Strangers in their Own Land: the Plight of Internally Displaced Persons

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

January 1, 2002

Over the last decade, the international community has been confronted with the global crisis of internal displacement, involving some 25 million people in over 40 countries around the world. These people have been uprooted by internal armed conflicts, communal violence, and egregious violations of human rights, but have not
crossed international borders. Invariably, they are exposed to severe threats to their physical and psychological security, gross violations of human rights, and denial of basic needs to shelter, food, medicine, sanitation, potable
water, occupation, and education. Had they moved across international borders, they would be considered refugees for whom the international community has well-established legal and institutional frameworks and mechanisms for their protection and assistance. But because they remain within their state borders, they are ironically assumed to
be the responsibility of their governments, even though those same governments are often the source of their plight.

In most cases, the affected countries suffer from an acute crisis of national identity emanating from severe
social, ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages. These cleavages determine who is treated with dignity as a citizen, and who is denied a sense of belonging on equal footing in the national identity framework.

International Response

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights decided in 1992 to place the issue of internal displacement on its agenda and requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Representative on Internally Displaced Persons to
study the problem and recommend ways in which the United Nations system and the international community in general might respond to the needs of the internally displaced. I was honoured to have been appointed by the Secretary-General as his representative on the issue.

Working in close collaboration with
a team of international legal experts
and in a broad-based process
of consultation involving
representatives of relevant UN
agencies, regional organizations,
and non-governmental organizations,
we developed the Guiding
Principles on Internal Displacement.
These principles restate the relevant
standards in existing international
human rights law, humanitarian law,
and analogous refugee law. We have
also made recommendations for
institutional arrangements,
presenting various options, ranging
from the creation of a specialized
agency for the internally displaced,
to the designation of an existing
agency to assume full responsibility
for them, to a collaborative approach
that utilizes the capacities of
existing agencies. This last option
proved to be the preferred one.

Since the Guiding Principles were
presented to the Commission on
Human Rights in 1995, and taken
note of by the Commission, they
have been very well received by the
agencies of the UN, regional
organizations, governments and
non-governmental organizations.
The coordination needed for the
collaborative institutional
arrangements to be effective has also
evolved significantly. The reform
agenda of the Secretary-General
designated the Emergency Relief
Coordinator and Under-
Secretary-General for
Humanitarian Affairs, as
the head of the Office for
the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs
(OCHA), to function as
the focal point in the
system charged with the
responsibility of ensuring
that the displaced are
protected and assisted.
A series of other measures
included initially, the
establishment of an
Inter-Agency Working
Group on Internally
Displaced Persons, later succeeded
by the more high profile
Inter-Agency Network and more
recently, by an IDP Unit at OCHA to
facilitate the role of the Emergency
Relief Coordinator and the Network.

As Representative of the Secretary-
General on Internally Displaced
Persons, I have continued to play the
catalytic role of advocating the cause
of the IDPs and have focused the
activities of my mandate in four
interconnected areas: promoting the
dissemination and application of the
Guiding Principles; appraising the
performance of the operational
agencies and how they can be made
more effective on the ground;
undertaking country missions to
assess the conditions of the
displaced and plead their case with
governments, organizations, donors,
and all those whose mandates and
scope of activities impact on them;
and conducting studies into various
aspects of the crisis of internal
displacement and the response to it
at various levels.

The Responsibility of Sovereignty

Considering that the problem of
internal displacement is inherently
internal and therefore under state
sovereignty, our approach has been
to affirm respect for the sovereignty
of the state, but to stipulate
sovereignty as a concept of
responsibility for ensuring the
protection and the general welfare
of the citizens and all those under
state jurisdiction. If governments
cannot do so for reasons of lack of
capacity, they should invite or at
least welcome international

When governments lack the requisite
capacity or the political will
to discharge their responsibility,
whether on their own or in
cooperation with the international
community, and masses of their
people face severe hardships and
even the threat of death, they
cannot expect the international
community to remain indifferent.
International involvement can range
from diplomatic intercession, to
various forms and degrees of
coercion extending to military
intervention in extreme cases. The
best way to protect national
sovereignty is therefore to discharge
the responsibilities associated with
it and to seek the assistance of the
international community, as needed.

Opportunities in Crisis

As much as the problem of internal
displacement is a consequence of
deeper structural problems that
generate conflicts and gross
violations of human rights, it also
poses a challenge for addressing
those problems in the interest of
nationbuilding. To the extent that
peace, unity, stability and the
viability of the nation are overriding
objectives, a responsible and wise
leadership must not only accept, but
indeed initiate and lead, a major
reform with the view to establishing
a new basis for sharing power,
national resources, services and
opportunities for equitable

Along with the current efforts at
assisting and protecting displaced
populations, there is a need to urge
and assist governments to address
the root causes of displacement by
seeking in earnest a constructive
resolution of the conflicts through a
just and lasting peace. Beyond that,
the challenge of nation building calls
for the establishment of a system of
governance that ensures democratic
participation, respect for
fundamental rights and freedoms,
and equitable opportunities for
sustainable development.