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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 25 October 1996

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 25 October 1996

25 October 1996

Mr. President,

I appreciate the opportunity to brief the Security Council today on the dramatically worsening humanitarian situation in the Great Lakes region. Rarely has my Office found itself in the midst of such a quandary of humanitarian, political and security challenges. Some 1.7 million Rwandan and Burundi refugees remain in Zaire and Tanzania. The humanitarian demands of their presence may be obvious, but the dire political implications are of even more concern.

When I addressed the Council in June, I mentioned that extremist elements among the Rwandans in Zaire were responsible for armed incursions into Rwanda and reportedly were involved in massacres in the Masisi region in North Kivu. Since the end of August, fighting between the Zairian Army and armed Banyamulenge (Zairian Tutsis) in the Uvira region in South Kivu has erupted. Cross border raids and shelling, and the alleged infiltration of armed groups have regionalized the internal conflict in eastern Zaire, straining inter-state relations and further blocking progress toward solving the refugee problem.

Last weekend, the fighting in Uvira resulted in 220,000 Rwandan and Burundi refugees leaving all 12 refugee camps in the area. An estimated 30,000 Zairian civilians also fled their villages. Sixty thousand refugees and 10,000 Zairians are walking now toward Bukavu in the north, while others have run to neighbouring hills and banana plantations. The latest unconfirmed reports say that Banyamulenge forces have taken Uvira airport and are closing in on the town, and that fighting is taking place about 35 kilometres south of Bukavu. Large numbers of refugees who had sought safety in Uvira town and Zairians are now reportedly heading south to attempt to cross Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma in Tanzania. I hope that these people receive the protection and safety they need.

Goma is also the scene of tension and fighting and there are reports of armed infiltration around Kibumba camp which hosts some 200,000 refugees. UNHCR is consequently unable to deliver life sustaining supplies to many camps. To prepare for an eventual large-scale return of Rwandan refugees, UNHCR is stockpiling relief materials in southwestern Rwanda and stocks in the region are readily available for some 300,000 people. This morning I received an urgent call from the Archbishop of Bukavu appealing to me to convey his fears to the Secretary-General and the Security Council that a humanitarian disaster may be imminent and to request that all immediate measures be taken to contain the situation.

Mr. President, I wish also to draw the attention of the Council to the issue of staff security. The Zairian Security Contingent, created to provide security for the refugee camps and humanitarian staff, has played a key role in escorting and protecting humanitarian workers during this period. However, in recent weeks, humanitarian staff have been threatened, vehicles hijacked and several anti-UN demonstrations held. The fighting in Uvira has necessitated the evacuation of humanitarian staff. Yesterday, eight non-essential NGO staff were evacuated from Bukavu. If fighting continues to spread, my Office may be forced to further evacuate staff, including from Goma, and be unable to continue to provide food, water and medical services. All of this adds to the instability in the region.

Urgent steps to contain and stabilize the situation in eastern Zaire are required to avoid greater loss of lives and population displacements. I therefore welcome the initiative of the Secretary - General to send Mr. Fall to the region to assess the security and political situation and to examine possible actions which might be taken to contain and resolve the conflict.

There is a clear link between the humanitarian crisis and peace and security in eastern Zaire. For the last year, voluntary repatriation has halted with the exception of some 60,000 Rwandan refugees who returned home following events in northern Burundi in July. I believe the lack of progress in repatriating Rwandan refugees has exacerbated tension in eastern Zaire. This is why I decided to put forward a set of measures which I believe the affected countries must adopt urgently in a concerned manner and with adequate international support.

In recent weeks, my Office has intensified its discussions with the Rwandan, Zairian, Tanzanian and several concerned donor Governments and the OAU to develop a comprehensive approach to promote voluntary repatriation and to overcome the present stalemate. The core elements are:

First, to actively encourage the selective and gradual closure of Rwandan refugees camps and to assist those choosing to repatriate. The phased closure of the camps will be accompanied by a correspondent shift of resources to the country of origin, but taking into account the continuing needs of the refugees in the countries of asylum;

Second, to determine the individual status of those unwilling to return to Rwanda in order to identify those persons in need of protection. People not entitled to protection will no longer be of concern to UNHCR, and fall either within the competence of the International Tribunal or the host Governments;

Third, to seek ways to enhance the security in the refugee camps to reduce the control exercised over the exiled populations by leaders;

Fourth, to augment confidence building measures in Rwanda through, for example, restoration to the judicial system and the rule of law; the speedy and just implementation of the law on genocide; improved security and enhanced human rights monitoring; renewed mass information campaigns, and swift implementation of rehabilitation projects. UNHCR will provide greater incentives to people returning, through assistance packages and projects benefiting vulnerable groups;

Fifth, to ensure sustained commitment of the donor community to provide the necessary financial resources to implement these concerted and mutually reinforcing steps.

Mr. President, I am grateful for the support the Security Council has expressed for these measures. It is clear more than ever that the situation in eastern Zaire has reached a critical point to which a solely humanitarian response is inadequate. My Office has taken many steps to solve the humanitarian problem in the region, among which the major one are, the Bujumbura Conference which adopted a Plan of Action and the creation of the Zairian Security Contingent to maintain law and order in the refugee camps. On several occasion, I have underlined the importance of security arrangement along the borders. My Office will continue to do everything possible within its mandate to provide protection and assistance to the refugees in the countries of asylum and to facilitate the reintegration of returnees to Rwanda and Burundi. But the recent developments in eastern Zaire amply demonstrate that the underlying problems are of a fundamental security and political nature. I am convinced that the mounting military tension along the Zaire-Rwanda border requires new political initiatives.

Mr. President, I want to take this opportunity to mention other humanitarian crises posing complex challenges to my Office. Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, extremist elements and the slow start of rehabilitation programmes have hampered progress toward the return of people to majority areas, although so far a quarter of a million people have returned. Despite the guarantees foreseen in the Dayton Agreement, few people have returned to minority areas. In Eastern Slovenia everything must be done to promote the return of displaced persons while allowing those wishing to stay to do so. The outbreak of renewed fighting in northern Iraq has forced some 16,000 Iraqi Kurds to flee to Iran in recent days. At the same time, we are making every effort to promote the early voluntary repatriation to Turkey of the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq. The evolving situation in Afghanistan may include renewed refugee flows. The policies towards women are a violation of their rights and seriously affect our operations benefitting women, in particular widows and children.

Mr. President,

Let me conclude by saying that all over the world, refugees continue to face security threats and obstacles to return in safety and dignity to their homes. This is why I, on behalf of the 26.1 million people for whom UNHCR is responsible, count on the continuing support of the Security Council to solve humanitarian crises.