Human Security and the Global Challenge of Internal Displacement

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

May 11, 2000

Human Security provides a compelling conceptual framework for confronting the global challenge of internal displacement with which the mandate of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons has been concerned since its inception in 1992. It is a factor in understanding the causes and consequences of internal displacement. It also provides policy guidance in conceptualizing and formulating measures for preventing displacement, providing protection and assistance during displacement, and searching for durable solutions. Furthermore, it offers a means of creating opportunities in crises by exploring remedies to the deep-seated structural problems of political, economic, social and cultural disparities that generate tensions and violent conflicts.

Overview of the Displacement Crisis

Internal displacement resulting from armed conflicts, generalized violence and violation of human rights affects some 20 to 25 million people worldwide. Natural disasters add additional millions. Although some geographic areas are more affected than others, it is a global crisis, afflicting more than 40 countries in virtually all regions of the world. In a large number of cases, these people are not only uprooted but face tremendous security problems. Some are brutally and forcibly relocated as part of counter-insurgency campaigns. Others are trapped within zones of conflict. Most are deprived of the basic necessities of life—shelter, food, water, medicine, education and employment.

Countries experiencing violent conflicts usually also suffer from an acute crisis of national identity that creates severe cleavages between the affected populations and the controlling authorities, Governments and non-state actors alike. The victim populations consequently fall into vacuums of moral responsibility, dispossessed and even persecuted. They must therefore turn to the international community for protection and assistance.

A Call for International Action

While international action on behalf of the victims of internal displacement is a compelling necessity for filling the vacuum of responsibility, access is often problematic due to the negative interpretation of national sovereignty as a barricade against external involvement. But post-Cold War increased commitment to human rights and humanitarian principles is challenging this restrictive approach to the concept and is postulating sovereignty as a normative principle of responsibility. This means that Governments are being called upon to assume the primary responsibility of providing protection and assistance to all those under national jurisdiction, and, if lacking the requisite capacity, to request or at least welcome assistance from the international community. Otherwise, in the face of severe suffering and death, the international community must intervene through various methods, ranging from persuasive diplomacy to more assertive forms of international action.

Normative and Institutional Framework for Action

Conceptualizing sovereignty as responsibility requires appropriate normative and institutional frameworks for action. While the 1951 Refugee Convention provides a legal framework of protection and assistance for refugees under the institutional responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there is no such regime for the internally displaced.

One of the main responsibilities of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons has been to develop appropriate legal and organizational frameworks for their protection and assistance. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were developed by an international team of legal experts, building on the existing principles of human rights law, humanitarian law and analogous refugee law, and submitted to the Commission on Human Rights in 1998. The Guiding Principles provide the normative basis for a comprehensive approach to the crisis of internal displacement, involving preventive respect for all human rights—civil, political, economic, social and cultural; protection and assistance during displacement; the search for durable solutions; and the longer-term objective of addressing the underlying causes, which goes back to ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental liberties.

The fact that they have met with such wide support within a very short time testifies to the need for an appropriate framework of protection and assistance to the internally displaced.

Organizationally, of the several options proposed by the Representative over the years, inter-agency collaboration, with appropriate mechanisms of coordination through the Emergency Relief Coordinator has been embraced as the preferred option. Although the structures for such collaboration are in place, much needs to be done to strengthen them to bring effective protection and assistance to the masses of the affected populations.

Within this collaborative approach the Representative of the Secretary-General sees his role as a catalytic function of advocacy and dialogue with Governments and other actors on behalf of the internally displaced. His country missions aim at focusing national and international attention on specific situations and the urgent need for remedial action.

Opportunities in Crises

Displacement is a symptom of crises with even deeper roots in society, often reflected in the mismanagement of diversity, characterized by intolerable inequities. Displacement itself forces people to move to other areas where there is supposedly more security, better social services, and greater opportunities for economic self enhancement. It therefore opens people’s eyes to the inequities of the system and challenges the authorities to correct those inequities or risk greater conflict and instability in the future. In that sense, it offers opportunities for structural remedies to foster peace, security, stability and a common sense of purpose in nationbuilding.

A starting-point in responding to the global crisis of internal displacement and seizing the opportunities for reform which it offers would be for The Guiding Principles to be widely supported as a normative framework for stipulating sovereignty as responsibility, with international accountability not only for governments but for non-state actors as well.

Institutionally, in addition to strengthening inter-agency collaboration, appropriate mechanisms need to be developed for monitoring and promoting the implementation of The Guiding Principles at the local and national levels and ensuring operational delivery of protection and assistance to the masses of displaced populations. Since protection often means measures to enhance the physical safety and human rights of affected populations, operational field staff need to be trained in international humanitarian and human rights law and analogous refugee law. Steps should also be taken to implement their provisions on the ground.

Ultimately, only by ensuring Human Security in the comprehensive sense of providing physical and material well-being of human beings can the displacement crisis be addressed effectively in all its phases, from prevention to the search for durable solutions.

Human Security thus provides the umbrella for the stipulation of sovereignty as responsibility under the watchful eye of the international community to hold states accountable and to offer them a helping hand in ensuring the physical, psychological, moral and material well-being of all those under their jurisdiction. Human Security also provides an appropriate framework for bringing non-state actors into parameters of accountability.