Acceptance Statement by Francis M. Deng

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

December 14, 2000

Mr. Mayor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I need not tell you how much I appreciate the honor bestowed upon me by being awarded this year’s Rome Prize for Peace and Humanitarian Action. What I would like to underscore, however, is the cause for which I am being honored and what it signifies in today’s international climate.

Internal displacement is a global crisis of grave magnitude, affecting some 20 to 25 million people worldwide. These are people forced to flee their homes or areas of normal residence and deprived of the basic necessities of decent living – shelter, food, potable water, medicine, basic education and employment. Worse, their physical and psychological security and their human rights remain threatened by the very conflict which they seek to flee.

By definition, internal displacement is an internal problem which should be the responsibility of the state concerned and its national and local authorities. But that is only in theory. In practice, most of the countries torn apart by internal conflicts are either too poor or devastated by conflict to have the capacity needed for dealing with these problems. Worse, most of them suffer from severe crises of identity and lack a sense of national cohesion and solidarity. Controlling authorities rarely identify themselves with the victims of internal displacement, often perceiving them as part of the enemy, if not the enemy itself. As a result, they fall into a vacuum of moral responsibility. Instead of being protected and assisted as citizens, they are neglected and even persecuted. To whom can they turn for salvation, but the international community?

The involvement of the international community is, however, impeded, if not obstructed, by negative perceptions of national sovereignty as a barricade against international scrutiny and humanitarian action. The critical question is whether the international community can watch humanitarian tragedies unfold, inflicting gross indignities and even the threat of death on large numbers of people, and do nothing in response.

It is true that the post Cold War period has witnessed significant disengagement by the major powers from crises in other countries because they do not see their strategic interests involved. But it is also true that human rights and humanitarian concerns have increasingly become bases of engagement by the international community with human conditions the world over. It is therefore difficult to perceive indifference by the international community in the face of grave human suffering. Globalization is not only economic, it is, and should be, also human.

Sovereignty must be given a positive interpretation as a normative concept of state responsibility to ensure the safety and general welfare of its citizens. To enjoy legitimate sovereignty, states must meet minimum international human rights and humanitarian standards in providing protection and assistance to all its citizens and those under its jurisdiction.

In my capacity as Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and at the request of the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, I have worked closely with a team of international legal experts and representatives of U.N. agencies, regional organizations and non-governmental organizations to develop an appropriate normative framework for sovereignty as responsibility, now embodied in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Based on existing standards in human rights law, humanitarian law, and analogous refugee law, these standards set out the rights of internally displaced persons in all phases of displacement: providing protection from arbitrary displacement, protection and assistance during displacement, and for safe and dignified return or resettlement and reintegration.

Presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1998, the Principles have since gained significant international standing and authority and are being widely disseminated and used in regions throughout the world. Although some states have recently questioned the process by which the Principles were developed, it is difficult to see how this positive trend of having international standards for the internally displaced can now be reversed without serious implications for the world’s displaced populations.

On the need for an institutional framework for international response to the crisis, we have over the years presented several options, ranging from the creation of a new agency for the internally displaced along the lines of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to the designation of an existing agency to assume full responsibility for them, to the collaborative approach that would mobilize the capacities of existing agencies. This last option is the one preferred and is now being followed, through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee comprised of the main United Nations humanitarian, human rights and development agencies as well as international non-governmental organizations. The required coordinating role is carried out by the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The recent establishment of a Senior Inter-Agency Network under the leadership of a Senior Coordinator, Dennis McNamara, aims at strengthening the coordinating role of OCHA and ensuring the effectiveness of collaboration at the country level. It is my sincere hope that this approach will bring more consistent and predictable protection and assistance to internally displaced populations worldwide.

As the 18 country missions which I have undertaken so far testify, it is at this level that the challenge is most manifest. Statistics assume tragic human faces, whether the displaced are concentrated in camps or in dilapidated buildings, merged into equally devastated and impoverished communities, or dispersed into the forests and the wilderness in hiding from armed forces of the warring factions. It is here that the vacuums of national responsibility and the need for effective action by the international community become most compellingly apparent.

I receive the award of the city of Rome as a recognition of the pressing need for international action on behalf of the internally displaced, within the framework of the evolving norm of sovereignty as responsibility, with accountability. I would also want to reiterate that the monetary value of the prize will be used to address the needs of the internally displaced in Africa.

In this regard, it is worth noting that although the crisis of internal displacement is global, Africa is the worst hit. And in Africa, Sudan with over 4 million internally displaced, as a result of the North-South civil war that has raged intermittently for over 4 decades, is by far the worst case. I am therefore pleased to announce that the money, with matching funds from several agencies within the U.N. system, and potentially other sources as well, will be used to support a transit center in an area along the North-South border. This is an area which receives populations fleeing from the war zone in the South and those returning to the South from displacement in the North. As this area has historically been a bridge between the North and the South and a symbol of national unity and reconciliation, the Rome Prize for Peace is a most appropriate way of linking humanitarian response to the quest for peace and addressing the underlying causes of conflict. We hope the transit center, with integrated services for the residents, will be designated appropriately as the Center for Peace and Reconciliation. I plan to visit this center in March and believe that the displaced people stopping there will find hope when learning of this international support for their plight.

Finally, let me end on a personal note. When the Secretary-General first asked me to assume the position of his Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, I told him that I was honored, but wanted to know from his people the details before giving him my final response. He responded by saying: “Francis, this is a problem that is not only a global crisis; it is one that affects your continent the most; and in Africa, it affects your country, the Sudan, the most; and in the Sudan, it is your people in the South who are the worst hit. I cannot see how you can say no!” With this prize today, the City of Rome has met all the aspects of the challenge as the Secretary-General outlined them: You have recognized the global crisis, focused on the continent of Africa and, with the prize money, supported my people, the worst affected in the Sudan, and indeed in the world.

For all that, I am most grateful. Thank you very much.