Briefing by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Formal Session of the Security Council

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 26 Jul 1999
Speeches of the High Commissioner
Agenda Item: "Promoting Peace and Security: Humanitarian Assistance to Refugees in Africa"

New York, 26 July 1999

Mr President,

I am grateful, as always, for your interest and support. On 5 May, when at the peak of the crisis in the Balkans I last briefed the Council, I spoke of the plight of refugees from Kosovo. At that time, I was requested to also provide a briefing on other humanitarian situations, particularly in Africa. Therefore today I will focus on that continent, and especially on Central and West Africa, where there have been political and security developments with important humanitarian implications.

Refugee problems in Africa - Opportunities for solutions?

As the head of an Office which spends over 40% of its resources in Africa, and having personally visited West Africa in February, and Central Africa last month, I shall provide you with a first hand perspective on problems of human displacement on the continent. My impressions of the last Summit of the Organization of African Unity, which I attended in Algiers two weeks ago, are a good starting point.

I found this year's summit - the seventh such gathering to which I have been invited as observer - particularly encouraging. Like Secretary-General Kofi Annan, I sensed a real spirit of openness and noted positive signs that existing problems could be solved. In attendance were the newly, democratically elected Presidents of South Africa and Nigeria. It was a powerful symbol that these two key African countries are ready to provide an essential contribution to peace, democratization and economic development throughout the continent. This year's host country for the Summit, Algeria, may also be auspiciously emerging from nine years of internal instability under the direction of a new President. Another remarkable feature of the Summit was that it took place at the same time as a cease-fire agreement on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces in Sierra Leone were being signed. We should be realistic: there will be delays and setbacks in the advancement towards peace and prosperity, but for the first time in years I felt that the election of some remarkable leaders, their presence at the Summit, and developments on the ground, marked a hope for progress. And from the perspective of UNHCR, these positive steps towards peace raise hopes that many refugees will eventually return home.

Mr President, the challenge before us is to act rapidly to support the implementation of political agreements. Since the signature of the initial cease-fire agreement on 24 May, for example, hostilities have not resumed in Sierra Leone. From UNHCR's perspective, both agreements may be rare coincidences of opportunities which - if properly and quickly seized by the international community - may lead to the resolution of some of the worst refugee problems in Africa. There are about six million people "of concern" to my Office on the continent. If you analyze a "map of human displacement" you will clearly see that people in flight are invariably an indicator of situations of poverty, or conflict, or a combination of both.

The main refugee groups caused by recent crises continue to be the over half a million Sierra Leoneans in West Africa; the 260,000 Burundians in Tanzania; the 150,000 people who have fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in various countries. As we speak, people are fleeing the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. There are older, unresolved conflict situations which have produced refugees many years ago - more than 370,000 Sudanese continue to be refugees in Uganda and Ethiopia; 120,000 Saharan refugees are still in camps in Algeria and other countries; there are 150,000 Angolan refugees, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - tens of thousands of these are actually newly arrived people fleeing fresh fighting in their country. In both Sudan and Angola, as well as in war-torn areas at the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, there are also tens of thousands of internally displaced people. In Liberia, where 280,000 refugees have returned home and where we hope to finish the repatriation of the remaining quarter of a million by mid-2000, recent episodes of insecurity betray internal tensions and the fragility of peace.

Supporting peace processes and addressing refugee problems in West and Central Africa

In February, when I visited Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, hopes for a settlement in Sierra Leone were still fragile. I therefore welcome the recent Lomé agreement, although the road to peace is undoubtedly going to be long and difficult. The end of the civil war in Sierra Leone may bring about a positive solution to the worst current refugee problem in Africa - the plight of over half a million people, about 10% of the entire Sierra Leonean population, who have fled violence and fighting in various waves in the last few years. Most of them have taken refuge in Guinea and Liberia, which, in spite of their very limited resources, have generously provided asylum to this large refugee population - a true example to the international community. Sierra Leonean refugees, as has been frequently reported to the Council, have suffered unspeakable violence during the conflict. I have rarely seen consequences of physical and psychological violence as horrifying as those affecting civilians who survived killings and were left traumatized by beatings, amputations, and rape.

My first key message here today is therefore a plea for all necessary resources to be provided to Sierra Leone and governments in the sub-region so that the Lomé agreement can be implemented - and implemented very rapidly. Peace is at hand, but - especially seen from the vantage point of hundreds of villages still exposed to violence, pillaging and retaliation - it is very fragile. From the humanitarian perspective, resources will soon be needed to support the return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people in their communities of origin. This is of paramount importance because the violence of the Sierra Leonean conflict has created deep divisions and mistrust. As we see in other situations, the longer people stay away from their communities, the more difficult and complex reconciliation becomes. Repatriation will take time, but we must of course get prepared for it as quickly as possible, while continuing to assist refugees and local communities hosting them in countries of asylum. I would also like to take this opportunity to make a special appeal to help those - thousands, unfortunately - who have suffered physical amputations. My visit to a center for the rehabilitation of amputees from Sierra Leone, last February in Guinea, was one of the most shocking experiences of my eight years as High Commissioner. Their courageous efforts to learn again to walk, eat, and write, deserve special attention and sustained support.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Lusaka agreement, although not yet signed by all parties, is a welcome development for which governments in the region should be commended. It is not only immediately important as a positive step towards resolving conflict in Central Africa - it is also an encouraging indication that peace in Africa can be attained when African leaders are committed to work together towards this goal, in spite of all differences and difficulties. As with the Lomé agreement, however, it is now imperative that the Lusaka agreement receives strong, clear international support, so that all parties to the conflict adhere to it and its rapid implementation can become a reality. In spite of the progress made, war has not ended - witness the recent influx into the Central African Republic of thousands of Congolese fleeing fresh fighting in the Equateur province, a very destabilizing situation in this fragile area.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo desperately needs peace. Visiting the country last month, I was shocked by the deteriorating living conditions of the Congolese population at large. The informal economy, once the backbone of this resilient country, has all but collapsed - poverty is rampant, almost 150,000 refugees have fled and there are countless internally displaced people. In Algiers, I met President Kabila and asked him to take the initiative in granting humanitarian agencies access to all those in need. I was encouraged by his positive reply. Humanitarian assistance is needed to bring relief to hundreds of thousands of suffering people, but it can also contribute to the peace process and be a first step towards a much needed stabilization of the country and of the sub-region. I therefore wish to renew my appeal to all parties to the conflict to allow the delivery of aid to refugees, displaced people and all civilians in need.

The situation in the entire Central African sub-region has shifted from one of massive refugee movements to one of multiple, inter-related conflicts and smaller human displacement crises. However, the potential for larger, and more dramatic displacement, exists. Refugees are often manipulated by states and rebel groups alike. At the present juncture, it is very difficult to pursue a comprehensive effort to enforce refugee protection principles with due consideration for the security concerns of states, as we had promoted at the Kampala regional meeting on refugee issues in May 1998. While the Lusaka peace process continues, UNHCR will therefore concentrate on trying to address, if not resolve, individual situations of displacement.

The most pressing issue is to tackle the problem of Rwandans who have not yet returned after fleeing the country in the aftermath of genocide, and particularly of the largest groups, which are in the two Congos. A solution to this problem has been made easier by improvements in the security and internal stability of Rwanda. On the other hand, the presence of armed elements among bona fide refugees continues to be a serious problem in several countries, with security implications affecting and slowing down the peace process. In this respect I am pleased to report that during my recent trip to the sub-region I have taken two key decisions. First, from offices in Bukavu and Goma, UNHCR will resume support to the repatriation of Rwandans still in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have received assurances from rebel authorities controlling these areas that we shall be granted access to those requesting repatriation, and that the voluntary character of return will be respected; I informed President Bizimungu of Rwanda, who encourages and supports our role in this operation; I also informed President Kabila, who did not object to UNHCR's involvement. Second, we shall offer Rwandans in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) to either repatriate, or to settle in areas in the north of their host country, where they can receive a one-time assistance package to facilitate local integration. This scheme is presently under discussion with the authorities in Brazzaville.

Prospects for a solution to the plight of Burundian refugees in Tanzania, on the other hand, appear less promising. Peace talks in Arusha between the government of Burundi and its opponents continue. Meanwhile, however, refugee repatriation movements are now limited to a few individuals per day. I am very concerned by this situation, which exposes refugees (and the local population) to a situation of serious tension and insecurity at the border between Burundi and Tanzania - a situation that can only be resolved when refugees return home voluntarily. In asking the Council to encourage an early and positive conclusion of the Arusha peace process, I would also like to request that refugee issues be addressed from a humanitarian viewpoint, in respect of international norms. On our side, we shall continue to support Tanzania in ensuring that refugee camps maintain their civilian character; and we stand ready to resume the voluntary repatriation, and support the reintegration of Burundian refugees in their country.

Before concluding on Central Africa, I would like to draw the Council's attention to several other situations of conflict and displacement, which currently offer little or no hope for early solutions and where UNHCR must therefore continue to provide care and maintenance support, and emergency assistance in the case of new refugee outflows. I am thinking of the situation in Western Sahara, where UNHCR continues to make preparations for repatriation in March next year, but where the likelihood of the return of refugees depends entirely on the progress of political negotiations. I am referring as well to the Angolan conflict, which is pushing thousands of people to flee their homes - I visited an Angolan refugee camp in the Bas-Congo province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and observed that no return can be possible under the present circumstances. I am referring also to the war in southern Sudan, one of the oldest and most violent conflicts in the world, the effects of which - both in terms of refugee movements and of general insecurity - are widely felt in the region.

And finally I would particularly like to draw the attention of the Security Council to the violent, and almost forgotten civil war in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Thousands of inhabitants of Brazzaville and of neighbouring areas, caught in the fighting between government and rebel forces, have been compelled to flee in the past few months, and have been able to return home only by transiting through the Democratic Republic of the Congo: among them, there are thousands of victims of frightening acts of violence, including torture and rape. In the last few days, 30,000 new refugees have arrived in Gabon - this is a new, worrying development, that indicates how destabilizing this war may become for the entire region - especially given its proximity to other conflicts. UNHCR has already dispatched an emergency team to Libreville and stands ready to provide support to the authorities to protect and assist refugees. I fully realize the burden that these refugees place on the country's resources, but wish to appeal here to the government of Gabon to provide asylum to those fleeing the war. It is very urgent, however, that the international community takes a much stronger stance with respect to the Congolese conflict, and does all that is in its power to put an end to the senseless violence of which thousands of civilians are the victims.

One striking feature of all these conflicts is that they are closely interlinked. The Lusaka peace process addresses only one of them, but the central position of the Democratic Republic of the Congo makes the process crucial to peace in the entire sub-region. Furthermore, the presence of armed elements - some of them closely related to refugee groups - and the uncontrolled flow of heavy and light weapons, are both causes and effects of the intertwined wars affecting Central Africa. Once more, I would like to urge the Security Council to examine these issues and take concrete action to address them.

Both in Central and West Africa, UNHCR continues its work. Let me however repeat once more my key message of today. If refugee problems in these two sub-regions are to be resolved in a durable fashion, it is essential that support be provided to the political agreements. I would like to draw the Council's attention in particular to the importance of the actual implementation of the security provisions of these agreements, as rapidly as possible and in the most appropriate form - be it through the direct deployment of peacekeepers or observers, or through the provision of logistical support to forces deployed by other countries. African leaders have taken political initiatives to address conflicts. Throughout my recent travels in Africa, I sensed that there is now a strong expectation for the United Nations to provide more support and be more actively involved in keeping and building peace. Lusaka and Lomé are windows of opportunity. They may not remain open for long. Let us seize these opportunities now.

Peace building after conflicts

We, at UNHCR, deal every day, in the field, with millions of women, men and children who flee from war. We understand very well the importance of stopping conflicts - which is what the Lomé and Lusaka peace negotiations aim to do. But we also help refugees return home after conflicts have ended, often to situations of very fragile peace - often to communities that war has left divided and torn. We therefore constantly insist on the importance of consolidating peace, after peace has been "signed", and of avoiding a dangerous gap between the provision of humanitarian assistance and of longer-term development cooperation.

I have repeated this point so many times that I risk sounding like a broken record. However - and again, I wish to refer to my recent trips to Africa - such situations of gap continue to exist. Take the example of Rwanda. Most refugees have returned - returnees make about 25% of the entire population. The phase of humanitarian assistance - relatively well supported by donors - has been followed by much more timid inputs by development agencies and bilateral actors. Resources are simply not forthcoming substantially enough for peace to be consolidated. This is dangerous, and - in my opinion - potentially very destabilizing. In the Great Lakes region, like in most parts of Africa, there is a close link between poverty, conflict and the forced displacement of people.

I was proud to visit areas in which UNHCR has done substantial work to support the reintegration of two million returnees - including the construction or rehabilitation of 100,000 houses and of communal facilities. This is a remarkable result, I believe, but a humanitarian agency cannot go beyond this type of work, on such a scale. Who will sustain these accomplishments? Who will provide support to the people and the government?

I agree with those who say that much remains to be done in terms of democratization, power sharing and reconciliation in Rwanda. Efforts, however, are being made. I was encouraged by a much greater emphasis on reconciliation, for example, in addition to the focus on justice - attempts to bring people together are now systematic, widespread and very professional. Such efforts must be supported. I am concerned that in these and other situations - for example Liberia, which I have mentioned earlier - the fragility of governments and their weak implementation capacity discourage the provision of development resources. While I fully understand that humanitarian assistance is much freer from political constraints than development cooperation - and it should be - I would nevertheless urge governments not to forget people when planning and implementing longer term aid programmes. Often, by giving people a chance - whatever the political and economic context - we can start processes leading to the democratization of institutions and ultimately to the peace and stability of countries and regions.

A few words on the situation in Kosovo

Mr President, I do not want to conclude this briefing without at least a few words on the situation in Kosovo, that continues to be a major challenge for my Office, and for the international community. When I last briefed the Council, ethnic Albanian refugees were still pouring out of the province. Since the end of hostilities and the deployment of international forces in Kosovo, about 730,000 people have returned home - including some from countries as far as Western Europe and the United States - in one of the most spectacular reverse population movements in contemporary history. Let me add that I consider this repatriation - which in the overwhelming majority of cases was organized by refugees themselves - a very, very welcome development, and a success achieved by the international community. To be reconstructed, Kosovo needs its own people - the faster they return, the easier it will be to rebuild the province.

There are, however, elements of serious concern. The return of ethnic Albanians has - most unfortunately - coincided with the expulsion, harassment and in some cases the killing of people of non-Albanian ethnicity, particularly Serbs and Romas: the massacre of 14 Serbs last week was the latest, and most worrying such episode. A large part of the Serbian population has already fled Kosovo and about 170,000 Serbs from the province are displaced in other parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, both in Serbia and Montenegro. The international community, that has rightly provided support to the cause of persecuted and expelled Albanians, cannot and must not tolerate that the end of one refugee crisis overlaps with the beginning of another. Much as feelings can be understood, retaliation and revenge must not be allowed to prevail. There is a need to promote reconciliation programmes, systematically and professionally - through media, education, and social work. But there is an even more pressing need to rebuild the law enforcement capacity - by completing the deployment of K-FOR, deploying international police forces in sufficient numbers, training local police forces, restoring the judicial system, and so on.

Another area of concern is reconstruction. People are rebuilding their homes, and humanitarian agencies, under UNHCR's lead responsibility, are giving them help. I am concerned, however, that if a more systematic reconstruction programme does not begin in the next few weeks, the larger rehabilitation work - electricity, water, roads, commercial areas - will not make any significant progress before winter. The limited resources of humanitarian agencies will allow people to rebuild part of their houses, but this will not be sufficient in the harsh Balkan winter. Let me add also that reconstruction in Kosovo cannot be delinked from efforts to support and revitalize the economy in South-Eastern Europe as a whole, and especially in countries that have been affected by large movements of refugees. I hope that the upcoming meetings in Brussels and Sarajevo will translate the commitment of governments into concrete action.

Disparities in humanitarian assistance?

I would like to conclude by referring to a problem that has received much attention in the last few months. I am aware that there is a perception of disparity in the assistance given, for example, to displaced persons from Kosovo, as opposed to that given to African refugees. I know that many of you have also been concerned by this complex and difficult problem.

Emergencies, of course, attract more attention than other programmes - and the Kosovo crisis has been a very serious and very large refugee emergency. Crises in Africa at certain times have also received heightened attention and financial support - think of the Horn in the 80s, or the Great Lakes region a few years ago. It is true, however, that Kosovo has been the focus of unprecedented political attention and material support by the international community, by Western countries in particular. Undeniably, proximity, strategic interest and extraordinary media focus have played a key role in determining the quality and level of response. Undeniably, this has not been true - and continues not to be true - in other situations, including some of those that I have spoken of today.

But let me go back to the point I made at the beginning. The positive indications of the OAU Summit in Algiers may signal - will signal, I hope - a renewed commitment by African governments to take their future, and the future of their people, more resolutely in their own hands - and to address and resolve their problems, including refugee problems, through negotiations rather than force. This is a fundamental pre-condition for international support. On the other hand, we - who shoulder global, and not just regional responsibilities - should make all that is in our power to back efforts to resolve conflicts, in Africa and in other parts of the world. And while I can only appeal to you, and to governments, to be as balanced as possible in your support to peace endeavours, I can certainly assure you that my Office will continue to fulfil its own responsibilities towards all those compelled to flee heir homes - and especially those who do so away from the limelight of international attention.

Thank you, Mr President.