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Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, Wolfsberg, 5 June 1998

Speeches and statements

Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, Wolfsberg, 5 June 1998

5 June 1998
Conflict situations and humanitarian crisesA humanitarian space in post-conflict situationsConclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to deliver the opening address tonight and value this opportunity to engage in an open and informal discussion. In many respects this is a unique gathering of senior officials committed to humanitarian, political and developmental action. Despite our close working relationships, we rarely take the opportunity to jointly reflect on ways to address, solve and prevent humanitarian crises.

In his summing up, President Sommaruga at the first Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum shared the wish that this Forum leads to "a process inducing a better organized and defined interaction between humanitarian and political actors which should be mutually supportive without becoming entangled." I believe that he is succeeding in this goal and I look very much forward to the discussion of the theme - Humanitarian and Political Action: Key Issues and Priorities for a Concerted Strategy.

I would like to draw your attention to issues that, from the perspective of UNHCR, are important to develop a concerted strategy. My presentation will focus on the impact of conflict situations on humanitarian activities, both during conflicts and in the phase immediately following them.

In many respects, political and humanitarian actors are uncomfortable bedfellows. Some humanitarian actors argue strongly that the principles of humanity, neutrality, and impartiality should be strictly adhered to. Others are of the opinion that in the face of massive human rights violations - ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda - humanitarian agencies can and should no longer maintain their neutrality. There are others who argue that humanitarian action has de facto become an effective form of political action. Referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Great Lakes region of Africa, they argue that the provision of relief assistance and the protection of civilians - wherever possible - were the principal response in the absence of effective policies to intervene to end the conflict and to agree on a peace settlement.

There are, however, more important differences between humanitarian and political action. The fundamental objective of humanitarian action is to alleviate suffering and save lives. Humanitarian action focuses on people and is rights based. Political action focuses on states and is guided by national interests and respect for sovereignty. These are two different starting points - the individual and the state - and they are not always compatible. How to balance the rights and ensure the protection of the individual with the interests of the state is a challenge that any concerted strategy among humanitarian and political actors must seek to overcome.

Conflict situations and humanitarian crises

Until recently, and with the notable exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, most humanitarian agencies did not work in conflict situations. In the days of the Cold War, the work of humanitarian agencies matched the geopolitical environment. Refugees, for example, crossed international borders that were also ideological boundaries. Polarization made political solutions difficult to achieve. Humanitarian action was needed to save lives, and it was relatively easy for humanitarian work to be perceived as neutral.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. In humanitarian terms, the crisis in Northern Iraq, less than two years later, was a turning point. The Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line - they massively fled an internal conflict. The interest of the international community was for them to return home, and most of them indeed did. Operation Provide Comfort gave rise to the illusion that in the New World Order there would be space for a New Humanitarian Order.

This illusion was short lived. The end of Cold War polarization allowed countless internal conflicts to explode - confused, violent, in which human displacement was not only the consequence of conflict, but also often its very objective. In Somalia, troops sent in to support humanitarian operations found themselves mired in a civil conflict of unexpected complexity. Rightly or wrongly, they were perceived as taking sides.

The failure in Somalia undermined subsequent efforts to mobilize military interventions in support of humanitarian action. Today's trend is toward small, low-risk operations after a peace settlement has been agreed upon.

Thankfully, we have not been confronted with a new humanitarian emergency similar to former Yugoslavia and Rwanda since 1994. We should, however, not be complacent and continue to focus on emergency preparedness. New crises are emerging and old ones are recurring. In fact, my Office is currently facing two refugee outflows, from Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In both instances the suffering is immense. I am also concerned about Southeast Asia and I watch with apprehension the tensions on the South Asian sub-continent.

In many respects, these new and potential crises may even be more complex. In some instances, the state and its institutions have collapsed and bands of marauding fighters and even criminals fight over control of resources to gain political power. Calls for secession and independence have resulted in de facto internal boundaries in many conflict-torn states, as for example in Georgia that is facing an outflow of displaced persons following the renewed fighting in the Abkhazia region. Mixed among the refugees are often military elements and perpetrators of serious human rights violations, threatening the security of neighbouring countries of asylum. Maintaining law and order, and separating armed elements from civilians are fundamentally the responsibility of the countries of asylum. Often they neither have the means nor the capacity to enforce humanitarian principles and norms among the parties to the conflict. In Afghanistan, negotiations with the Taliban has drawn attention to the need to develop policy directives on how to deal with restrictions based upon religious beliefs and practices.

Among the most alarming trends are the increasing security risks faced by humanitarian workers. We should not forget the cold-blooded murder of five nurses working for the ICRC in Chechnya in December 1996, or the killing of five UN human rights workers in Rwanda in February 1997. Today, my colleague Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR Head of Office in Vladikavkaz, has been held hostage for exactly 127 days. No immediate solution is in sight and the pressure on his family and friends is tremendous.

Humanitarian action by itself cannot resolve the fundamental social and political root causes of conflicts. When humanitarian agencies are left alone with problems requiring political and military response, they might even unwittingly compound such problems. They risk being identified as party to a conflict, and eventually becoming the scapegoat for political inaction.

The experiences of Bosnia and eastern Zaire were particularly shocking and traumatic for humanitarian agencies. As a consequence, many suggested that in such extreme cases, humanitarian agencies should withdraw, or refuse to intervene. I do not agree. Non-intervention is in contradiction with the fundamental objective of humanitarian action - saving lives. Rather than limiting our analysis to the purely humanitarian sphere, therefore, I think we should examine it in a much broader context, which includes political and - if necessary - security action, to protect the neutrality and ensure the effectiveness of humanitarian agencies.

At the political level, growing awareness exists of the causes and consequences of massive refugee movements. The threat to regional peace and security of large-scale forced population movements and massive human rights violations has been recognised. On an almost daily basis the Security Council discusses issues which deal with internal conflicts with grave humanitarian concerns and implications.

Likewise, regional organizations have taken on increasing responsibilities in the area of peace-making and peace-settlements. In Europe, my Office cooperates closely with NATO, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). The Organization for African Unity (OAU) is also undertaking steps to strengthen the mechanisms for preventing conflict and solving refugee crises. In that context, the OAU and UNHCR held a joint ministerial meeting in Kampala to address in an informal setting the humanitarian situation in the Great Lakes region, focusing on refugee protection and security; return and reintegration; and the rehabilitation of affected areas.

This increasing awareness and readiness by international and regional organization presents opportunities as well as challenges to humanitarian agencies: It leads to the mobilization of peace efforts, provides greater opportunities for harmonizing policies and actions, and facilitates information sharing, consultations and decision-making. Particularly, it allows the incorporation of humanitarian concerns in peace making and peace-keeping arrangements. The return of refugees was an integral part of the Paris Accord on Cambodia as well as the Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many peace-keeping missions - UNTAC, UNIMOZ and UNAMIR - included provisions for humanitarian assistance and protection of civilians in their mission.

To build the momentum for peace, it is essential that a framework guiding political and humanitarian action is established early on. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the International Conference on former Yugoslavia (ICFY) kept all parties to the conflict in a constant process of negotiations, as well as all relevant issues under examination. ICFY was transformed into the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) following the Dayton Peace Agreement. Throughout, I have chaired the Humanitarian Issues Working Group to report and to consult on all activities relating to humanitarian assistance, refugee protection and repatriation. The Office of the High Representative, established to implement the Dayton Agreement, provides a useful framework for the coordination of the policies and activities of the international community. Most importantly - the High Representative has now the added authority to enforce decisions to ensure compliance to the Dayton Peace Agreement.

At the security level, I would like to see a trigger-mechanism installed that would ensure a more rapid response to serious situations requiring intervention. In examining the various modalities for intervention, we should think of a ladder of options, which includes - for example - the utilization of local civilian police, armed or unarmed; of UN guards as in Northern Iraq; of international police or military contingents for the training or supervision of local forces. It should of course become possible to intervene through agreed rapid deployment mechanisms, at regional or international levels. The Secretary-General's report on Africa refers to the establishment of an international mechanism to assist host governments in maintaining the security and neutrality of refugee camps and settlements. The Kampala meeting endorsed this need. I am working with the UN Department of Peace-Keeping on how to implement these recommendations as well as following with keen interest the on-going training exercises of various African forces.

A humanitarian space in post-conflict situations

Let me now turn to the other end of what we could define as the "conflict cycle". Conflicts create such formidable and visible humanitarian challenges that we often lose sight of the problems which humanitarian actors face in the post-conflict phase.

My Office is increasingly challenged by situations that follow the end of conflicts, when peace is still fragile. However, they attract much less attention and support. The repatriation of refugees provides a good perspective on the complexity of post-conflict issues. The succession of its various steps - the return of refugees, their reintegration in communities of origin, and hopefully the possibility for divided communities to live together again - is very often one of the most important elements of the immediate post-conflict process undergone by entire societies. Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda are just some examples of this challenge. In repatriation operations, UNHCR's primary objective is to ensure that our beneficiaries return to their country in safety and dignity. We accompany returnees on their journey home. We try to ensure that they suffer no discrimination during the reintegration phase.

Following a peace settlement, refugees and displaced persons return often to communities still divided by the conflict. Their situation is fraught with many uncertainties. Bitter memories of violence and forced displacement may be too difficult to overcome. Returnees and their communities must learn to coexist again - this is an essential pre-condition for immediate post-conflict reconstruction. This is the challenge the international community faces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than two years since the signing of the Dayton Agreement, 1.8 million people have still not yet returned home. Some argue that from a strategic - or shall I say state interest - point of view, we should not promote the return of minorities as this will lead to tensions among the de facto divided entities. I do not necessarily agree. If people want to return we should respect their wish and right.

It is, therefore, imperative that rehabilitation efforts focus squarely on the rebuilding of communities. Guaranteeing the security of these communities and the returnees in particular is critical. The tragic events in the Drvar region of Bosnia and Herzegovina have demonstrated the consequences if security is not preserved. Houses of returnees have been systematically burned down, even resulting in the death of an elderly Serbian couple who returned home. Likewise in northern Rwanda, fighting is causing large internal population displacement - even a refugee outflow into Tanzania - and is hampering humanitarian agencies to deliver life saving assistance. Therefore, priority should be given in post-conflict situations to build a national capacity to provide security, to re-establish the rule of law and to set up an independent judiciary.

Humanitarian agencies can make an indispensable contribution to the rehabilitation of societies in the immediate post-conflict phase. An essential feature of our work is to operate in close contact with people and communities. For example, In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we run buses across inter-entity lines to promote freedom of movement and bring communities together. Likewise, our Open Cities initiative rewards communities who encourage minorities to return by providing preferential assistance.

Our work with returnees and their communities allows us to play a role in bringing together groups divided by conflict, by providing opportunities for reconciliation, an indispensable premise to both peace and prosperity. This work is carried out at the grass root level, and is the result of many small but concrete projects, often implemented through community based groups and by those who have the highest stake in reintegration and reconciliation - women.

Rwanda represents a typical situation as a quarter of its population has returned from exile. The needs in the country are enormous and the structures to support long-term development must be established. But Rwandans have urgent needs, which must be met now. Over 200,000 returnee students, for example, need schools - not a very favourable situation to the sound development of an education system. People need roofs, and they need roofs to be put on their houses, now. Each home built or roof repaired can defuse tensions and contribute to peace. How can long-term development resume if such basic requirements are not met?

In defining the concept of "humanitarian space" in post-conflict situations, it is imperative to bear in mind that its crucial objective is not to substitute, but rather to support and eventually converge with reconstruction processes. Reconstruction and development encompass societies as a whole, and not just returnees or other beneficiaries of humanitarian action. For these reasons, it is essential that developmental actors - in bilateral or multilateral fashion - intervene rapidly to accelerate reconstruction efforts. From our perspective, far from undermining or obstructing reconstruction efforts, we can contribute to bringing communities, at the grass root level, to the point where development mechanisms interrupted by conflicts can take off.

One could therefore say that a "humanitarian space" exists in the phase that immediately follows conflicts. In this space, organizations working at the grass root level, with people and through communities, can substantively contribute to consolidate solutions to conflict-related problems, such as alienation, division and forced displacement. They ultimately contribute to prevent new crises and can effectively support wider efforts aimed at restarting the developmental process. In the course of post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, it may be very difficult to assess the achievements. To be sustainable the peace process takes time, but we must do everything to contribute to the process.

Understandably, donors are concerned about "mission creep" and fear that humanitarian actors are becoming involved in areas beyond their mandate. This concern is reflected in the reluctance to fund programmes which are not strictly emergency related. This is one of the main reasons why my Office is facing a very serious funding problem for its programmes in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Angola, Myanmar, Liberia, among others. I would like the Forum to discuss this point as it is an essential part of the dialogue between political and humanitarian actors, and may become central to future humanitarian operations.


In concluding, I believe that we all recognize the need to build closer links not only between political and humanitarian but also developmental actors. Without each other, we can not manage, solve or prevent humanitarian crises. At the same time, we must appreciate better each other's opportunities and constraints. Saving and protecting victims of conflict are the fundamental objectives of humanitarian actors. If this were to be compromised or made subject to political interests, then humanitarian action would fall short. At the same time, we must be aware of valid state interests and the potential effects - good or bad - of our actions upon political and development actors.

Thank you.