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On the Humanitarian Frontlines: New Challenges of Refugee Work

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Lecture by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, At the Istituto Studi di Politica Internazionale
"On the Humanitarian Frontlines: New Challenges of Refugee Work"
Milan, 1 December 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to warmly thank those who have contributed to organise this conference - in particular Ambassador Biancheri and the staff of ISPI, and the Italian Group of the Trilateral Commission - an institution which has supported us for many years. My special thanks go to Mr Vellano, who has played a key role in my visit to Italy.

Intervention as a response to conflict

Ten years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, when we hoped to enter an era in which conflicts would be addressed and contained by effective international responses. We knew, of course, that there would be no quick fix - that a time of uncertain transition would begin. But the transition does not seem to end.

You may wonder why I should be concerned. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the United Nations refugee agency, is, after all, "just" a humanitarian organisation. And yet, throughout this turbulent decade, who has repeatedly picked up the broken pieces of violence and war? The answer is, unfortunately, humanitarian agencies. Who has been left more or less alone, for years, to address intractable problems such as ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the separation of refugees from génocidaires in Rwandan refugee camps? The answer is, again, humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR.

Since December 1950, when the UN General Assembly voted a resolution to set up UNHCR, we have grown into a global organisation which employs over four thousand people and whose yearly budget, since 1992, has constantly exceeded one billion US dollars. This is a bad sign. If UNHCR still exists, and in a much bigger way, after almost fifty years, it means that the problem which it was created to address has not been eliminated.

Twenty years ago, we dealt with 2.5 million refugees. Today, we care for 21 million refugees, returnees and other uprooted people. Large-scale refugee emergencies do not seem to end. This year alone, we had to deal with the rapid exodus, and the even quicker repatriation of one million Kosovars; in Indonesia, with the plight of 200,000 East Timorese forced by harassment and violence to abandon their homes; and, very recently, in Russia, with over 200,000 Chechnyans fleeing military action in their autonomous republic.

All these refugee crises are the result of conflicts. They prove, once more, that no satisfactory conflict resolution system is available either at the international or at the regional level. Today's wars kill and displace civilians with particular viciousness. They linger, unresolved, just to explode again with renewed violence. They are fluid and unpredictable - and there is no predictable, flexible response mechanism to contain them. They are rooted in deep ethnic, social and economic divisions within communities, and in the weakness of governments - and no systematic, substantial efforts are made to reinforce governments and to create more equal and harmonious societies.

Instead, "intervention" has become the flavour of the day. "Intervention" is what the international community - political leaders, the media, the academics - are chiefly talking about when discussing how to address crises. Also, intervention as a response to conflicts, and humanitarian action to help the victims of these conflicts, are becoming almost inextricably linked - in fact, "humanitarian intervention" has become a big soundbite in the current political jargon. Throughout the Kosovo crisis, it was not uncommon to hear that NATO was a "humanitarian" organisation.

It is true that the sight of terrible human suffering, especially on TV screens, did indeed contribute to trigger many interventions of this decade - Operation Provide Comfort to rescue the Iraqi Kurds after the Gulf War; the ill-fated Somalia expedition; the many efforts deployed during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia; the ECOMOG interventions in West Africa; and, this year, Kosovo and East Timor. Governments, bent on convincing their parliaments and citizens to send peace-enforcing troops on dangerous missions, have insisted on the "humanitarian" character of such endeavours, which made them morally compelling, and difficult to object to.

Without any doubt, this bears witness to the progress of a collective humanitarian conscience in today's world. This said, I would like to express three serious concerns.

First, I fear that if intervention is conducted exclusively - or mostly - as a reaction to moral indignation, only "visible" tragedies will benefit from the active involvement of the international community; only those crises which are strategically or geographically closer to the industrialized world, or that are so big and dramatic that they cannot be ignored, will be tackled; in other words, the attention that we devote to situations such as in Kosovo will continue to be disproportionate - in relative terms - to any effort made to resolve other problems, especially in Africa - think of Angola, Congo, Sudan or Sierra Leone - but also elsewhere - think of Afghanistan, for example.

Second, I am worried that if we have to wait for catastrophes to trigger international responses, we shall make little or no progress on the road to concrete, viable and predictable conflict resolution mechanisms in the sphere that matters, which is the political sphere, because by the time crises develop into "humanitarian catastrophes", the only responses available to decision-makers - the military, armed responses - will put the international community into the straight-jacket of the intractable problems that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described so eloquently in his address to the General Assembly this year: conflicting strategic interests; lack of resources; and even more crucially, the issues of intervention vs. sovereignty, and of the legitimacy of intervention.

Third, has "intervention" in itself been effective? Let us look at the outcome of some of the recent crises - in this respect, the vantage point of the UN refugee agency is very revealing. True, some conflicts have ended, especially among those which had started during the Cold War - in Central America, for example; or in Mozambique. This is certainly positive, although much more the result of negotiations than of "intervention" as such. But if you take a close look at new crises, those for which interventions were made, you will note that most of them have not been resolved. The plight of the Kurds continues. In the former Yugoslavia, four years after Dayton, more than 1.5 million people still live away from their homes - particularly in Bosnia and in Serbia. In Liberia, peace is at best fragile. It is certainly not a tangible reality for people in Sierra Leone, not to mention the powderkeg of Central Africa...

My central question is, therefore - why put all of our cards on military intervention, which is inevitably such a divisive issue - as the harsh debate over intervention in Serbia has shown, here in Italy and in some other countries? And, in particular, why must we wait until intervention is - indeed - a compelling humanitarian necessity? Why must we wait until human suffering (or rather, the suffering that we watch on TV) becomes so intolerable, that in order to put an end to it, we must risk upsetting the fragile web of international relations - that very web that we should be carefully preserving to maintain peace and security in the broader context? Why, to stop violence and killing, must we resort to interventions that will inevitably cause so much "collateral damage" - to stability, to national politics, to international relations at large, but above all to other human beings? Why is the debate on "intervention" focusing so much on its humanitarian justification?

Conflict resolution, rather than "intervention"

We must look back, I believe, at what happens before we reach the stage of intractable dilemmas. As an example, let us look at a situation in which the international response has been so large and conspicuous that it has become the controversial symbol of the good and evil of "humanitarian intervention".

Nobody can deny that NATO action in Kosovo has ended the repression of the ethnic Albanians in the province. Those who have returned - the majority - are facing many difficult problems in an environment that is physically and economically destroyed, at the onset of the harsh Balkan winter. However, they do not have to face the harassment and intimidation of security forces and paramilitaries. This represents a sea change from the situation of last year.

Military intervention in Kosovo may have also shown the resolve of a group of powerful countries to address at least some of the situations in which human rights are violated, and civilians are targeted. But it has not resolved all the problems. And other problems have been created. I will not elaborate on the "collaterals" of intervention - in terms of political and economic consequences. I would only like to stress two points.

One is that the harassment, murder, expulsion and flight of non-Albanian minorities from Kosovo, have neither been prevented, nor stopped, by the intervention; this is in stark contrast to one of the declared purposes of NATO action: to preserve the existence of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo. The other, of a broader nature, is the unresolved question of the status of the province. Until the latter issue is decided, it will be difficult to build any administrative and governing capacity in Kosovo, thus delaying sine die its social and economic development, already severely stunted by repression and war.

But Kosovo is not only challenging us because it is an "unfinished job". To draw lessons for the future, it is also worth looking back at the various steps of international involvement. For many years, the Kosovo question caused only occasional concerns outside the region. It moved to the center of international attention with the increase in tension, from early 1998. After the escalation of violence and growing population displacement throughout the following summer, there was probably one last chance to reach a durable peace, without irreversibly affecting ethnic coexistence in the province: this was during the period following the Holbrooke/Milosevic negotiations, the withdrawal of some Serbian forces, and the decision to establish an unarmed, civilian verification arrangement - the Kosovo Verification Mission. The KVM was a means to buy a negotiated arrangement. By then, however, ethnic relations had deteriorated to a point where much stronger international commitment would have been necessary to bring them back to a reasonable level of normality.

More - I believe - should have been done to find a political solution, and, above all, to develop a ceasefire mechanism strong enough to verify violations on both sides, and translate verification reports into concrete political pressure both on the Yugoslav federal authorities, and the KLA. The deployment of the KVM was slow: by the end of 1998, in spite of many appeals - joined by humanitarian agencies - it had not reached the level foreseen by the Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement. Many governments hesitated sending their citizens to a relatively dangerous area, although no KVM staff were killed in Kosovo. After that brief window of opportunity, and the failure of further political negotiations, military intervention became inevitable - and with it came the intractable dilemmas, the inevitably controversial choices, the collateral damage, and new or unresolved problems.

It is of course difficult to analyse such very recent history. But I wish to insist on one point. The examination of what was done - or insufficiently done, or not done at all - in October 1998, may well be the central point in any evaluation of the intervention in Kosovo. There is always such point, in any crisis. Often, interestingly, that point corresponds to the decision - or rather the lack of a decision - to intervene more robustly when the aim has been to contain, rather than to stop, conflict. Another situation comes to mind: Rwanda, in April 1994, when the decision - understandable, but fraught with incalculable consequences - was made to withdraw peacekeepers, thus leaving genocidal forces completely free to unleash their criminal plan. And I could give other examples. Containing is of course extremely dangerous, and has to be done on the ground - unarmed humanitarian workers know this very well, by the way, since they are usually in the field in these circumstances.

As the head of a humanitarian organisation, I am certainly not in a position to judge political decisions that were made in respect to the Kosovo crisis during the period leading up to the air intervention in March 1999. But everybody knew that reaching the point of military intervention meant having to activate air attacks an option far less risky than ground invasion, in terms of soldiers' lives. This, in turn, entailed leaving Kosovo to those who wanted to cleanse it from ethnic Albanians.

When this happened, UNHCR was faced with a huge, unmanageable refugee outflow, and the world's attention concentrated on the refugee crisis. A new humanitarian dimension was added, indeed, to NATO's intervention - but in response to a refugee crisis that had developed after the intervention had started. The military became providers of assistance - this was essential, given the size of the refugee outflow, although the confusion in roles created problems for humanitarian agencies. Perhaps decision-makers hoped that the intervention would have a successful outcome in a shorter period of time. But could a stronger, more decisive, more coherent political approach have avoided the so-called "humanitarian" intervention, the massive refugee flow, and perhaps the reverse ethnic cleansing which is now pushing tens of thousands of new refugees out of Kosovo?

I am not - and I wish to stress this point - I am not arguing against the use of military force, whenever it is absolutely necessary to pursue clearly agreed upon political objectives. To quote Clausewitz, "war is an instrument of policy; it must necessarily bear its character; it must measure with its scale". I am therefore against limiting our options primarily to military measures, and - I should add - I am of course against the disproportionate use of military force, which worsens the inevitable collateral damage caused to civilians.

There is an ideal scenario: dialogue and negotiations conducted under an able, visionary, clear political leadership, ready to deploy human and material resources to contain the crisis, in the full knowledge of the complexities on the ground, and - if necessary - backed by the possibility to use force in a manner proportionate and effective to the political goal. This may sound old-fashioned, but rather than face the excruciating dilemmas of "humanitarian intervention" I believe that political and diplomatic action deserve a fuller chance. The relative - if belated - success of such action in East Timor may prove my point.

And we should also look beyond Kosovo, and beyond the Balkans - a region where, after all, the international community is still prepared to spend a lot of political energy and material resources. For example, I have just returned from Russia, where I visited areas in the North Caucaus in which over 200,000 displaced people from Chechnya have taken refuge from the conflict raging in their small autonomous republic. The federal government says it is waging a legitimate war against terrorists. Few dispute this legitimity. What is of great concern - and that was the message I conveyed to the Russian authorities on behalf of the UN Secretary-General - is the "collateral damage" inflicted on civilians. The West has been telling Russia to use force in a "proportionate" manner in Chechnya. Russia has replied by asking whether the massive NATO air bombardment of Serbia, that caused damage and loss of lives among civilians, was "proportionate" to its objective - which ostensibly was, by the way, the protection of civilians.

Whether the Chechen fighters are seen as secessionist rebels or criminal terrorists, their case raises other, complex questions linked to intervention and conflict resolution. How do states deal with groups pursuing their political goals with violent means? Traditionally, terrorism is repressed with force. What if "terrorism" is the expression - violent, indeed - of the legitimate wish to obtain the recognition of a group's identity and rights? It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to make a distinction between the "terrorists" and their communities. Any repression will thus inevitably cause collateral damage, provoke loss of lives and human displacement, and exacerbate tensions.

This is not an academic issue - certainly not for my Office. Today, most refugee situations are the outcome of secessionist struggles - Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya are just the latest examples, and there are other, dangerous situations waiting to explode. Somehow, a balance must be struck between the right of all groups to have a recognized collective identity, and the necessity to avoid the disintegration of existing states into non-viable, mono-ethnic entities. To develop political ways to treat secessionism is one of the crucial conflict resolution priorities of the end of this century. If we do not devise adequate mechanisms quickly, I foresee more serious crises, and further human displacement, in many parts of the world.

Rebuilding governments, rebuilding society

There are other means to contain, stop and ultimately prevent the wars which are at the heart of today's crises - and, from my own perspective, the refugee flows that go with them. These means, I would like to argue, are insufficiently pursued by the international community. Other opportunities to avoid humanitarian crises, and the problems of humanitarian intervention, are being missed.

Contemporary wars are mostly - although not exclusively - of an internal, and even inter-communal nature. They produce refugees - often as an objective, and not simply as a side-effect - and after they end (when they do!) they almost invariably result in weak states, deeply divided societies and protracted refugee situations - like in Bosnia, for example. Much can be done, and too little is actually done, to address the outcomes of today's wars. I would like to indicate two areas where we must make fast progress.

First, the need to rebuild government. This is a tall order, and - somehow - a unique new challenge. My colleagues, who are struggling, with many others, to reconstruct Kosovo, have defined the situation there not just as "post-conflict", but also "post-government". The importance of helping weak states strengthen their institutions - as quickly as possible, and especially at the very crucial local level - cannot be stressed enough. Physical and economic reconstruction are of course a priority. But it is also urgent to devise innovative ways to re-create governing systems - in particular the law-enforcement capacity of the police and the judiciary, as well as public services. Look at post-genocide Rwanda, for example, a country with few judges and full jails. Once more, look at Kosovo, where - as the American journalist Flora Lewis recently wrote - we paid for the bombs, but we do not want to pay for teachers' salaries in the re-opened schools. More has to be done to help rebuild governments and services in these places.

The second area in which more efforts must be made, is the attempt to bring divided societies together, to help communities coexist again. Rebuilding societies is complementary to rebuilding government. Communities torn apart by fierce violence must be brought together. They must learn to coexist, and perhaps later - through a process that should include, if I may say, an element of "forgiveness" - be reconciled. Restoring judicial systems, and bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity, are very important activities. But we must go further. We have to call for more support, and, may I add, more creative thinking, in designing and implementing concrete projects aimed at reconciling divided communities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We must restore a sense of purpose and urgency to conflict resolution efforts. As I said, these efforts must be made through greater commitment to political and diplomatic negotiations. This requires skills and resources. But sure enough, there will be difficult obstacles to overcome, which neither skills, nor resources, will be sufficient to tackle. This is why resolving conflict, above all, requires international leadership.

It requires - as Kofi Annan has said - the leadership of the Security Council - perhaps of a reformed Security Council. It requires the leadership of those countries whose geographical situation gives specific regional responsibilities and whose political importance and economic weight entrusts them with a global role in conflict resolution. There is no doubt that Italy is among them.

As I said before, the sense of responsibility of the international community in addressing and resolving crises has made extraordinary progress. Perhaps this is an inevitable feature of the global age. I like to think that it is also the result of many efforts by those who believe that peace and security are everybody's concern. We must now go further, and translate these efforts, and our concerns, into concrete and realistic ways to achieve, maintain and build peace.

Thank you.