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ICRC views on human rights in Bosnia and Herzegonia

04-03-1996 Statement

 Vienna, 4 March 1996  

The ICRC welcomes the initiative to convene a coordination meeting this time as human rights issues are now central to arriving at a comprehensive peaceful settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ICRC is not directly involved in monitoring the implementation of the human rights agenda as a whole, in peace time, but has been working to protect the civilian population during the conflict at a time when an " ethnic cleansing " policy was being carried out. It still remains very much concerned about the safety of the population and would like to see the development of measures which will progressively ensure safety and dignity for all.

 The ICRC and protection of civilians  

In the midst of a war aimed essentially at creating ethnically homogenous areas the ICRC's immediate concern was to save lives:

*for four years delegates have been relentlessly pressing authorities to respect and ensure the security of minority members living on their soil. In some cases, where lives have been directly endangered, the delegates have evacuated individuals;

*in summer 1995, when the pressure to leave became too strong for minority groups, the ICRC insisted that the authorities provide minimum conditions of safety and humanity during expulsions.

Now that open hostilities are over, the ICRC still continues to raise the issue of safety and dignity on behalf of those who have decided to stay in spite of the odds, and those who have left and are now consid ering returning.

 Building Confidence  

Under the Peace Agreement several concrete measures have to be taken to help heal the wounds arising from the conflict. The aim is to remove obstacles in the way of reconciliation. Hence the ICRC was entrusted with two specific tasks:

 The release of detainees : as stipulated in the Peace Agreement, the ICRC has been actively involved in organizing the release of prisoners in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will continue to monitor the situation of any people deprived of their freedom as a result of the conflict, until all detainees have been released. To date, some 800 detainees have been released, but more than 150 still remain in detention, in spite of the renewed commitment the parties made in Rome on 18 February 1996.

 The release of information about persons unaccounted for to the families : the main issue for the ICRC in the field of tracing for 1996 will be to obtain the cooperation of the parties in ascertaining the fate of thousands of people who remain unaccounted for. In the Peace Agreement the Parties agreed to " provide information through the tracing mechanisms of the ICRC on all persons unaccounted for " . The ICRC is thus currently working to set up an ICRC-chaired Working Group, where representatives of the Entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of the High Representative will work at providing answers about persons unaccounted for, with the specific aim of informing the distressed families of the fate of their missing relatives.

 Building a spirit of reconciliation through inter-community dissemination of humanitarian principles  

Values such as toler ance and mutual understanding have been shattered. Most basic humanitarian rules have been ignored and international humanitarian law has been most severely violated. The ICRC has worked relentlessly to promote the Red Cross, its activities and its working principles. In the current process towards a comprehensive peace, the ICRC shifted the focus to the reconciliation and rebuilding of traditional humanitarian values in the community. For this purpose it adopted an inter-ethnic community-based approach, and supported the widespread existing network of 130 local Red Cross branches in Bosnia and Herzegovina in promoting values which have been debased and perverted in the course of the war. Through the example of their own work and by helping the most vulnerable and providing educational programmes for community schools, these structures - which existed long before the war and were used working together- can play an important role in creating a spirit of reconciliation and peace.

 Fear and rancour : owing to the fragility of the structures necessary for the cohesion of any civilian society, some risks still remain in the process of building a comprehensive peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Blind violence and a complete lack of respect for the precepts of international humanitarian law have created deep resentment and bitterness. Segregation along ethnic lines has reached such a point that even mixed families tend to be rejected. Moreover, a change of authority over a given area, even when it has been negotiated, triggers the displacement of entire populations. The ICRC can only stress the importance of the human factor and warn against the consequences of the psychological effects of the war and the fears and rancour it aroused, which might even now jeopardize the current peace process. This aspect remains even more important at a time when two million people, who left the country during the hostilities, are now expected to ret urn and be resettled.

 Reinforce local and national structures : under such conditions, the current priority is to reinforce the local and national structures, so as to provide adequate security for all members of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It should be pointed out that in the current situation ICRC work unfortunately still consists of providing protection for people who are being harassed or detained, sometimes for the sole reason that their names indicate a different ethnic origin. The monitoring of human rights should not be, nor remain solely at the international level. Rather than playing a supervisory role, the international community should provide support for local and national authorities which should assume real control over the situation pertaining to human rights in their respective areas. This support should above all be aimed at recreating a mood of tolerance for and among the various different cultural groups.

 Ensure economic sufficiency : the socio-economic situation must be such that the population can maintain a decent standard of living. At present the ICRC is still involved in emergency operations designed to ensure the survival of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who are living in conditions of extreme hardship. The priority will be to give these homeless people some prospect of a stable future and to create the social and economic conditions necessary to receive those returning from abroad, so that they will not depend on increased humanitarian help once they are back.

 Conclusion: the priority  

In conclusion, and as a matter of urgency, concrete steps need to be taken to ensure that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can return to a life where security and cohabitation ar e a reality guaranteed by national and regional judicial structures in the full respect of the various cultural identities. Until this is achieved the ICRC will continue to carry out its protection activities and will share the fruits of its experience with others in order to help the ongoing process of rebuilding a State where citizens can live a normal life.

Ref. DP(1996)6b