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Statement of the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Dr Cornelio Sommaruga to the Mid-Term Review Conference, Bosnia and Herzegovina

13-06-1996 Statement

Delivered by Mr Angelo Gnaedinger, delegate general, Western and Central Europe and the Balkans Florence, 13-14 June 1996.

Eight months have passed since the end of the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that time we have all had to realize what an enormous and arduous task it will be to bring reconciliation and lasting peace to the region and to reconstruct a society so brutally torn apart.

It goes without saying that we share everybody's assessment and resultant concern that whereas the implementation of the military aspects of the Peace Accord was achieved in a reasonably satisfactory manner, the civilian provisions are proving far more sensitive and challenging to put into practice.

In London I presented to you the ICRC Agenda following the signing of the Peace Agreement on the Former Yugoslavia. I am here today to report on how the ICRC has so far fulfilled the two tasks entrusted to it under the Peace Agreement, namely, to supervise the release of prisoners and to advance the search for the missing.

* Since December, more than 1,000 prisoners have been released and the few still held are suspected of having committed war crimes. I would like to take this opportunity and publicly express to the IFOR Command and to the High Representative our appreciation for the excellent cooperation during the release operation and the transfer of prisoners. The ICRC will continue to monitor the situation of those who are still detained, and of anyone else arrested on suspicion of war crimes and detained by the parties in the former Yugoslavia or under the responsibility of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

* On the occasion of the first Peace Implementation Conference, I expressed my heartfelt wish that the hopes which had been raised with the return of peace to the former Yugoslavia would become a reality as soon as possible. Unlike the 1,000 released prisoners I have just mentioned, many other people have not come back home now that the hostilities have ended. Indeed, during that dreadful war thousands were killed or massacred and their bodies were anonymously buried. With regard to Srebrenica alone and on the basis of new contacts with the families of those who went missing during the fall of that enclave, the ICRC has come to the conclusion that more than 5,000 have suffered such an atrocious fate. Their families know nothing of their whereabouts and cannot live with their minds at rest. From a strictly humanitarian point of view, the truth, however painful, is always preferable to the gnawing agony of uncertainty. While we hope that the families'call for justice will be given an effective response, the ICRC is addressing their requests to receive a specific answer for each missing person. So far the ICRC has collected over 12,000 substantiated individual tracing requests. The majority of these tracing requests have been submitted to the parties. We are convinced that the former warring parties do have the necessary knowledge to ascertain the fate of most of the missing persons.

For this reason, the ICRC has called on them to cooperate through a Working Group on Missing Persons, set up in Sarajevo on 1 March 1996. The group has now met four times, and thanks to information provided mainly by the parties, some 500 cases of persons unaccounted for have meanwhile been elucidated.

Furthermore we believe that the answer to the mystery of those still unaccounted for lies not only in mass graves, but also in the collective consciousness of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ICRC is therefore stepping up its efforts to gather relevant information from the population as well. To this effect a public campaign, supported by a publication listing the names of persons sought, is being set up. The contents of this publication will also be made available on the World Wide Web. I take this opportunity to announce that this campaign has already been launched. It began yesterday.

A mass grave is by no means a decent place of burial. The question of exhumations and the very complex issue of identification of mortal remains are being addressed by an (ICRC-initiated) Group of Experts under the chairmanship of the High Representative. According to forensic experts, a databank containing information to help identify mortal remains should be set up by a competent organization before any exhumation takes place. I would like to take advantage of this meeting to stress that, however complex and hazardous the identification of the thousands of as yet nameless victims may be, the very least that can and must be done for those who suffered this sorry fate is to afford them a decent burial. The families must then be given the possibility to mourn their dead.

In order to enable them to do so properly, the right to freedom of movement must be given practical effect. If the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are to enjoy this right, there must be a guaranteed and universally accepted system of rule of law. I cannot but repeat what I said in London, where I stressed the paramount importance of rebuilding institutions, in particular the judiciary and other democratic structures, as the only sensible means of preparing the ground for a stable and secure society. Certainly, considerable efforts have been made towards implementing the peace process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but much remains to be done to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace. While concentrating on these objectives, we shall also give all due attention to Eastern Slavonia, which has entered the crucial phase of demilitarization. Restraint by the former warring parties and a generous commitment by the international community are essential to ensure that - unlike Sarajevo at the beginning of t his year - the transfer of authority does notlead to further ethnic segregation.

 The ICRC' s contribution to this common endeavour is as follows:  

* It is encouraging reconciliation through a number of training programmes aimed at promoting mutual tolerance and respect. Programmes for schools promoting humanitarian values and favouring peaceful communication between communities are being prepared in Bosnia and Herzegovina, modelled on already existing programmes in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In addition, courses on the Law of War are being organized for the armed forces and followed by officers on both sides of the Inter-Entity Boundary Line. Lastly the ICRC started a major campaign in March to alert the population to the danger of mines. However, if the campaign is to have a long-term preventive impact it has to be complemented by mine clearance and the marking of mined areas. International support is needed, but the final responsibility rests with the local authorities.

* The ICRC is also taking immediate steps to improve people's daily lives. In December, I announced that while the ICRC's ongoing relief programmes would be continued until the end of winter, with the onset of spring humanitarian assistance would be transformed into a social support system for the most vulnerable groups. Assistance programmes are currently being carried out by National Red Cross Societies together with the local Red Cross organizations. Where international support does not yet cover the needs, the ICRC will continue to ensure regular supplies of surgical material and essential medicines and to provide the authorities with equipment and chemicals essential for the treatment of water supplies throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Eastern Slavonia.

 Conclusion  

The ICRC is determined to continue playing its role while accompanying the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the path to reconciliation and reintegration, by helping them to create an environment favouring a catharsis and a restoration of confidence.

 Ref. EXSO 96.06.13-ENG