On the Record

Statement Before the Asia Society on Internal Displacement in Burma

Roberta Cohen

I was asked to address the internal displacement issue in Burma within the larger framework of the global debate on IDPs and the challenges facing the international community in protecting IDPs.

The question of protecting internally displaced persons did not come onto the international agenda until the last 10 years of the 20th century. Prior to that time, the international community was prepared to extend a protection network only to refugees – to those who crossed borders fleeing persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees did not extend to protecting people uprooted and at risk within their own countries. However, by the 1990s, with civil wars engulfing many countries, humanitarian emergencies began to produce far more IDPs than refugees. By 1995 there were an estimated 25 million IDPs in more than 40 countries. Their situation was desperate. Questions as a result began to be asked. Shouldn’t there be an international system to protect people inside their own countries? Moreover, internal conflict and displacement were undermining not only national stability in a number of countries but spilling over borders and affecting regional stability in many places. Some sort of international involvement was considered necessary.

In 1992, the UN Secretary-General appointed a Representative on Internally Displaced Persons to study the question and develop a framework for addressing it. I have worked closely with the Representative Francis Deng and one of the first steps we took was to bring together legal experts, who developed the first international standards for IDPs – the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Principles are a minimum standard for how IDPs should be treated. They set forth the rights of IDPs and the responsibilities of governments, insurgent groups and other actors toward these populations. This is an important document because it defines IDPs, brings together all human rights and humanitarian law applicable to them, and serves as a benchmark for monitoring and evaluating their situation. The Principles could prove useful in looking at the situation in Burma. Of course they are not a binding legal document, but since 1998 when they were presented to the UN, an international consensus has developed around the Principles about how IDPs should be treated. The challenge is to find ways to promote their implementation.

At the institutional level, the Representative quickly found out that there was no political will or resources to set up a separate agency for IDPs or to assign responsibility to an existing agency like UNHCR. The preferred international response was the collaborative approach – that is the various agencies — whether UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Program etc. — work together under the umbrella of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But the system has not worked that well when it comes to IDPs. To begin with, OCHA does not have the authority to assign responsibilities to the different agencies with the result that the different agencies pick and choose where they want to become involved and large numbers of IDPs go without assistance or protection. In a country like Burma, where the government for many years rejected international involvement, and where the UN political department had its own diplomatic concerns, it was easy to ignore the IDP situation.

In the last few years, however, there have been some efforts to make the UN system work better for IDPs worldwide. A review was undertaken and in 2002, OCHA set up an IDP Unit, which now has become a Division and constitutes the first UN office with a group of dedicated staff on IDPs in the UN system. The Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland who heads OCHA is also quite proactive on IDPs and wants the system to work better. At the same time, Burma is not one of the Division’s priorities although the Resident Coordinator in Rangoon, who is charge of UN coordination, has begun to look at vulnerable populations and has set up a working group on moving populations.

Burma nonetheless remains one of the more intractable and difficult cases facing the international community. In 1999, my project at Brookings organized a conference with the US Committee for Refugees, to try to develop strategies to deal with situations of internal displacement off the international humanitarian radar screen. The conference was called Tough Nuts to Crack, with Burma featured. At the time, international access to IDPs in Burma was almost totally blocked; the government was refusing to acknowledge the problem, and entry to humanitarian organizations and UN human rights representatives was largely denied, including of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. Concern over democratization and human rights issues, moreover, overrode issues of immediate humanitarian need.

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Since that time, there have been some changes but strategies are still needed to address this situation more effectively. Let’s look at some of key issues that should be part of any strategy:

First, and very obviously expanded information is needed about IDPs in Burma. Data remains sketchy with little information about IDP needs. Even numbers of IDPs are guesstimates, ranging from 600,000 to 1 million. Indeed, we believe Burma is the country in Asia with the largest number of IDPs and one of the 6 countries in the world with the most IDPs, but this cannot be said with certainty. Greater support is needed for the efforts of NGOs, among them the Burmese Border Consortium, which with small budgets are trying to amass as much as information as possible about IDPs.

Second, greater involvement of the international community is needed. There are now ten or more UN organizations and programs on the ground and more than 20 NGOs, but most are in Rangoon, the capital, the programs are small, and most have little or nothing to do with IDPs. There are nonetheless some positive signs. UNHCR, for example, recently gained government agreement to its becoming involved with IDPs in areas of refugee returns. Although returns are not considered propitious at this time, it is significant that the government has acknowledged the existence of IDPs and agreed to the involvement of an international organization in assisting them. The WFP is also working on increasing food security in areas of return. Moreover, the International Labor Organization, which has an office in Rangoon, has negotiated an agreement with the government on the issue of forced labor, which affects IDPs. But for the UN as a whole, far more advocacy, initiatives and assertion of responsibility for IDPs is needed. For example, the UN should be pressing for greater presence for UN agencies in border areas. It should be lending support to cross border programs, which bring in food and medicines. It should be giving the IDP situation in Burma some priority on its agenda. And groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has access to some of the border areas, should explore how to expand its role with IDPs. Indeed, the International Crisis Group in its latest report calls for an expanded humanitarian role for the international community in Burma.


Third, there should be consultations with ethnic minority groups, which account for most of the IDPs. In other parts of the world the UN and the ICRC often deal with both government and non-state actors. In this case, in working in refugee relocation areas, the UN should seek to talk to the Keren. Programs work far better when the stakeholders are included in the policies and programs in areas of relocation.

Fourth, regional involvement could be valuable. Unlike in Africa, Europe and the Americas, where regional organizations play a role in situations of internal displacement, the Association of South Asian Regional Organizations (ASEAN) has shied away from what it considers interference in internal affairs. But in 2003, the organization did react when Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, and several member states have called for discussions of human rights and democratization issues in Burma. Since Burma is supposed to become ASEAN’s President in 2006, possibilities exist for member and associated states to attach some conditions to their willingness to work with Burma as president.

In conclusion, there is need to bring together international organizations, NGOs, donor governments, the World Bank and regional bodies to develop a purposeful strategy to deal with IDPs and humanitarian issues in Burma far more effectively than has been the case.