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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, 19 July 1995

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, 19 July 1995

19 July 1995

I would like to welcome you to this meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia. Let me begin by placing on record my appreciation to Lord Owen for his efforts as Co-Chairman of ICFY. Let me also congratulate Mr. Bildt on his appointment as the new Co-Chairman of ICFY and wish him every success in the challenging task which lies ahead of him.

Since we last met in November 1994, the conflict in former Yugoslavia has greatly deteriorated. The glimmer of hope offered by cease-fire agreements between the warring parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina last December has been drowned in a new wave of fighting. The expectations raised by the Economic Agreement between the Croatian Government and the local Serb authorities were also dashed by the events in western Slavonia last May. The humanitarian consequences of the upsurge in violence have been appalling.

I have convened this meeting today to share with you my assessment of the gravity of the humanitarian situation, and the implications for our operation, although it is difficult to predict at this stage the prospects ahead.

I have just returned from Tuzla which, as you know, received last week an estimated 29,000 displaced persons who were expelled from Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb Army. The purpose of my trip was to meet the victims and review the efforts of UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to assist them, in close cooperation with the local authorities.

Words cannot describe the heart-breaking scenes of human suffering I witnessed there. I heard first-hand accounts of how the women, children and the elderly were brutally separated from the men, bussed away from Potocari and forced to walk across a dangerous frontline into Bosnian Government territory. At the Tuzla airbase and in the collective centres I visited I saw countless women in a state of shock, crying in despair because they do not know whether their menfolk are still alive. I heard about the atrocities and violence committed by the Bosnian Serb Army. An elderly man had seen twelve men being killed. A young boy told me his parents had been killed and his brother was missing. An old woman wept as she told me how she had lost her two sons and grandson. Another woman spoke of young girls who were taken by the Bosnian Serbs. Many have been displaced for a second time, all had lived under siege and shelling for the past two years. They have gone through unbelievable physical and emotional trauma, made worse by the uncertainty of the fate of the fathers, brothers and sons they were forced to leave behind.

I am extremely worried about the safety of thousands of men detained in Srebrenica. I have called upon the Bosnian Serbs to allow the ICRC and UNHCR access to the area to determine the whereabouts and welfare of the men. Meanwhile, my Office, together with others concerned, will interview the displaced persons who have arrived from Srebrenica, and from that information establish a list of those who are missing. I am relieved to learn that ICRC managed to evacuate the approximately 90 sick and wounded who had been left in Potocari.

As to the coordination of the relief, a joint Task Force of UNHCR and the Bosnian Government has been established in Tuzla and held its first meeting yesterday. UNPROFOR, UN agencies and many NGOs are already contributing actively to the relief efforts underway. UNHCR will continue to help to address their basic needs and will adjust its programme for Bosnia and Herzegovina to take the Srebrenica victims into account. However, in view of the large numbers of displaced persons who have been received in Tuzla, it will be necessary to provide longer-term accommodation before the onset of winter. Many of the displaced are currently living in school buildings which will need to be vacated before the school term begins. As this type of assistance falls outside the purview of UNHCR, I should like to encourage donors to consider making contributions through IMG or bilaterally to the Bosnian Government for shelter and other longer-term needs.

The plight of the Srebrenica victims personifies the dreadful nature of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. On the one hand, more and more people are being terrorized, forced to flee their homes or brutally killed. On the other, access to humanitarian aid is being denied, and humanitarian workers are being harassed and threatened, jeopardizing our ability to assist the ever-increasing numbers of victims.

Allow me to expand on these two points.

Human suffering is being deliberately intensified by the action of the parties to target civilians. I am appalled by the recent increase in indiscriminate shelling of urban centres and bombing of civilian populations. These cowardly attacks against defenseless men, women and children must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. None of us here will ever forget the picture of the square in Tuzla, covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. Some 71 persons were killed and 165 more injured in that one tragic incident on 25th May. In recent weeks Sarajevo has experienced the most intense shelling since the market bombing in February 1994. Over 144 civilians were reportedly killed there last month. The other safe areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina have also been heavily shelled.

For the first time since 1991 the Krajina Serbs launched rocket attacks on Zagreb last May, killing six people and wounding another 176. There have been reports alleging that Croatian Serb refugees were shelled while trying to flee the offensive by the Croatian forces in Western Slavonia and cross into the Banja Luka region.

I am distressed also by the increasing waves of people who are being forced to flee their homes. Ethnic terror is being practised by the Bosnian Serb side more systematically than ever before. The ruthless efficiency with which they expelled the Muslim population from Srebrenica sadly confirms the view that "ethnic cleansing" was not a consequence but, indeed, the very objective of overrunning the pocket. I fear that we might soon witness a similar wave of expulsions from Zepa.

Meanwhile, ethnic cleansing remains pervasive in the Banja Luka region. So far this year more than 3,000 persons, the great majority of them Muslims, have been compelled to leave the region. I have been particularly disturbed by the deterioration in the situation of the Croat community in northern Bosnia following the influx of Croatian Serb refugees from Western Slavonia into that region. Extremist elements among the refugees have brutally attacked local Croats and Catholic religious symbols. Hand grenades have been thrown at Croat homes. In a particularly tragic incident, a parish building was set ablaze, burning alive a priest and a nun who were inside.

People have also been uprooted by the recent escalation of military activity, and the tragedy is not limited to any one side. I have already spoken of the recent expulsions from Srebrenica. The events of last May in Western Slavonia resulted in the exodus of some 13,000 Croatian Serbs. They are now living in collective centres and with host families in the Banja Luka region and in Sector East where UNHCR, together with other aid organizations and the local authorities, are assisting them. More than 10,000 Serb civilians have been forced to abandon their homes to seek safety from the military offensives by Bosnian Government forces against the Bosnian Serb Army in different locations in northern Bosnia.

Whether uprooted by ethnic cleansing or military activity, whether Muslim, Croat or Serb, these victims of violence have had their physical and mental strength sapped by four years of bloody war and now face the prospect of a bleak winter in precarious conditions.

As the war drags on, it is the innocent men and women who are increasingly having to pay the price for the actions of their warring leaders. I cannot help but ask myself: is there no limit to the suffering which those who pursue political and military objectives are prepared to inflict on innocent civilians?

It is against this deeply distressing picture of intensified suffering that I must once again voice my frustration and anger at the continued, indeed, increased obstruction of the international humanitarian operation. We have been virtually hamstrung by the increasing refusal of consent for our humanitarian convoys by the parties, particularly the Bosnian Serbs. In June, we were only able to deliver 7,136 tonnes of aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This represents a mere 30 percent of the assessed needs and is the lowest monthly delivery tonnage since January 1993. The consequences for the aid programme and, for those beneficiaries in greatest need of our assistance - those in Sarajevo, Bihac and the other enclaves - are indeed grave.

I am particularly concerned about the strangulation of Sarajevo. How long can the courageous population of this besieged city survive? The UNHCR humanitarian aid airlift remains suspended since 8 April. In June we were able to deliver only 8 per cent of the target of 6,000 tonnes. To prevent a catastrophe, and at UNHCR's request, UNPROFOR personnel have in recent weeks delivered limited amounts of flour to keep the central bakery in Sarajevo going. UNPROFOR has had to use the perilous Mt. Igman route, the only one currently available. There are some 100,000 vulnerable population in Sarajevo, and our efforts are targeted towards them.

But it is the tragic story of the Bihac enclave which illustrates most dramatically and disastrously the results of the denial of humanitarian access. On numerous occasions in the past my Office has warned of the threat of starvation faced by the population there. These warnings have systematically been ignored by those obstructing access. A fortnight ago I was saddened to learn of two hunger-related deaths in Bihac - the first cases since the war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I fear many more to come if we are not given full access to reach the population in need.

I cannot mention our relief efforts without acknowledging and emphasizing the invaluable support provided by UNPROFOR in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. I am therefore very concerned at the increasing difficulties faced by UNPROFOR in carrying out its mandate and resulting consequences which they might have on our own activities.

Moving now from the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to that of the refugees outside, let me make three points. The first is about the recent mobilization of Serb refugees by the local police in Serbia, in collusion with Krajina and Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups. That refugees should be forcibly sent back to their place of origin in order to be conscripted is utterly unacceptable to UNHCR. We consider it a flagrant violation of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. My Office has protested strongly to the authorities concerned in Serbia and requested them to take appropriate measures to put an end to the violations. I am pleased to report that, following our representations, the numbers of refugees being mobilized have steadily diminished and the situation now appears to have been brought under control.

My second point is on temporary protection abroad. The vortex of violence which has gripped parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina make it imperative for adjacent countries as well as those further afield to keep their borders open for those fleeing this cruel war. I am very grateful to countries hosting refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina and would urge them to continue extending temporary protection. It is encouraging that a number of countries have taken steps to improve the status of these refugees in view of their prolonged stay. I would also like to urge governments to adopt a more flexible approach towards the issue of resettlement of refugees and count on them to continue providing these groups with temporary protection.

My third point is on voluntary repatriation. Unfortunately, conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in the UN Sectors in Croatia are still not conducive to promote organized voluntary repatriation. The situation remains fragile even in the contiguous Federation areas. However, I fully appreciate that the Federation is an important instrument to promote peace and I very much hope that the situation there will improve so that an organized programme of voluntary return of refugees can get underway.

While every effort should be made to create suitable conditions for the eventual return of displaced persons within the Federation to their homes, let me emphasize that the return movement should not be rushed. Adequate lead time needs to be devoted for the rebuilding of mutual trust between the different communities; otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous.

In the midst of this pessimism there is one positive note. When we last met in November 1994 I expressed my serious concern about the funding situation for the humanitarian operation. I am pleased to report that, thanks to generous contributions, the funding situation for the programme has considerably improved. However, as the situation in former Yugoslavia remains driven by contingencies, I hope that I can count on your continuing generosity. The recent developments in Srebrenica have amply proven the need to be prepared for new and unexpected emergencies.

I have given a sombre assessment of the current humanitarian situation. In view of the alarming increase in deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, the continuing displacement of population, the intensification of ethnic cleansing and the grave problems facing the humanitarian operation, I could not have done otherwise.

Although today the activities of my Office are severely hampered, I believe that we should make every effort to continue our work. We should go on making a difference by saving lives. I am even more convinced of this after my visit to Tuzla where I was able to see with my own eyes how our humanitarian assistance is helping to alleviate the enormous suffering of the victims of the tragedy in Srebrenica.

At the same time, I must emphasize that my Office is not prepared to continue at any cost. The consent of the parties is essential if we are to go on with our work, and I hold them accountable for providing that consent. There is no winner in a war which condemns the civilian population to despair and displacement.

To the international community my message is as follows: your continued generous support for the humanitarian operation must go hand in hand with a determined effort to revive the peace process. Humanitarian assistance can help to relieve the consequences of the war, but it cannot resolve it. Our efforts alone will not stop another Srebrenica from happening. Only a negotiated political solution can halt the untold human suffering.

Thank you.