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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 January 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, Geneva, 16 January 1996

16 January 1996


Let me welcome you to this special meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group (HIWG). I am grateful that so many of you have come, and I am particularly honoured by the presence of Prime Minister Silajdjic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, several Ministers from other countries, the Co-Chairman of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia and High Representative, Mr Carl Bildt, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for former Yugoslavia, Mr Kofi Annan, and officials of many international organizations.

This is the last meeting of this Working Group to take place in the context of the ICFY, which, as decided at the Peace Implementation Conference in London, will be dissolved as of 31 January 1996. Let me use this occasion to express my gratitude to the Co-Chairmen of ICFY and their staff, for the continuous support they have given during the past three and a half years to our often difficult negotiations with the Governments and other parties in the region on humanitarian issues, including especially the plight of threatened minority groups, the admission of fleeing civilians to safety and humanitarian access to besieged populations.

As decided in London on 9 December, in future this Working Group will function under the Peace Implementation Conference, in close liaison with the High Representative. I intend to continue to resort to it as a framework for UNHCR's negotiations with the Parties on humanitarian issues, especially in the context of the return of refugees and displaced persons, as a channel for information sharing and as a platform for soliciting political and financial support. It should become the central forum for regular consultations on a multilateral basis to ensure proper coordination, as envisioned in Annex 7 of the Peace Agreement. I call on all of you, in the spirit of Dayton and London, to join hands to adopt a harmonized approach. Much is at stake. I therefore look forward to continued close collaboration.

I have called today's meeting to take stock of the situation, brief you on the objectives of my Office in this post-settlement period as well as to discuss the lifting of the temporary protection regime. The second part of the meeting will be devoted entirely to the latter subject in view of its critical importance.

Last Tuesday, the Sarajevo airlift organized since July 1992 under the aegis of UNHCR with the impressive assistance of a number of countries and UNPROFOR, finally came to an end. Carrying over 160,000 metric tonnes of food and medicine, more than 1.100 medical evacuees, numerous dignitaries, international reporters and others, it has been a real lifeline for the desperate people of Sarajevo during the war. Its discontinuation marks the end of a dark period and the beginning of a new, more hopeful era. The painful reasons which made the airlift necessary in the first place - bloody fighting, deliberate strangulation of Sarajevo and its inhabitants, total disruption of normal life and, to an extent, the impotence of the international community - have disappeared. We have now moved from war to peace time. For UNHCR and those other organizations which have been assisting the victims of this conflict, the time has come to shift from relief to the search for solutions. Other international actors have now joined the scene and together we should play a critical role in consolidating peace.

The road ahead of us is by no means simple. Trying to save the lives of innocent men, women and children in the midst of war has been an extremely difficult and often dangerous task. But, in many ways, the return and the search for durable solutions is an even greater and more complex challenge. Even more so in the particular context of Bosnia, as the political and demographic constellation of the country has changed. But, however difficult, the parties and the international community must take on this formidable challenge. We owe it to the innocent victims of this brutal conflict who have suffered for so long. As I have said before, those who were the targets of war must not become the victims of peace.


Let me now share with you my assessment of the current situation. There are encouraging signs. The Implementation Force (IFOR) is deploying in the territory of both Entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the withdrawal from the zone of separation by the parties is reportedly proceeding well. Fighting in the country has died down and, with a few exceptions, there has been a silencing of guns throughout. Freedom of movement has significantly improved and, for the very first time, civilians can travel across territorial boundaries without fearing for their lives. Commercial traffic is increasing every day and in cities, which were until recently besieged, basic supplies are available in the markets. The parties have handed over to the ICRC lists of prisoners and are giving ICRC access to them. I look forward to hearing further on this from the ICRC representative at this meeting. The pressure on the minorities in the Banja Luka region, the scene of some of the most dreadful ethnic cleansing during the war, has eased and recently there seem to have been no new expulsions. Almost half of the 20,000 Bosnian refugees in the Kuplensko camp in Croatia have returned to the Bihac region. We are no doubt moving in the right direction and there is much hope.

It is true that in recent weeks there have also been setbacks such as the taking of a number of hostages by the Bosnian Serb side, the killings in Mostar and the cowardly attack on a tram in Sarajevo. While we must strongly condemn these actions, we must also be realistic. After four years of bloody fighting, these isolated type of incidents are likely to occur, particularly in the initial stages as we move from war to peace. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged. Nor must we allow anybody or any action to derail the peace process.

The current period when important deadlines approach is critical and could determine the course of the peace. I am particularly worried about the tensions in the Serb-held part of Sarajevo scheduled to revert to Government control on 20 March. In recent weeks, some statements have been made which have aggravated the anxiety of local Serbs. Equally, my Office has been concerned about recent incidents affecting the minorities in this area. While not detracting from the Peace Agreement, we must do everything possible to enable those Serbs who wish to stay there to be able to do so. We must not allow ethnic division, so cruelly carried out during the war, to be completed in this time of peace. Sarajevo's old spirit should not be further destroyed, but restored. The focus now must be on return and we must avoid an unnecessary exodus. In this context, I am encouraged by the initiative of Mr. Bildt to establish a Joint Civilian Commission for Sarajevo which had a good meeting last week. No doubt Mr. Bildt will report further to us on this subject. I sincerely hope this will help to diffuse tensions. For its part, UNHCR will continue to support any such confidence-building measures. In this time of uncertainty, I appeal to all those with influence to act responsibly and show maximum restraint. My Office is prepared to assume its humanitarian responsibilities but we are not prepared to let human beings pay the price of political strategies. I am pleased that apparently the situation has eased somewhat since last weekend.


Allow me now to focus on UNHCR's efforts in the context of planning for the return and relocation operation. As you know, in the first week of December I visited Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade to seek the views of the authorities on repatriation. Following the subsequent Peace Implementation Conference in London, my staff have developed a draft plan with strategic directions for the two main tasks entrusted to UNHCR in the Peace Agreement: the implementation of a programme for the return and relocation of refugees and displaced persons and the continuing coordination of humanitarian assistance. I will not go into details as these are covered in the Note we have circulated ahead of this meeting. I just wish to highlight a few important points.

First of all, I am very pleased that we have reached agreement in principle with both the Federation and Republika Srpska authorities on the contents of the plan, which are firmly based on the provisions of Annex 7. It is an initial document; in the weeks to come, we will continue further consultations with the parties, as well as with asylum countries, with a view to operationalizing, detailing and budgeting all programmes concerned. It is critical that we work together on this and that we have a common approach. Any chance of success will depend on it.

The overriding aim of our planning is to provide durable solutions to the more than two million displaced persons and refugees, through facilitating their return, relocation and reintegration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As much as possible, people should be left to decide where they will rebuild their lives. They have the right to return to their homes, and all efforts should be made, based on the commitments of the parties, to implement this right. In accordance with Annex 7 refugees and displaced persons may, however, also settle elsewhere, which reflects a sense of realism. Given the trauma's of the past and feelings of apprehension for the future, many people may, at least initially, prefer to return to their majority area.

Reliable statistics will be indispensable for the planning of solutions. I am pleased that we have now received from the Bosnian Government the preliminary results of the registration of displaced persons in the Federation. The Bosnian Serb authorities have agreed to carry out a similar survey in their territory for which my Office has pledged support. The Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will undertake a registration of refugees in the first quarter of this year, also with UNHCR support. Likewise, I should like to re-emphasize the importance of those asylum countries which have not already done so to gather data on all Bosnians staying there.

As you know, security and shelter are both of critical importance in the context of peaceful and dignified return. As regards security, I have already mentioned IFOR's deployment and the implementation of the military Annex of the Peace Agreement. I am pleased that on 9 January the Bosnian parliament adopted, in accordance with Annex 7, an amnesty declaration, for, among others, draft evaders and deserters. I hope that this positive step will be elaborated as soon as possible in legislation, so as to dispel among refugees and others any doubt regarding the amnesty's exact scope. Under Annex 7, there are many other confidence building measures to take, by all parties, in particular with regard to the treatment of remaining minority populations. The establishment of the various human rights bodies foreseen under the Peace Agreement should also be of great importance. I was pleased to note the swift example shown by the OSCE in appointing the Ombudsperson for Bosnia and Herzegovina, last December.

Concerning shelter, I believe that a number of steps should be taken as soon as possible. As we have discussed with the High Representative, the Commission for Displaced Persons and Refugees, foreseen in Annex 7, must be established soon so as to start adjudicating the restoration of property or the award of just compensation. The authorities should now be undertaking an inventory of any vacant property, as the Peace Agreement allows them to accommodate refugees and displaced persons there, on a temporary basis. On our part, we have been engaged in fruitful discussions with the World Bank and other agencies involved in the essential task of reconstruction. It is clear that the World Bank will need some time to engage in a large-scale shelter reconstruction programme. As this, I fear, could in turn delay the return process, we have jointly agreed that UNHCR will immediately launch the Trust Fund for Shelter Assistance to enable quick house repairs to be carried out. This Fund will be discontinued and merged into the World Bank's efforts once these get underway. Some asylum countries may also consider providing returnees with financial support which they could use for housing repair or construction. I would welcome initiatives in this regard, but believe that the internally displaced and others who remained in Bosnia should not be placed in a disadvantaged position and should be given opportunities to benefit from other systems of support. I also believe that the financing of such returnee assistance should not negatively influence the level of funding for the overall reconstruction needs of the country. Further consultations on this subject should follow in the near future; let us try to achieve a harmonized approach.

Talking about assistance, I should mention that under UNHCR's planning material assistance will be aimed at supporting actual return or relocation movements as well as the initial reintegration of the returnees in their old or new communities. Aid will also be given to other categories of war-affected persons in the country, such as members of minority groups. The objective is to provide humanitarian assistance only until the beneficiaries are able to meet their own basic needs or other partners have assumed responsibility for their assistance. Every effort will be made to promote self-reliance by stimulating the local economy.

The provision of objective information to the refugees and displaced persons will be another key component of the plan. Some 12 UNHCR information officers are being recruited and will be deployed in the next few weeks, joining our staff already on the ground. They will collect data on return or other movements as well as on conditions in areas of potential return and disseminate the information to enable refugees and displaced persons to make an informed decision. Extra staff are being redeployed to several of our offices in western Europe.

For planning purposes our assumption, or at least our hope, is that in 1996 up to 500,000 internally displaced may return or relocate within the country and close to 400,000 will repatriate from the other republics in the former Yugoslavia as well as from other countries outside the region. Evidently, this depends on a number of factors beyond the control of my Office. We do not expect large-scale movements to begin until spring. They should increase before the holding of elections, and after the ending of temporary protection, which I shall discuss later. Whereas many refugees may decide to return spontaneously, I cannot over-emphasize the need for return movements to take place as much as possible in an organized and phased manner, as spelled out in the Peace Agreement. Whereas rushed and uncontrolled movements could have a serious destabilizing effect and should therefore be avoided, we must at the same time be pragmatic and flexible. Initially we intend to concentrate on the decongestion of collective centres in both Entities which are overcrowded with displaced persons, and on a return of professional talents programme, on which IOM is working. My Office will also facilitate, in the months to come, the voluntary repatriation of refugees from regional countries of asylum or from further away, when private accommodation is at their disposal, be it with friends or relatives. Transit facilities should be prepared, but, as I said in London, we counsel against the establishment of refugee camps or holding centres in Bosnia, which, if solutions fail to materialize, would lead to prolonged suffering and could generate dangerous pressure. For minority groups wishing to return to their original home areas, confidence building through a step by step approach will be crucial. We should all closely follow the extent to which the parties respect their commitments in this regard.

Let me now turn to our cooperation with other actors and with our direct partners. The return programme led by UNHCR is closely linked to other components of the Peace Agreement. As such, we have already initiated regular contacts with the military and other civilian actors involved in peace implementation on the ground.

My Office has established close cooperation with IFOR and a number of UNHCR liaison officers are attached to the various IFOR command centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina. UNHCR is already benefitting from IFOR's assistance in terms of logistical support and sharing of information on security matters. In addition, I believe IFOR can play an instrumental role in providing a secure environment for return movements, and it has pledged its help in this regard, for which I am most grateful.

The overall success of the civilian operation is very much dependent on the level of coordination between all the actors involved. In this respect, the leadership of the High Representative in pulling together the efforts of the various organizations, including UNHCR, is and will remain of critical importance. My Special Envoy has reported to me on the first encouraging meeting of the Joint Civilian Commission in Sarajevo which took place last Friday.

We are looking forward to close cooperation with the European Commission, including especially ECHO. Without their support since the very beginning, the humanitarian operation in the Balkans would not have been possible. I know that the reconstruction of Bosnia can count on the European Commission, and I hope that this will also apply to our own operation. I already mentioned to you our intensive discussions with the World Bank concerning shelter rehabilitation.

As provided for in the Peace Agreement, UNHCR will closely collaborate with other agencies such as the OSCE, ECMM, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the ICRC in human rights efforts in the post-settlement phase. My Office will only cover human rights issues insofar as they directly impact upon the process of return and relocation. Needless to say, the potential return population is sizeable and we are aware that our returnee protection role, as recognized in Annex 7, will not be insignificant. I wish to stress the importance of an effective, operational human rights effort, based on complementarity, and therefore of the High Representative's Human Rights Task Force in Sarajevo, in which we are fully participating. Let me also mention the importance of institution building and the establishment of a human rights culture. I am very pleased with the keen interest shown by the Council of Europe in this domain. Furthermore, my Office intends to cooperate closely with the International Police Task Force (IPTF), which by the nature of its functions, i.e. to monitor and advise the local police of the Entities, could also help to create a suitable climate for return. I therefore look forward to its deployment at full size in the theatre.

With the OSCE and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, we have been reviewing linkages between the future holding of elections and the refugee return programme. We are particularly keen to ensure that refugees in asylum countries, as well as the returnees and displaced persons, are able to exercise their right to vote as provided for in the Peace Agreement. The International Expert Meeting on Elections hosted by the Swedish Government in Stockholm yesterday, which my Special Envoy attended, presented a good opportunity to exchange further views on this crucial issue. Let me add that, whereas according to Annex 3 voter registration shall be interpreted as confirmation of a person's intention to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina, this should not equal a commitment to do so before the right conditions for such return exist. Otherwise, I am afraid that many refugees would desist from voting. Our aim and hope should of course be that before the holding of elections, conditions in Bosnia would have developed so positively that many refugees would return to participate in the electoral process.

We have also been liaising with UN sister agencies such as UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, WHO, FAO and UNV, with DHA as well as with NGOs operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have been and continue to be our partners in the humanitarian operation. Some of them will act as an effective bridge between the humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. Next month, a revised United Nations Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal is expected to be issued.


Let me now make a few brief remarks on the issue of temporary protection, which we will have the opportunity to discuss at length later this afternoon. There is no doubt that the factors which prompted me to launch the appeal to asylum countries in July 1992 for temporary protection for the victims of the Bosnian war and which you responded to so generously - large-scale fighting, massive human rights violations and an abysmal humanitarian situation - are today disappearing. I appreciate that the length of stay of those benefitting from temporary protection in Europe and elsewhere has turned out to be longer than originally hoped for and that, in view of the changed circumstances in Bosnia, a number of host countries are now anxious to see the refugees return home.

But I must stress that the lifting of temporary protection, like the granting of it, must be humanitarian both in its objectives and in its implementation. Rather than setting a date now, I think that it would be helpful and more appropriate to agree on a number of clear benchmarks. As such we have proposed in Annex II of the Conference document the full implementation of the military provisions of the Peace Agreement, the proclamation of a comprehensive amnesty, and the establishment of the local human rights structures and international monitoring mechanisms envisioned in the Peace Agreement. These constitute in our view minimum conditions. Let us make sure that the promise of peace signed in Paris is becoming a reality on the ground before we take a step that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, who have already endured enormous hardship in the past. This will also allow some time for critical reconstruction activities to get underway, and would avoid a destabilizing effect on the peace process.

If the peace process proceeds according to schedule, temporary protection would be lifted before the holding of elections, which should take place between mid-June and mid - September. It would in this context be appropriate to take into account the assessment of the OSCE, in accordance with Annex 3, as to whether the right conditions exist for the holding of elections.

Let me emphasize that I would like to encourage asylum States to let repatriation proceed on a voluntary basis even after the lifting of temporary protection. The clear signal provided by the termination of temporary protection arrangements or the prospect of it should therefore be combined with flexible and humanitarian return arrangements, taking into account especially the availability of at least provisional, adequate accommodation upon return. Governments would otherwise also risk receiving a large number of fresh asylum requests. In order to promote repatriation on a voluntary basis, I should like to encourage host States to introduce return clauses, giving refugees the possibility to visit Bosnia and to prepare for their reintegration while retaining for some time a right of re-entry into their host State. It should also be recognized that there may be persons in need of continued international protection.

I look forward to your reaction on the Annex on temporary protection. Let me use this occasion to express my appreciation for those States which have meanwhile opted to provide Bosnians with a more permanent status, and for the many countries which during the past years have provided resettlement opportunities for ex-detainees, traumatized people and refugees whose protection could not be ensured in the region.


Before coming to the end of my introduction, I wish to briefly remind you of our other tasks in the region, outside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being in close contact with the Governments of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, we are working hard to alleviate the plight of the Croatian Serb refugees who fled in large numbers from the Krajina region to the latter country. I know that there are many who should like to repatriate to Croatia, and I trust everything will be done to make progress in this regard and to respect their right of return. At the request of the Secretary-General and the Security Council, my Office will also concentrate on the voluntary return of the mostly Croat displaced persons to Eastern Slavonia in Croatia, and to this end will count on the cooperation of all components of UNTAES, the new United Nations operation for that region.

Let me conclude by saying that I am hopeful about the future. For the first time since the war broke out the prospects for a lasting peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina look real. During these past four years, as my Office struggled against all odds to deliver humanitarian aid in the midst of conflict, what motivated us was the thought that, one day, we would be able to provide durable solutions to the innocent victims of war. That day is finally approaching. Ironical as it may seem, our work in this time of peace will, in many ways, be more complex than it was in war. I consider that the key to success will be "confidence building": confidence in security, confidence in the prospects for prosperity, confidence in the protection of human rights and finally, confidence in the political institutions. Every statement made and every step taken by the political leaders will affect the sense of confidence of people for their future. I believe that, working together to implement peace, we can succeed and establish that confidence. We owe it to the victims of this war who have been in pain for so long to make sure we do.

Thank you.