Statement on the Global Crisis of Internal Displacement

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

June 8, 1999

Most people in the United States are unaware of the fact that there are millions of people in the world forcibly displaced within their own countries and in need of international attention. I’m therefore grateful to the World Affairs Council for giving me this opportunity to speak about this growing challenge.

To some extent, the crisis in Kosovo has brought home what forcible displacement means. The Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in a period of weeks has forcibly uprooted almost the entire Kosovar Albanian population in its country. Nonetheless, attention and support has focused on the nearly 900,000 expelled to neighboring countries?the refugees. The more than 600,000 Kosovar Albanians trapped inside have been largely hidden from view, and have received basically no help from the international community. Yet they are in far worse straits than the refugees, since they continue to be vulnerable to hunger, disease, and human rights abuse. It is the plight of persons forcibly displaced inside that is the subject of tonight’s discussion.

Internally displaced persons can be found on all continents. Overall, there are 20 to 25 million forcibly displaced within their own countries. As many as 10 million can be found in Africa, 5 million in Europe, 5 million in Asia and 2 million in the Americas. Beyond the statistics are human beings who have had to flee their homes or have been forced out of them by civil war, ethnic strife and violations of human rights. Most are without elementary food, shelter, medical attention or protection from human rights abuse.

The numbers of internally displaced persons, or IDPs as we call them, have been climbing over the past decade for two reasons: first, wars within states have become more prevalent than wars between states in the post Cold War era; second, most governments today are not receptive to receiving large numbers of refugees. The result is that more and more people forcibly displaced from their homes are remaining in their own countries in refugee-like conditions

Even though their numbers, 20 to 25 million, now exceed those of refugees who total about 14 million, there is no effective international system to protect and assist them. The international system created at the end of the second world war, and which continues today, provides protection and assistance to people who cross borders and become refugees. Persons who are uprooted for the same reasons as refugees but who do not, or cannot, cross a border were excluded from this system. No organization, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and no legal instrument, like the Refugee Convention, exists for internally displaced persons. Because they are in their own countries, it was assumed that they would receive protection and assistance from their governments. But in most cases, their governments do not have the capacity to help them or deliberately subject their displaced populations to starvation, physical attacks and other abuses.

The Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis Deng, with whom I work, regularly emphasizes that in civil wars which divide countries along racial, ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, internally displaced persons frequently fall into a vacuum of responsibility within the state. Governments do not see them as their citizens requiring protection. “These are not our people,” some government officials have actually told the Representative. In such cases, the government is usually identified with one ethnic group to the exclusion or marginalization of others. The so-called “others” are seen as lesser, inferior, or as “the enemy”?because they are of a different ethnicity, race, language, religion, or political opinion. The process of de-humanization that ensues generally creates a climate in which atrocities against such persons are seen as legitimate.

This is not a new phenomenon. Prior to and during the second world war, both Hitler and Stalin forcibly displaced, persecuted and murdered large numbers of their own citizens on the grounds that they were enemies because they were Jewish, or because they were members of a particular social and economic class, because they were political opponents or simply, others. Similarly, in South Africa under apartheid, the white minority government adopted a dehumanizing position towards its black population which enabled the state to forcibly uproot millions of them, and deprive them of all basic human rights.

This alienation between an affected population and its government is at the root of much of today’s internal displacement. In the Sudan, which has the largest internally displaced population in the world?4 million?an Arabized government has been trying to impose an Islamic state on the black Africans in the south, who are primarily Christian and animist. An estimated million people have died over the past decade because of deliberate government campaigns to obstruct international food deliveries to the Dinka and Nuba tribes.

In Kosovo, we clearly have seen that the Serbian government does not regard the Albanian ethnic group as “its people.” Serbian persecution and discrimination against this group is at the root of today’s conflict. In Turkey and Sri Lanka too, governments are at war with their own citizens. In both countries, decades of discrimination and alienation against the Kurds in the case of Turkey and the Tamils in the case of Sri Lanka have produced violent separatist movements. The governments then use the existence of these movements to justify campaigns of utter destruction against their own population. Of course, by repressing minorities, by refusing to see them as legitimate members of the nation, and by preventing multiethnic societies from developing, governments of course strengthen the very separatist movements they fear.

Dealing with governments and rebel groups that produce mass displacement and who are unwilling to provide for the security and well-being of their displaced populations is one of the most daunting challenges facing today’s world. I have focused my remarks until now on governments, but there are also countries without governments, failed states, as they are called, in which brutal civil wars also displace millions. Somalia is one such case; Sierra Leone is another. In these conflicts, the main targets are civilians connected to or perceived to be connected with rival factions or tribes. The rebel groups often have no respect for traditional ground rules of battle. They plunder humanitarian assistance, close off access, show little or no respect for the personnel and equipment of humanitarian agencies. Stories of child soldiers, of atrocities being committed against displaced persons, of mass rapes often emanate from failed states.

Although often thought of as a temporary phenomenon, internal displacement in often long-term. Some civil wars go on for decades, as in the Sudan. This disrupts not only the lives of the individuals concerned, but whole communities and societies. When large numbers of persons flee an area, it becomes depopulated, land and property become neglected, and community structures are overturned. The areas to which the displaced flee are also heavily affected. When people flee into rural areas, they quickly strip forests and grasslands for housing and fuel, with long-term economic effects. When people flee to urban centers, these double or triple in population size. Social services, water supplies, and sanitation facilities become overloaded. Since most conflict and displacement occur in the world’s poorest countries, their already weak infrastructure deterioriates rapidly and sometimes collapses.

Conflict and displacement also spill over borders into neighboring countries. In Kosovo, conflict and displacement has spilled over into Macedonia and Albania and will have repercussions throughout the Balkans for years. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, genocide, conflict and displacement in Rwanda inflamed the situation in the neighboring Congo and has produced more fighting. In the Horn of Africa too, the conflict in the Sudan has spilled over into northern Uganda, and in west Africa, conflict and displacement in Liberia has helped destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone. Forcible displacement, therefore, is not only a human rights and humanitarian tragedy but a political, economic and strategic problem affecting broad geographic areas. It demands regional and international attention.

What can the world community do to respond to this problem? In some respects, the challenge is easier to deal with today than it was in the past. For one, there is greater access now that the Cold War is over, and a greater willingness on the part of international organizations to become involved. Indeed, the idea has taken root that events taking place within a country are a legitimate subject of international concern. UN resolutions thus regularly insist upon unimpeded access for food and other supplies to internally displaced persons. And you can find an array of international organizations and non-governmental organizations working in countries on behalf of IDPs. This has largely been the work of human rights and humanitarian organizations who have argued over the past decade that when governments deliberately displace their populations, subject them to starvation and fail to protect them from abuse, they should be held accountable and be subject to some form of international pressure and involvement. Advances in telecommunications have also made it more difficult to hide displacement and conflict?the so-called CNN factor. Watching starving Sudanese or Kurds on TV screens make the international public call for international aid to persons displaced in their own countries.

In 1992, the UN Secretary-General appointed a Representative on Internally Displaced Persons to grapple with these difficult problems. Francis Deng, a former diplomat from the Sudan, was a very apt choice to be Representative because he is a member of the Dinka tribe which has suffered much displacement. Deng first developed a conceptual framework to address the problem. Sometimes known as the Brookings doctrine, it basically says that the days of absolute sovereignty are over; in today’s world with human rights and democratic standards, sovereignty can no longer be a shield behind which governments can hide. Instead, sovereignty carries with it certain responsibilities to one’s populations, namely to provide for their security and well-being. If governments are unable to provide needed protection and life-supporting assistance, then they must request it from the international community and accept outside offers of aid. If they refuse or deliberately obstruct access, and masses of people are starving or subjected to killings and other serious abuse, then the international community should be expected to become involved. The involvement could take the form of diplomatic demarches, political pressures, sanctions, or as a last resort, military intervention. I would note that the Sudan is a good example of changing notions of sovereignty. In 1988, the international community basically stood by while a quarter of a million people died for lack of food and emergency supplies. At the time the Sudanese government invoked state sovereignty to bar relief supplies. By 1990, the UN took a more determined approach. It undertook hard diplomatic bargaining and persuaded the Sudanese government and the rebel forces to accept the provision of outside relief to displaced and other persons throughout the country. This operation is known as Operation Lifeline Sudan.

Second, a legal framework was developed under the direction of the Representative of the Secretary-General to provide the international community with a basis for action. A set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were presented to the United Nations in 1998. The Principles are the first international standards specifically tailored to the needs of internally displaced persons. They set forth their rights and the obligations of governments and insurgent forces to these populations, and in all phases of displacement?prior to displacement, during displacement, and during return and reintegration. The Principles are an important tool for measuring conduct toward displaced populations and for serving notice that behavior is being scrutinized.

Although they are not a binding legal document, the Guiding Principles have quickly gained standing and authority. They have been acknowledged by UN bodies over the past two years and have been endorsed by the heads of the major international humanitarian and development organizations?UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross. These organizations have actively begun to disseminate the Principles and ask their staffs to apply them in the field. Regional organizations and NGOs have also begun to widely disseminate the Principles, and my project at Brookings has been organizing regional meetings around the world to get the Principles known. It is our hope that as they become more widely known, there will be stronger advocacy on behalf of the internally displaced and in time, better observance.

The third area of the Representative’s work focused on institutional arrangements. Specifically, a more vigorous response was needed from international organizations and NGOs. To be sure, over the past decade an array of international humanitarian, human rights and development organizations have come forward to offer protection, assistance, and reintegration and development aid to the internally displaced. But the system is largely ad hoc. There is no one organization with a global mandate to protect and assist internally displaced persons. Organizations basically pick and choose the situations in which they will become involved, depending on their mandates, resources and other considerations. There is no predictable response. The result is that large numbers of internally displaced persons do not receive adequate protection or assistance.

To fill this institutional gap, there are several options. Should the international community create a new organization for the internally displaced? Well, neither the political will nor the resources exist to do so. Moreover, it may not be a good idea. A new agency would duplicate existing capacities and it could be “a red flag” for governments sensitive to issues of sovereignty. A more persuasive option would be to enlarge the mandate of an existing agency, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which already has extensive experience dealing with uprooted populations. UNHCR, however, contends that the magnitude of the problem exceeds its capacity. It also fears that responsibility for the internally displaced would change its character and undermine its focus on refugees.

So for the present, we are left with strengthening coordination among the different agencies to make their response more timely and predictable. One leading expert has described this option?in the manner of Oscar Wilde?as the triumph of hope over experience. The reason is that agencies are known to resist coordination. But the Secretary-General has asked the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to become the focal point for coordinating assistance to the internally displaced and the new UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, is dynamic and committed. Hopefully, his office will act as a strong central point and rapidly assign responsibilities to the different agencies when serious situations of internal displacement arise.

UN agencies also must focus greater attention on the need for protection of the physical safety and human rights of the internally displaced. In too many emergencies, providing food, medicine and shelter has taken priority over the equally compelling need of persons to be protected against assault, forcible conscription, land mines, rape and other egregious human rights abuse. The internally displaced, after all, are often caught up in internal conflicts. They may need to be evacuated from dangerous situations, they may need intercessions on their behalf to increase their physical safety, they may need safe havens to be created for refuge, and they may need help returning safely to their homes or to another safe place within their country. Providing food while ignoring the fact that the people concerned are being beaten, raped or killed has led to tragic expressions like “the well-fed dead” to describe the victims.

How can we increase protection? Although most international organizations do not have experience in this kind of protection, the International Committee of the Red Cross does have expertise in creating protected areas, evacuating people, and interceding on their behalf. UNHCR also has begun to undertake protection activities for internally displaced persons to whom its responsibility extends, and UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and NGOs have been exploring the steps they might take to enhance protection. Certainly, increasing the presence of human rights and humanitarian field staff in places where there are protection problems can enhance security. In Rwanda, more than 100 UN human rights field staff were deployed to help increase security in home communes so that internally displaced persons and refugees could return and reintegrate in safety. Vigorous advocacy, especially joint stands by groups of agencies, can make a difference. Although the staff of many international organizations fear that they will be expelled if they confront host governments, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has begun to emphasize the importance of integrating protection and human rights concerns into assistance programs.

Another way to enhance protection is to design assistance programs so that they take protection concerns into account. For example, where latrines are built, how far women have to go for firewood, how well lit a camp is?can determine whether or not women and girls will be raped. Prompt and efficient reporting of protection problems to those who can act upon it is also important. In Bosnia, in the early 1990s, military staff and some relief workers were silent when they became aware of concentration camps and other gross abuses. Now, it is more likely that information on serious violations will get forwarded by relief organizations to human rights groups and others who can act upon it.

Of course, there are protection problems of such magnitude and severity that only outside military intervention will work. In these cases, the Security Council decides that the situation is a threat to international peace and security and authorizes military force to get supplies in and to protect displaced persons and other civilians at risk. Or as in the recent military intervention in the Kosovo crisis, a regional grouping takes it upon itself to act to protect populations at risk.

Do military interventions provide protection for the displaced? In 1991 in Iraq, Western forces under the UN umbrella did succeed in creating a safe haven for displaced Kurds in the north of the country. You will recall that in the wake of the Gulf War, the government of Saddam Hussein brutally attacked its Kurdish minority, pushing millions into the mountains near the Turkish border. The safe area that was created within Iraq remains protected today by Allied air cover.

But in other situations, the results have been more mixed. The 1992 military intervention in Somalia, for example, succeeded in preventing mass starvation. But it did not disarm the local factions, became embroiled in the conflict, and ultimately failed to provide protection either for itself or for Somali civilians. The killing of the 18 US marines, in fact, is often cited as the reason why subsequent interventions have been cautious and afraid of protecting people.

In Rwanda, in 1994, the UN in fact reduced the number of its troops prior to the genocide. This notwithstanding that the UN troop commander Major General Dallaire requested additional forces and estimated that he could stop the genocide with 5,000 troops. He later in fact publicly regretted that he was not given the forces or the authority to actively save lives on the eve of the killings. Also in Rwanda, UN peacekeepers failed to protect several thousand internally displaced Hutus in camps even though they had a mandate to protect them. Thousands were gunned down by the Rwandan military in full view of UN peacekeepers and international relief staff. The UN troops pointed out that their numbers in the camps were small, and they interpreted their mandate narrowly to exclude having to defend the displaced against their own government.

In the safe areas set up in Bosnia for displaced persons, UN forces were also not given the troops they needed or the equipment to accomplish this. And their mandate, as in Rwanda, was ambiguous: they were instructed on the one hand to defend the safe areas but on the other to use force only in self-defense?a caveat they used to excuse themselves from having to defend anyone but themselves. We all remember when the safe area of Srebrenica was overrun by the Serbs and how UN forces basically stood by when more than 5,000 Muslim men and boys were separated from the others and killed. Only after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995 did the international community or NATO take the military action against the Serbs that was needed.

The lessons from these interventions, however, is not that international intervention should be avoided at all cost but that it should be made better through clearer mandates, and sufficient resources and troops to do the job. Most important, political will is required. But where do we find the political will to ensure that international forces charged with protection do in fact have the equipment, resources, training and mandates to accomplish this? Sometimes it’s easier to think that political will is stored in a bottle in the desk of a few officials in Washington, waiting to be uncorked. But the fact of the matter is that it can be found in towns and cities throughout this country and other countries. For it is in these places that groundswells of opinion develop on the following questions: Does the international community have an obligation to protect and assist persons in their own countries? When is humanitarian intervention justified? Should an international force be created that would go automatically into places when genocide, mass starvation, or other massive assaults are being threatened? Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, contends that true globalization means an international responsibility to provide protection to persons at risk. To what extent are we ready to define our own national interest so that it encompasses a more responsive international system when large numbers are at risk?

In Kosovo, today, I would underscore that NATO’s military intervention, although intended to protect the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, has not really done so. Almost the entire Albanian population of the province has been uprooted and those forcibly displaced within Kosovo have received no protection or assistance. Fear of casualties has meant that humanitarian corridors into Kosovo and safe havens have not been tried. Even air drops of food and medicines were rejected by the military as too risky. One really has to ask whether it is morally or even politically justifiable for soldiers to avoid death or injury at the cost of many, many more lives and suffering by civilians. The price for sparing injury to those in uniform is being paid by thousands upon thousands of innocent, unarmed civilians, many of them internally displaced.

Of course, the most effective course of action would be to avoid military action. Forced displacement, after all, is but a symptom of a far deeper problem within a society. Neither military action nor humanitarian assistance alone can substitute for the political settlements needed to resolve the disputes and inequities at the heart of many conflicts. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t sufficient energy and resources expended trying to prevent or contain crises. There is far greater need for the United Nations and for our government to insist on the mediation and management of disputes, to bring pressure on warring parties, to limit the supply of arms, to be ready to offer development aid, investment and debt relief?that is, carrots, to those who will work to bring conflicts under control. International development and financial institutions like the World Bank also need to become involved earlier on to help stabilize situations, prevent displacement and contribute to return and reintegration. Otherwise, millions of lives are lost and the cost of rebuilding destroyed societies overwhelms all available resources.

To conclude, this forum of people interested in foreign affairs is a good place to start exploring how we should enter the 21st century. Should we be pressing for more attention to the prevention of conflicts? And when prevention fails, should we be advocating for the creation of an international system that protects people against massive assault in their own countries? At the end of the second world war, the refugee protection system was established. And it continues to work today as we see from the Kosovo crisis. Yet only sixty years ago, countries had routinely turned back persons fleeing from Nazi Germany and from countries occupied by the Nazis. Isn’t it timely now to think about developing an international system that protects people in their own countries?