There is in the 2000 millennium report of the United Nations Secretary-General a line well worth recalling: “Every group needs to become convinced that the state belongs to all people.” When ethnic groups experience tolerance and inclusion within societies, it is less likely that conflict will erupt over ethnic divisions. Yet in far too many countries, ethnic minority groups do not feel an integral and accepted part of the state. Many feel dispossessed and abandoned by the national authorities; their beliefs, culture and language insufficiently respected; and their political and economic interests not fully protected by the institutions of their government. In such situations, all too often, extremist elements within the group turn to violence to reverse power imbalances and achieve the group’s aims. Indeed, armed conflicts between governments and ethnic minority groups seeking greater political, economic and cultural autonomy are one of the major causes of forced displacement.
Whereas in genuinely democratic societies, governments tend to see minorities as legitimate members of the state with whom they have to negotiate and reach accommodation, in societies that are less pluralistic and with less developed mechanisms for conflict resolution, governments often respond with force, fearing that minority demands will disrupt the state and lead to its disintegration. Diversity is seen by the state as a threat to the unity of the nation, whereas in the view of Francis Deng, former Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, “it is rather the denial of diversity that actually threatens the nation.” In the ensuing struggle, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of minority members may become internally displaced either as a byproduct of the conflict or as a deliberate goal of counterinsurgency or ethnic cleansing campaigns. Cut off from their communities and livelihoods and in dire need of material assistance and protection, they often fall into a vacuum of responsibility within the state. Viewed by the authorities as “suspect” for being part of an ethnic, cultural or social group considered threatening, they are denied the elemental protection and assistance owed by a state to its citizens. This phenomenon Deng described as “a crisis of identity” for the state.
Countries torn asunder by conflicts along ethnic, linguistic, religious or racial lines do not mend easily. It is not enough to bring the uprooted populations a modicum of humanitarian relief and development aid and encourage them to return home. Something far more profound is needed to knit communities together and establish long-lasting peace. Ethnic divisions must be healed, trust reestablished, property and compensation claims honored, human rights violators brought to justice, and more inclusive power-sharing and wealth-sharing arrangements designed together with a broader concept of national and ethnic identity. To achieve this restructuring, a national dialogue becomes essential to address the causes of the conflict, the numbers and conditions of the displaced and the steps that must be taken to ensure successful return or resettlement. A framework recently developed by Walter Kälin, current Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, demonstrates that ending displacement is “a process” in which the displaced must be able to reintegrate successfully and regain the full exercise of their human rights. Without sufficient attention to rehabilitating the displaced and to redressing the inequalities at the core of the social and political divisions within their societies, countries can easily fall back into conflict.