The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement

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

November 11, 1998

Forcible displacement can be found on all continents. Overall, there are 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons: 10 million in Africa, 5 million in Europe, 5 million in Asia, and 2 million in the Americas. Beyond the statistics are human beings in desperate straits—separated from their homes, communities, means of subsistence, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and vulnerable to disease, hunger and human rights abuse. The numbers have been climbing over the past decade for two reasons: civil wars, or wars within states, have become more prevalent than interstate wars in the post-Cold War era; and most governments today are not willing to receive large numbers of refugees. The result is that more and more people forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict, ethnic strife, and violations of human rights are remaining in their own countries in refugee-like conditions.

Unlike refugees, however, persons who are internally displaced have no guaranteed international protection. The international system created at the end of the second world war, and which continues today, provides protection to people who cross borders and become refugees. Persons who do not cross a border, who remain in their own countries, have no international organization, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and no legal instrument, like the Refugee Convention, to turn to. They are supposed to receive assistance and protection from their own governments. But this often does not happen. Take the recent example of Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians who crossed into Macedonia or the state of Albania found UNHCR waiting to protect and assist them. But ethnic Albanians displaced within Kosovo faced a different reality: many had to hide in the mountains and forests without shelter, food and protection.

Internally displaced persons generally receive little or no help from their own governments. Either their own governments do not have the capacity or it is their own governments that deliberately subject them to starvation, physical attacks and other abuses. The Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis M Deng, has pointed out that governments often don’t regard the internally displaced as citizens in need of protection. “These are not our people,” some government officials have actually articulated. In such cases, the government is usually identified with one ethnic group which excludes and marginalizes other groups. The others are seen as “the enemy” and this de-humanization creates a climate in which atrocities committed against them 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 4 million forcibly displaced persons or the world’s largest internally displaced population, an Arabized government has been trying to impose an Islamic state on the black African south, which is primarily Christian and animist. The government has been notorious for using starvation as a weapon of war against groups it regards as the enemy, such as the Dinka and the Nuba. In fact, maybe a million have died over the past decade in deliberate government campaigns to obstruct international food deliveries to them.

In Kosovo, 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, which has produced 300,000 internally displaced Albanians, whose homes and villages have been destroyed by their government. 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 (in some cases majorities), 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.

External influence can also play a role in producing conflict and displacement. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union contributed to and intensified many of the internal conflicts leading to mass displacement. Their proxy wars, whether in Angola, Afghanistan or Central America, forcibly displaced millions. The two superpowers also heavily armed client governments, as in Liberia, Somalia, Ethiopia. When the Cold War ended, and the governments of Doe, Siad Barre and Mengistu, fell, the arsenals provided to them furnished much of the weaponry for the ethnic and clan warfare that broke out. The demise of the Soviet Union also produced substantial displacement as fierce power struggles developed among different ethnic and national groups in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Often we think of displacement as a temporary problem but in many places it is long-term. And it 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; farmland is neglected; the maintenance of land and homes is not kept up; property changes hands; and community structures are overturned. The areas to which the displaced flee are also heavily affected. When people flee into rural areas, forests and grasslands are quickly stripped for housing and fuel; in Rwanda, the damage done to national parks and forests, the World Bank reports, will have long-term economic effects. When people flee to urban centers, these can double or triple in population size. Social services, water supplies, and sanitation facilities quickly become overloaded. This hastens the deterioration of urban infrastructure that wasn’t all that strong to begin with. It should be borne in mind that conflict and displacement frequently occur in the world’s poorest countries.

And rarely does conflict and displacement remain confined within borders. The Great Lakes region of Africa is a good example of how genocide, conflict and displacement in Rwanda inflamed the situation in neighboring countries. Large refugee flows went into the Congo, and now there is a state of war between Rwanda and the Congo. In the Horn of Africa, the conflict in the Sudan has spilled over into northern Uganda, and in west Africa, conflict and displacement in Liberia spilled over and helped destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone. We see then that forcible displacement is not only a human rights and humanitarian tragedy but a political, economic and strategic problem affecting broad geographic areas. This demands regional and international attention

What can the world community do to respond to this problem? In certain respects, the challenge of internal displacement is easier to deal with now than it was in the past. The Cold War’s end has increased access and has made it easier to see conflicts in humanitarian terms. Advances in telecommunications have also made it more difficult to hide displacement and conflict. And today there is greater acceptance of the idea that the events taking place within a state are a legitimate subject of international concern. This is largely the work of human rights and humanitarian organizations. They have effectively argued 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. In other words, there are limits to sovereignty; governments are expected to have responsibilities to their populations. Sudan is a good case in point. In 1988, the international community basically stood by while a quarter of a million people died for lack of food and emergency supplies. This was because the government invoked state sovereignty to bar relief supplies. But in 1989, the United Nations took a more determined approach. It undertook hard diplomatic bargaining and persuaded the Sudanese government and the rebel forces to accept Operation Lifeline Sudan, or the provision of outside relief to displaced and other persons throughout the country.

Indeed, the greater willingness of the international community to become involved in addressing emergencies within a state has become a defining feature of the post Cold War era?donor fatigue notwithstanding. UN resolutions regularly insist upon unimpeded access for food and other supplies to displaced persons, whether in Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia or Azerbaijan. And you can find an array of international organizations and non-governmental organizations working in countries on behalf of internally displaced persons. NGOs play a particularly important role as actual implementers of UN agency programs, as watchdogs of UN performance, and as links to local groups on the ground.

Nonetheless, there remains some serious gaps in the international response system. One is institutional. Since there is no one organization with a global mandate to protect and assist internally displaced persons, there is often a vacuum of responsibility. Organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross and various NGOs become involved ONLY on an ad hoc basis. They pick and choose the situations in which they want to be 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, 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 UNHCR, 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 the option of strengthening coordination among the different agencies to make their response more timely and predictable. A colleague of mine, Professor Thomas Weiss, describes the option of coordination—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 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has 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 bring the different agencies together and press them to assume responsibilities when serious situations of internal displacement arise. The study Masses in Flight (Brookings, 1998) recommends that the Coordinator assign one agency in each emergency with responsibility for the internally displaced.

There is only one mechanism within the UN system that is mandated exclusively to focus on the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced. That is the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. Francis Deng was appointed in 1992. He’s a member of the Dinka ethnic group from the southern Sudan with first-hand experience of displacement; he’s also a scholar and former diplomat. He has been asked to undertake fact-finding missions, dialogue with governments, and make proposals for strengthening legal and institutional protection for the internally displaced. To date, he has visited 13 countries on all continents, successfully raised international awareness to the problem of internal displacement, encouraged some governments to adopt more responsive policies, and has made suggestions to international agencies about how to better address specific protection and assistance needs. He also has urged regional organizations to take a more active role in crises of internal displacement and become the first line of response in their areas. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States has appointed a rapporteur on internally displaced persons. And recently at a meeting in Addis Ababa, the Representative discussed with the Organization of African Unity their appointment of a focal point on internal displacement. But despite all these efforts, the conditions under which the Representative operates limit his effectiveness. He is but a single individual working on a voluntary (that is unpaid) and part-time basis (he already has a full-time job at the Brookings Institution). Only one junior professional staff member has been assigned to assist him and he has limited resources at his disposal. If the UN wants to become more effective with situations of internal displacement, it will make this position full-time and give it more resources.

Another major challenge in dealing with the internally displaced is how to provide protection to people who are in their own countries. To date, the international community has focused on providing food, shelter and medical supplies. But this is only half the job. Displaced persons may also 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 you’re helping are being beaten, raped or killed has led to tragic expressions like “the well-fed dead” to describe the victims. In Bosnia, one observer commented that the international effort could be considered a success inasmuch as people died on a full stomach.

How can we increase protection? First, by defining it. The absence of a legal framework for the internally displaced has been a major gap in this regard. Consider that in the case of refugees, the 1951 Refugee Convention serves as the foundation for the protection carried out by UNHCR. And the Geneva Conventions serve as the basis for the protection work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in war zones. But there has been no basis for advocacy and action on behalf of people who are internally displaced. To fill this vacuum, the Representative of the Secretary-General presented to the UN this year the first international standards for internally displaced persons. They were developed by a group of international lawyers. They are called the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and they set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the duties and obligations of governments and insurgent groups. They in essence define protection for the displaced. While the document lacks legal force, it has already gained some international authority and standing; it is being widely disseminated in the field. And it is beginning to be used as an advocacy tool.

To implement the principles, however, we come up against another challenge. For most relief and development organizations, protection is not a central concern or function. UNHCR and ICRC do have protection mandates but they are not involved in every situation. Most other humanitarian organizations?whether international or NGO?deliver food and medicines and set up water and sanitation systems but do not consider it a part of their work to advocate on behalf of protection concerns. Human Rights Watch/Africa published a report on a UN program in Kenya which failed because human rights and protection was not part of the program. UNDP (the UN Development Programme), to its credit, developed a program, in collaboration with the government, to reintegrate internally displaced persons. But the program had no human rights or protection component, and when the Kenyan government harassed and attacked the displaced persons involved, UNDP, according to HRW, did not strongly protest. Many international relief and development staff fear that if they confront host governments, they and their programs will be expelled. And most have no training or knowledge of human rights and protection concerns.

To turn this situation around, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has begun to emphasize the importance of integrating protection and human rights concerns into assistance programs. Protection initiatives have thus begun to be undertaken. In Rwanda, UN human rights field staff were deployed?about 130?to help increase security in home communes so that internally displaced persons could return and reintegrate in safety. In our study, Masses in Flight, we outline numerous steps that can be taken by relief and development organizations to increase protection in the field. Some are obvious. For example, how assistance programs are designed can affect protection. 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. Strengthened cooperation between humanitarian and human rights organizations is also important. In Bosnia, in the early 1990s, military staff and some relief workers became aware of concentration camps and other abuses but they were basically silent. 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. To date, military interventions have succeeded in preventing mass starvation, whether in Bosnia or Somalia. But when it comes to safeguarding the physical security of people?from massacres, genocidal acts?the record has been more mixed. In 1991 in Iraq, Western action under the UN umbrella did create a safe haven for Kurds but this action took place in the wake of a war against Iraq. In the safe areas set up in Bosnia for displaced persons, UN forces were not given the number of troops needed or the equipment to accomplish this. And their mandate was ambiguous: they were instructed to protect the safe areas but to use force only in self-defense, a caveat which they used to excuse themselves from having to defend anyone but themselves. When the safe area of Srebrenica was overrun by the Serbs and more than 5,000 Muslim men and boys were separated from the others and presumably killed, UN forces stood by. Absent was the political will to enable the forces to carry out adequate protection. It was only after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995 that the international community took the military action needed. In Kosovo today, we can only hope that the 2,000 monitors being sent in will really be backed up by NATO forces and that they will be able to offer protection to returning displaced persons.

In Rwanda, following the horrendous 1994 genocide, UN troop commander Major General Dallaire publicly regretted that he was given neither the forces nor the authority to actively save lives on the eve of the killings. After the genocide, when thousands of displaced Hutus were sheltered in camps, the Rwandan army massacred several thousand in full view of UN peacekeepers and international relief staff. The Rwandan government wanted them to return to their homes for legitimate reasons but when they resisted, government forces began firing. The UN military force, UNAMIR, had a mandate to protect the displaced persons, but again, its numbers in the camps were small and it interpreted its mandate narrowly to exclude having to defend the displaced from their own government.

How can we ensure that international forces charged with protection do in fact have the equipment, resources, training and mandates to accomplish this? To begin with military forces need training in human rights and humanitarian standards and in the practical measures to provide protection. I was told in Croatia by military men that they had turned back persons to Bosnia because they didn’t know what a refugee was. Military discipline and stringent UN oversight of military operations is also needed. When the regional African force ECOMOG entered Liberia in 1990, in part to protect displaced persons, which it did, it also looted and raped. Clearly, UN oversight is needed so that international and regional troops act in accordance with UN standards when placed in protection roles.

Most important, political will is required. But where do we find political will? Is it stored in a bottle in the desk of a few officials in Washington, waiting to be uncorked? No, it can be found in small towns and cities throughout this country and on college campuses like this one. 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? What are the limits of sovereignty and when is humanitarian intervention justified? Should there be an international rapid reaction force that would go automatically into places like Rwanda when genocide and other massive assaults are threatened? Should there be an international corps of protection officers for camps and safe areas in which internally displaced persons are gathered? Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, contends that true globalization means an international responsibility to provide protection to persons at risk. Are we ready to define our own national interest so that it encompasses a more responsive international system when large numbers are at risk?

This college with its new human rights program is a good place to start exploring whether we should enter the 21st century advocating the development of an international system that not only feeds people but protects them.