UNHCR and ICRC in the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia-Herzegovina

30-09-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 843, by Kirsten Young


Kirsten Young
is a Senior Liaison Officer, South-Eastern Europe Operation, at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva. She has served as Protection Officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Artemis Christodulou to her research for this article. — The Review invited the author to write an article on the humanitarian work of UNHCR and the ICRC respectively in the Balkans war (1992-1995) for this issue. The text is her own personal contribution and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the two organizations. 

The emergency relief operation in the former Yugoslavia was one of the largest, most complex, and riskiest international relief initiatives ever undertaken. UNHCR’s programme was perhaps the most difficult of any mounted by the organization since it was established. While UNHCR had operations in all the republics of the former Yugoslavia during its violent dissolution, the organization faced its greatest challenges in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For the first time, UNHCR was operating in a context of open conflict where it worked as much with war-affected local populations as with displaced ones. While this was more familiar territory for the ICRC, the conflict in Bosnia-Herze govina likewise presented the International Committee with one of its most complicated programmes ever. This case study will focus on the activities of both organizations during the Bosnian conflict from 1992-1995.
Among the most complex issues facing the humanitarian operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina were: the sheer scale of the crisis, which produced the largest number of refugees and displaced people in Europe since World War II; the displacement of populations as an objective rather than as a consequence of the war, through a practice euphemistically known as “ethnic cleansing”; flagrant attacks on humanitarian principles, including systematic denial of humanitarian access; the unprecedented level of security risks faced by humanitarian personnel; and the involvement of UN troops with the primary mandate of supporting the humanitarian operation.
UNHCR and ICRC were uneasy bedfellows in the early days of the operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. UNHCR was stepping on traditional ICRC turf in working in a situation of open conflict with the internally displaced and local war-affected populations. But as the humanitarian needs rapidly increased, UNHCR came to the conclusion that the ICRC did not have adequate capacity to address the enormity of the crisis on its own, and the two organizations developed a collaborative, complementary relationship.  

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