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Statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group on Bosnia-Herzegovina

16-01-1996 Statement

by Jean de Courten, director of operations of ICRC

Madam High Commissioner,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me first of all to thank you, Madam High Commissioner, for having convened this humanitarian meeting at a key moment for the implementation of the Agreement on Bosnia-Herzegovina signed in Paris.

After four years of turmoil and suffering, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) considers this agreement to be a decisive step in the settlement of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. On the basis of its mandate and having regard to the specific tasks assigned to it in the text of the agreement, it is committed to making its contribution to the peace process. The principal role in this process, however, must be played by the parties, with the support of the international community.

As stipulated in the agreement negotiated in Dayton, the ICRC is actively involved in organizing the release of prisoners in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite a promising start, the operation was held up by the attitude of the parties, who finally prevented it from taking place. I trust that this setback is only a temporary one. What must be done now is to convince the parties to assume their responsibilities, abandon the logic of war and meet their commitment to release all detainees before 19 January. In so doing they will be taking one more step towards peace.

These major difficulties must not, however, obscure encouraging signs such as the opening of all the enclaves; this has made it possible for humanitarian workers to travel across front lines unhindered and has thus greatly improv ed the plight of the population.

But some risks still remain, owing to the fragility of the structures necessary for the cohesion of any civilian society. Blind violence and complete lack of respect for the precepts of international humanitarian law has created deep resentment and bitterness. Segregation along ethnic lines has reached such a point that even families formed by mixed marriages 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.

It is against this background that plans must be made for the return of hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced within Bosnia-Herzegovina or who have taken refuge in neighbouring States or other countries. If their return is to proceed without giving rise to any further catastrophe, it must be accompanied by a broader process of reconciliation throughout the former Yugoslavia.

In the light of the experience that the ICRC has accumulated in this context, I can only stress the role of the human factor and warn against undue haste. The peoples of the region are suffering the effects of a veritable trauma, which not a single family has escaped. To adopt a time-table without taking account of the psychological effects of the war, the fears and rancour it aroused, would be to jeopardize the current peace process which, as we know, is fragile.

The ICRC feels that if the return of displaced people and refugees is to take place in a satisfactory manner two conditions have to be met:

- The first condition is adequate security. This means on the one hand that returnees must not be resettled in a hostile environment, and on the other that the rule of law must be restored, with a functioning judicial system guar anteeing the dispensing of dispassionate justice and in particular the settlement of property disputes. I should like to point out that at present the ICRC is still having to provide protection for people who are being harassed or detained, sometimes for the sole reason that their names indicate a different ethnic origin.

- The second relates to socio-economic conditions. These must be capable of providing the population with a decent standard of living. May I say here that 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. At the same time an effort will have to be made to create the social and economic conditions necessary to receive those returning from abroad. 

In this process of restoring the social fabric, the Red Cross will have an important role to play. The network of members of local Red Cross bodies, spread throughout the territory and representing all the ethnic communities, can, by providing impartial assistance, actively help heal the rift between groups divided by feelings of mistrust and hatred. These Red Cross organizations can count on the support of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in their efforts.

Madam High Commissioner, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The ICRC will continue to share with States, especially those that have received refugees from the former Yugoslavia, its assessment of developments in the humanitarian sphere. In its work it will continue to maintain close contacts with UNHCR and the other agencies responsible for organizing the return and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons under the terms of the Paris Agreement. 

  Mr Jean de Courten is Director of Operations of ICRC  

 Geneva, 16 January 1996  

Ref. UN(1996)1b