Statement by Francis M. Deng

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

May 7, 1998

I had a rather interesting experience at the airport yesterday which I believe is symbolic of where we stand with the internally displaced. I showed my U.S. passport to the immigration officer, who asked me what I was here for. I said I was coming to give talks at the universities of Toronto and York. He said, “On what?” I replied, “On internally displaced persons.” He repeated the question more emphatically, “On what?” “On internally displaced persons,” I answered again. Then he asked, “Who do you represent?” I said, “I represent the Secretary-General of the United Nations.” He seemed completely baffled by all that. “Do you have any personal identification?” he probed further. Of course, he already had my U.S. passport. I struggled to look for my UN identification, which was buried in my bag. In the interim, I gave him my Brookings business card. He looked at it and said, “Never mind, that’s alright.” But I kept searching. “Don’t worry about it,” he said with a sense of urgency, as though my search had become a new source of annoyance.

Having served as Ambassador to Canada and received utmost courtesy in that capacity, the contrast in treatment was dramatic. Although I carried a U.S. passport, what was important to the immigration officer was probably how I looked; what I did was not self-evident. Had we been more successful in the work of our mandate, I suppose the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons might have been better known and accorded more courtesy. But more pertinently, my appearance must have reminded the immigration officer of my racial, ethnic or national origin as an African, a Southern Sudanese, a community whose plight is becoming increasingly reflected in the numbers seeking refuge abroad, not least in Canada. The negative profile associated with that identity must have overshadowed my U.S. passport.

In a broader sense, the episode is also symptomatic of a pattern. Sudan has the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world and it is observable that the more the numbers of refugees decline, the more the numbers of those displaced within their countries increase. The correlation is obvious: as doors are closed to those forced to leave their homes or areas of normal habitation as a result of violent conflict or systematic violations of human rights, potential refugees remain uprooted domestically as internally displaced persons. Worse than refugees, these people remain within the zones of danger within these countries often denied both the protection of their governments and international access as an alternative.

Ironically, it is increasingly being suggested that establishing a normative and organizational mechanism for protecting and assisting internally displaced persons may have the effect of undermining the system of asylum, as host governments may be more inclined to deny asylum seekers on the grounds that flight within borders provides an effective alternative to flight across international borders. First, efforts on behalf of the internally displaced are premised on the explicit understanding that they should in no way prejudice the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. The fact is that there are many who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to avail themselves of that right, and who can only manage to flee internally. In most cases, they remain within harm’s reach and are in more desperate need of protection and assistance than those who have crossed international borders. In any case, since the internally displaced often represent a microcosm of the wider community affected by internal conflicts, systematic violations of human rights, and other natural disasters, addressing their needs through preventive measures, responding to the consequences of displacement, and seeking durable solutions may legitimately reduce the need for flight across international borders. While seeking asylum is a right that must not be denied, creating conditions that may make it unnecessary is a remedy that should not be dismissed either.

Let me illustrate with reference to my experiences in some of the countries I have visited why the internally displaced are in need of international protection and assistance, despite the fact that they remain within their national borders and are therefore assumed to be the responsibility of their own governments. When I visit countries where there are displacement problems, I usually begin with discussions at the level of the leadership, starting with presidents and ministers, then moving down the hierarchy of authority, and ultimately visiting the displaced persons. As a rule I go back to debrief the authorities on what I have found and raise some of the issues that need to be addressed.

In one country in Central America, I asked the displaced what message they wanted me to take back to their leaders. Their spokesman said, “We have no leaders there. To those people, we are not citizens; we are criminals, and our only crime is that we are poor.” In another country, this time in Central Asia, I posed the same question to a group of displaced persons. One woman responded, looking very dejected, “We have no leaders there; those are not our leaders.” In one African country, it is reported that the prime minister told a senior UN official that the food being given to the displaced by the international community in the zone of conflict was killing his soldiers; he didn’t see the displaced as citizens who merited protection from the government.

We can conclude that in those situations where conflict tears countries apart, there are literally vacuums of responsibility where what one would normally expect of governments and controlling authorities to their citizens are not being discharged. When such large numbers of people are affected, dispossessed by their own governments and other pertinent authorities, to whom do they turn but to the international community?

And yet the international community, as all of us here know, suffers enormously from the lack of institutional means of responding to this crisis. As Arthur Helton pointed out, during the Cold War, these issues were not debated, because there was a system, in a sense, for either addressing them, as part of the Cold War ideological alignment, or ignoring them. It was not until the end of the Cold War that the crisis came to the fore, largely through the efforts of non-governmental organizations, a number of them working in close cooperation with governments, to bring the issue to the attention of the international community.

Because the issue is internal and therefore touches on matters falling under state sovereignty, it was reluctantly addressed, as it was considered very sensitive, but in the end, the Commission decided to establish the position of representative of the Secretary General, as opposed to the usual mechanism of rapporteur or working group. The idea was to report to the Commission and make recommendations on whether or not this was an area in which the Commission should become involved, and if so, how?

Our initial study, the so-called “comprehensive study,” led us to believe that although the initiative came from the Commission, the problem was broader than one of human rights to be treated by the Commission alone. We recommended that the mandate be renewed as that of representative of the Secretary General. That way, we thought, cooperation with other bodies within the UN system and the international community at large would be enhanced, and the human rights issues would be related to humanitarian and other aspects, including developmental factors which cut across the entire system.

Let me give a brief overview of where we have come from, where we now stand, and where we hope to go from here. The implementation of the mandate since 1992 should be related to the objectives as then defined: to study the international legal norms to see the extent to which they provided coverage for the internally displaced, to look at existing institutional arrangements, and to engage governments and other actors in a dialogue with a view to improving protection and assistance for the internally displaced.

With respect to the legal situation, we confronted a number of perspectives or viewpoints in a controversy between those who thought that we had adequate coverage and those who were concerned about the inadequacy of the coverage. Those who felt that there was already adequate coverage worried that working on developing a new legal framework might paradoxically weaken what already existed. Instead, they felt that our focus should be on implementation. On the other side were people who felt that there were gaps and grey areas, and that even if there were adequate coverage, it was dispersed in legal instruments not particularly targeted to the internally displaced. There might be, they argued, advantage in pulling the relevant norms together and focusing on the needs of the internally displaced.

We realized from the beginning that there was no international will to adopt new legal instruments and that whether the coverage was adequate or not, we were not likely to get any support for developing new standards. After careful consideration of the situation, we decided that the best course of action was to make better use of what already existed on the ground. Working with a number of legal experts, we compiled existing standards, analyzed them, identified grey areas and gaps, and in the end, at the request of the Commission and the General Assembly, worked on the guiding principles discussed earlier by my colleague, Roberta Cohen.

In my view what is important about the guiding principles is that all those who were involved in the controversy have come together and agreed that these principles do indeed reflect existing human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law by analogy. In fact, the guiding principles restate existing norms with complementary “soft law” in a way that also bridges gaps and clarifies certain grey areas. All sides have agreed that we are not introducing a new legal instrument, and for that reason, we did not need to go through the process of law-making in the international system. Fortunately, all of those involved in the development of these standards, including the inter-agency standing committee and others within the UN system, decided that the stipulated standards do indeed offer us benchmarks that can be used in dealing with governments and other authorities to facilitate the implementation of existing laws.

This is important because a) the standards stipulated in the guiding principles exist in law; b) the lengthy and arduous process of making new laws can be avoided; and c) the process of implementing existing laws and standards is facilitated by the principles. All of the obstacles and barriers to the process of developing an effective normative system are thereby avoided.

When it comes to institutional arrangements, the situation is a bit more complicated. Despite the obvious institutional gap in the protection and assistance for the internally displaced, we discovered from the beginning that there was no interest in the international community in creating a new institution, a UNHCR for IDPs, nor was there any particular inclination to designate one existing institution to assume full responsibility for the IDPs. The only option that seemed to appeal was to make the best use of existing capacities within the system. In a way, what we did here is quite similar to what we did with respect to the development of a normative framework. The issue then was how to enhance coordination. Coordination, as most people who work in the field are well aware, has been a very complicated issue within the international system. Several coordinators have come and gone as Under Secretaries-General for Humanitarian Affairs have changed rapidly since the creation of the Department for Humanitarian Affairs in 1992. I think it is fair to say, however, that over the years, thanks to the many people who
have been drawing attention to the problems of IDPs, the level of awareness has increased considerably.

The coordination of existing capacities has improved commensurately. With the Secretary-General now giving importance to bridging the gaps in institutional performance on operations, with a new emergency coordinator who is very much focused on the needs of the IDPs, with a High Commissioner who is equally concerned about the problems of IDPs and, I should add, with all of the work being done by a wide variety of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, I think there has been a considerable increase in the ability of the international system to respond more effectively. In my reports to the Commission, I run the risk of sounding too optimistic, but I think that while there is still much to be done, we have made significant improvements.

Part of my mandate has been to engage governments in a dialogue, and that has meant country visits. So far, I have visited twelve countries, and I will soon go to Azerbaijan. It is in the field that the problem ceases to be one of statistics and becomes instead about live human beings suffering under conditions of severe deprivation and destitution. There is a very strong moral imperative to respond.

When I go to the field and I see masses of people living in appalling conditions, I negotiate not just with senior government officials, but also with local authorities. I plead with them to do something so that these people see that the international community does care. It is important that when I come representing the international community, I do not leave them as they were; it only causes them to lose hope when we come and go without any consequence. My immediate determination is to do something to give meaning to the concerns of the international community.

The conceptual framework for dialogue is basically to reassure the governments that I realize that these are internal matters, that we know they fall under their sovereignty, and that we come with respect for their sovereignty. But once they have been assured of respect for their sovereignty, I feel relatively free to point out candidly that sovereignty carries responsibilities and that a country’s status as a member of the international community that enjoys respectable and legitimate sovereignty depends on living up to those responsibilities. When they don’t have the capacity, they should call on the international community to assist. Under those rather exceptional circumstances, where there is a great deal of suffering and death, and where the government does not respond for lack of capacity or more importantly for lack of political will, the international community will not stand by and watch people suffer and die; it will get involved. Therefore, the best way for governments to protect their sovereignty is to show concern for their people and to invite the international community to assist them in helping their people, to offer protection and assistance. I have not as yet heard a government tell me, “We don’t care how irresponsible we are; it’s none of your business.” On the whole, my dialogue with governments has been positive.

An aspect of the work carried out under the mandate, one that cuts across the three areas of major activities, are the ongoing studies on various aspects of the crisis of internal displacement. Of particular significance is the comprehensive study requested by the former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, undertaken jointly by the Brookings Institution and the Refugee Policy Group. The study tried to address a series of questions: the number of internally displaced persons worldwide, their local and global distribution, their needs, how they are being met, what gaps exist in meeting those needs, and what can be done to bridge those gaps, both normatively and institutionally. The study, which I co-authored with Roberta Cohen, was published by Brookings in the Spring of 1998 under the title: Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. A companion volume entitled, Forsaken People: Case Studies in Internal Displacement, published also by Brookings, includes ten country and regional case-studies on internal displacement. They place the questions covered by the comprehensive study in the national and regional contexts. A third volume, Exodus Within Borders, by David A. Korn, a popularized summary of the two earlier volumes, will be published also by Brookings in the Spring of 1999.

The challenges confronting the mandate during its next phase can therefore be summed up as disseminating the Guiding Principles widely, using them as guidelines for practical purposes in the field, continuing to promote the collaborative approach among all agencies whose mandates and areas of operations are pertinent to the internally displaced, and on-going in-depth studies of various aspects of the crisis of internal displacement.

To conclude, the post-Cold War dynamics indicate a strategic shift away from ideological alignments to a universalizing commitment to humanitarian and human rights concerns. Despite isolationist tendencies, these have become rallying themes that cut across national and cultural divisions. Of course, governments bent on violating these norms will invoke national sovereignty as a barricade against international scrutiny, but the tide is clearly not in their favor. While there are aspects of cross-cultural dialogue on human rights issues that merit serious attention, the universality principle is now beyond dispute. What is needed to consolidate these principles is to postulate sovereignty as a principle of responsibility that stipulates minimum standards which governments must meet to enjoy legitimate sovereignty us respectable members of the international community. The Guiding Principles aim at promoting this objective and thereby promoting protection and assistance for the internally displaced at all levels, from local to global.

The global crisis of internal displacement, by virtue of its very nature as an internal problem that is not being adequately or effectively addressed internally, whether because of lack of political will or of the capacity to do so, symbolizes the major challenge confronting the international community in the post-Cold War era—the need to reconcile globalization with what I call localization, fragmenting forces of internal conflicts within the domestic jurisdiction. Ultimately, the challenge is one of seeking durable solutions to the underlying causes of internal conflicts by creating conditions for peace and security, which in turn call for effective management of diversity through good governance, pluralistic democracy, and equitable distribution of power and national resources.