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"World Order, Internal Conflict and Refugees" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, 28 October 1996

Speeches and statements

"World Order, Internal Conflict and Refugees" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, 28 October 1996

28 October 1996

In addressing the theme today, I would wish to go back to the Spring of 1991, when I first assumed the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This was a time when we still used the phrase "New World Order". This phrase is now no longer fashionable, as we continue to be overwhelmed by the ceaseless disorder around the world and the immense human suffering it entails. Even those who foresaw order were still very much assuming the relevance of a concept of international peace and security based on the Westphalian state system. I am certainly not going to question the Westphalian state system - there are many here in Cambridge from varying positions of realism and idealism who are struggling with this issue - but I must raise questions as to whether this system is providing us the necessary tools to address violent conflict, in particular within states, and human suffering.

Just as the "New World Order" was being trumpeted, changes that began in 1989 and the internal conflict in Iraq after the Gulf War made clear that international relations theorists and observers had focused insufficiently on conflicts within states. When attention was paid to them, these conflicts were subsumed under the broad ideological confrontation of the Cold War, which had imposed some form of internal discipline. For those of us working with refugees, of course, the phenomenon of internal conflict related to ethnic and communal divisions, human rights violations, discriminatory policies and bad governance, was nothing new. Currently, UNHCR is responsible for some 26.1 million people, of which 13.3 million refugees, 4.8 million others of concern, and 8.1 million returnees and internally displaced persons inside their own country. Examples of our involvement with refugees from long-standing internal conflict are, inter alia. Rwanda and Burundi, Uganda, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Burma, and Iraq. All produced refugee flows ranging from a few to hundreds of thousands. The above examples, for the most part, did not attract much international attention at that time. Other significant refugee flows were produced by "proxy wars", internal conflicts fuelled by Cold War super-power rivalry, such as Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua, other countries in Central America and the Horn of Africa. The victims of these proxy wars must, of course, be forgiven for never grasping the presumed stability of bipolarity during the Cold War period.

Thus, from the perspective of UNHCR, we do see perhaps greater continuity in the phenomenon of internal conflict, than is often argued in the literature. Yet how we respond to it now is quite different from the way we did before. Until fairly recently, and with only few exceptions, UNHCR essentially waited on the other side of an international border to receive and to protect refugees fleeing conflicts. This approach was determined by the very concept of international protection of refugees which would come into play if, and only if, victims of persecution or violent conflict fled their homeland. It was also dictated by the concept of state sovereignty and the consequent reluctance of an intergovernmental organization, such as UNHCR, to be seen as being too involved in the internal conditions of countries of origin that might give rise to refugee movements. It can be said that the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was premised on the theoretical predictability of the Westphalian state system and was heavily influenced by the reality of the Cold War bipolar world.

Instead of remaining reactive, UNHCR has began to adopt a more active approach. In recent years, UNHCR has become increasingly involved inside conflict-torn states providing assistance and protection, to the extent possible, to internally displaced persons, as in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Bosnia, and Tajikistan. There is a direct linkage between internal displacement and refugee flows as the causes of displacement may be indistinguishable, and the only distinction being the fact that the former have not crossed an international border. It raises, however, difficult questions as it touches upon national sovereignty. Consent of the state concerned is an essential condition for UNHCR to exercise its protection function toward internally displaced persons. In many instances, however, there is no functioning government to grant consent as the country may de facto be governed by competing military and political factions.

Another consequence of the predominance of internal conflicts over inter-state wars has been an increasing reluctance of states to grant asylum to refugees. Let me hasten to add that it has never been easy to persuade governments to grant asylum, but it has become more difficult, primarily for three reasons. First, to the degree that previous refugee flows were often linked to the "proxy wars" of the Cold War, states sometimes had a strategic interest in hosting refugee populations. Other refugee movements were linked to colonial liberation wars. Motives for granting asylum ranged from genuine sympathy for refugees to the military uses of refugee populations. Second, governments of Africa established a truly remarkable record in granting asylum to refugees and in adhering to the principle that the granting of asylum should not be seen as a hostile act. While one can still find many examples of this generosity in Africa, the sheer magnitude and accompanying spread of insecurity has created severe strains. In addition, the increasing reluctance of donor governments to pay the bills for maintaining large numbers of refugees has had a negative impact upon the willingness of countries to provide asylum. Third, as countries in the North are facing large, and what they consider to be irregular, migratory flows into their countries, the critical distinction between refugees and migrants has become blurred and eroding the consensus on the importance of asylum. As a consequence of these three reasons, options have been examined to provide international protection inside countries of origin. As in the case of northern Iraq, Rwanda, and, to a lesser extent, Bosnia, so called temporary safe areas or zones have been created by the international community, sometimes without the consent of the state concerned, to provide protection and assistance to displaced people inside their country.

Shifts with respect to the search for solutions to refugee problems, i.e., local integration, resettlement and voluntary repatriation, have also taken place in recent years. In the Cold War era, emphasis was placed upon resettlement and local integration. Until a few years ago, it was assumed that repatriation could take place only after a significant change in the political order of the refugee creating country, or following a peace settlement. Today, voluntary repatriation is considered the most desirable solution to humanitarian crises, and active steps are being taken to create favourable security, political, human rights and socio-economic conditions to enable refugees and displaced persons to return home. Voluntary repatriation is taking place to relatively safe and secure areas in countries engulfed in internal conflict or in the absence of a peace agreement. Repatriation to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Cambodia belong to the first category, i.e., post political or peace settlement, while repatriation efforts to Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda belong to the second one, i.e., relatively safe areas in countries still unstable. For example, UNHCR has assisted in the voluntary repatriation of some 3.9 million Afghans since return movements began in 1989 and some 900,000 Somalis since 1992. Peace-keeping operations have also contributed toward creating the conditions for voluntary return, and as part of peace settlement, international supervisory mechanisms have been set up to monitor the human rights situation, including that of the returnees, inside countries, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Haiti.

Finally, the concept of state responsibility has receded in some contexts. First, there is the responsibility of states to avoid policies that lead to refugee flows. Second, there is the responsibility on the part of governments receiving refugees to allow them to enter, not to return them forcibly back to a situation where their lives would be endangered, and to ensure basic law and order and security in refugee camps and settlements. Third, there is the state responsibility of governments with respect to receiving refugees - their own nationals - returning home. In reality, however, states often avoid their responsibilities or they simply do not possess the capacity to meet them, as in the case of failed states or countries just emerging from conflicts.

The growing number of weak and failed conflict-ridden states may be symptomatic of the state-system today. Even though international relations theorists, analysts and politicians have paid increasing attention to the phenomenon of internal conflict over the last several years, much uncertainty remains regarding both diagnosis and prescription. Diagnosis of internal conflict remains difficult as this phrase covers a complex changing web of causes. Also, in general we know who our counterparts at the level of the state are, but this is not always the case regarding other categories of political actors such as ethnic and religious groups, and war lords. What is clear is the intolerable level of human suffering and forced displacement engendered by these conflicts. It may be better even for scholars, policy-makers and practitioners, when studying or analyzing the present world order and state system, to start with the full recognition of the intolerable symptoms to reach sound prescriptions for desirable solutions.

At least I can say for certain that as we pursue the search for a new world order, it is important to start examining the linkages between internal conflict and inter-state power relationships. While it is true that the sheer number and intensity of internal conflicts call into question traditional thinking on international peace and security, it is also true that what we consider to be internal conflict is somewhat unclear. This is particularly true in the situation of collapsing multi-ethnic empires and multi-ethnic states. Over the last few years we have witnessed in the CIS and neighbouring states patterns of conflict and displacement reminiscent of the collapse of the multi-ethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Such a collapse requires quick re-thinking as to what is internal and what is international. Sometimes the re-thinking can be a little too quick, as demonstrated in the early recognition of the constituent republics of former Yugoslavia as independent states and the ethnic and territorial conflicts that followed.

What constitutes an international border has also become unclear in many instances. Secessionist movements, demands for self-determination or state-implosion have given rise to so-called "soft-borders". In some instances, internally displaced persons have become refugees, or vice versa, nearly overnight. In the case of Chechnya, for example, UNHCR has been assisting internally displaced persons, not refugees in the traditional sense, fleeing the fighting in the neighbouring republics of Daghestan and Ingushetia, but has restrained from operating inside Chechnya. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the inter-entity boundary lines are de facto "ethnic-borders" obstructing refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes in minority controlled areas. Out of nearly 3 million refugees and displaced persons, only some 250,000 people have returned since the peace settlement was signed and nearly exclusively to majority controlled areas.

You may wonder why the High Commissioner for Refugees, the supposed champion of humanitarian action, hammers on the linkages between internal conflict and inter-state power configuration. I pose this question because from my own experience, while causes for internal conflict may be largely endogenous, their solutions are greatly influenced by the impact that particular inter-state relations bear on the development of conflicts. Referring to the situation in northern Iraq in 1991, it was the converging interests of the Coalition Forces, consisting of the major western powers - United States, United Kingdom, France, etc. - to protect the strategic oil producing region of the Gulf that forced them to military action. They recognized Turkey's security concerns not to allow the inflow of Kurdish refugees. Consequently, refugees were stopped at the mountainous borders and a safe area established in northern Iraq to allow people to return. UNHCR was given the task to protect, assist and reintegrate the Kurds in northern Iraq, in a less than fully secure environment with 500 UN Guards monitoring their fate.

Turning to the situation in Bosnia, it was the lack of converging major power interests that prolonged the conflict and obliged the UN peace-keeping forces to concentrate on the protection and the continuation of humanitarian assistance led by UNHCR. It was a moral dilemma for UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to carry on humanitarian assistance while feeling increasingly helpless in containing "ethnic cleansing", i.e., mass displacement of ethnic groups which was the very objective of the brutal conflict. It may not be an exaggeration to say that when the war in Bosnia escalated to the point of undermining the Atlantic partnership, the major powers forced the Contact Group - consisting of negotiators from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and Germany - to negotiate a settlement that finally led to the Dayton Agreement. It is not a surprise therefore that the implementation of the Dayton Agreement has been entrusted to the NATO Forces, the very alliance which was threatened by the Balkan war. What is maintaining the fragile transition from war to peace is the security assurance provided by the NATO powers. Return of refugees and the displaced is a central component of this peace transition.

The greatest refugee crisis that currently challenges my Office is in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The ethnic conflict in Rwanda resulting in the 1994 genocide led to the outflow of 1.7 million Hutu refugees in Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. The ethnic conflict in Burundi too has produced 250,000 internally displaced persons and refugees who have fled to Tanzania and Zaire. In spite of considerable stability and reconstruction in Rwanda itself, relatively few refugees have returned home. They have opted to remain in refugee camps receiving minimal assistance rather than risking return to their original homes. Appeals for negotiations, justice and reconciliation have not yet born fruit. The security in the border areas between Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi have deteriorated significantly in recent weeks to a war-like situation, involving military action of countries in the region. The international community has so far taken few steps of significant impact. The complex relationship between the western powers and the individual countries in the region has not produced a convergence of interest among them to take action. I addressed the Security Council this past Friday, where I stated that, "[i]t is clear more than ever that the situation in eastern Zaire has reached a critical point to which a solely humanitarian response is inadequate."

How long the conflict situation in the Great Lakes region will be allowed to fester or to explode will depend largely on the vehemence with which parties to the internal conflicts will pursue their objectives, the partisan involvement of the countries in the region, and the level of tolerance that the major powers will allow before the situation reaches an explosive point.

When internal conflicts deteriorate to the point of war, the path to peace will require stringent political action or even military intervention. But here I wish to argue that further measures are required to nurture peace once it is reached or to prevent conflict from recurring. Here again, the role of refugees in the painful and difficult transition from war to peace is critical. As I discussed a few months ago at the seminar sponsored jointly by UNHCR and the International Peace Academy held at Princeton University, the process of repatriation of refugees is a crucial part of conflict resolution and may add significantly to the peace-building process. There are three critical aspects of repatriation in the transition from war to peace: reconstruction, demilitarization and reconciliation. Reconstruction of the basic social and economic infrastructure is an obvious condition for repatriation and recovery from war. Demilitarization is necessary to resolve the "security dilemma" which gives rise to internal conflict, and to prevent the former combatants from taking up arms again.

However, while reconstruction and demilitarization are critical to sustainable repatriation of refugees, it is the issue of reconciliation that presents the greatest challenge. War-torn societies are fragile and unless the wounds of war can be healed and people can agree to resolve their differences in a peaceful manner, further incidents and violence are likely to occur. At the same time, the way in which repatriation and reintegration of refugee populations are handled will influence the chances for reconciliation and thus will play an important part in the peace-building effort. At the very least, the web of rights and obligations between the state and its citizens must be restored. Crucial in this respect are efforts to re-establish the rule of law. Also, there is a growing recognition that peace can be only sustained if it is combined with some measure of justice, particularly among populations which have been the victims of genocide, other crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations. There must be minimum consensus on the balance between the competing demands of peace and justice, of forgiveness and ending impunity. Reconciliation is a long and difficult road, it takes time; there are no quick fixes.

In light of these considerations, let me return to the concept of world order. Engaged as I am with the plight of people who are victims of persecution, repression and violence, it is sometimes hard for me to see the "order" in the present international system. While the traditional norms of state sovereignty and international security have evolved over the past few years, we still remain far away from a new paradigm which will permit us to address the plight of refugees and even more so of the millions of people displaced inside their own countries, whose number today in fact surpasses that of refugees, i.e. some 25 million people. It is accepted that multilateral action has a role to play in preventing armed conflicts and negotiating peace agreements in internal conflicts. It is less clear to see how these actors - states, political and opinion leaders, NGOs and international organizations - can be mobilized on a long-term path to building peace. Can the large number of activities required for dealing with conflicts and the transition from war to peace, such as peace-keeping, electoral assistance, human rights promotion, demobilisation, refugee repatriation, humanitarian assistance and development aid be sequenced, coordinated and, most importantly, sustained to reach the point of preventing the recurrence of violence? The tool of indirect intervention through humanitarian action has become increasingly crucial but is not enough.

I understand that in this country, the current question is "Are you better off than you were four years ago ?" As it pertains to refugees, I would, in guarded terms, give a qualified yes. It has been some two years now since there has been a massive refugee emergency such as those that we witnessed between 1991 and 1994. Though new emergencies cannot be excluded, as currently I fear in eastern Zaire, the repatriation of 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique and of some 100 thousand refugees to Mali and Togo, and a fragile peace in Bosnia are no meagre accomplishments.

Will we be better off four years from now? It is true that compared with the past, in the last few years many valuable attempts have been made to save lives during conflict, and to broker and build peace. But too many people remain displaced. Too many conflicts continue unresolved. Too many questions surround the sustainability of multilateral action for peace-building efforts. Too many voices are now heard saying the conflicts and displacements far away are not of their concern. Nevertheless, I believe that the recent focus on internal conflicts and consequent displacement of millions of refugees and displaced persons is a very important first step in the right direction. It leads to a more fundamental and full understanding of the issue of international peace and security in the years to come.

If solutions to internal conflicts are to be reinforced by international efforts, the new world order will have to be conceived on the basis of peace and security of people. Maintaining peace and security among states must encompass the prevention and solution of internal conflicts which bring human tragedies and massive displacement of people.