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"Forced Displacement in Africa Between War and Peace" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Second Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD II), Tokyo, 20 October 1998

Speeches and statements

"Forced Displacement in Africa Between War and Peace" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Second Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD II), Tokyo, 20 October 1998

20 October 1998
Displacement and warDisplacement and peaceAddressing displacement through international cooperation

Mr Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful to the organizers of TICAD II and to the Government of Japan for their invitation to address this conference. It has a special meaning for me to speak in my own country about Africa, a continent that is very important to UNHCR, and to myself as High Commissioner for Refugees.

Of 22.4 million people worldwide whom UNHCR considers of its concern - including refugees, other displaced people and recently repatriated returnees - 7.4 million are on the African continent. Today, my remarks will focus on displacement as a major obstacle on the road to the stability and development of Africa. The recent history of the continent provides many examples of how forced population movements can undermine efforts to achieve peace and broader prosperity.

Displacement and war

Displacement and conflicts are related in different ways. Wars compel people to flee. People in flight can aggravate or complicate wars. For example, ethnic divisions and forced displacement were among the causes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which was followed by the flight of millions of Rwandans to neighbouring countries. This had a series of destabilizing effects on the entire The international geopolitical situation of the early 90s provided frameworks within which solutions to problems of displacement were found and implemented. Some Cold War conflicts previously fought by proxy on African soil ended. Other internal conflicts were addressed and resolved. The progress of democratic institutions in some countries played an important role. In one of the most significant and successful repatriation operations ever, 1.7 million refugees returned to Mozambique. Large refugee groups also repatriated to Namibia, South Africa, Togo, Mali, Ethiopia and Uganda. In these countries efforts are now being redirected towards development.

At the same time, signs of an opposing trend started to appear. The number and frequency of conflicts rose again: one third of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are now involved in a war. One of the immediate consequences in the prevalent use of military force over political negotiations has been that solutions to refugee problems are slowed down or blocked.

The Great Lakes crisis was the most brutal example of a return to war and displacement - but by no means the only one. In West Africa, conflicts in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee. Recent fighting in Angola has compelled my Office to suspend the repatriation of Angolan refugees. Risks of a new conflict are blocking solutions to displacement in the Horn. In Southern Sudan, the on-going conflict continues to keep refugees in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Some aspects of today's conflicts in Africa play an essential role in complicating solutions to refugee problems: the regionalization or even the internationalization of wars, combined with strong ethnic motives, results in a trend towards organized violence against civilians. The outcome can be horrifying: millions of Rwandans coerced by their own leaders to flee, and thousands of them dying of exhaustion and disease; mutilations and killings perpetrated by rebel forces in Sierra Leone to terrorize civilian populations, including women and children; landmines littering North-West Somalia, intended to kill and maim those refugees who attempt to return home.

Although some of the worst conflicts on the continent are not new, one can say that war in Africa is changing. New wars aim at depriving civilians of resources; and also at forcing them to flee, or not to return. Thus, the connection between war and displacement is becoming closer, and more dangerous. Let me therefore state here once more that the need to strengthen conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms in Africa is more urgent than ever. Such mechanisms often exist on paper, but it is rare that they are successfully implemented: I hope, therefore, that TICAD II will be an opportunity to review their concrete feasibility.

Displacement and peace

Large scale, conflict-induced human displacement inevitably has a negative impact on peace building and development efforts. The very existence of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees who are unable to be reintegrated in their communities, negates the conditions for human development. Displacement is one of the main obstacles on the road to economic prosperity. In countries with limited resources, large scale population movements cause serious imbalances. Refugee camps may become a new market for local goods, and provide some work opportunities, but all key elements of the social, economic and environmental fabric of host communities - prices, jobs, salaries, food commodities, clean water, forested areas, law and order - are profoundly affected.

This is also true in the case of massive return movements of refugees to their own country, which add a heavy burden on societies trying to rebuild themselves, especially in post-conflict situations. The re-establishment of peace does not necessarily mean that stable conditions immediately prevail. Peace agreements may allow refugees to repatriate. The situations to which they return, however, are often extremely uncertain. I have described them as situations of "fragile peace". On the one hand, the unstable environment does not favour the re-integration of returnees and the peaceful coexistence of divided communities. This creates rejection and discrimination, and is of immediate concern to my Office. On the other hand, it discourages the allocation of resources needed to support integration and reconciliation, thus threatening the entire reconstruction process.

The paradox of repatriation to situations of "fragile peace" is that it is a positive solution to displacement, and as such it should be promoted if refugees can return in safety and dignity. However, especially when repatriation is on a large scale, the receiving country may have serious difficulties in absorbing returnees, particularly if it has undergone war and destruction. To avoid transforming a solution into an obstacle, well planned and well supported peace building and development activities, including returnee reintegration, must begin immediately after the end of conflicts.

I am concerned that this is not often the case. Take West Africa, for example. There have been constructive efforts in the area of conflict resolution, especially thanks to ECOWAS. However, they have not been matched by adequate international support for peace building, rehabilitation and development. In Liberia, for instance, some refugees return home, find no infrastructure and little support, and leave the country again to an even more uncertain future.

Large scale population movements, and especially mass repatriation, have a considerable impact on societies in the process of rebuilding. This concerns all key areas: security, good governance, respect for human rights and for the rule of law, socio-economic development. Refugees returning home should not be compelled to leave again. To mitigate the negative consequences of their return, reintegration must be strongly supported. Sustainable development requires - also - sustainable refugee return.

Addressing displacement through international cooperation

Nowhere more than in the Great Lakes region has the relationship of displacement with war and fragile peace been so obvious. Forced population movements have played a major role in setting back the socio-economic development of this region. This, in turn, has affected traditional African values such as the generous practice of refugee asylum. Concerned by the erosion of humanitarian principles, last year we started a process of consultations with Central African governments. This culminated, in May, in a ministerial meeting of eight governments hosted in Kampala by President Museveni of Uganda and chaired by the Organisation of African Unity and UNHCR.

The Kampala meeting strongly reaffirmed its support for refugee protection principles embodied in the 1969 OAU Convention. It also clearly indicated, however, that to restore humanitarian values in the region and perhaps in Africa it was necessary to address the problem of insecurity in situations of displacement; and to sustain returnee reintegration as a vital component of post-conflict reconstruction.

We set to work in these two directions. Following a recommendation in the United Nations Secretary-General's report on Africa, UNHCR is cooperating closely with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations on proposals to establish various stand-by arrangements to address insecure refugee situations. To do this, we do not have to only rely on traditional multinational peacekeeping forces. We must pay much more attention to other support solutions such as capacity building for the local police and judiciary, training, provision of equipment, monitoring through international police contingents, and so on. In this respect, it will be important to maintain a close dialogue with sub-regional organisations - such as ECOWAS and SADC - and to establish stand-by arrangements with those of them who are willing and able to provide security support in insecure refugee crises.

In the area of refugee reintegration, we are engaging governments, other components of the United Nations - especially UNDP - and the World Bank in concrete discussions how to identify and bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and broader development cooperation, particularly with respect to funding mechanisms. We must insist in this direction. The role of African states, sub-regional organizations and the OAU is crucial: first and foremost to ensure that returnee support programmes can be absorbed by the broader process of national reconstruction and development; and then, to explain to the international community the importance of returnee reintegration. It is also essential that bilateral and multilateral development assistance be mobilized at an early stage of the peace building process, to ensure a smooth transition.

The follow-up to the Kampala meeting has obviously become more difficult, given the current situation in Central Africa. Progress may be slower than the OAU and UNHCR had hoped for, but several governments who participated in the meeting have recently said that the processes started in Kampala should continue. This is very encouraging.

Measures in the areas of security and reintegration, however, can only mitigate, but not eliminate the impact of forced population movements on the security and socio-economic development of peoples and states. Our final goal should be to sever completely the link between population displacement and instability, and to ensure that the return of refugees, while resolving displacement, does not undermine development. To achieve this, humanitarian action alone is not sufficient. Broader international cooperation is required.

The Dayton Peace Agreement, which put an end to the Bosnian war, proved that the international community, when it acts in a concerted and determined way, can stop conflicts and create a comprehensive framework for peace building: not only responding to immediate, humanitarian needs, but also, more importantly, rebuilding the economy, re-establishing the rule of law and ultimately encouraging the peaceful coexistence of all communities.

It is often said that there is no "political will", nor "strategic interest", on the part of the international community, to create such comprehensive frameworks for peace in Africa. I object to this attitude. We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the effort required to resolve conflicts and build peace in this continent. The very fact that we are all gathered here, far from Africa, in a region which is facing a very different crisis - and yet that we are acutely aware of the interdependence of all our problems - should make us more ambitious and bold.

Last week's developments in the Kosovo crisis, although still in an early stage, proved that Dayton was not an isolated episode. Through determined political efforts, the way may have been paved for a solution allowing humanitarian problems - including forced displacement - to be resolved. Perhaps, with time, peace will also come. If this is possible in Europe, let me then ask you, why not in Africa?

You are striving to build democracy and promote development. Working with people all over Africa, every day, we draw a sense of hope from your efforts - and so, most importantly, do millions of Africans. Let me therefore conclude by appealing to all those present here - donor governments, international development organizations, but particularly the leaders of Africa - not to leave refugees, displaced persons and returnees at the margin of these efforts. Not only do they deserve special attention, being among the most vulnerable people. They are also the visible sign of broader problems which must be addressed if we are to continue working successfully towards peace and sustainable development.

Thank you.