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"Peace, Security and Humanitarian Action" - The Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 3 April 1997

Speeches and statements

"Peace, Security and Humanitarian Action" - The Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 3 April 1997

3 April 1997
Humanitarian Action and International Political StructureAddressing Humanitarian CrisesTowards Full and Effective Cooperation in Crisis Management

Professor Howard, Professor O'Neill, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by saying how deeply honoured I am by the invitation to address your prestigious Institute in the footsteps of renowned political leaders who held the Alastair Buchan Memorial lecture before me. I see it as a tribute to my 5,400 colleagues who across the globe are trying to protect and assist people forcibly displaced from their homes and countries. Albert Einstein once said: Politics is just like physics, only harder". I could say the same about humanitarian action, which often has to be performed in an utterly complex political context. Apart from the appalling human suffering, the political dimension of refugee issues is ever more prominent from central America to the Caucasus and from Bosnia to eastern Zaire.

Refugee issues are in many respects strategic issues and, I am pleased to say, increasingly recognized as such. They are strategic because they are indivisible from questions of international peace and security and because their prevention and solution require strategic thinking and response. I am afraid that I do not have ready made answers for many of today's displacement problems. What I do know, is that a business as usual approach is totally inappropriate. The days of ad hoc reactions which concentrate on symptoms rather than on causes should belong to the past. The management and solution of humanitarian crises must be explored in the context of a system of global governance befitting the post Cold War era. We need a concerted international strategy that is supported by innovative academic studies, the practical insight of practitioners and strong political leadership.

Humanitarian Action and International Political Structure

My start as High Commissioner for Refugees in early 1991 coincided with the break down of the Cold War structure on the global political scene. While the East-West confrontation has been directly or indirectly responsible for many conflicts in the developing world, the bipolar "structure", if I may call it that way, also meant a certain degree of clarity and predictability for my Office. Although our work has never been easy, we knew what to do. For long periods we protected and assisted refugees fleeing from communist regimes, proxy wars and decolonization conflicts. Solutions were envisaged only in relation to regime changes, however remote.

In those days, international refugee protection, which is at the heart of our mandate, was less complicated and far less disputed than it is today. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which having been ratified by 133 states remains the basic universal instrument in this domain, was based upon and heavily influenced by the Cold War structure. Receiving refugees was often both a political and humanitarian corollary of the ideological divide. Our work was also premised on the theoretical predictability of the Westphalian state system. Although the increasingly vocal human rights movement began attacking the absoluteness of sovereignty and non-interference deriving from the Westphalian adagium cuius regio, eius religio, we operated, in principle, only in countries of asylum.

In the contemporary world, however, the nature of conflicts affecting international peace and security has changed. As we all know, rather than nation state warfare we see more internal conflicts. Although many have regional dimensions, external aggression is not perceived or major powers cannot agree on its relevance. Increasingly these conflicts are ethno-political group confrontations beyond familiar patterns of democracy versus dictatorship, either left or right. Invariably they result in massive and extremely rapid displacement, both internally and externally. After the guns fall silent, as in Bosnia, reconciliation proves to be another battle, an uphill one, rendering early refugee repatriation elusive. Let me be frank. We have not established any solid international approach and regime to deal with these increasingly intractable problems. Although many lives have been saved, the international response to the mega-crises of the nineties has been mostly selective, ad hoc and improvised, whether the UN or regional multilateral actors were involved. I am afraid that the response is too often subject to the vicissitudes of the strategic interests - or their absence - of major powers and countries adjacent to the theatre of conflict.

The changing nature of conflicts has profoundly affected the work of my Office. It has been expanded and diversified, and it has become far more complex and dangerous. In 1996 we were protecting not only 13.2 refugees who had crossed international borders, but we also tried to enhance the protection and material security of 3.3 million repatriating refugees in the early stages of their re-integration, 4.7 million internally displaced people and 4.9 million other victims of conflict. The global figure of internally displaced persons is unknown but estimated to outnumber the refugee total. Their fate is often as dismal as that of refugees, yet no international agency has been mandated to cover them. Concrete action on their behalf may be barred by states on grounds of national sovereignty, except when undertaken in the context of Chapter VII action. UNHCR's engagement with the internally displaced has been flexible, based upon specific requests of the Secretary-General or the principal organs of the UN. While we want to help as many people as possible, the link with our mandated activities, resources and staff security need to be taken into account. Humanitarian agencies cannot always bear the burden of humanitarian intervention on their own, when indispensable political and security actions are not undertaken. Far too frequently I feel we are making up for political inaction.

Humanitarian action has indeed become an even more pronounced instrument of politics, and of foreign policy in particular, than in the past. Some manifestations of this are benign, for example when humanitarian negotiations on access, prisoner exchanges or refugee return help to build confidence during stalled political talks. By showing dividends to all sides, impartial humanitarian action can help bring them together to a certain extent. It can also help restore the perception of the UN as an evenhanded political mediator in situations where UN forces have been deployed to peace keep, or even threaten to use force. But there are also more worrisome manifestations. Humanitarian and human rights issues are constantly exploited by conflicting parties and their protagonists to pressurize the other side through the media. I am also extremely concerned about the diversion of aid by armed elements, who in many conflicts are barely distinguishable from ordinary civilians. The mixing of political objectives in humanitarian interventions is another aspect of the blurring of humanitarianism and politics.

Turning back to refugees, the relative predictability of their protection has evaporated as a result of asylum fatigue, confusion about mixed migratory and refugee movements in rich countries and the emphasis on adverse consequences of refugee flows in poor countries. Growing democratization and press freedom in the latter, for example in Africa, are leading to increasing pressure from domestic public opinion. International burden sharing is not working in the industrialized world, and is insufficiently divided between rich and poor countries.

Addressing Humanitarian Crises

You may perhaps feel that I am lamenting too much about my problems and worries. The question is how to tackle them. Needless to say, the causes for refugee outflows are by nature political. Many of today's ugly group conflicts, while ignited by political oppression in the absence of democratic governance, are the product of deeper social inequality and injustice. If the sense of injustice is generated or manipulated along ethnic or other communal lines, then disputes may be further aggravated. Hegemonic political power confrontations, as we see them in Rwanda and Burundi, reflect therefore the lack of a complex mixture of political and socio-economic rights of people. The argument in some quarters that economic development, or vast post-war reconstruction, would eliminate the refugee problem, is clearly too simplistic. Not all poor countries produce refugees. I wish to underline this, because a proper understanding of these causal relationships is essential in advancing prevention and solution-oriented strategies.

Both the prevention and solution of contemporary refugee problems requires the settlement of political conflicts. The need for military interventions in the course of conflict resolution depends on the intensity with which obstructive forces must be overcome and political or humanitarian objectives must be pursued. I am talking here about military intervention by UN peace keeping forces or by a coalition of several states in the context of today's internal conflicts as compared to the all-out international wars we have seen in the past. For humanitarian actors, cooperation with the military even in this limited mission has always posed uncertainties. Would military protection of the provision of assistance compromise the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action? Can military action remain neutral when wars intensify?

During the turbulent years of conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNHCR's initial hesitation to receive military protection of its convoys gradually changed, as it could no longer carry out its mission without the cooperation of UNPROFOR. It was indeed thanks to UNPROFOR's military support that UNHCR and its partners could sustain one of the largest and most complex relief operations in history. While human suffering and perhaps even a spreading of the conflict were contained, we also witnessed painfully the impossibility of an overcharged peace keeping mission where there was no peace to keep and when the protection of "safe areas" began to undermine the neutrality of its mission.

When NATO came in and force was used against the Bosnian Serbs, our relationship with the military became delicate in terms of our humanitarian neutrality and impartiality. Our task became almost impossible by the summer of 1995. Enforcement is indeed a critical issue. It may complicate the arduous efforts of conflict mediators preferring to operate in a "neutral" environment, and it may lead to retaliations against humanitarian staff and the blocking of life saving access to populations of the opposing side. On the other hand, strict neutrality and ineffective protection could not lead to political settlement. Nor could humanitarian responses ensure the security of people. The relief operation became an excuse to avoid resolute military and political action.

With intensifying military action, Sarajevo in August 1995 demonstrated that a people and their city can be saved when the major powers agree to act. Determined political leadership both in Europe and across the Atlantic stepped in, out of compassion but perhaps even more out of a shared political interest in halting tensions in the Atlantic alliance. The combination of enforcement action and leadership also delivered the push necessary to arrive at the breakthrough in Dayton in November 1995. Dayton put us all back on the peace track. Military intervention four years earlier, in Vukovar, might well have done the same. Yes, I am a bit bitter as so many others, having lived through the devastation of ethnic cleansing and now being charged to help reverse it by organizing the return of 2.1 million refugees and internally displaced to their homes. Could the international community have prevented the débâcle had it taken more resolute action earlier? Or was it inevitable for humanitarian and political efforts to run their course?

Post-Dayton Bosnia is a vivid example of the symbiotic relationship between political, military and humanitarian action to solve refugee problems and establish durable peace and security. With 250,000 people having returned - and far more expected to follow them in the coming months, we are making progress. In addition to the occupation and destruction of houses, political obstruction, most notably on the Bosnian Serb and Croat side, remains however the biggest stumbling block for inter-ethnic returns and hence for the re-integration of Bosnia. Bosnia shows that there can be no lasting military peace without civilian peace. We are extremely worried that the future of the Dayton accord is at stake. Regarding refugees, Dayton leaves open the choice between return to one's place of origin and relocation, thus giving room for policies of ethno-political inclusion as well as exclusion. The Dayton formula was probably the only one possible through political negotiations, but it does not indicate a real compromise about the multi - or mono-ethnic make-up of society and leaves humanitarian actors like my Office to grapple with essentially political issues. The pressure in some European countries to repatriate refugees regardless of their place of origin or where they can re-establish themselves, does not help and may lead to a dangerous "pressure cooker" effect in Bosnia. As far as UNHCR is concerned, we are committed to make inter-ethnic returns possible, but we need the close security involvement of NATO forces, targeted progress in reconstruction and concerted political backing.

In terms of our close collaboration with the political and military actors, Rwanda and Zaire have been rather painful. In fact such a relationship has not materialized, except for the military assistance during the initial outflow of 1.1 million Rwandan refugees to Zaire in the summer of 1994 during and after the genocide in their country. Without the military airlift capacity and emergency assistance, my Office could not have coped with the disastrous situation in Goma when thousands of people died. However, the military assistance quickly pulled out, amidst speculation about the possible revival of armed conflict between the ousted Hutu and new Tutsi leadership. There was no intention among major powers to use their military or to engage in intensive efforts to solve the complex political and ethnic problems in the region.

Very quickly, security in the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania worsened. Under control of the ex-political leadership, former Rwandan army and militias, refugee repatriation was often violently obstructed. In close consultation with my Office, the UN Secretary-General proposed various options to the Security Council to mobilize security support to halt this situation. The response was negative and nothing happened. As a minimum stop-gap measure, my Office then created a security contingent with the Zairean government, recruiting both Zairean soldiers and a small number of foreign security personnel. Their task was to ensure a minimum of law and order in the camps in Zaire, which they did. Humanitarian agencies were left alone, then criticised for protecting and feeding those who had committed genocide. Our dilemmas have been agonizing, but as the large majority in the camps were innocent and needy civilians, did we have another choice?

The failure of Zaire and of the international community to separate military elements from the refugees has contributed to the spreading of insecurity and conflict. The Rwandan militias in exile compounded inter-ethnic tension in eastern Zaire, whereas cross-border incursions in both directions aggravated tension between Rwanda and Zaire. Two essentially domestic conflicts became overlapped and internationalized, leading eventually to the war in Zaire.

I will not go into detail about the attempt in late '96 to build a humanitarian coalition force for eastern Zaire. Authorized under Chapter VII, the force was to assist in the repatriation of refugees and the protection of relief operations. However, the participating states clearly did not intend to separate the military elements from the refugees. While the MNF was wavering how far it would step into the conflict, the turnaround of 500,000 Rwandan refugees triggered by the attacking rebel forces quickly reduced the interest of most contributing nations in military intervention. In December my Office was even accused of exaggerating the remaining refugee population chased and dispersed in the Zairean bush. It seemed rather clear who favoured deployment of the Force and who did not. Each country had its own, not necessarily humanitarian objective. As in the case of Bosnia, effective humanitarian action suffered from the absence of a convergence of views and interests among the major powers. Having fled in chaos from one place to another, the number of identified refugees has now dwindled sharply. Many are dying from exhaustion and hunger. While we have finally obtained access to them to provide emergency care and to help them repatriate to Rwanda, humanitarian staff continue to face enormous security risks and logistical constraints. Peaceful settlement in Zaire is far from certain, and reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda is a long way from being realized. We must recognize that the problems are eminently political rather than humanitarian.

Towards Full and Effective Cooperation in Crisis Management

What lessons can be drawn from the multiple facets of the interaction between the political, military and humanitarian factors in conflict situations? How should an agency like mine position itself in and influence the ongoing complex developments?

I hope I have demonstrated that, for better or worse, humanitarian, political and security problems and their solutions are linked and influence each other. Let me therefore first reiterate my plea for better integrated approaches to international crisis management. Humanitarian action, far from being solely a question of international charity, can support peace and reconciliation. In turn, it depends on political and sometimes military action to end human suffering, both in the short term during conflict and in the long term to move closer to peace. Humanitarian action, peace making and the willingness to address security issues are interlinked. In the absence of an overarching international structure of checks and balances, they can together generate the synergy necessary to at least prevent chaos from spreading in a world which is increasingly moving at very different speeds. On both moral and practical grounds we cannot afford to let local wounds fester with the band aid treatment of the past, from which we may be fortunately moving away.

My second point is the need for further re-thinking of the concept of threats to international peace and security as a basis for collective action. If the calamities in former Yugoslavia and the African Great Lakes region have demonstrated one thing, it is the frequent indivisibility of peace between and within states, but also between international and human security. In this regard I deeply appreciate the active interest shown in recent years by the UN Security Council in humanitarian issues, even when their cross-boundary impact on international peace and security has not been immediate. For me, this constitutes enormous progress to the realities of today. It must be further explored and consolidated.

Third, I wish to emphasize that recognition of the dependency as well as potential of humanitarian action should not make it subservient to interests in the political and security realm. Humanitarian action should be used neither as a fig leaf nor as a scapegoat. Its integrity must be preserved: its strength but also its weaknesses should be fully acknowledged in political decision making. While our humanitarian presence can have a moderating effect on receptive authorities, humanitarian agencies cannot provide protection against virulent attacks on the security of people, and it is this protection which, although needed most, remains in short supply. Preserving the integrity of humanitarian action means recognizing fully the impartiality with which it focuses on the material and protection needs of the victims on either side of a conflict. It means distinguishing humanitarian impartiality from the question of political neutrality, a distinction which may pose serious practical challenges in integrated operations and, for ourselves, painful moral dilemmas when dealing with heinous acts. It means recognizing humanitarian impartiality without hiding behind it because of reluctance to choose sides against unacceptable behaviour or objectives. It means drawing clear lines when for the sake of negotiations on peace and stability certain human rights and humanitarian interests may be sacrificed. And it means that humanitarian actors should not be left to muddle with unresolved political questions in the transition from war to peace. I realize that these are difficult issues given the realities and dilemmas with which we have to work, but I am convinced that they must be tackled in the interest of effective humanitarian action and peace.

The fourth and last point I should like to make today is directed at the institutional level and concerns the future of the UN. The ongoing reform process offers a crucial opportunity to clearly define the UN's role, including its humanitarian function as complementary to its essential role for peace and security. Most importantly, we need to define an appropriate division of responsibility between the world organization and its member states. While I hope for a strengthening of the UN mission for the political settlement of conflicts, this task needs to be better synchronized with diplomatic initiatives and the carrot and stick potential of member states, regional political actors and economic organizations. Too often there has been easily exploitable confusion rather than synergy. If the world's leading nations fully support the UN's essential role for peace - rather than engaging themselves in areas where their strategic interests are thin, the organization must in my view be equipped with a rapid military deployment capability. Such forces should not only be prepared to provide protection and to support the delivery of assistance in mega-crises, but will hopefully also be mandated to separate and disarm armed elements in civilian refugee camps. It should provide the necessary leverage to contain elements that obstruct peaceful settlement as well as to support those that opt for such settlement.

Having come to the end of my lecture, let me conclude by saying that I believe that humanitarian action has an important role to play in the comprehensive strategy for peace that we need so badly. Humanitarian action focuses on protecting human beings. Without assuring human security, peace and prosperity cannot endure very long. Political and military strategy must fully take account of the human dimensions of its action. Let me thank all of you who represent the strategic thinking community for the interest you have shown in my talk today. For the victims of persecution and conflict, the engagement of think tanks like yours is indispensable.

Thank you.