The Plight of the Internally Displaced: A Challenge to the International Community

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

April 8, 2004

We live in a world in which the principle of national sovereignty is still the cornerstone of international relations, despite significant modifications and moderation in the application of the principle. While international humanitarian and human rights instruments offer legally binding bases for international protection and assistance to needy populations within their national borders, those people are for the most part at the mercy of their national authorities for their security and general welfare. International access to them can be tragically constrained and even blocked by States in the name of sovereignty, by the collapse of states or by rampant insecurity, as was the case in countries like Angola, Colombia, Indonesia, Liberia, and the Sudan, to mention a few. Diplomacy and the art of persuasion can help to tear down the barriers; in extreme circumstances, more assertive intervention may be imperative.

A pragmatic basis for a diplomatic dialogue that moderates the negative implications of a narrowly conceived application of sovereignty is to postulate it positively, not as a barrier against international involvement and cooperation, but as a concept of state responsibility to protect and assist its citizens in need and, where lack or inadequacy of resources and operational capacities necessitate, invite or at least welcome international assistance to complement national efforts. There is an implicit assumption of accountability behind the concept of responsibility. This means that where the needs of sizeable populations are unmet under the exercise of sovereignty, and large numbers suffer extreme deprivation and are threatened with death, the international community, obligated by humanitarian and human rights principles, cannot be expected to watch passively. Humanitarian intervention then becomes imperative, as occurred for instance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, and more recently in Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The best guarantee for sovereignty is therefore for states to discharge minimum standards of responsibility, if need be with international cooperation.