Addressing Internal Displacement in Asia: A Role for Regional Organizations

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

March 1, 2003

In February 2000, a regional conference met for three days in Bangkok to develop strategies for dealing with internal displacement in Asia. Representatives of non-governmental and international organizations, academic institutions and journalists participated from 16 Asian countries. But the conference differed in one important respect from similar conferences held in other geographic regions, convened by the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. No representatives from intergovernmental regional organizations in Asia participated: neither the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nor the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) sent delegates.

Their absence was not really a surprise. The conference’s subject, internal displacement, deals with persons forcibly displaced within their own countries, and ASEAN scrupulously avoids taking positions on “internal” conditions within member states. Its member governments, in fact, often take the lead at international conferences in arguing against action on issues within the domestic sphere of states on the grounds that this would constitute an infringement of state sovereignty. ASEAN appears to draw no linkage between its goals of promoting regional stability and economic and social cooperation and the interference with those goals caused by conflict-induced displacement in the region.

Similarly, SAARC, founded to promote economic and social cooperation in the south Asian region, emphasizes noninterference in internal affairs. It considers steps to deal with natural disasters part of its mandate but does not try to prevent or manage the human-made disasters plaguing this same region.