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Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - The Cartagena Declaration: a decade of progress

Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - The Cartagena Declaration: a decade of progress
Refugees (99, I - 1995)

1 March 1995
Ten years after negotiators laid out the basis for Latin America's innovative and generous Cartagena Declaration, U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Gerald Walzer analyzes the enduring significance of their work. (Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)

Editor's note: Following are excerpts from a statement delivered by U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Gerald Walzer in San José, Costa Rica, on 5 December 1994, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

A decade ago, representatives of 10 Latin American governments and experts from 12 countries came together in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, for a colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama. They laid out a remarkable conceptual framework for refugee protection.

The foundation on which "Cartagena" was built remains the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol - the international refugee treaties of global scope. Those treaties have proved to be solid, yet flexible, affording international protection to millions of refugees throughout the world who have been forced to flee their homes, land, treasured possessions, the ability to work, and - perhaps most tragic of all - their families and friends.

But the Cartagena Declaration was part of an enlightened trend toward expanding the availability of international protection and humanitarian assistance. While deserving of protection and assistance, victims of armed conflict and human rights abuses had not always been included by States that apply the literal terms of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol.

By expanding on those universal refugee instruments, the 1984 Colloquium at Cartagena elaborated a complementary and farsighted vision of refugee protection designed to meet the specific needs of the people of Central America. This vision was informed by relevant precedents in the region, including the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and by experience in Africa - where, 15 years earlier, the Organization of African Unity had adopted an expanded refugee definition to address the particular needs of people who had become refugees as a result of decolonization, struggles for national liberation, and the creation of new states. The OAU explicitly protected a wider group of refugees, including those fleeing armed conflict and civil strife.

Cartagena extended its definition of a refugee in Central America to people threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression and internal conflicts - and, most remarkably, to those fleeing "massive violation of human rights".

The impact of Cartagena has reverberated beyond the borders of Latin America. Countries that may not have yet formally endorsed the Cartagena Declaration have nevertheless been influenced by it in building humanitarian responses to other mass influxes, such as the recent large outflows of "boat-people" in the Caribbean.

Cartagena was fashioned against the backdrop of the severe crises in southern Latin America in the 1970s, and it was crucial to solving the huge and complex web of displacement in Central America during the 1980s. Almost 2 million people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were displaced during this period. Some 200,000 Central Americans were formally recognized and registered as refugees. Many others in similar situations had not crossed international borders but were displaced within their own countries.

But the region was not without hope or resources. Cartagena had set out the legal groundwork for resolving the problem of refugees. And in 1987, the leaders of the five countries of Central America boldly decided to chart a new course. In signing the Esquipulas II accords, the five Central American presidents, demonstrating pragmatism and vision, tied their pursuit of political settlements to solutions to displacement and to economic and social development plans for alleviating the poverty, landlessness, and social exclusion that were at the roots of the conflicts. Out of the political commitment at Esquipulas emerged the International Conference on Central American Refugees, known as CIREFCA.

The inclusiveness of the Cartagena Declaration and the comprehensiveness of CIREFCA greatly contributed to improving stability in Central America. One of the central features of these instruments was their emphasis on the pursuit of effective and lasting solutions to refugee displacement as a means for creating peace.

Latin America has much to teach the rest of the world about protection, and about solutions to the problem of refugees. Some have described the 1980s as a "lost decade" for the people of Central America. Let us hope that history judges the 1990s as the decade in which all of Central America achieved peace. Let it be the decade in which Latin America and the Caribbean teach the rest of the world how to consolidate peace and democracy - so that we may move closer to closing the final chapter on refugees and forced displacement.