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Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - Package deals

Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - Package deals
Refugees (99, I - 1995)

1 March 1995
From Central America to Liberia, Indo-China and the Great Lakes, regional and comprehensive responses may be the only possible solution to the complexity and magnitude of today's refugee problems. 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.

From Central America to Liberia, Indo-China and the Great Lakes, regional and comprehensive responses may be the only possible solution to the complexity and magnitude of today's refugee problems.

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.

By Barry N. Stein
Professor of Political Science Michigan State University

Although their efforts to date have not always been generous or successful, regional bodies are likely to play an increasingly significant role in responding to current and future refugee problems around the world.

Several regional organizations and ad hoc groupings of regional actors have already made efforts to intervene in a number of refugee problems. Usually, these efforts occur either when the region itself has rejected the solution advanced by the international community, or when the international community takes little or no action to achieve a solution.

The regional response is to put forward its own plan of action to deal with the refugee problem. Sometimes, as in Central America and South East Asia, regional organizations have led the effort in close partnership with UNHCR. In other cases, such as Cambodia, Liberia or Rwanda, regional organizations may cooperate with U.N. peacekeeping missions that include UNHCR.

Unfortunately, the term "regional" is very poorly defined. The U.N. Charter deals with "Regional Arrangements" without ever defining them. In 1945, the only regional institutions were the Arab League and the Organization of American States (OAS), so the imprecision of drafters permitted a great deal of flexibility for the development of regional approaches to regional problems.

There has been an explosion of regional arrangements over the years. Some are formal multilateral regional organizations such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of American States (OAS), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Others are ad hoc regional groupings formed for a limited purpose and duration such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees (CPA), the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), and the Regional Conference of Central African Heads of State.

Although "region" is undefined, not just any grouping of a few neighbours can be considered a regional arrangement. While remaining imprecise, some of the characteristics of a region are:

  • three or more geographically proximate states;
  • mutual dependence arising from common interests;
  • defined by an ad hoc problem, such as the presence of refugees;
  • and interrelated units whose activities are significant determinants of each other's policies.

Closely related to regional efforts, but distinct from them, is the idea of a comprehensive response to refugee problems. A comprehensive approach is one in which a variety of different but concerted measures are brought to bear on a refugee situation. The "package" of measures needed to achieve a solution can include temporary asylum, non-refoulement, voluntary repatriation with UNHCR monitoring in the country of origin, as well as assistance for reintegration and perhaps local integration or resettlement of refugees who refuse to return.

A comprehensive response can be contained entirely within one country involving concerted measures on behalf of refugees, returnees, displaced persons, residents, demobilized soldiers, and affected communities, as well as measures to remove root causes and promote development.

Regional approaches are likely to be comprehensive responses because of the interdependence of the concerted measures. For example, refugee camps in the country of asylum cannot be closed unless the country of origin is willing to remove the causes of flight and accept the returnees. However, the removal of the causes of flight may be partially dependent on neighbouring countries restricting the flow of political and military aid to insurgent groups.

Comprehensive, interrelated approaches are inherent in regionalism because unilateral actions, which can be easily implemented, are likely to lead to retaliatory actions, that block solutions and leave all parties worse off.

Reflecting the complex causation of refugee problems, the regional responses often are not limited to dealing with the refugee issue - nor, indeed, do they treat refugees as the central issue. Regional efforts are centered on dealing with the country of origin. The concern is to end conflict and build peace, to avoid flight, prevent the loss of homeland, or to bring refugees home. If conditions in the homeland are not addressed, then the internal situation that caused the flight or expulsion may deteriorate, leading to more refugees, tension and instability. This can affect neighbouring states. Refugee situations are a notoriously potent source of international tensions.

Regional efforts have long been a part of the response to refugees, including the 1956 Hungarian refugee crisis and the drafting of the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. The Cold War and the accompanying rigid polarization of the world considerably distorted the potential for regional responses by castigating countries of origin as "persecutors," thereby inhibiting measures aimed at the homeland which might prevent refugee flows or promote the repatriation of refugees.

In the late 1970s, regional actors in Africa and South East Asia began to question their assigned roles in international refugee assistance. By its reluctance to engage the homeland in dialogue and negotiations, the prevailing international approach to refugee problems was emphasizing local integration as a durable solution, thereby placing the heaviest refugee burden on the neighbours of the country of origin.

In Africa, questioning of the above approach emerged in May 1979 at the Pan African Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, which subsequently led to the 1981 International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) and a second ICARA in 1984. At the time, there were several hundred thousand refugees in African settlements which had been established with aid from the international community. However, most African refugees were spontaneously settled, receiving negligible international assistance, and were a heavy burden on the host countries. While the Secretary-General, UNHCR and the donors emphasized the need for the durable solution of local settlement, African hosts at the two ICARA meetings emphasized voluntary repatriation as the "ideal solution," as well as the need for greater international burden-sharing to aid the hosts' fragile infrastructures in refugee-affected areas.

Regional comprehensive efforts are not always generous to refugees. Since 1975, the countries of South East Asia have taken actions - at first unilaterally and later in concert - to achieve their preferred solution to the problem of Indo-Chinese refugees. That solution is not to accept any former boat-people for permanent or long-term residence.

The asylum countries insisted that all asylum-seekers either be speedily resettled outside the region or returned - involuntarily if necessary - to their homelands. The lever at the disposal of the asylum countries, as non-signatories of the Refugee Convention, was their ability to permit or block the provision of first asylum for those fleeing from Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Their use of this lever - at the cost of thousands of refugee lives - led to two international conferences: the 1979 Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia and the 1989 International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees (ICIR).

The 1989 ICIR approved the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), whose Steering Committee has set a target date of the end of 1995 for an almost complete resolution of the problem - on terms set by the South East Asians. The country of origin, Viet Nam, was pressed to reduce or end the flow of refugees by expanding legal migration channels, by controlling clandestine and illegal migration, by reducing the pressures that force people to leave, and by blocking departures.

Although they could press for their plan, the South East Asian states needed the cooperation of Viet Nam and the Western countries of resettlement to achieve their objectives.

The International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) in May 1989 was both a remarkable capstone in a regional peace process that began in the early 1980s, and a notable milestone in a continuing search for peace and development. The Cartagena Declaration in 1984, the Contadora Act for Peace and Cooperation in 1986, and the Esquipulas II Agreement in 1987 (the Arias Peace Plan), are other important landmarks in a region-wide, coordinated process to promote peace, assist uprooted peoples, repatriate refugees, and strengthen democracy and human rights.

In the mid-eighties, the Central American states engaged in a process that enabled them to move beyond their Cold War roles as superpower clients and pawns to shape a regional solution to their common, interrelated problems. Between 1981 and 1990, the Cold War protagonists spent about $12 billion in the region, and the ideological demands and expectations of the superpowers exacerbated the crisis and threatened to engulf the entire region.

In 1987, the Central American presidents took matters into their own hands with the signing of the Arias Peace Plan. The plan called for cease-fires, coexistence between Nicaragua and its neighbours, guarantees of U.S. security concerns, and an end to interventions in the internal affairs of other nations.

Moreover, the agreement recognized that there could be no lasting peace without initiatives to resolve the problem of refugees, returnees and displaced persons, and appealed for international aid for these efforts. This is the role of CIREFCA, an important humanitarian piece of this larger regional process and programme which includes peace treaties, elections, U.N. peacekeeping and peace-building efforts.

CIREFCA's operations, jointly implemented by UNHCR and UNDP, are an interesting attempt by the international community to support weak, devastated states engaged in post-conflict peace-building, to contribute to the consolidation of peace. CIREFCA integrated repatriation to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and acceptance of some of the uprooted for permanent local settlement in Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico, with short- and long-term development in the context of a regional peace process. Since CIREFCA was created, two of the three armed conflicts have been brought to a close and agreements have been signed that consolidate the prospects for an end to 30 years of armed conflict in Guatemala.

Ultimately less successful than CIREFCA, but in their own way more heroic, have been regional attempts to deal with conflicts in Liberia and Rwanda. In August 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made an unprecedented military intervention into Liberia's civil war, which had displaced over half of the country's population and caused 600,000 Liberians to flee to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire. Faced with a conflict of near genocidal proportions, a huge refugee flow into three member states, a government that could not govern, and the threat that hostilities would spill over into neighbouring states, a regional international organization was able to find the political will to intervene, separate the combatants, and bring about the signing of a peace agreement.

ECOWAS took action in Liberia only after the United Nations Security Council - at the urging of its African members (Ethiopia and Zaire), who wished to avoid creating a precedent that might someday apply to them - rejected efforts to place the Liberian crisis on the council's agenda.

In November 1992, ECOWAS imposed an arms and exports embargo on Liberia. The U.N. Security Council finally dealt with the issue in November 1992 when, at the request of ECOWAS, it also imposed a "complete and general embargo" on all weapons.

In 1993, ECOWAS sponsored the signing of the Cotonou Peace Agreement. Later, at the request of ECOWAS, the Security Council established the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to monitor the implementation of the agreement. The U.N. involvement was necessitated by one of the factions' distrust of the Nigerian-dominated ECOWAS.

Unfortunately, the Liberian peace process has stalled, with apolitical warlords claiming power, planned elections repeatedly postponed, and very few combatants disarmed. Attacks on UNOMIL and ECOWAS personnel have led to force reductions and an indication that the peacekeeping missions might end if there is no progress in the peace effort.

Nevertheless, ECOWAS has made a remarkable effort to address the Liberian crisis. As befits a complex conflict, its efforts have not been limited to the refugee problem. ECOWAS, a multilateral regional organization with limited resources and capacity, was forced to act because of the refusal of the international community to get involved, and because ECOWAS members had a direct interest in the peace of their region. For five years, ECOWAS was able to separate the combatants, negotiate, monitor and nurture a succession of cease-fires and peace agreements, return refugees and displaced persons to their homes, and not get badly drawn into the conflict itself.

Still, Liberia has not been restored to a functioning state. A significant factor is the failure of the international community to act in support of the pioneering ECOWAS effort. For almost four years the international community stood on the sidelines. Besides being late, the U.N. effort has been slow and underfinanced. Repeated U.N. appeals to the international community to provide financial and logistical support to ECOWAS have gotten a lukewarm response.

Then there is Rwanda. Ironically, the genocide and massive displacement of Rwanda's population in 1994 was set off within the context of a regional peace effort to deal with a 35-year-old refugee problem. Last year's massacres, renewed civil war and the refugee exodus began after the killing of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi as they returned from a regional peace meeting in Tanzania.

After a 1990 invasion by a refugee army, Rwanda's neighbours - Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire - each of which had large numbers of Rwandese refugees, became actively involved in negotiations to arrange a cease-fire and a peace agreement. In 1991, a Regional Conference of the five heads of state drew up the Declaration of Dar es Salaam, which set out the principles for a regional solution to the Rwandese refugee problem, including the right of repatriation and a commitment by Rwanda's neighbours to naturalize those refugees who wished to remain. UNHCR actively cooperated with the regional effort and the OAU deployed a Neutral Military Observer Group to monitor the cease-fire.

The U.N. Security Council, beginning in June 1993, created two peacekeeping operations to support the regional peace process. The United Nations had rebuffed earlier requests from the Regional Conference that it assist the OAU in monitoring the cease-fires of 1991 and March 1993. The United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) was deployed on the Uganda side of the border as a temporary confidence-building measure, monitoring the border to verify that no military assistance reached Rwanda.

In October 1993, the Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to monitor the cease-fire agreement and the security situation, and to monitor the return of refugees and displaced persons.

In August 1993, the Government of Rwanda and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) signed a peace agreement calling for the establishment of a broad-based transitional government in Rwanda and for democratic elections. Although implementation was very slow, hopes were high. Between August 1993 and April 1994, almost two-thirds of the 1 million displaced people had returned home. Organized repatriation was planned for later in 1994. However, in April 1994, hardliners in the Rwandese Government, who opposed power sharing, destroyed the peace process and unleashed a campaign of genocide against the Tutsis.

The Central African states and the OAU made a valiant effort to deal with the Rwandese refugee crisis. They sustained a long-term negotiating process, committed themselves to naturalizing those refugees who did not repatriate, brokered numerous cease-fires, organized an OAU military observer group, and produced a peace agreement. In this, they had the support of the OAU and UNHCR, but the United Nations stood on the sidelines until late in the process. In the end, conditions within Rwanda and the inability of a weak government to control its own ruling party and military forces led to disaster.

Intervention in refugee situations is a novel task for many regional organizations, although some are more experienced than others. Often they are able to act more quickly than the United Nations. Regional actors have a direct interest in resolving the conflict and may have greater knowledge and sensitivity regarding the basis for the conflict and the relevant players. Depending on the region - with NATO, ASEAN and the OAS relatively rich and strong, and the OAU and ECOWAS quite poor and less effective - the regional organizations may lack military, logistical and economic resources. Regional bodies also have varying forms and capacities in their structures, mandates, decision-making procedures, bureaucracies and institutions.

Regional organizations that display initiative and will similar to that of ECOWAS or the OAU are likely to need assistance from the international community. That back-up assistance has not been forthcoming, or else has been insufficient or late. The Secretary-General, General Assembly and the Security Council resolve and speak about regional delegation, regional cooperation, regional potential and regional mechanisms in glowing terms. But the provision of needed peacekeeping forces, arms and economic embargoes, special representatives of the Secretary-General, war crimes warnings, financial resources, logistical assistance and other measures in support of regional efforts have not been timely.

Unfortunately, the Liberian civil war may be a model for the refugee crises of the 1990s. Despite the efforts of ECOWAS and the belated U.N. effort, the increasingly fragmented Liberian factions have not been able to put their state together again. A major justification for the ECOWAS intervention was that "there is a government in Liberia which cannot govern and contending factions which are holding the entire population as hostage." This description could apply to Afghanistan, Angola, Somalia or a number of other fragile, weak states devastated by internal conflict, civil wars, secessions, partitions, ethnic conflicts and tribal warfare, where national institutions have disintegrated and the state is no longer capable of ensuring the safety of its citizens without outside assistance.

Regional solutions require interdependent action. Host countries cannot reduce their refugee burden unless resettlement countries take some refugees or the country of origin allows return in safety and dignity. In both Central America and Central Africa, the willingness of the host countries to naturalize the small residual population who chose not to return was a factor in the regional arrangement. In Central America and in West and Central Africa, the country of origin's cooperation was facilitated by neighbours' actions to end support, recruitment and bases for refugee-warriors. Viet Nam's cooperation with the CPA was enhanced by the European Union's programme of aid to returnees and the prospect that Viet Nam would gain normal political and economic relations with other states.

The regional approach to refugee problems is normally predicated on the premise that the refugee problem is a small part of an overall problem, a wider process for restoring peace. The magnitude of the challenge exceeds the capacity of either regional actors or UNHCR acting separately.

In the cases reviewed here, UNHCR performed admirably. But it cannot provide peacekeeping troops, threaten war crimes trials, impose embargoes, or take other timely actions in support of peace initiatives. The United Nations - particularly the Security Council whose major powers perceived none of their strategic interests at stake - has been laggard in providing regional efforts with more than rhetorical support.

In the post-Cold War era there is little incentive or interest on the part of the international community to intervene in internal conflicts. The rationale, norms and methods of humanitarian intervention are in flux and transition. Moreover, as the pull-out from Somalia and the long non-involvement in Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, and other trouble spots indicate, for many in the international community, Neville Chamberlain's words from 1938 have a contemporary cogency: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing!"

For regional actors, the problems are not "faraway." Regional organizations are grass-roots actors in much closer touch with local realities. With the end of the Cold War, many regional organizations have greater flexibility and freedom of action, and the incentive to intervene in local conflicts that do not engage global actors.

The United Nations has recognized that regional arrangements possess a potential that should be utilized to preserve international peace or assist refugees. U.N. cooperation with regional agencies can take a number of forms, including consultation; mutual diplomatic support; operational support and technical assistance; co-deployment of forces - as in Liberia and Rwanda; and joint operations, such as the joint U.N.-OAS mission in Haiti. To be effective, cooperation needs a clear division of labour to avoid overlap and institutional rivalry and to achieve a consistent approach to a common problem.

However, the international community cannot simply "delegate responsibility" to regional organizations that may be weak themselves. Regional organizations' grass-roots potential must be supported with resources, actions, troops, embargoes and, in particular, with assistance in building stronger regional institutions. In Central America, still in the context of the Cold War, a regional approach received substantial international support in the form of CIREFCA. But in post-Cold War Liberia and Rwanda, as heroic regional efforts came close to achieving their goals, the international community did too little, too late.

Speaking of the U.N.'s attempt to intervene in Rwanda after the genocide began, the Secretary-General said: "It is a failure, a failure not only of the United Nations but also of the international community.... It is a scandal." Unfortunately, the United Nations is also weak because long, bitter experience with internal conflicts indicates that outside intervention has poor prospects of improving the situation. Regional comprehensive efforts can improve these prospects. Combining global resources and experience with regional interests and sensitivity has produced some successes. There are no guarantees, but the international community needs to use all the arrows in its quiver.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)