Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Brussels, 18 November 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Brussels, 18 November 1998

18 November 1998

Deputy Secretary-General Balanzino,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank you, Deputy Secretary-General, and members of the Council, for this timely opportunity to address you today. This is a particularly crucial period. The international community is focusing efforts on addressing the Kosovo crisis within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, while remaining committed to achieving objectives set by the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Let me start with the crisis in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The agreement reached between President Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was a major turning point. From my perspective - the perspective of the lead humanitarian agency in this region - the establishment of the OSCE Verification Mission is an important result of that agreement, since its crucial objectives are to verify the withdrawal of security forces up to the agreed level, and the correct treatment of civilians. If successful, this may help make the return of refugees and displaced people more secure and sustainable. It is therefore essential that the terms of the subsequent agreement between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the OSCE be implemented, in particular the provisions that the verifiers, I quote, "verify compliance by all parties in Kosovo with UN Security Council Resolution 1199," and, I quote again, "travel throughout Kosovo to verify the maintenance of the ceasefire by all elements".

One of the immediate consequences of the agreement has been that a good number of displaced people within the province have returned home and found at least temporary shelter from winter conditions, thereby averting a humanitarian disaster. My Office in Pristina, in collaboration with other UN agencies, as well as other international organizations, has conducted an assessment of two thirds of Kosovo's villages, which shows that over 60,000 displaced people have returned home in the past several weeks. Possibly only a few displaced people remain out in the open.

Indeed, through the joint efforts of NATO, OSCE and the Contact Group countries, and with the endorsement of international action by the UN Security Council, the conflict in Kosovo has been attenuated - but it certainly has not been resolved yet. Let me give you some examples that illustrate the challenges ahead.

Sadly, violence continues in Kosovo. There have already been several breaches of the cease-fire by both sides, with brutal slayings and other violent acts having been committed. In one disturbingly vivid incident on 6 November, five Kosovo Liberation Army members travelling near the Drenica town of Malisevo were reportedly killed in a gun battle with governmental authorities. Then on the following day, two governmental police reservists were reportedly abducted by KLA members in apparent retaliation. Their dead bodies, shot in the back, were found on the road a day later. Abductions by the Kosovo Liberation Army and governmental police detention of suspected KLA members have reportedly continued, seriously worsening the existing tension.

The civilian population continues to be the target of incidents of violence, harassment and intimidation. In a dramatic incident last week, the entire population of 2,000 in the village of Ljubizda was detained overnight without food by governmental authorities. The village residents were threatened that their entire village would be burned to the ground unless arms were handed over. This type of unacceptable and excessive conduct can only serve to spur further displacement and animosity.

As the Ljubizda incident indicates, governmental police units maintain a strong presence in certain localities. While some checkpoints have been dismantled, others remain. In addition, roving police units have reportedly circulated in certain areas of Kosovo, setting up temporary road blocks perceived as additional tools for intimidation and harassment of the local population.

Many displaced people within Kosovo have returned to find their homes destroyed and with heavy damage to property. The assessment I just referred to found that 150 of 240 villages that were evaluated were affected by destruction. Sixty percent of the houses in those villages were either totally destroyed or suffered various degrees of damage. The assessment also found that about 50 percent of the people originally from those villages are not living there now.

Return is undoubtedly linked to security. My Office estimates that some 175,000 people remain displaced inside Kosovo. For the people who fled from the province of Kosovo to Montenegro, Albania, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, it is not likely that any significant return will occur before Spring 1999, and that is assuming that a certain level of security is maintained. Together, Montenegro and these bordering countries host some 65,000 refugees from Kosovo.

I point out these stark realities not to discourage the international community but rather to incite continued efforts to stop the bloodshed, and ensure that safe conditions for return are set and respected by all sides. These are the only guarantees to ensure that those who were so dramatically forced to flee their homes can safely return, and want to remain.

During this fragile but opportune time, it is imperative that efforts continue at full pace to foster a fair and durable peace settlement. Let me indicate a few directions in which I believe the international community can continue its efforts as a support to humanitarian action.

First and foremost is the speed of deployment of the verifiers. I highly commend the decisions of OSCE, NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to agree for the establishment of land and air verification missions in Kosovo. I also welcome the agreement creating the NATO Rapid Intervention Force to be placed in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which will have the capacity to evacuate OSCE verifiers and other international field staff from Kosovo in the event of an emergency. These missions are vital pillars in support of peace efforts and an excellent example of how various international players have joined together to encourage stability in the region. However, every day it takes to put these missions into place is one day more likely to increase the risk that further violence and bloodshed will continue.For its part, my Office has identified, and will continue to flag, the most critical locations to which OSCE verifiers should be deployed.

Rapid deployment of the NATO mission would also maximize the area that can be covered by the OSCE verification staff. Let me add that it is vital that monitoring security and treatment of civilians extend not only to returnees, but to all persons affected by the conflict.

Second, it is very important to ensure that land mines and other unexploded devices are identified and removed before any other deaths by these silent slayers occur. There are increased reports of the use of anti-personnel an anti-tank mines in Kosovo, as well as explosive booby traps in villages vacated by governmental authorities. In this regard, I welcome the UN initiative to dispatch a special mission of the Mine Action Service to survey mine risks in the province of Kosovo.

Third, the complex and significant international involvement in Kosovo requires that UNHCR closely coordinate its efforts with NATO and OSCE. We have considerably strengthened our presence in Kosovo. We now have three satellite offices in Pec, Prizren and Kosovska Mitrovica and we have deployed about 70 staff members to the province. With winter conditions already existing in some areas, we are concentrating on helping people in need of winter-proof shelter, preferably in their own homes. UNHCR estimates that sixty percent of the houses assessed so far must be rebuilt or repaired. A UNHCR shelter coordinator is on site to follow up accordingly. On the legal front, we are seeking to promote the adoption of a meaningful amnesty to strengthen confidence upon return.

I must emphasize that UNHCR's role as lead humanitarian agency must remain clearly distinct from the OSCE and NATO missions. Theirs are political missions. Our duties, however, are closely related, and we are fully committed to continued close cooperation with the verifiers. Our offices in Pristina and Skopje will maintain the key liaison function with the OSCE and NATO missions. UNHCR is also actively involved in training newly arrived OSCE verification staff.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me now turn to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I last met with you in January of this year my main focus was on this country. One of the undesirable side-effects of the Kosovo crisis has been to divert attention from other problems in the former Yugoslavia. The utmost attention of the international community, however, is still needed in order to achieve the objectives set by the Dayton Peace Accords, particularly for minority returns. This week marks the third anniversary of the Peace Accords. It is therefore not acceptable that over one and a half million Bosnians are not yet back in their homes.

A vital piece of the international framework for ensuring Dayton's implementation is the security coverage by SFOR. No one can doubt SFOR's impact as a deterrent to further violence, as well as its looming ability to encourage peace and security. It has been noted repeatedly that minorities and returnees - those most subject to harassment and discrimination - are particularly dependent on SFOR's continued presence. In this context, I welcome the timely deployment of the Multinational Specialized Unit of SFOR. By being able to step in cases of local police inaction, the Multinational Specialized Unit can prevent violence in key areas and increase confidence within communities.

Here, I would like to extend my profound appreciation to General Shinseki for his past support. I have no reason to doubt that this solid cooperation with SFOR will continue under the direction of General Meigs, who was most helpful in his previous tour in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Minority returns remain the key to successful implementation of the Dayton Accords. Obstacles to minority returns are deep-rooted. Those responsible for the armed conflict remain in power and still encourage ethnic division. I welcome the commitment of the international community, voiced through High Representative Westendorp, to achieve a much needed breakthrough for minority returns in 1999. As I have repeatedly indicated, however, there are two major pre-conditions to achieve such a breakthrough: that the security of minority returnees - and of minorities in general - be maintained, and that property and especially housing problems be tackled through a comprehensive, and if possible regional approach. The adoption and implementation of an internationally acceptable property and housing legislation, in full respect of the rights of pre-conflict occupants and owners, is indispensable. Failure to address these two key issues will seriously undermine minority returns.

Continued obstacles in the areas of security and property contributed significantly to the failure to meet 1998 targets for minority returns. Let me also add that should such returns occur in significant numbers, it will be essential to support and sustain them through the allocation of adequate additional resources, as will be specified in the 1999 UN inter-agency funding appeal for the region.

It is crucial that efforts towards a sustainable peace continue. Return is sustainable if it is accepted rather than imposed. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia - where some refugees have started returning, but still in relatively limited numbers - we must help create an open environment for minority returns.

It is also crucial that there be a significant improvement in the creation of an independent judiciary. And finally, I would strongly encourage the international community to continue funding and implementing demining efforts. This is a key element not only to achieve sustainable return, but also to ensure that we can safely assist those in need.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the response to the Kosovo crisis within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has illustrated how international cooperation can support humanitarian action. Some progress has been made through the concerted efforts of the international community in containing the most acute and immediate security problems. There is now an opportunity for humanitarian action to become part of a larger peace building effort.

In this fragile period between the containment of the Kosovo conflict and continued peace efforts, UNHCR and other humanitarian players will work to achieve their primary objectives of protecting and assisting civilian victims in the region. I particularly value the open communication I have shared with the Secretary General and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. My Office looks forward to continued dialogue with officials in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers of Europe and the NATO Civil Emergency Planning Department, in assessing continued NATO support to humanitarian action in all of former Yugoslavia. Let me take this opportunity, by the way, to express our appreciation for the support provided last June in arranging an airlift of relief supplies to Albania for refugees from Kosovo. Should similar needs arise in the future - beyond the capacity of civilian organizations - we may again turn to NATO through liaison arrangements already proven to be effective.

In spite of progress made, the continued violence in Kosovo illustrates that much building remains ahead. Nothing less than continued and solid international cooperation is needed to buttress favourable conditions for a lasting political settlement between the parties and durable peace in the region. It is only in this context that humanitarian action will be effective and useful.

Thank you.