The debate of the Assembly concerning the implementation of the Dayton Agreements for Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Doc. 7524
18 April 1996

by Mr IWINSKI, Poland, Socialist Group

1.         General context

1.         The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina now totals some 3 million; approximately 80% (2.4 million) of its members have become totally or partially dependent on international humanitarian aid as a result of the conflict. It is estimated that the war has displaced over 2 million Bosnians, roughly half of them dispersed inside the country and the remainder in 25 receiving countries.

2.         The Parliamentary Assembly and its Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography have consistently held that the return of refugees and displaced persons is crucial to the reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The committee therefore welcomes the inclusion of this principle in Dayton Agreements Annex 7 on Refugees and Displaced Persons, under whose terms all refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin. They are entitled to have restored to them property of which they were deprived as from 1991, and to compensation for any property that cannot be restored.

3.         Annex 7 also assigns to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the task of developing, in close consultation with asylum countries and Parties to the Dayton Agreements, a repatriation plan as part of the implementation of the Agreements.

2.    Implementation of Annex 7 to the Dayton Agreements

4.         In accordance with its mandate, the UNHCR has drawn up a document entitled "Post-Conflict Solutions: UNHCR Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other Countries in the Region" which deals with strategic planning for the return and repatriation of refugees and displaced persons and arrangements for the possible lifting of temporary protection. This text was approved by the participants in the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia held by the UNHCR in Geneva on 16 January 1996.

5.         According to the document, the primary objective of the return and repatriation operation is to ensure that lasting solutions are found for displaced persons through a process of "early, peaceful, orderly and phased return" to a place of their choice (home of origin or elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina). The fundamental human rights of returnees are to be protected and their essential needs provided for. Humanitarian assistance should continue at least in the short term, to be phased out as the reconstruction process gets under way.

6.         The UNHCR has likewise formulated a detailed plan of operations for return and repatriation which was discussed and largely approved at a high-level meeting on the implementation of Annex 7 organised by the UNHCR and hosted by the Norwegian Government on 8 March 1996 in Oslo.

7.         The Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography regards the aforementioned documents as constituting a sound basis on which to organise the return and repatriation process, and invites Council of Europe member states to assist with their implementation. The following paragraphs discuss in detail the main points of the plans.

8.         Most returns are anticipated from April to November 1996. As to the displaced persons, four "Pilot Projects" involving 600 displaced Croat and Muslim families have been established (in the municipalities of Travnik, Jajce, Stolac and Bugojno). However, their implementation is already meeting with serious difficulties which merely highlight the complexity of the problems raised by return.

9.         As to the return of the refugees, the UNHCR suggests phased repatriation as follows:

10.        Return in scheduled phases according to ethnic criteria is of course a practical solution, but one which is liable to accentuate the country's ethnic division. Germany, for instance, has expressed reservations about this and announced its intention to apply its own criteria, based on the individual circumstances of the persons concerned rather than on their ethnic ties. The Bosnian Government for its part advocates return to the homes of origin.

11.        The UNHCR expects that the movements will occur spontaneously for the most part, in private vehicles or by available public overland transport. In order to encourage this process, the UNHCR has already begun to produce and distribute information reports giving indications as to the development of security conditions and legislation in various regions. The committee wholeheartedly supports this approach, since repatriants' access to this kind of information is essential if they are to make the repatriation decision of their own free will.

12.        At the present time the committee feels that the conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina are such that returns should be solely voluntary and in keeping with the absorption capacity of the destinations (housing stock in particular). It concurs with the UNHCR that a very close link exists between return and the advancement of the reconstruction process.

13.        To meet the immediate needs of reconstruction, the UNHCR has set up a Trust Fund for Shelter Materials to enable repatriants to begin their own repairs to their homes. Medium and short term multilateral finance for reconstruction is to be co-ordinated (and largely provided) by the European Union and the World Bank. At the Ministerial Conference jointly organised by these two institutions, held in Brussels on 12 and 13 April 1996 with the aim of securing financial commitments for the reconstruction programme, donor nations have pledged 1.23 billions USD for the reconstruction this year. In addition, a United Nations revised consolidated appeal was launched on 1 March 1996 to raise a total of 823.2 million USD covering the financial requirements of all United Nations institutions in the five former Yugoslav republics.

14.        In this matter the committee reissues its appeal to member states for substantial contributions to the funding of reconstruction. This appeal is all the more pertinent in view of the declarations by certain host countries to the effect that, having already borne the "burden" of temporary protection, they should not be the principal suppliers of funds for reconstruction.

15.        As return hinges on increased housing capacity and the Council of Europe possesses a suitable instrument in this field, namely the Social Development Fund, the member states should make full use of its potential. In my opinion, the Assembly should examine new measures to increase the Fund's active capability in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the subject of a separate report.

3.    Lifting of temporary protection for persons having fled Bosnia-Herzegovina

16.        About a million Bosnians are currently residing in the various European countries, most under temporary protection a measure adopted from the outset of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in order to cope with the massive influxes of refugees from the region. Temporary applicability being one of the fundamental characteristics of the measure, the receiving states have now raised the question whether, after the conclusion of the Dayton Agreements, it has any further justification.

17.        At the above-mentioned Geneva meeting, the official removal of temporary protection was envisaged even before the conduct of elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In view of the material conditions in the area, however, and the fragility of the peace, this position has been altered and the UNHCR would now lift protection strictly depending on certain preconditions:

18.        The committee supports the approach adopted by the UNHCR, considering that any untimely return effected in the absence of satisfactory conditions for the reception of the persons concerned would be inhumane towards them and liable to upset the peace process. Nor can trust be restored between the various communities in the space of a few months; consequently, insistence on carrying out repatriation with all possible speed could accentuate the country's ethnic division in that the refugees would rather return to regions under the control of their ethnic group than to their homes of origin.

19.        Against this background, it should be pointed out that Germany, which took in some 300,000 Bosnian refugees, has ordered the official removal of temporary protection on 1 July 1996. After that date, a return programme will be commenced. Anyone not abiding by its schedule would be forcibly repatriated.

20.        This position is of grave concern to the committee, which fully shares the UNHCR's and also most other host countries' opinion that any unilateral measure in this respect could trigger secondary refugee movements between host states. The committee accordingly stresses the imperious need for co-ordination as regards the lifting of temporary protection.

21.        In order to help them reach their decision to return, persons under temporary protection should be able to make preparatory "look-and-see-visits" to Bosnia-Herzegovina while retaining the right to re-enter the host country. In this regard, the committee is pleased that the relevant UNHCR recommendation has received a favourable response in the host states.

4.    Refugee voting

22.        The committee welcomes the general acknowledgement of the fact that registration for elections, as a token of intended return, expresses a political commitment and not a legal obligation. It is now plain that the number of persons voting from abroad will be large; the committee therefore joins in the appeal issued by the UNHCR for receiving states to facilitate in-situ polling for Bosnian refugees. In addition, travel arrangements should be made for refugees to vote in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with guaranteed return to the host country.

5.    Commission for Displaced Persons and Refugees

23.        Dayton Agreements Annex 7 provides for the establishment of a Commission for Displaced Persons and Refugees, responsible for deciding claims for return of real property or compensation in lieu. The Commission has now been set up (four members appointed by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, two by the Republika Srpska and three, plus the Chairman, by the European Court of Human Rights), and has held its first meeting. It is nevertheless most regrettable that at the time of writing the Commission lacks funds to ensure its operation. The financial situation is so grim that its members cannot even travel to Sarajevo! It is therefore essential to make this body operational as soon as possible, and I strongly urge the Council of Europe member states to take appropriate action.

6.    Conclusions

24.        In 1996 the UNHCR forecasts that Bosnia-Herzegovina will see the return and/or resettlement of some 500,000 internally displaced persons and of 370,000 repatriants (including 170,000 from the other countries of the former Yugoslavia).

25.        The committee considers that having regard to the situation in the area and the small number of returns hitherto, these figures should be treated with the utmost caution, bearing in mind that since the conclusion of the Dayton Agreements the number of refugees and displaced persons has grown instead of diminishing (chiefly because the Serb population has left the districts of Sarajevo now under the control of the Bosnian Federation).

26.        The committee feels that solving the problems of refugees and displaced persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be a difficult and protracted process. Speedy repatriation at any price must not be given priority; rather, we should make ready for a sustained effort aimed at the gradual provision of suitable conditions in which to achieve a worthy and lasting return.

27.        The Council of Europe has a vital part to play in this endeavour. For the moment, reconstruction of civil society, including the introduction of human rights protection mechanisms, is not keeping pace with the fulfilment of the military stipulations in the Dayton Agreements. Council of Europe activities in this field, which is in its remit, must therefore be intensified.

28.        The problem of ex-Yugoslav refugees is a regional problem which involves not only Bosnia-Herzegovina but, in particular, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) as well. The refugees, whether Croat, Muslim, Serb or other, are all suffering the same trials. The committee therefore urges the Council of Europe member states and the international community to render assistance to all those affected by the conflict and especially to make a sustained effort which should not lapse once media attention is diverted from the fate of the former Yugoslavia's refugees.

Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee (Doc. 7509).

Reference to committee: Order No. 483 of 5 November 1992.

This contribution was approved by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography on 12 April 1996.

Secretaries to the committee: MM. Newman, Sich and Mrs Nachilo.

[1]. by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography