When the bombs started falling in Afghanistan in October 2001, a relatively small number of Afghans could get out—no more than 200,000. Pakistan and Iran sealed their borders and the Taliban blocked mass movements. Only those with the physical strength and resources to hire trucks or donkeys, cross difficult mountain passes, and bribe border guards managed to make their way into Pakistan. Once there they became part of the worldwide refugee population and received help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency set up in 1950 to protect people fleeing their countries from political repression, mass killings, and civil wars.
But what about Afghans who were forced from their homes but couldn’t make it out of the country? They were far greater in number—nearly 2 million. They became one of the world’s internally displaced populations, groups who flee their homes, often for the same reasons as refugees, but who remain trapped inside their country’s borders and have no designated agency to help them.
Unlike those who managed to cross into Pakistan to receive food, medicine, and shelter from the United Nations, those trapped inside Afghanistan received little or no aid. In the camps and settlements where they congregated, there was no steady supply of flour and oil, no medical supplies, no clean water. When food ran out, people starved to death or died from preventable diseases. When there were no more tents, they dug holes in the ground for shelter. Armed factions were easily able to prey upon these displaced groups, forcibly conscripting young men and beating up and raping young women.
Two years earlier, in Kosovo, the same double standard of treatment applied to those who crossed borders and became refugees, and those who were left behind. The 900,000 ethnic Albanians forced out of the province by Serb militias were immediately cared for by UNHCR and others. But the 500,000 ethnic Albanians trapped inside basically went unaided and unprotected during the war. Some managed to hide in the hills and mountains, partly protected by the Kosovo Liberation Army; others moved around in caravans from village to village in search of shelter and food; still others were beaten, detained, or killed by Serb forces, or used as human shields or forced laborers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, during emergencies, the highest death rates are found among those who have been forcibly displaced within their own countries. One reason for this is that the international system set up after World War II does not include them. In keeping with traditional notions of sovereignty, in 1951 the Refugee Convention focused exclusively on persons who crossed borders. Persons within their own countries were considered the exclusive responsibility of their governments. If their governments deported them, starved them to death, or even exterminated them, the international community basically stood by.
In 1988, the world watched while a quarter of a million Sudanese starved to death because their government would not help them. As the former head of UNICEF, James Grant, aptly observed in 1993: “The world has established a minimum safety net for refugees. Whenever people are forced into exile…refugees can expect UNHCR to be on the scene in a matter of days, or on the outside, a matter of weeks. This is not yet the case with respect to internally displaced populations.”
Former Brookings Expert
Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
But change has begun to take place. In the last decade of the twentieth century, people caught up in rampages of violence, destruction, and forced expulsions in their own countries have begun to receive attention from the international community.
The first notable case was Iraq. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the U.N. Security Council demanded that Iraq give humanitarian organizations immediate access to people inside the country. A U.S.-led coalition then carved out a security zone in the north for hundreds of thousands of displaced Kurds who had been denied entry to Turkey.
Subsequent U.N. resolutions insisted on unimpeded access to persons displaced internally in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor. In some instances, the United Nations authorized the use of force to ensure the delivery of relief and to provide protection to internally displaced populations.
What accounted for the change in attitude?
For one, there was the realization that the millions of people caught up in civil wars without the basic necessities of life were not only disrupting the stability of their own countries, but also undermining regional and international security. In Rwanda in the Great Lakes region of Africa, in Sierra Leone in West Africa, and in Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia, conflict and displacement in one country regularly spilled over borders, overwhelming neighboring countries with refugees and helping to ignite regional wars. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned, if left unaddressed, situations of conflict and displacement can create political and economic turmoil throughout an entire region.
A second reason for the shift in attitude was a change in the notion of sovereignty. Since the 1970s, human rights advocates had been championing the view that the rights of people transcend frontiers, and by the end of the Cold War, humanitarian organizations were also demanding access to people at risk inside their countries. With the fear of superpower retaliation gone, possibilities opened up for crossing borders and reaching people in need. In 1989, the United Nations aggressively negotiated Operation Lifeline Sudan to bring aid to those starving inside the country, and humanitarian agencies in other countries also insisted that governments and rebel forces allow in food and supplies.
The upsurge in numbers of internally displaced persons also stimulated action. With more and more countries falling victim to civil wars, the number of persons displaced inside their own countries began to soar. In 1982, 1.2 million people were found to be uprooted in their home countries. Four years later the total had grown to 14 million. By 1995, there were an estimated 20 to 25 million in more than 40 countries, twice as many as refugees. Most were in desperate straits. The international response to humanitarian and human rights emergencies could only be effective if attention were paid to those trapped inside.
Finally, growing in hospitality toward refugees brought greater willingness to help the internally displaced. The political advantage that had motivated many nations to accept refugees during the Cold War gave way in the early 1990s to a desire to curb their entry. Throughout the world, barriers began to be erected to refugee admissions. To discourage people from seeking asylum abroad, more attention was focused on protecting people in their own countries.
This complex mix of motivations produced what might be called an emerging international responsibility toward populations uprooted in their own countries. Reflecting this new responsibility was the appointment in 1992 of the U.N. Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis M. Deng. True, the position was a voluntary one, with no office or staff, but it reflected a growing awareness that internally displaced persons needed an international champion, someone to advocate on their behalf.
A Sudanese national, Deng came from a country whose decades-long civil war had produced 4 million internally displaced persons—more than any other country in the world. But his focus quickly became global. Although most persons displaced by conflict and human rights violations can be found in Africa (in particular in Sudan, Angola, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), the 10 countries in the world with the most internally displaced (from nearly 1 to 4 million) include four Asian countries (Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, and Sri Lanka); one European country (Turkey), and one South American country (Colombia). Significant numbers of internally displaced persons can also be found in another 30 countries on those four continents.
What these countries have in common is that their governments either do not have the capacity to help their own displaced populations or deliberately refuse to do so. In civil war situations that divide countries along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, governments monopolized by one ethnic group often do not regard those who have been displaced as citizens to be protected and assisted. They are considered members of an inferior ethnic group, or the enemy.
Take the case of Sudan. The government has been trying for decades to impose an Islamic state on the black Africans who inhabit the southern part of the country, who are primarily Christian and animist. In the long-standing civil war, the government has regularly obstructed international aid to starving Dinka and Nuba tribespeople, and even bombed feeding stations. “These are not our people,” one government official actually told the head of a Western relief organization.
In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala government has long regarded the Tamil minority with suspicion. Years of discrimination against the Tamils by the government produced a separatist war, and although not all Tamils supported the insurgency, they were treated as combatants. To its credit, the government did ensure that food reached displaced Tamils, but it restricted the flow of medicines and other essential supplies.
In Iraq, the government’s brutal treatment of its Kurdish citizens is well documented. Saddam Hussein’s government has not only deliberately uprooted hundreds of thousands of Kurds as state policy, but in 1988 used poison gas against them. An international protection umbrella had to be created in northern Iraq to provide a modicum of security.
Annan has forthrightly declared that governments cannot use sovereignty as an excuse for committing crimes against their displaced populations. Similarly, Deng has argued that when large numbers of people are in desperate need for the basics of life, the situation cannot be viewed solely as an internal matter.
To support this view, Deng developed the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility.” Basically, it stipulates that when governments are unable to fulfill their responsibilities to their displaced citizens, they are expected to request and accept outside offers of aid. If they refuse, or deliberately obstruct access and put large numbers at risk, the international community has a right—even a responsibility—to step in. International involvement can range from diplomatic dialogue, to negotiation of access to bring in food and supplies, to political pressure, to sanctions—or in exceptional cases, to military intervention.
No government has ever explicitly challenged the concept of sovereignty as responsibility, no doubt because in doing so it would have to argue that sovereignty allows a state to deny life-sustaining support to its citizens. At the same time, a tug of war plays out daily between the defense of sovereignty and the emerging international responsibility toward populations at risk.
The Chinese government regularly argues that no one should interfere with the internal affairs of a sovereign state in the name of humanitarian assistance. Egypt, Sudan, and India also have loudly opposed international humanitarian action that overrides sovereignty, fearing that humanitarian action could be a cover for the interference of powerful countries in the affairs of weaker states. In particular, they have raised questions about the development of international standards to help internally displaced populations.
In 1998, Deng presented the first international standards, the “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” to the United Nations. Developed in collaboration with a team of international legal experts and at the request of U.N. bodies, the Guiding Principles underscore that governments have primary responsibilities to their own displaced populations. But if they fail to discharge those responsibilities, the international community has a right to become engaged. Governments, the Guiding Principles assert, must allow rapid and unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations to internally displaced persons at risk.
The Guiding Principles, 30 in number, bring together in one document all the provisions of international law that apply to the internally displaced. They stipulate that while people have the right not to be arbitrarily displaced, they also have rights during displacement, including access to the basic necessities of life and protection against physical attack. The displaced also have the right to recover their property or receive compensation.
One of the unique features of the Guiding Principles is that they tailor existing law to the specific needs of internally displaced persons. For instance, after restating general norms of international law on respect for family life, the principles spell out what this means for the displaced—that families separated by displacement should be reunited as quickly as possible. Or, after reiterating the general norm that every human being has the right to recognition before the law, they point out that the authorities must issue the displaced all the documents needed to exercise their legal rights.
The Guiding Principles define the internally displaced as “persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of, armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”
The two crucial elements of this definition are coercion and remaining within national borders. Only those forced to flee within their own country can be considered displaced. Economic migrants or people who move voluntarily are not included. But the definition does include those uprooted by floods and earthquakes, by famine and nuclear power plant eruptions like the Chernobyl disaster, and by large-scale development projects.
Not all humanitarian groups wanted these groups added, preferring to limit the definition to those who would be defined as refugees if they crossed a border or were subject to some form of persecution. But the overriding opinion was that persons uprooted by natural or human disasters were also in desperate need of attention and could be neglected or discriminated against by their governments on political or ethnic grounds, or have their human rights violated in other ways.
For example, when drought and famine ravaged Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, the government, under the pretext of responding to a natural disaster, forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tigreans it regarded as political opponents.
As for development projects, an increasing number of reports have shown that poor, indigenous, and marginalized groups are often displaced without consultation, respect for their rights, or the provision of adequate resettlement or compensation. Concerns have been raised, for example, about the more than a million villagers who are expected to be displaced by China’s Three Gorges Dam.
Since they were issued in 1998, the Guiding Principles have become the basis for international advocacy and actions. U.N. agencies, regional organizations, non-governmental groups, and a growing number of governments have begun to use them in developing policies and programs for the internally displaced. “They’ve caught on like wildfire,” one non-governmental observer exclaimed.
Take the case of Angola. When the government decided to draft a law for the resettlement of 3 to 4 million internally displaced, it based its provisions on the Guiding Principles. In 1998, when the jurists of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States traveled to Colombia, they used the Guiding Principles as a checklist for evaluating conditions on the ground. Colombia’s highest court based two recent decisions on forced displacement on the Guiding Principles. And in Sri Lanka, when a meeting was held for camp commanders and representatives of the displaced, the latter used the Guiding Principles to make their concerns known about inadequate rations, lack of clean water, and attacks on their personal security. In the words of an Angolan widow and mother of four, who was trained at Salga Camp, Luanda Province:
“I knew that we had rights, just like any other person. Now that I know exactly what they are…we know our lives can improve.”
Even states that were initially skeptical are beginning to admit that the Guiding Principles have considerable value as a basis for law and policy and as an advocacy and empowerment tool. Egypt, Sudan, and India, for example, continue to question the process by which the principles were developed—in particular the fact that they were not drafted by governments. Yet these same governments have begun to describe the principles as “useful guidelines”—while underscoring that they are not legally binding. These countries also regularly vote for U.N. resolutions that express appreciation for the principles and call for their dissemination and application.
Some legal experts have recommended the drafting of a legally binding treaty “to hold states accountable.” But this course of action was one that Deng and his colleagues deliberately avoided when they developed the Guiding Principles. They were concerned that a treaty would take years, possibly decades, to be drafted. And with the displaced already in desperate straits, the most effective response would be to develop guidelines that could be used immediately.
What was needed was a document that would bring together all the relevant provisions. A treaty-drafting process might encourage some governments to argue that the rights of the displaced were “on hold” until the treaty was completed. The process could also become a pretext for watering down accepted provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law upon which the Guiding Principles were based. It is to be hoped that the standing and authority of the Guiding Principles will increase over time, ultimately gaining the status of customary law.
On the ground, a multitude of international humanitarian, human rights, and development organizations have come forward to offer assistance, protection, and reintegration and development aid to persons displaced in their own countries. Their expanding roles certainly reflect changing notions of sovereignty. In Tajikistan, for example, UNHCR staff interceded with local authorities to help displaced individuals reclaim their property and to stop revenge killings against those returning home.
In the former Yugoslavia, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has a recognized role in armed conflict, helped protect the displaced in safety zones, evacuated people threatened by ethnic reprisals, and created tracing networks to bring families together. In Rwanda, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights deployed more than a hundred workers to help increase security in the villages where Tutsis and Hutus were returning home after the genocide. The World Food Program, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and myriad non- governmental organizations (NGOs) are all deployed on the ground in different countries bringing food, clean water, medicines, and transport to large numbers of internally displaced persons.
Nonetheless, many of the displaced remain neglected because the international response is unpredictable. Agencies pick and choose the situations in which they wish to become involved, deciding on the basis of their mandates, resources, and interests. UNHCR, for example, has been helping 5 to 6 million internally displaced. Yet only a small percentage of them are found in Africa, the continent most ravaged by conflicts and displacement. Nor does UNICEF protect all internally displaced children, despite their vulnerability. Other U.N. agencies avoid involvement with the displaced in places like Myanmar (Burma) and Turkey, where it might place them in direct conflict with governments. The result has been that the displaced are helped to varying degrees in some countries and not at all in others.
The creation of a special agency is often proposed. Refugees, it is pointed out, have a special organization to address their problems; a parallel agency should therefore be created to protect and assist the internally displaced. But neither the political will nor the resources exist to create a new agency that might duplicate the work of other organizations at a time when the United Nations is under pressure to make budget cuts. A new agency would almost certainly meet with opposition from governments that object to direct international involvement with their displaced populations.
A second frequently suggested option is to enlarge UNHCR’s mandate, given its long experience with uprooted populations. Many prominent voices, among them Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have called upon UNHCR to take on this responsibility. The very idea, however, triggers a turf war among U.N. agencies unwilling to yield more power and responsibility to UNHCR. The agency’s staff is also divided. Some fear it would be overwhelmed if it had to take responsibility for 25 million internally displaced. Others fear that greater involvement with protecting people in their own countries would undermine UNHCR’s primary responsibility—to defend the right of people to leave their countries and seek asylum abroad.
Largely by default, the international community has settled on a collaborative approach to dealing with problems of internal displacement. Under this system, all the international agencies in the field are expected to work together, coordinated by the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator.
But this approach hasn’t worked well in the past. Agencies have regularly resisted coordination, and the coordinator doesn’t have the authority or resources to bring powerful operational agencies into line. As one U.N. official put it, “Everybody agrees to coordination but nobody wants to be coordinated.”
In a stinging indictment of coordination efforts, in 2000 Holbrooke told the Security Council that in Angola, where most of the internally displaced were receiving little or no help, he found that “U.N. agencies are scattered in 10 different buildings in a city without good working telephones or good infrastructure.” He called on the United Nations to “fix responsibility,” because “co-heads are no-heads.”
Shamed into action, the United Nations appointed a special coordinator in 2000, and in January 2002 the secretary-general approved the establishment of the first U.N. office devoted exclusively to internally displaced persons under the Emergency Relief Coordinator. With a staff of eight professionals, seconded from different international agencies, this unit has been traveling to different countries, trying to ensure that U.N. agencies on the ground collaborate more closely and develop strategies to better protect internally displaced persons.
But one small non-operational unit can hardly be expected to produce substantial results on the ground without the active support of the larger operational organizations, which have the lion’s share of the resources and staff. The special coordinator, for example, can urge UNHCR to play more of a role in Africa, but because of an increasingly narrow interpretation of its mandate and because of a funding shortfall, UNHCR has been pulling back. The agency remains uninvolved in any significant way with internally displaced persons in the Sudan, Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sierra Leone—countries where the problems of displaced persons are most severe.
One important reason why UNHCR’s involvement is sorely needed is because it is one of the few agencies apart from ICRC with experience in protecting uprooted populations. Most agencies that become involved with the internally displaced provide food, medicine, and shelter. But displaced Afghans, Bosnians, and Kurds also need to be protected against physical assault. Indeed, providing relief to uprooted people while ignoring the fact that they are being beaten, raped, or killed has led to the tragic description of the victims as the “well-fed dead.”
Providing protection may involve negotiating access, arranging relocation and evacuation, creating safe areas, and intervening to assure that the displaced are not forcibly returned to conditions of danger or subjected to other human rights abuses.
These initiatives go beyond the mandate of many international field staff. Some fear that advocacy for the displaced will compromise their ability to provide relief or lead to their expulsion from the country. And there are dangers. In recent years, more humanitarian staff than peacekeepers have been attacked or killed during humanitarian emergencies. The brutal murder of six Red Cross staff in Chechnya in 1996 is still unpunished. Staff safety is a pressing issue.
At the same time, international agencies are experimenting with ways to enhance protection of the internally displaced. Some agencies have found that increasing their own numbers can enhance security. Others favor joint advocacy for greater impact—and to protect individual agencies from being singled out for retribution.
Designing assistance programs that enhance protection is also valuable. For example, ensuring that women do not have to go far for firewood, or that latrines are well lit, can reduce the likelihood that women and girls will be raped in a camp. Prompt reporting of protection problems to those who can act upon them is also critical. In Bosnia, in the early 1990s, military staff and some relief workers were initially silent when they became aware of concentration camps. They are now more likely to forward information on serious violations to human rights groups.
International organizations and NGOs have also found that it helps to accompany displaced persons home when there are security problems. The idea of a standby corps of protection specialists has also been proposed. A corps drawn from police and constabulary units, humanitarian and human rights organizations, and security experts could provide technical advice and also carry out protection responsibilities.
Of course, in some situations the only way protection is possible is through military and police action. Military interventions have taken place in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, where forces have been charged with bringing in relief or even protecting the displaced. But the record is mixed. Interventions for the most part have succeeded in preventing mass starvation, and in some cases have provided limited security, but there has been a failure to adequately protect displaced and other affected populations.
In 1999, U.N. officials publicly apologized for failing to do their part to save the displaced from massacre in the “safe area” of Srebrenica. And an internal U.N. evaluation on Rwanda found that the forces that were sent in to protect displaced populations after the genocide stood by while several thousand of the displaced were attacked and killed by the Rwandan army.
The lesson drawn from most of these military actions, however, is not that international intervention should be avoided at all costs, but rather that international forces charged with protection should be given the numbers, equipment, resources, training, and mandates to do the job.
Even more important, international and regional agencies must be prepared to take steps to mediate and manage disputes before they get out of hand. Neither military action nor humanitarian relief can substitute for political settlements that resolve the inequities at the heart of conflicts causing displacement.
Macedonia is a case in point. Both the European Union and NATO have played important roles in staving off conflict and displacement in that country by bringing pressure to bear on the Slav government to include Albanians more fully in the political and economic life of the country and by insisting that the Albanian separatists renounce violence.
All in all, much progress has been made over the past 10 years. Recognition of the need for a more comprehensive international system has grown. People who are starving or under assault in their own countries are no longer viewed as solely a national problem. It is beginning to be understood that humanitarian action must transcend frontiers, and that conflict and displacement, if allowed to fester, can damage societies and undermine entire regions. Donor governments are earmarking funds for the displaced; the secretary-general and others are speaking out in support of those uprooted in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Sudan; a special office has been set up to better coordinate the U.N. response; and regional organizations are increasingly turning attention toward displacement.
What remains to be done? The international community must devise a reliable system that predictably and effectively provides aid and protection to those trapped inside borders, displaced from their homes, and subjected to abuse. That will be both a challenge for the twenty-first century and a test for globalization.