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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 16 December 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council, Geneva, 16 December 1996

16 December 1996


Let me welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council. It follows crucial meetings of the Peace Implementation Council in Paris and London where key decisions about the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina were taken.

Indeed, today Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the threshold of a new, critical phase in its history. For four years, it was torn apart by war. The year we are leaving behind has seen an end to the fighting and enabled the seeds of peace to be sown. Now, the international community and the newly elected leadership in the country have launched a two-year Civilian Consolidation Plan intended to make this peace take root - through reconciliation and economic revival.

The expectations in terms of return raised by the end of the war were not fully met in this first year of peace. Political obstacles and the extent of physical destruction meant that of the 2.1 million uprooted only 250,000 could go back home. My Office used this time to pave the way for larger-scale return. The local working groups, the inter-Entity bus service and the visits by displaced persons have helped to begin to break down the walls of mistrust and fear between people. Much rehabilitation work has already been carried out in the 22 priority areas for return identified by UNHCR in June, where some 23,000 houses have been repaired.

We are now entering a new period. We must capitalize on the efforts made in 1996 and on the renewed commitment of Paris and London to make Annex 7 work, for without solutions for the uprooted there can be no real peace. As I said in London, the new phase ahead of us will be different. The need for an across the board special regime of protection, which was a crucial component of the Comprehensive Response to the Humanitarian Crisis that my Office launched in July 1992, has ceased to exist. This does not mean that those still benefiting from this regime can now be expelled. Rather, it means we should differentiate based on the specific situation of each particular group. There are many who can and should now go back to rebuild their lives. But there are other categories whose return home will depend first of all on the removal of political barriers but also on more vigorous efforts on the part of all actors on the ground.


My Office has one clear objective for the consolidation period: to ensure that all refugees and displaced persons from former Yugoslavia will have found a solution by the end of 1998 or, at least, be firmly engaged in reaching a satisfactory solution. Over the coming months my Office, in close collaboration with the asylum States in the region and further afield, as well as the development organizations, will prepare detailed plans for this purpose. UNHCR's Note for this meeting sets out the main elements of our thinking, so I will not go into details. But I should like to highlight a few points.

A. Bosnia and Herzegovina

There are broadly three different groups of persons of concern to my Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

First, the refugees outside the region. While many have meanwhile been granted refugee status or permanent residence in several European countries, for which I am extremely grateful, repatriation will remain the primary solution for most of them. Substantial repatriation should begin by next spring, once the harsh winter is over. In 1997 I believe that the priority will have to be on returns to majority areas. This is what is most do-able and safest given the conditions on the ground.

But let me be very clear: we should continue to insist on the right of everyone to return to their homes wherever these may be - including minority areas. In the past year, our attempts to create openings for such returns through confidence-building measures have met with unacceptable resistance. Moreover, in the past two months, some 200 displaced persons who were intending to return to their places of origin on the other side of the Inter-entity Boundary Line have seen their houses blown up or burned down by those wanting to keep them away. Regrettably, evictions also continue. The latest one took place a few days ago in West Mostar: an eighty-year-old woman was expelled from her house and left to face freezing temperature in the night.

Achieving the objectives set out in Paris and London implies that the political climate must change in 1997 from one of separation to one of integration, so that substantial minority returns begin no later than spring 1998. We should, however, make every possible effort to achieve at least some small-scale returns before then. The recently agreed to procedure for return to the Zone of Separation, if used responsibly, can be an effective tool. We will also work with the authorities in both Entities to activate some pilot return projects in other parts of the country. These could prove very useful in building up trust.

Quite a few refugees may not want to return to their place of origin in minority areas. They may have more confidence in a new life in parts of the country where they will be in the majority. The memories of the war may be too painful for them. Others may simply not want to wait for the removal of the political barriers. From next spring and over the next two years we must assist those who opt for relocation, as foreseen in Annex 7. But I must insist that relocation be voluntary. It must not be imposed on the individual as an alternative because he is unable to exercise his wish to return to his own home. This would be contrary to the spirit and letter of Annex 7.

Our objectives in 1997 must therefore be three-fold: to achieve substantial returns where feasible, to work to establish the political and security conditions to make minority returns possible, and to create possibilities for relocation on a voluntary basis.

For the time being I must therefore urge asylum States to continue to provide protection to the following categories of refugees: first, those originating from minority areas; second, couples in mixed marriages, particularly where the head of family, upon return, would be part of a minority group; and third, special humanitarian cases such as ex-detainees and victims of extreme violence. At the end of 1997, my Office will make recommendations regarding solutions for those still benefiting from protection on the basis of the trends of return and progress in achieving the objectives of the Consolidation Plan at that time.

The second group concerns the 170,000 refugees in Croatia and over 200,000 in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Over the next two years we will promote their repatriation to Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, a significant number will wish to integrate locally, in view of the close ties they have with their host countries. I should like to propose that, subject to the agreement of the States concerned, we also consider this as a possible solution for those who so wish. At the same time, it is clear that the ability of both the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia to absorb those refugees opting for local integration will very much depend on the financial support of the international community.

The displaced persons in Bosnia form the third group of concern. While we assist those outside the country, we must not forget those who remained inside. They have endured a life of pain, poverty and insecurity - and need solutions to their problems too. Moreover, they may be occupying houses belonging to refugees and other displaced persons, so by helping them we will also make the return of others possible. In 1997, we will need two kinds of measures for them. One, assisting those who decide to relocate. Some will need material support. Others will require their legal status to be regularized in the Entity where they wish to remain. Two, by, cautiously, trying to achieve some small-scale returns to minority areas - which is where most displaced persons come from. As is the case with the refugees, in 1998, we must aim to proceed with more substantial minority returns. We must also ensure that those who move out of a house to allow the original owner to come back, and for whom a solution has not yet been found at that time, are provided with alternative accommodation.

B. Key Factors Needed to Find Durable Solutions in the Consolidation Period

I believe that the success in finding solutions for the uprooted over the next two years will very much depend on the following key factors:

First, political support. Let me be very frank: in 1996, the Parties have shown very little will to make minority returns happen. In London, they have now made a renewed commitment to work towards the return of all refugees and displaced persons. These words must - finally - be translated into political action. If the Parties are truly committed to real peace, reconciliation and a multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, they must show it by helping people to go back to those places from where they were chased away. The determination of the Peace Implementation Council and of the High Representative to ensure that the Parties abide by their commitments will therefore remain vital. I count on your support.

Second, human rights. The increased emphasis placed in London on respect for human rights and the mechanisms to ensure such respect during the Consolidation Period are essential, especially in helping to create the conditions for minority returns as well as making sure they are sustained. Real progress on freedom of movement is a prerequisite. The international task force agreed to in London and which will be set up in Sarajevo shortly could play an important role. My Office intends to participate actively.

Third, security. I wish to thank IFOR for the major contribution it has made this past year in keeping the peace. I therefore very much welcome the decision taken by NATO to deploy a Stabilization Force for the next eighteen months. Such a presence will be critical in providing a secure environment for the return process. IPTF's strengthened mandate should further contribute to building security. UNHCR has also benefitted from important logistical support from IFOR. I hope that, in spite of the reduced force strength, this support will be possible.

Fourth, economic assistance. I very much welcome the fact that the Action Plan for 1997 launched in London recognizes the important relationship between the economic reconstruction effort and the return process. In this past year my Office has already established useful cooperation with institutions such as the World Bank and the European Commission in activating rehabilitation work in the 22 Target Areas. Let me in this context express my special gratitude for the enormous practical and financial support of the European Commission. In the coming months, we must work together to develop a coordinated, country-wide strategy for economic and reconstruction activities aimed specifically at supporting the return and relocation of refugees and displaced persons over the next two years. Our objective must be to ensure that they have a roof over their heads and the basic means to enable them to begin rebuilding their lives.

In the next two years we must ensure that all these key elements are better integrated through increased coordination. Rather than concentrating on each Annex of Dayton separately, we must recognize the vital linkages between these Annexes. This means closer coordination among the various actors on the ground. As emphasized in London, it also means that political and economic measures could be used, in a well coordinated manner, to make the authorities in Bosnia more receptive to minority returns. My Office therefore looks forward to exploring ways to develop these important linkages with the Office of the High Representative, the World Bank and the European Commission, as proposed by the Peace Implementation Council.

By pursuing a mixture of solutions - that is: return to one's home or voluntary relocation in Bosnia, coupled with local integration of some groups in asylum countries and some resettlement to third countries, we can move a long way toward solving the problem of mass displacement. Returns to minority areas will, however, be indispensable and will form the biggest challenge. It should be clear that the key is political, not humanitarian. That having been said, I believe that there is a need for new vigorous initiatives on the ground. In particular, I intend to explore expanding the target area approach in the Republika Srpska, linking reconstruction efforts to specific openings for minority return.

C. Croatia

Before concluding, I should like to say a few words about Croatia, where since 1991 over 400,000 people fled to various parts of the country as well as across the border to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

To date, regrettably only a few thousand of the refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have been permitted to go back home in Croatia. The improved relations between these two countries must translate into more substantial returns next year. At the same time, others will wish to integrate locally. Here too, both solutions should therefore be pursued.

In Eastern Slavonia the coming year will be decisive. The efforts of UNTAES to ensure the peaceful reintegration of the Region in Croatia are critical. The issue of the displaced is a key factor of the reintegration process. In the year ahead, a major challenge for UNTAES and UNHCR will be to achieve the return of ethnic Croats to Eastern Slavonia, as well as of those Serbs who want to go back to their homes in other parts of Croatia. Equally important, we must ensure that those Serbs who want to remain in the Region can do so - as is their right under the Basic Erdut Agreement. The cooperation of the Croatian Government and of the local Serb authorities in Eastern Slavonia will be indispensable.


The next two years will shape the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Consolidation Plan launched by the authorities and the international community provides a real chance to leave the evils of war behind and bring the country back together again. If the will exists, lasting peace can be achieved. But for this to happen, those who were the victims of war - those who were brutally expelled from their homes and had to run for their lives - must be enabled to rebuild their lives. They must find humane solutions to their plight. Let me end by expressing my gratitude to the asylum and donor countries, the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the High Representative, IFOR, the OSCE, the IPTF, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Commission, the World Bank, the Council of Europe, our UN sister agencies, the ICRC and the NGO community, for the cooperation my Office receives in helping the victims. We must ensure that they can all count on us in the period ahead.

Thank you.