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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 19 November 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 19 November 1993

19 November 1993

I am pleased you could all come, at such short notice, to this session of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group.

On Bosnia and Herzegovina, I wanted to apprise you of my meeting yesterday with the political and military leaders of the warring parties. The discussions were frank and at times tough. Following an important supportive message from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, both President Sommaruga of the ICRC, who participated as an observer, and I appealed to the parties to respect human rights and humanitarian law, to stop all attacks on civilian targets, to lift the military sieges of towns and regions, and to redouble their efforts to reach a just and lasting peace.

Yesterday's meeting served two main purposes. First, to confront the leaders, once again, with their responsibility for the disastrous humanitarian consequences of their decisions, in terms of probable widespread loss of life this winter. And second, to obtain understanding on the bare minimum necessary to continue the relief effort. I think that the meeting has been useful on both accounts. After two months, these leaders decided to sit together, realising the gravity of the situation and concentrating as much as possible on humanitarian concerns. As you have probably read in their Joint Declaration, they agreed to suspend fighting along the major supply routes whenever our convoys pass. There was agreement on complete freedom of movement for the UN and humanitarian organizations. And very important, after much debate, the parties did agree that winterization materials and heating sources, such as fuel, should be considered as humanitarian assistance. The parties also pledged to counter diversion of assistance to the military, and to release all civilian detainees, in accordance with the principles of and arrangements by the ICRC.

Based on the above, and on the explicit assurances regarding the safety of humanitarian personnel, I have advised Mr Stoltenberg and the Secretary-General to resume the convoy operations in central Bosnia, which as you know had been suspended on 25 October after the killing of a Danish UNHCR driver and wounding of nine UNPROFOR soldiers. After yesterday, I am hoping for tangible improvements, both in terms of security and access for protective winter items. However, as we spoke, the crucial route "Diamond" to central Bosnia remained blocked for the fourth consecutive day, due to fighting between Bosnian Croat and Bosnian government forces. As we spoke, details came in of another staff member having been shot at by soldiers demanding food. It is also worrisome to note that it took a day of talking to reach agreement on issues which should be self-evident to anyone. The Bosnian Serbs were categorical in their refusal to agree on the opening of Tuzla airport, under UN control, for humanitarian purposes, which I had agreed with the Bosnian government to be important. There was consensus on the further release of civilian detainees, but not on the basis of unconditionality, although this was a principle agreed upon last year in London. I have therefore no illusions whatsoever that the problems of UNHCR, UNPROFOR, the ICRC and others will now be behind us.

This leads me to repeat loud and clear: if the fighting continues, especially along the major access routes, the chances of a catastrophe will be there this winter, due to the deadly mix of war, intentional blockades and freezing temperatures. As I told the parties yesterday, I am not asking for new promises but for deeds. In the coming weeks, as we try to accelerate our delivery, we shall be observing closely to what extent they adhere to their commitments. We shall of course draw our conclusions accordingly.

Let me use this opportunity to inform you also of my concerns regarding the humanitarian situation in Croatia and in Serbia and Montenegro. I sincerely hope that the outbreak of renewed warfare over the United Nations Protected Areas, which would undoubtedly inflict new misery on the region and cause new large scale displacement, will be prevented through dialogue and a peaceful resolution of this conflict. A second humanitarian concern in Croatia is the still increasing number of refugees, especially as a result of fighting in central Bosnia which, for instance in the case of the town of Varez, has led to the displacement of some 15.000 Bosnian Croats. Muslims are still being expelled from or fleeing persecution in Herzegovina, and in the areas of Banja Luka and northern Bosnia. I call again on the Government of Croatia to ensure access to safety and proper treatment of these people. There are still serious protection problems facing Muslim refugees, many of whom have not yet been registered. I renew my call on all other States here present to keep their borders open in order to render possible the access to safety of new refugees, and to assist Croatia in a spirit of burden sharing.

The same applies to Serbia and Montenegro, where standards of living have sharply declined over the past months and where the deprivations of real poverty are now widespread. As you know, I am deeply concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the international sanctions. I am pleased to report that progress has been achieved with the Sanctions Committee to facilitate the movement of humanitarian goods for UNHCR's refugee programme, including heating fuel for collective refugee centres. But fuel to provide heating in hospitals for instance, is still not being approved. In Serbia and Montenegro many people, including hospital patients, children and the elderly, will be suffering this winter from severe cold. I appeal to all governments concerned to help us try to relieve this problem, as well as other humanitarian concerns facing refugees and the general population at large. I think it is perfectly legitimate to raise these issues in relation to the thrust of the relevant resolutions of the Security Council.

Finally, this brings me to the financial status of the international relief effort in former Yugoslavia. I have to ring the alarm bell. We are virtually broke, with a serious shortfall of 62 million USD until the end of this year. Let me stress that the partial suspension in central Bosnia has not reduced the costs of the entire relief effort in former Yugoslavia. The operation in central Bosnia represents but a part of the large humanitarian assistance which extends over the refugee programmes in all other countries of former Yugoslavia, the commodities to be delivered through the airlift, airdrops and convoys to other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc. We are warning already our implementing partners not to enter into new commitments. We desperately need new pledges, and especially hard cash. Having just demanded guarantees from the Bosnian parties, my and your credibility will be at serious risk if my Office does not receive immediately the financial means to deliver what is necessary. Having received the parties' assurances in a last attempt to avert disaster, I now turn to you to make the continuation of the relief effort possible.

As the snow is already covering Sarajevo, let us all try, as much as we can, to help the victims in former Yugoslavia survive this winter. I would like to thank all governments here present for their ongoing and firm support. I need it.