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Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the Peace Implementation Council

06-04-1999 Statement

Statement by Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Geneva, 6 April 1999.

Words are becoming increasingly inadequate to describe the devastation in the Balkans. The region has witnessed an appalling list of tragedies, both individual and collective, over the past ten years. First there was Croatia. Then there was Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now we are faced with an ever-widening conflict in Kosovo and throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the human implications of which are simply disastrous. In fact, I am convinced that they will haunt us for decades to come.

Since 24 March 1999, events in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have occurred with frightening speed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is profoundly alarmed by the spreading conflict, which is taking on an increasingly regional dimension and having incalculable consequences in humanitarian terms.

I feel compelled to express my personal dismay at the situation unfolding within Kosovo. What first comes to mind is the spectacle of so many lives being shattered before our very eyes. The number of people forced to leave their homes is now being counted in the hundreds of thousands, and the trauma they are experiencing is unimaginable. Everything we hear from witnesses tells us that there is an attempt to drive the vast majority of the population of Albanian origin out of Kosovo.

1In addition, the ICRC has reason to fear that conditions for civilians within Kosovo are in many cases life-threatening. I have called and will incessantly call upon the Yugoslav authorities at the highest level to take immediate and effective measures to ensure the safety of the population of Albanian origin with in Kosovo.

It is important also to underline our concern about the impact in humanitarian terms of the air strikes in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where civilians are spending night after night in air-raid shelters, enduring fear and physical hardship and worried about the safety of their relatives and neighbours. 

The ICRC has formally reminded the NATO member States and the Yugoslav authorities of their obligations under the rules and principles of international humanitarian law in this context, in particular as regards the conduct of hostilities, and of the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war.

Now I would like to make a few specific observations relating to the massive population movements out of Kosovo towards the Republic of Montenegro, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

First, it has to be stressed once again that it is simply not enough to label what is happening a " humanitarian catastrophe " . A conflict on this scale, causing possibly the most sudden and the largest single refugee crisis in Europe during the second half of this century, is predominantly a political and social catastrophe which indeed has immense humanitarian implications.

Secondly, comments are being made about the " inability " of the humanitarian agencies to cope with the situation. Let me be very clear about this: humanitarian agencies, and among them the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, are trying   to cope with the crisis, but evidently its sheer magnitude will require mobilization of a special kind.

Some hard political decisions on the part of the international community will also be required if broader Balkan stability is to be preserved. In other words, the ICRC wish es to echo the call made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Western and other governments to commit themselves to receiving significant numbers of refugees, on a temporary basis, in their respective countries. Some governments have already indicated their intention to proceed into this direction. This encouraging move should be accompanied by measures to prevent further separation of family members. Such a sharing of the burden will reassure Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that they will not be alone in dealing with the consequences of the influx of refugees they are now experiencing. At the same time, I strongly appeal to the authorities in Skopje to open the border crossing points without delay and to allow in the tens of thousands of men, women and children who have been stranded for days in a dangerous no-man's land.

Urgent steps are needed to resolve this deplorable situation: the borders must be opened in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and beyond!

In parallel, a number of States have already expressed their intention of making exceptional means available to deal with the refugee crisis in Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, including military means. Let us not forget, however, the ordeal of thousands of civilians of Albanian origin who have poured into Montenegro, where the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is the most operational relief organization. 

Furthermore, I would like to take this opportunity to stress that the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have, since the outbreak of this crisis, stepped up their activities in aid of the victims in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in Albania and in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. These activities focus not only on furnishing material assistance, but also on alleviating a very specific consequence of a conflict wher e so many people are forced to leave their homes: the loss of all contact with relatives and friends.This causes unbearable strain and further suffering for people already enduring appalling living conditions. At the same time, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has drawn up a regional strategy with a plan of action that is being presented today. At the very heart of this strategy lies the crucial role that is being and will continue to be played by the National Red Cross Societies of the countries concerned. As Mr George Weber, Secretary General of the International Federation, will underline, major resources from within the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement have been mobilized to ensure a continued response to urgent needs in the days and weeks to come.

I must insist here on the fact that a Red Cross presence will be essential both inside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in order to provide assistance, and where possible protection, to the victims there, and outside   the country to cater for the needs of refugees.

In this regard, I would like to point to the very positive level of coordination between the ICRC, the International Federation and other humanitarian agencies, in particular UNHCR, in this critical phase.

Allow me to conclude by saying that everyone concerned must show a sense of responsibility. There are people requiring our urgent and concerted action, and no one - no government, no organization - is in a position to handle this crisis alone.

 Ref. EXSO 99.04.06-ENG