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Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

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10-12 1996

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Special Envoy of Secretary-General to the Great Lakes Region 10-12 1996

• Following the genocide, thousands of Rwandan refugees fled to neighbouring countries
• Separating refugees from armed elements in camps especially along the Rwanda-Zaire border became a major humanitarian issue
• Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila and supported by Rwanda attacked Goma refugee camps forcing the inmates to flee into forest or return to Rwanda
• Congolese rebels overthrew Mobutu and took over power in Kinshasa

Prevailing Situation in the Great Lakes Region in mid-Nineties

1. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and subsequent take-over of power by the Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame forced thousands of Hutus to flee into the neighbouring countries, Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. Armed Rwandan Hutu elements (Interahamwe) mingled with the refugees, creating insecurity for the latter. This came to a climax in May 1996 when Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila and supported by Rwanda attacked the sprawling refugee camps in Goma, Eastern Zaire, killing thousands of innocent, mostly Hutus, and forcing the refugees to either flee into the forest or return unwillingly to an unknown fate in Rwanda. These developments posed very serious moral questions to the humanitarian community and especially to UNHCR.

2. In mid-1996, the situation in the Great Lakes Region had become extremely tense. In Burundi, there was considerable tension between Hutus and Tutsis following the murder of the Hutu President and takeover of power by a Tutsi. This led to outbursts of violence in which thousands of people from both ethnic groups were killed. It had also led to the flight, mainly to Rwanda, of about 700,000 Hutus. The neighbouring countries convened an emergency meeting and declared an embargo against Burundi. Elsewhere in the region, relations between Uganda and Sudan were deteriorating as each country accused the other of arming and supporting rebels against the other. In eastern Zaire, the conflict in South Kivu was spreading to North Kivu. Guerrillas attacked Banyamulenge (a Zairean Tutsi group).The work of UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies in the Kivus became even more difficult. UNHCR was portrayed by the Rwanda government and its allies as supporting not so much the refugees but the genocidaires and their sponsors, the Mobutu regime in Zaire. To make things worse, the refugees and the Zairean government also criticized UNHCR. In 1996, UNHCR faced a very difficult situation with the Rwandan refugees in Tanzania as they were later reported to have been forcibly repatriated.

3. Kabila overthrew Mobutu and took over power in Kinshasa. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The close political and military relationship between Rwanda and DRC and the infiltration of Hutu militias into the camps created enormous difficulties for UNHCR and the partner agencies to assist the refugees and give them effective protection.

4. UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations thus found themselves in a situation which was not only politically extremely difficult, but also increasingly dangerous. The argument that humanitarian aid in the absence of political action can prolong, and sometimes exacerbate, armed conflict was given force by the events that unfolded in eastern Zaire. The trend of events compelled High Commissioner Sadako Ogata to state the following at the beginning of October 1996: “The link between refugee problems and peace and security is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Great Lakes region in Africa…Probably never before has my Office found its humanitarian concerns in the midst of such a lethal quagmire of political and security interests. While our humanitarian assistance and protection serve an innocent, silent majority of needy and anxious refugees, they also serve the militants who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. This cannot go on."

Achievements

5 Sadako Ogata was convinced that this stalemate could only be broken by UNHCR leading the humanitarian operations in the Great Lakes Region. Consequently, she agreed to release Sergio Vieira de Mello to serve as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the Great Lakes Region for two months.
Sergio's assignment entailed guaranteeing secure space for the refugees, ensuring effective humanitarian assistance reached them and negotiating access and protection for them with the State and Non-State parties. Sergio used his strong diplomatic skills to promote dialogue and understanding between the authorities, the refugees, the non-state actors and the operational humanitarian agencies and partners with resounding success. By the time he returned to Geneva, in December 1996, the tension, violence and insecurity that had exacerbated the situation on the ground had given way to an acceptable level of normalcy in which the refugees could receive care and protection and the majority of them had returned to Rwanda... Although the refugees returned safely home, the contention and debate that these refugees were forcibly repatriated continues to this day. The verdict is still out there.

 

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