Mass Displacement Caused by Conflicts and One-Sided Violence: National and International Responses

Roberta Cohen and
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

June 8, 2009


Massive displacement of people within countries and across borders has become a defining feature of the post-cold war world. It is also a major feature of human insecurity in which genocide, terrorism, egregious human rights violations and appalling human degradation wreak havoc on civilians. The need of internally displaced persons (IDPs), people forcibly uprooted in their own countries, for international protection from conflict and one-sided violence was one of the factors that prompted a shift in global policy and security thinking. Over the past two decades, a strictly state-centred system in which sovereignty was absolute has evolved into become a matter of international concern and scrutiny. This evolution largely grew from the efforts of the human rights movement, which had long championed the view that the rights of people transcend frontiers and that the international community must hold governments to account when they fail to meet their obligations. It also arose from the efforts of the humanitarian community to reach people in need. The deployment of large numbers of relief workers and peacekeeping operations in the field to protect civilians reflects this new reality as do preventive and peacebuilding efforts.

Nonetheless, concepts of sovereignty as responsibility and the responsibility to protect remain far ahead of international willingness and capacity to enforce them. The failure of states to protect their citizens has too often met iwth a weak international response. It is therefore critical that the United Nations, concerned governments, regional bodies and civil society assist states in developing their own capacities to prevent mass atrocities while also pressing for the development of the tools needed to enable the international community to take assertive action when persuasive measures fail and masses of people remain under the threat of violence and humanitarian tragedy.

This chapter examines the challenges posed by mass displacement caused by violence. Section II looks at the scale and nature of displacement, presents examples of states’ failure to protect their citizens and discusses the consequences of displacement. Section III focuses on the political, legal and operational steps needed to provide greater protection for displaced populations and other civilians caught up in massive violence. Section IV presents conclusions and recommendations for the way forward.

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