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"The Challenge of Forced Human Displacement Today" - Second van Heuven Goedhart Lecture, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Hague, 1 September 1998

Speeches and statements

"The Challenge of Forced Human Displacement Today" - Second van Heuven Goedhart Lecture, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Hague, 1 September 1998

1 September 1998
The changing nature of warThe changing patterns of forced human displacementProblems and constraintsDealing with displacement in a broader context

Mr Keuning,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Supervisory Council and the Board of Stichting Vluchteling for their invitation. I am pleased to be the guest of an organization whose cooperation and friendship is so important to my Office. I am also particularly honoured to deliver a lecture named after Mr van Heuven Goedhart.

Those who appointed him as the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost half a century ago, made a very wise choice, not only because of his personal qualities and his commitment to the cause of refugees, but also because the Netherlands and its people have always been generous and forward looking in dealing with refugees. They have proved it throughout their history. Today, while in many countries refugee issues are often politicized and misrepresented, the Netherlands continues to deal with them in an exemplary, open and visionary manner. I know that your organization, Mr Keuning, plays an essential role in upholding generous policies and in promoting an open attitude towards refugees. For this I wish to thank you.

The changing nature of war

Refugee work is undergoing dramatic changes. Conflicts have increasingly become the main cause of forced human displacement. Furthermore, following the end of the Cold War, the changing nature of conflicts is having considerable implications on the nature of displacement itself. UNHCR used to deal mostly with people fleeing persecution and violence across international borders. This pattern continues to occur, but other "models" of displacement are becoming more frequent, and in our efforts to protect and assist people of our concern we must take into account their political, operational and juridical implications.

The early 90s saw the shattering of the hopes for a new "humanitarian order", based on a coincidence of political, humanitarian and if necessary military efforts, which the Kurdish crisis in Northern Iraq had briefly raised. Again, this was due mainly to the change in the prevailing nature of conflicts - from international wars to (mostly) internal conflicts, often with a strong ethnic component. Contemporary wars have been defined as "unwinnable". Looking at them not from a military, but from a humanitarian perspective, I would rather argue that it is peace, in certain situations, that seems to be "unattainable". Forced human displacement is without any doubt one of the factors which complicates the outcome of wars and the stability of peace. Forcing people to abandon their homes has become one of the objectives of war, with a view to re-engineering the ethnic composition of entire areas, and thus serving long-term political objectives even after conflicts have ended.

This usually occurs in a complex geopolitical environment. During a discussion I recently had with a group of students and researchers on wars and displacement in Africa, one of them noted that African conflicts have never been "entirely internal". This is true, and it is probably true for all contemporary conflicts. Crises in the former Yugoslavia, in West Africa and in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa have shown, and continue to show as we speak, that external involvement is sometimes a determining factor in internal conflicts, and that there is a direct relationship between this external factor and the use of forced displacement as a tool of war.

One of the consequences of this situation has been that refugee work - or, should I say, work in support of those forcibly displaced - has often been hostage to conflictual politics. Humanitarian agencies operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, or in the refugee camps of the former Eastern Zaire between 1994 and 1996, had very bitter experiences in this respect. But because of the ambiguity of these and other "humanitarian" situations, innocent civilians, including women, children and elderly people, have continued and continue to undergo tremendous suffering. Current events in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, for example, show that this trend is not about to decline. We cannot just accept the fact that there are contradictions between political imperatives and humanitarian needs. We must devise new approaches to protect and assist those who suffer in a context in which war and peace are changing dramatically, and very fast.

The changing patterns of forced human displacement

Traditional refugee movements have always been just one aspect of the broader issue of forced human displacement. In the last few years, though, the changing nature of conflicts has added new dimensions to the phenomenon of displacement. The situation in the former Yugoslavia provides a good example of how displacement is becoming increasingly complex. In this region, forcing civilians to abandon their homes for ethnic and political reasons has been a common occurrence since the onset of war in 1991. This, coupled with population movements caused by the conflict itself, and with the break-up of the Yugoslav federation into five different states, created different and simultaneous kinds of displacement.

Some people took refuge outside the former Yugoslavia, mostly in Western European countries. Others left their homes and became refugees in the region, by crossing one of the new borders created by the collapse of the federation. Others were internally displaced to a different part of their own country. But those who were displaced were not the only persons affected by the conflict, and in some cases they were less affected than those who remained in their homes, who were often besieged in their towns and villages - such as the citizens of Sarajevo - and who underwent horrific violence. From the humanitarian viewpoint, the complex political, military and ethnic pattern of the Yugoslav conflict created victims across the entire spectrum of the civilian population. However, forced displacement was the most specific and "defining" common denominator of the suffering inflicted on civilians, and it was therefore a significant decision to assign to my Office the responsibility to coordinate humanitarian work in the former Yugoslavia during the war.

Giving the lead responsibility to one agency - and more specifically to the agency mandated to protect and assist refugees - provided coherence, continuity and uniformity, through effective coordination, both in responding and in seeking solutions to the problems of displacement. It indicated that the international community through UNHCR and its partner agencies wished to defend the right of all people to be in a safe place. It also clearly signalled to the warring parties that peace was inextricably linked to the solution of all problems of displacement. This - most significantly - was confirmed by the role given to my Office by the Dayton Peace Agreement in respect to the coordination of refugee returns. (As in Cambodia, the Office's mandate in a particular context was endorsed through an international peace agreement.)

Indeed the "humanitarian history" of the Yugoslav crisis shows that whenever the problem of displacement was tackled in a comprehensive manner, taking into account the needs of all those who were displaced (as well as those who were affected otherwise by the conflict), and whenever humanitarian problems were addressed within a broader political context, solutions became at least possible. In cases such as the Yugoslav crisis, the plight of refugees, internally displaced and other war-affected persons are indeed very similar - and so are their needs, and the causes of displacement. In these instances, it is of course unthinkable to provide protection and assistance to refugees alone. And the international community has acted most effectively when its approach has been realistic and comprehensive - for this reason, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General have often authorised the Office to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons on an ad hoc basis, and subject to some criteria.

In spite of such precedents, it has been frequently argued that dealing with non-refugee displaced persons dilutes and undermines the core mandate of my Office. True, this mandate is based on the defense of the right of refugees to seek and obtain safe asylum and not to be subjected to refoulement. These rights cannot be invoked in the case of internally displaced persons, who do not seek asylum abroad. As I have frequently said, however, "protection" is not simply a legal undertaking. It involves other aspects of what is sometimes defined, with a rather broad term, "human security": the physical safety of those who are uprooted, first of all - but also, for example, their possibility to have access to basic welfare, or their right to be informed about the situation in their place of origin (so as to make informed choices about returning home), or ensuring their safe and dignified return, and so on.

Many situations of internal displacement concern all these aspects of protection, in particular when the problems of internally displaced people are closely linked to those of refugees or returnees: for example, when internally displaced persons may unwillingly become refugees unless protection and assistance are provided; or when a situation of displacement straddles a border, with refugees "proper" in a country of asylum, and internally displaced in the country of origin; or when former refugees return to their country but not to their place of origin, and become de facto internally displaced persons (a frequent case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly when pressure to depart is made on refugees in countries of asylum). Very often protection requirements of these categories are blurred, less clear cut. In northern Sri Lanka, for example, UNHCR has been involved for many years both with returnees from India and internally displaced, whose situations are closely related, and whose problems cannot be addressed in separate and distinct ways. Whenever such situations occur, work on behalf of internally displaced persons complements, rather than contradicts, refugee protection and assistance.

Internally displaced people, as nationals in their own country, benefit from the work of national and international economic and social development agencies. Operations on their behalf, therefore, usually require inter-agency efforts. This has given rise to many discussions about the coordination of such operations. On the ground, however, very dramatic gaps continue to exist. As the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Francis Deng, has repeatedly pointed out, there are millions of internally displaced people - undergoing, to all intents and purposes, the same suffering and hardship as refugees - who are not receiving any protection, nor any material assistance, from the international community.

Not only are these gaps due to political blockages, but also, at times, to lack of resources, or of expertise, or both. I will not analyse here their causes and nature. I would only like to stress that UNHCR, in close cooperation with other agencies - particularly the United Nations operational agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in situations of conflict, and particularly in the situations which I have described earlier - can make available its own expertise and resources to address the plight of all categories of displaced persons. We continue to be ready to cooperate with other partners in the areas in which thanks to our experience with refugees we can offer useful contributions: not only in providing protection and assistance, but also - most importantly - in seeking comprehensive solutions to the problems of displacement.

Problems and constraints

The context of forced human displacement is changing very fast: its politicization, its use by the parties to conflicts as a tragically effective tool of war, the different patterns in which it occurs - all these and other factors demand that we go beyond the problem of "categorizations" to address the issue in a flexible and comprehensive manner.

However, in dealing with situations of displacement which are more complex than traditional refugee movements, organizations such as my Office, and the international community in general, must address some crucial problems and some very serious constraints. As I have said, providing protection and assistance to displaced persons other than refugees is not a problem of "mandate". The problems are much more political. They have made the international community's approach to the plight of internally displaced people - as Mr Deng has frequently noted - much less predictable than its response to the problems of refugees. Let me therefore highlight at least three of them.

First, the problem of access. It has two main dimensions, one concerning the right to intervene, and the other related to security. Access to those on whose behalf we work - refugees, displaced and others - is vital if our action is to be effective, not only in terms of delivering assistance, but, more importantly, in the sphere of protection. Physical access is the fundamental pre-condition to effective protection. While my Office and other agencies have indeed been confronted with problems of access in refugee situations, it has at least been possible, in such cases, to invoke conventions and mobilize international support on behalf of refugees. Furthermore, usually refugees flee across borders, away from war zones. Access largely depends on the safety and security of refugees and of humanitarian staff. Internationally recognized norms and conventions and reasonable security levels thus contribute to create a more favourable and predictable environment in which to operate on behalf of refugees.

In situations of forced internal displacement, the environment is completely different. It is governments that are responsible for the security and protection of people displaced on their territory. In many cases of forced displacement, however, governments are unable or, worse, unwilling to provide this protection. In some cases, in fact, displaced persons actually flee violence or human rights abuses waged by government forces, or by forces opposing the government which are in control of the area of displacement. Access to internally displaced by humanitarian agencies may then be limited or even denied by such forces. Faced with the issues of sovereignty and control, international pressure to obtain access will be less effective. Furthermore, more often than refugees, internally displaced people find themselves in war zones. Many times they are trapped behind or across conflict lines, in areas under the shifting control of the warring sides. This inevitably means more difficult access. These problems are frequently combined: indeed, on many occasions, one or the other party to a conflict uses insecurity as a pretext to deny access to displaced people.

Second, the dilemma of endorsing forced displacement. Since in many cases displacement is the one of the objectives of war, assisting those forcibly displaced (which is necessary to save their lives) may unwittingly provide endorsement to forced displacement. Particularly during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, my Office had to make excruciatingly difficult decisions in this respect. We are facing this situation in Kosovo today. We have always based our decisions on the assumption that, as a humanitarian agency, we could not suspend assistance wherever human lives were at stake. (It is the same assumption which justified our decision to assist refugees in the former Eastern Zaire, although we were aware of the fact that saving lives also benefitted people exploiting the refugee situation to pursue criminal aims.) The very fact that an agency such as UNHCR is confronted with these dilemmas is an almost inevitable consequence of humanitarian action carried out in the absence of political solutions - it will occur again unless this is avoided.

Third, the relation between assisting internally displaced people and defending their right to seek asylum. It has often been argued that assistance to internally displaced people "freezes" their situation, thus discouraging (if not preventing) them from seeking asylum in another country, where they would be safer. Governments of countries of asylum may have a vested interest in delivering assistance to internally displaced people across borders, before they become refugees. Clearly, this situation is unacceptable to my Office. One of the criteria upon which we have based our intervention on behalf of internally displaced people is that it must not prejudice their access to safe asylum.

In this respect, we have strived to safeguard principles, while at the same time adopting a concrete approach, trying to always give priority to the best solution for those displaced. On the one hand, we have requested access to internally displaced people before they crossed borders, especially in situations in which denying them protection and assistance would have put their life in jeopardy, or whenever they did not actually wish to leave their country. On the other hand, we have simultaneously requested countries of asylum to keep borders open for the displaced persons to obtain safe asylum, if the situation compelled them to do so.

A good example of this two-pronged approach is the case of the citizens of Kabul fleeing civil war in Afghanistan in early 1994. While we participated in an inter-agency programme of assistance to the internally displaced Kabulis in Jalalabad, at the same time we requested the Government of Pakistan to keep their border open to asylum seekers. Whilst it can be said that the creation of a camp in Jalalabad limited the outflow of refugees into Pakistan, we should not forget that it allowed many lives to be saved in the harsh winter conditions of Central Asia; the massive presence of international relief agencies also contributed to creating a sort of "safer" (if not totally safe) area, in which most displaced people eventually preferred to settle, rather than crossing the border - at the same time, negotiations with the Pakistani authorities resulted in the opening of the border and a number of internally displaced did eventually indeed seek asylum in Pakistan.

Dealing with displacement in a broader context

These three points clearly indicate that the issue of forced internal displacement should not be looked at in isolation. I fully support the efforts of those who recommend that more attention be devoted to internally displaced persons, and that predictable, institutionalized crisis response mechanisms be created in this respect. I would be concerned, however, if these efforts focused only on the definition of a "category" of victims and on its recognition by the international community.

Perhaps one the most specific features of today's multi-faceted displacement situations is that - irrespective of whether they produce refugees, internally displaced or other categories of uprooted people - the various groups are compelled to flee by the same causes. Most importantly, their displacement, although it may differ in its destination, usually has the same solution. Once again, Kosovo provides a very good current example: depending on their geographical situation, on the evolution of the conflict, and on several other factors, people have either fled to other parts of Kosovo, or to Montenegro (which does not qualify them as "refugees", since they have not crossed an international border), or to Northern Albania. Besides the location of their refuge, what is the difference between all these groups, when we look at the possible solutions to their plight?

I do not wish to be misunderstood. In the conclusion to their very inspiring and comprehensive recent book, "Masses in Flight", Francis Deng and Roberta Cohen state that "today's problem of internal displacement is no less acute or pressing than the post-World War II refugee crisis". I could not agree more. The problems and constraints which I have briefly referred to, however, show that any mechanism of international intervention is likely to be even more complex and sensitive than in refugee crises. Highlighting the urgency to address the problem is very important, provided that a realistic approach is maintained. I would be concerned, therefore, if efforts to attract the world's attention on the neglected issue of internally displaced, distracted it from the necessary focus on the search for solutions to all types of displacement, whenever a crisis occurs.

The history of recent humanitarian crises clearly shows that it is only when the international community takes global responsibility in conflict resolution that forced human displacement, including internal displacement, is averted or at least mitigated. Peace, obviously, is achieved and maintained at different levels - from UNHCR's viewpoint, and therefore from the perspective of preventing or responding to forced displacement, I would like to highlight a few of them.

First, let me repeat once again a point on which I have insisted for many years. Humanitarian intervention is not a substitute for political action. I am aware that this has been stated and restated so frequently that it has almost become a slogan. Unfortunately, in spite of this, the lessons of Bosnia and of the Great Lakes region do not seem to have been learned, and often the only significant intervention by the international community is still of a humanitarian nature. But even worse are the expectations placed on humanitarian action, with little or no consideration of the fact that if it is not carried out with political backing - within the political context of a global peacemaking effort, I should say - it will be obviously unable to solve the root causes of the displacement problem, and it may eventually fail to address even the basic humanitarian problems which have made it necessary.

The current crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - just to mention one example - already contains elements of this situation. If on-going, seemingly insufficient political efforts to address the crisis fail, a protracted conflict is very likely to cause massive internal displacement as well as refugee outflows, as previous crises in the region have proved. We are getting dangerously close to the stage at which there will be room only for a humanitarian response. The situation in Central Africa is so conflictual, that it is all too easy to predict that such response will be inadequate, difficult to implement and prone to be politically exploited by the different sides, exactly as in 1994 and in 1996. When I consider this, I am sometimes tempted to think whether humanitarian agencies should not present governments with pre-conditions which must be fulfilled, so that protection and assistance to refugees, internally displaced and other victims of conflict can be delivered effectively, minimizing the risk of unintended and dangerous consequences, and without raising undue expectations as to their actual capacity to address the root causes of conflict.

Second, one of the characteristics of situations of forced human displacement, as I have said, is insecurity. It is therefore essential to promote more effective and accessible security arrangements in support of humanitarian interventions. This is particularly true, as I have noted before, in cases of internal displacement, when protection and assistance must sometimes be delivered across conflict lines. My Office, in close coordination with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, is developing the concept of a "ladder", or range of mechanisms to deal with insecure situations of forced human displacement, without limiting ourselves to the traditional, large, costly and politically complex multinational peacekeeping arrangements. Establishing lower profile mechanisms - including a capacity building element for national police forces or the judiciary, for example - may also help make the provision of external security support to humanitarian operations more acceptable to governments: as a reinforcement, rather than an infringement, of their sovereignty and authority.

Third and last, I wish to recommend that in addressing new "models" of forced displacement, more attention be devoted to post-conflict situations. Changing wars mean that peace is changing, too. The outcome of internal conflicts is very often a rather fragile peace, prone to renewed conflict and hence to fresh displacement - the examples of Cambodia, Angola, Bosnia and Rwanda come easily to mind. In divided societies emerging from violent inter-communal clashes, rehabilitation work should include efforts to bring communities together - more concretely and systematically than is the case at present. Rehabilitation should indeed have a preventive dimension.

Before concluding, I would like to recall the situation which prevailed in Rwanda in the first few months of 1994. The context was indeed one of very violent internal conflict with strong ethnic overtones, and regional and extra-regional ramifications. International encouragement, prodding and support for the Arusha peace process had by then all but disappeared. International security mechanisms - the UNAMIR contingent - were drastically reduced as soon as the conflict became more violent and some peacekeepers were killed. Rehabilitation assistance provided by the international community after Arusha, when sustainable peace had a brief, hardly included any effort to bring communities together.

The conclusion is clear: the international community did not take any responsibility for trying to resolve the inter-communal conflict in Rwanda. Humanitarian agencies warned of an impending disaster. Then the conflict worsened and genocide started - the first, most tragic consequences of political inaction. The number of internally displaced persons grew dramatically - soon reaching the hundreds of thousands. Intervention on their behalf was limited by the obstacles I have described - of a political and security nature in particular. Soon the tide of displaced people became a huge wave of refugees. The tragic consequences of this massive human displacement, particularly in the former Zaire, are too well known to dwell on them again. In a vast region of Africa, we are still paying the human and political cost of failed action.

The question that haunts all of us to this day is quite simple - should the circumstances which brought tragedy upon Rwanda and its people be gathered again, in Central Africa or elsewhere, would the world be ready to take the global responsibility to avert disaster?

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.