Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Meeting on Mine Clearance, Geneva, 6 July 1995
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The damages and distress provoked by land mines have been described by the preceding speakers. Let me concentrate on how they affect refugees and internally displaced persons.
In most instances, the return home signals the end of a conflict and the start of a new life for people who have lived in difficult circumstances for a long time. More often than not, people return to their homes devastated by war and have to start rebuilding their lives from rubble. As if it were not enough, they have to face the threat of land mines which have been laid at random by warring parties. In particular, areas which are often heavily mined are those where the heaviest fighting has occurred and from which, consequently, large numbers of people have fled. The presence of land mines constitutes therefore a serious obstacle to the return of refugees and displaced persons to these areas. It furthermore hampers attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to the returnees as well as their access to self-supporting activities such as agriculture which are essential for their successful reintegration and the rehabilitation of their communities. This problem has taken on such proportions that my Office, in the absence of other or better arrangements, has engaged in land mine related activities in recent years. This has been the case in Afghanistan, north-west Somalia, Cambodia and more recently Mozambique.
Fortunately, UNHCR has been able to count on competent and courageous partners such as RimFire, Halo Trust, Handicap International and Norwegian People's Aid. Through these dedicated organisations, as well as with the assistance of the Department of Peace-keeping Operations, we have been able to establish and develop, at very short notice, a number of activities ranging from mine surveys through actual clearance. These ad hoc arrangements have permitted us to conduct major repatriation operations in relatively secure environments.
It is on the basis of this experience, Mr. Chairman, that I would like to make a few remarks:
- the first is that de-mining must be undertaken at the very start of a peace agreement, as the return of refugees is usually one of the first steps in the implementation of such an agreement and greatly contributes to national reconciliation;
- the second is that the warring parties responsible for laying the mines should be involved in the clearance operations. The training and employment of demobilized soldiers is, in this respect, an option which should be vigorously pursued;
- the last is that de-mining cannot proceed when hostilities are not completely stopped as new mines will continue to be laid.
In spite of UNHCR's involvement in actual mine-clearance, I believe that such an activity is better undertaken by others. I therefore welcome the various initiatives aiming at dealing with the issue. UNHCR however shall continue with its mine awareness campaigns and related training both in countries of asylum and origin. The Department of Humanitarian Affairs, as the overall coordinator, can play an important catalytic role in this area and therefore the organization of this conference gives me hope that mine issues, including clearance, will be addressed and the necessary institutional arrangements developed and resources committed. The example of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, which was established, though belatedly, under UNTAC, and chaired by my Special Envoy, provides a good illustration of the arrangements required to tackle the problem.
Mr. Chairman, mine surveys, mine clearance, awareness campaigns, treatment and rehabilitation of the victims are necessary and must be strengthened. But let us not deal only with the consequences. The real cause of death and impairment of innocent civilians is the very existence of anti-personnel mines, sophisticated but awfully cheap, which look like candy boxes, are almost undetectable and last for a long period. Their production and sale must be stopped. Like other such weapons, they must be prohibited. For my part, I see little difference between those who use them and those who produce them.
Banning mines requires action by Governments and we fully acknowledge their prerogatives. In the interim, we look forward to the early conclusion of the Convention governing the use of anti - personnel land mines. On the part of UNHCR, in consideration for the suffering that we are daily witnessing, we shall not knowingly purchase the products of companies that manufacture or sell anti-personnel mines or their components. Whatever the present legality of manufacturing such weapons, the toll they take on innocent civilians amounts to a crime against humankind. Those who make them, sell and export them bear a direct and heavy responsibility which has to be recognized and dealt with by the international community.
This meeting is a good start. We must however take bold international action to rid the scourge of land mines from the face of the earth.
Thank you Mr. Chairman.