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Statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Humanitarian Issues Working Group Meeting on Operational Plans for Durable Solutions within the Framework of Annex 7 of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Related Regional Return and Repatriation Movements

13-05-1996 Statement

delivered by Mr Paul Grossrieder, deputy director of operations of the ICRC.

Madam High Commissioner,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The seven months that have passed since the end of the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina have demonstrated what an enormous and arduous task it will be to reconstruct a society so brutally torn apart and to bring reconciliation and lasting peace to the region.

For a number of weeks now, implementation of the peace accord has been moving from military issues to the far more sensitive and challenging civilian aspects of the process.

If you travel through Bosnia and Herzegovina these days, you will see that the checkpoints have been removed ... but psychological barriers remain. To bring reconciliation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, both politicians and ordinary people have to accept the fact that those who were their enemies yesterday have to be their partners in reconstruction tomorrow. To achieve this goal the parties must show the necessary political will, and ways must be found to persuade those who were once next-door neighbours to live together again.

In carrying out the two tasks entrusted to it under the Peace Agreement, to supervise the release of prisoners and to enhance the search for the missing, the ICRC has often had to deplore the lack of political will shown by the parties.

    In regard to the first of these tasks, the deadlines set in Dayton for the release of prisoners have not been respected by any of the parties. Delays were due mainly to the reluctance shown by all three of them to move away from the principle of trading prisoners. However, since December, more than 1,000 prisoners have been released and the few still held are suspected of having committed war crimes.

**    As for the second task, just about all remains to be done: during this dreadful war thousands have been killed and massacred and anonimously buried. Their families do not know anything about their fate and cannot live with their minds at rest. While we hope that their call for justice will be responded to effectively, the ICRC is adressing families'request to receive a specific answer for each missing person. So far the ICRC has collected more than 12'000 substantiated individual tracing requests. We are convinced that the former warring parties have the knowledge to ascertain the fate of most of them. The ICRC-chaired Working Group on Missing Persons set up in Sarajevo on 1 March 1996 has now met three times. However so far only 150 cases of persons unaccounted for have been elucidated, thanks to information provided mainly by the parties through the Working Group.

The answer to the mystery of those still unaccounted for is buried not only in mass graves, but also in the collective consciousness of the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ICRC is stepping up its efforts to gather relevant information from the population. This campaign is backed up by the publication of a gazette on missing persons, the contents of which will also be available on the World Wide Web. In order to deal with the question of exhumations in a coordinated and knowledgeable manner the ICRC has initiated the creation of an Experts'Group under the chairmanship of the High Representative's Office. Should the people sought not be found, the parties will have to deal with the legal implications for their families (inheritance, pension rights and civil status). Responding to the families'need for clarity and justice is crucial for further progress towards peace.

A crucial test for the integration process is now under way in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium. The more than 100,000 people living there in Serb-held areas are uncertain about what the future holds in store, and the beginning of the transition process has raised serious fears among them. The Croatian and the local Serb authorities, and the United Nations Transitional Administration, face a tremendous challenge: how to ensure an orderly transfer of authority without prompting an exodus of the local Serb population on the return of the Croatian inhabitants who fled the area in 1991. If this delicate integration process were to fail, it would mean continued ethnic separation and partition, which would certainly create further hatred and resentment in the entire region. ICRC is setting a positive signal in allowing hundreds of families separated since 1991 to meet each other on the former confrontation line.

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. The emphasis is now on reconstruction, both of political structures and of civil society. The main objective is to establish stable political and economic conditions. Within this framework, the ICRC is focusing on the following issues:

- Security for all: if the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina is to enjoy complete freedom of movement, there must be a guaranteed and universally accepted system of rule of law. The Red Cross will of course continue to insist on respect for the safety and dignity of vulnerable groups, including returnees, but the support of the international community is essential in developing the structures of law and order on the local and national scale.

- Tracing those unaccounted for: families need clear and definite answers s o that they can be reassured or come to terms with their loss. All tracing requests and replies will be officially processed by the Working Group on Missing Persons, which, as mentioned previously, is chaired by the ICRC.

- Promoting reconciliation: mutual tolerance and respect are crucial to the reconciliation process. Dissemination by the Red Cross of humanitarian values in the community and programmes such as the mine-awareness campaign are helping to restore normal life in the region.

- Improving people's daily lives -- immediately. Reconstruction of local facilities, housing and basic services is a mid-term project. In the meantime, however, continued assistance and maintenance are necessary to prevent a total collapse of systems that are still functioning and to ensure stable and decent living conditions with at least minimum medical, social and sanitation services. At present, such programmes are a priority for the ICRC.

To sum up, reconciliation will have to be achieved among the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina through a political, psychological and economic process. The ICRC wishes once again to stress the importance of the human factor, and to warn against undue haste. Any time-table adopted will have to take into account the psychological effects of the war and the fear and rancour to which it gave rise.

Failure to do so would jeopardize the whole peace process which, as we know, is fragile.

(Ref. DP 1996-079-ENG)