his national territory is premised on State responsibility. It is a responsibility which devolves on the country of origin by virtue of fundamental State obligations to safeguard and protect its citizens. However, in a situation of internal displacement, the State may be the persecutor itself or may be unwilling to protect or even unable to do so, for instance if it has lost territorial control during an armed conflict. The international human rights machinery is currently far from adequate in addressing such situations. The assumption of national sovereignty traditionally leaves no international jurisdiction for protection, unlike that of UNHCR in the case of refugees. However, the growing recognition of legitimate international concern on human rights matters is slowly creating more space for international bodies to play a role in monitoring the protection of the internally displaced than was previously considered possible.

As part of our strategy to prevent refugee problems and address them before people cross the border, and at the request of the Secretary-General and the government concerned, UNHCR has undertaken an active role for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people, for instance in Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and the former Yugoslavia. We have also launched an innovative operation in Somalia from across the border in Kenya so that people are not forced to leave their country solely for lack of international assistance. This is an effort to provide assistance in the country of origin close to the border where security conditions are satisfactory. Such an operation is not only preventive in terms of future movements but also encourages refugees who have left the area to return as soon as security conditions permit. When refugees choose to return to areas where there are internally displaced persons, UNHCR has sought to assist both groups, in an effort to stabilise communities and promote an early durable solution. This is our approach in Afghanistan, Angola and the Horn of Africa.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has added a new category to our list of beneficiaries. These are people who are under siege or otherwise being pressurized to move but have not yet been displaced. Assisting people to remain where they are is an important - indeed crucial - function in a war, the primary objective of which seems to be the expulsion of minority groups. Normally such activities are carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but are now falling also to UNHCR as the UN becomes more engaged in internal conflict situations. Thus, mandates and modes of cooperation are developing out of the operational realities with which we are being daily confronted.

My second point is about the use of international presence as a tool for protecting internally displaced persons. For instance, UNHCR has set up Open Relief Centres in northern Sri Lanka which are accepted and respected by both warring parties as havens of safety for displaced persons, although the centres have no legal status as such. Political developments permitting, UNHCR is negotiating a humanitarian corridor for the free movement of civilian population in northern Sri Lanka.

Elsewhere massive presence in the context of an assistance programme can act as a confidence-building measure to enhance security. During 1991 and 1992 in northern Iraq, UNHCR deployed some 180 staff, augmented by hundreds of NGOs and the innovative use of some 500 UN guards. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are some 600 UNHCR staff, who not only help to distribute relief to the displaced and besieged, but also monitor their protection situation. There are some 7,000 UN peace-keeping forces to protect relief activities. In the context of current realities in Bosnia, international presence, accompanied by massive life-sustaining assistance, may be the only practical form of protection for the besieged population.

On 16 April, the Security Council adopted a resolution (SC res. 819) requesting the Secretary-General to increase the presence of UN peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica town, the centre of Moslem besieged enclave in Eastern Bosnia in order to monitor the humanitarian situation. The Council demanded that all parties treat Srebrenica as a "safe area" free from armed attack or other hostile acts. Not the least thanks to the able Canadian peacekeepers, the safe area concept is largely being respected. The safe area concept as it is evolving in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that of population centres which are being placed under international protection, with the UN presence of peace-keepers and humanitarian organizations to provide relief. As the Security Council expands the designation of safe areas to Zepa, Gorazde, Tuzla and Sarajevo, a new humanitarian approach may be developing that links more directly the protection of civilians in the process towards achieving final peace. Safe areas, of course, should not turn into large-scale refugee camps.

Generally speaking, UN humanitarian organisations have obtained access and established presence on the basis of negotiations and consent of the parties. This is also true so far of the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, there is now a growing debate on the use of force to obtain access. My third point, therefore, is about humanitarian access and the use of military force to ensure such access. You will recall that on 5 April 1991 the Security Council created a precedent by adopting Resolution 688, linking human rights violations to threats to international peace and security. The resolution demanded that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq. The day after the resolution was adopted, the Coalition Forces intervened militarily to create a safety zone in northern Iraq. This helped to protect those who could not obtain asylum in Turkey. It was a clear indication that the issue of humanitarian access challenged the traditional inviolability of national sovereignty. Interestingly enough, UNHCR's activities in northern Iraq were not based on resolution 688, nor on the Coalition intervention, but on a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq. There is, of course, no doubt that the adoption of Resolution 688 and the apparent determination of the international community to enforce it influenced the outcome of the negotiations.

UNHCR's involvement in the former Yugoslavia predates the deployment of peace-keeping forces. It came about as a result of a request from the then Yugoslav government and from the United Nations Secretary-General to protect and assist persons displaced by the war in Croatia. Very soon after, following the independence of Croatia, UNHCR was involved not only in helping internally displaced persons but also refugees who crossed into or found themselves in what became Croatia and the rump Yugoslavia. In spring 1992, when the fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, ensuring humanitarian access to Sarajevo and other besieged cities became a major issue. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Security Council resolution 716 of 29 June 1992 authorised the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to protect Sarajevo airport and access to the city so that UNHCR could continue to protect and assist those in need. Through Security Council resolution 776 of 14 September, UNPROFOR's mandate was extended to support UNHCR's humanitarian activities and provide military cover to relief convoys. Although existing rules of engagement allow UN peacekeeping forces to open fire if armed persons attempt by force to prevent them from carrying out their orders, the protection and delivery of humanitarian assistance by UNPROFOR have so far been based on consensual arrangements with the parties involved.

Obtaining consent can be difficult not only because of governmental intransigence but also because of the multiplicity in the command structure - civilian, military and even local warlords. Frequently, the chain of command is unclear and discipline weak, making negotiations, whether on cease-fires or humanitarian access, difficult and dangerous. This has certainly been the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the UNPROFOR and UNHCR staff have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort to gain assurances, only to have them broken as soon as our convoys begin rolling. Despite all the problems, I would like to emphasize the importance of negotiations and consensus-building as the final tool to establish trust and confidence of all parties concerned as the essential condition for carrying out humanitarian work.

The humanitarian imperative requires impartial support to victims on all sides of a conflict, while enforcement action by the United Nations must necessarily target the aggressor. There could thus be at least a potential problem for us as the Security Council increasingly undertakes action in situations where there are no longer secure conditions for humanitarian action. It was this type of situation of total breakdown of law and order combined with the starvation of the Somali people which prompted United Nations intervention in Somalia last December. Following the failure of the advanced team of peace-keepers to take control over the airport and the seaport to allow delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the continued defiance of the Somali warlords to accept full deployment of the United Nations peacekeepers, the Secretary General recommended to the Security Council to move into enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Secretary-General's judgement was based on the conclusion that Somalia lacked any governmental authority with which to reach agreement, and therefore the United Nations had to forcefully create conditions for the uninterrupted delivery of relief supplies to the starving people.

In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian Serbs are yet to accept the peace accord promoted by the co-Chairmen of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia. International pressure is mounting for more resolute political and military action to assure cease-fire and compliance of the parties to the UN Peace Plan. The impact of military intervention on the activities of the peace-keeping forces on the ground as well as on humanitarian agencies need to be cautiously weighted. The dilemma of the international community is this:on the one hand, the protection of the victims of the conflict - refugees, displaced, civilians, women and children - be scrupulously upheld. On the other hand the political imperative requires resolute results even at some cost to the victims.

Northern Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Somalia have indicated the emergence of the humanitarian domain as a source for Security Council decision-making. However, consensus has yet to emerge on the norms, rules and decision-making process involving political and military action for humanitarian purposes. As humanitarian action becomes dynamically linked to peace-making and peace-keeping, principles must be developed to reconcile humanitarian action with Chapter VII enforcement, whether economic, military or otherwise. I have noted that sanctions too often affect the vulnerable - children, mothers, aged - before making any impact on the aggressor leadership. UNHCR must make all efforts to ensure that the neutrality, impartiality and humanitarian nature of its operations which allows it to address the victims on all sides of a conflict are scrupulously upheld.

In the meanwhile it is clear that humanitarian assistance, primarily designed to protect victims, can help defuse tensions as well as contribute to an environment conducive for peace talks. In the Bosnian context, we have sometimes been told that humanitarian assistance has not contributed to peace; that it has merely fed people who will be killed the next day. I cannot categorically refute these allegations as humanitarian activities cannot substitute political settlement. However, I am proud that humanitarian relief activities have in fact helped to save more than two million lives in Bosnia in the last year. This is why I yearn for a speedy cessation of hostilities and political settlement while we carry on our work every day in spite of continued odds. Once a peace settlement is achieved, humanitarian assistance will play a major role to help return refugees and displaced persons and eventually provide a bridge to long-term development.

In conclusion, let me stress that in a world without hegemons, the challenges for the United Nations are manifold. The threats to international peace and security in today's world do not, in most instances, come from outright military aggression across national borders, but primarily from the internal situation of sovereign States. The most frequent cases are likely to be caused by misgovernment or disintegration of State power - internal conflicts, breakdown of law and order, collapse of economic and social systems, mass displacement of people. Nor can such threats be dealt with solely as a matter between States, for the issues of today do not arise from nor affect only the relations between States but also those between State and individual, between State and group and between groups within States.

The current system of collective security will have to be both reviewed and reinforced to meet this changed situation. Effective early warning and preventive action must be at the core of maintaining international peace and security. The United Nations will have to devise rapid response mechanisms. The setting up of UN "peace enforcement units", proposed in the Agenda for Peace could be one such measure. For refugee related emergencies, UNHCR has installed five "emergency preparedness and response teams" for rapid deployment of staff and goods. For various crises in other realms - natural disaster, nuclear calamity, financial market crash etc. - effective countervailing measures will have to be installed, because emergency in one realm tends to trigger emergency in others. Together with early warning and rapid emergency response capacity must be developed legal principles and effective mechanisms which recognise the evolving nature of State sovereignty and expanding international responsibility.

In the last few years, humanitarian crises have come to the forefront of public attention. In the course of today's lecture, I have tried to elaborate on some of the emerging trends towards linking humanitarian and political activities. At the same time, I have as yet to recognize any clear mode of adjustment or agreed division of labour between the two realms. The challenge for crisis management in today's world is to devise a system that balances the States concern for territorial integrity with the protection needs of minorities and individuals, and that effectively meets the multiple nature of threats that affect both states and peoples. Such a system cannot be developed only by political leaders and decision-makers since it involves the protection and well-being of individuals and peoples. Greater mobilization of the wisdom and efforts of peoples from all walks of life - human rights specialists, humanitarian workers, NGOs - are all needed to make their inputs. Particularly, greater contributions are expected for the academic and research community, as well as the thinking public at large. I wish to invite the Sylvia Ostry Foundation to lend its support to endeavours and build an international system that gives full allowance to the humanitarian needs.