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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Peace Implementation Council, Madrid, 15 December 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Peace Implementation Council, Madrid, 15 December 1998

15 December 1998

Minister Matutes,
High Representative Westendorp,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today marks the start of the fourth year since the Peace Agreement was signed. Progress made over the last three years to implement peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been arduous. Nonetheless, efforts over the next year towards implementation must be accelerated. Consolidated peace in the region is essential if we are to solve displacement, and its solution will contribute to that peace. We cannot afford to end 1999 without a breakthrough in minority return.

We all had hoped that 1998 would be the year of minority return. In June, we still expected to report at least 50,000 minority returns this year. But only some 35,000 minority returns took place to and within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We have made progress over the last three years. Well over 400,000 persons have returned home, 80,000 of them to areas where they are now minorities. Initiatives like the Open Cities have yielded results, though not realized our expectations.

But today, 1.7 million people still remain displaced from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. A considerable number of them fervently wish to return to their pre-conflict homes. Yet, most of these homes are now located in areas where returnees would be a minority.

As we noted in our regional strategy, the term minority return is indeed unsatisfactory, as Emma Bonino pointed out. But it is a shorthand for the critical issue. Is Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a multi-ethnic, free and democratic society? The reality is that the fundamental prerequisite for return - significant and lasting changes in the circumstances that drove people from their homes - still has not occurred. The obstacles are clearly political. Fortunately, however, the political will to support the basic right to return is strong; this is evident by our presence here today.

We are all very unhappy with the slowness of return. Apart, of course, from the displaced themselves, no one is more disappointed than UNHCR, the agency charged with this task. A free choice and real option of return remains at the centre of all our concerns, as we have heard repeatedly this morning. For UNHCR to discharge its specific responsibilities under Annex 7 of the Peace Agreement and the wider global responsibilities of my office, we depend perhaps more than anywhere else on others. UNHCR's leading role in return was predicated on the political constraints being removed. They are largely still there. We have identified them, but a humanitarian organization cannot remove them. We can only call on and seek to mobilize those with the power to remove these obstacles. We look first to the authorities at all levels. We count on the High Representative, SFOR, OSCE and UNMIBH and UNIPTF, and I much welcome their continuing and very strong support, as we heard this morning.

The return of refugees and displaced persons therefore of course figures prominently in the High Representative's strategy for 1999, and the draft Declaration before this Conference. The Return and Reconstruction Task Force, with its Action Plan for 1999, will be a key towards unlocking minority returns. Within and outside the RRTF structure, my Office will continue to work closely with the Office of the High Representative in our respective as well as complementary capacities.

Three major conditions must be met in order to achieve a breakthrough. The first is security. Experience has shown us that people will simply not return unless they feel they will be safe where they go. In addition, we have seen some who have returned only to decide it is not safe to remain. They flee again internally to areas where they are a majority. The handful of criminals who instigate violence, creating a climate of fear, must be swiftly identified and brought to justice promptly.

There are several necessary ingredients to creating a secure environment for return.

Vital is the security umbrella of SFOR, as well as the coverage of UNIPTF. The rule of law programme and development of an independent judiciary are also essential. And reconciliation and confidence-building measures must be innovatively fostered in order to create safe "open societies."

The second major condition is the enforcement of full property rights. While I welcome adoption of property and housing legislation in both Entities, they must not become dead letters. Genuine respect for the rights of pre-conflict occupants and owners would send a clear and necessary message towards restoration of human rights protection and the reversal of ethnic displacement.

Third, return must be sustainable. The social, physical and economic infrastructure of the country must be adequately supported. Greatly increased employment opportunities are needed. Schools and services must be supported so that communities can provide for their basic needs.

As these three issues are addressed over the next year, we cannot forget the regional perspective. Nothing in the region can be seen in isolation. UNHCR's Regional Strategy identifies the actions required at the national and regional levels to enable sustainable solutions regionally.

However, the regional strategy risks to be undermined by fresh displacement within the region. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, if not resolved quickly, will undermine peace-building efforts elsewhere. For UNHCR to help return home in security those displaced within and from Kosovo, the causes of displacement must be removed. There too, political action is the key, and UNHCR is the humanitarian counterpart of the OSCE mission. I am also concerned that people continue to leave the Croatian Danube region because of ongoing threats and intimidation. This must be stopped.

I should now like to address two dilemmas UNHCR and others have faced over the last three years, and which we must address in 1999. First, how can we be sure that those who decide not to go home have not been influenced by the lack of real choice? If they have no real choice, helping them to settle elsewhere encourages those opposed to minority return. We have seen that such relocation can adversely affect prospects for return and security. But we must be prepared to assist those who have made an informed choice not to return but rather to start a new life where they have chosen to make it. This is the case, in particular, for many of the refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which hosts the largest caseload in the region - over one-half million refugees. Steps to facilitate local integration must therefore be pursued.

The second dilemma concerns national responsibility. The authorities must create and cultivate an open environment for return. In no area is the commitment and engagement more important than in minority return. I believe that striking a balance between obtaining the necessary engagement of the authorities and testing their real commitment towards their own people collectively will be a major challenge for the next year. In meeting it we must hold firm to our principles, and reject any conditions, ethnic ratios or numerical limits insidiously placed on returns.

I agree with the High Representative and other speakers that next year's challenges will require a coherent approach from the international community. With regard to UNHCR's responsibilities under Annex 7, we have outlined the elements of such a coherent approach in the Progress Report on UNHCR's Regional Strategy. Any dichotomy between declared objectives and real commitment to see them through to completion would have disastrous consequences. 1999 will require robust international solidarity.

Finally, I seek your financial, political and moral support for the 1999 UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal, launched this month. This appeal, in large part, outlines the United Nations contribution to enable sustainable return in Bosnia and Herzegovina and regionally. Full funding of the appeal is an investment in lasting peace. I take this opportunity to express our great appreciation for the High Representative and his staff, SFOR, the OSCE missions, UNMIBH and UNIPTF, ECMM, and our UN and non-governmental partners, and to all those governments and others who have provided support to the United Nations humanitarian actions in the region this year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The goal of sustainable return for 1999 should not be thought of in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of freedom; namely, the freedom to chose where to live. This is not only the right of those displaced, which we have promised to uphold, but also a condition of self-sustaining peace. For the coming year, we must harness all our efforts towards finally creating the conditions necessary to allow hundreds of thousands of people to chose their place of residence - a place where they best feel they can rebuild their lives. They have waited long enough for the door to their home to open.

Thank you