Bringing Displaced Persons into Peace Processes: Good for Them, Good for Peace
Bringing Displaced Persons into Peace Processes: Good for Them, Good for Peace
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Speech / Global 8 minutes

Bringing Displaced Persons into Peace Processes: Good for Them, Good for Peace

Presentation by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, at launch of UN Guidelines for Integrating Internal Displacement in Peace Processes and Agreements, Brussels, Belgium, 26 April 2010.

I’m pleased to welcome you to Crisis Group headquarters for the launch of the new guide, “Integrating Internal Displacement in Peace Processes and Agreements.” These guidelines are the result of a unique collaboration between the office of the UN Representative of the Secretary-General for the Human Rights of Internally-Displaced Persons Walter Kaelin, the UN Mediation Support Unit, the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and were drawn together under the leadership of Gerald McHugh.  I was pleased to serve on the steering committee for this process.

The guide’s launch could not be more timely.  From Sudan to Sri Lanka, from Haiti to Myanmar, from Colombia to Congo, some 26 million people have been driven from their homes and forced to live in makeshift camps, abandoned buildings, forests, and shanty towns. Outcasts in their own countries, they are unprotected by international refugee conventions and subject to the whims of their own governments and domestic and international humanitarian agencies. Frequently, they’ve endured sexual violence, including rape used as a weapon of war, and struggle to find food, shelter, health facilities, and basic security.  

While some displacement results from natural disasters or “development” projects, most internally displaced persons (IDPs) are the victims of armed conflict. Yet when parties come together to negotiate the end to conflict, the displaced and the issues that affect them most directly – such as return or resettlement, rebuilding of basic infrastructure, provision of social services, and clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance – are given short shrift by armed combatants in the talks.  There is likely to be little domestic pressure for the inclusion of IDPs in these processes, and thus it often falls to the international community to ensure their participation.

This is what makes these guidelines so significant.  They represent a two-year commitment to bring together best practices and ground truths from around the world.  They go beyond theory and generalities, providing a “how-to” guide for mediators and peace process participants alike.  The guidelines highlight the need to: (a) assess the causes, dynamics, and characteristics of internal displacement in armed conflict; (b) create space within peace processes for participation of IDPs, either at the table or through close consultations; (c) identify IDP-specific human rights and interests that should be reflected in peace agreements; and (d) empower “legitimate” representatives of IDP communities, including in urban and other non-camp settings.

A Seat at the Table for IDPs and Their Interests

The guidelines start from the premise – consistent with my own experience in peace processes over three decades – that the exclusion of IDPs from peace processes is both unjust and unwise. In modern warfare, some 90 percent of the victims are now civilians, and internal displacement generally occurs against powerless groups already subject to exploitation. Sexual violence; theft of property; trafficking in women and girls; and similar abuses are common among individuals who have lost their homes and identities. Abuses occur at the hands of rebels, criminals, and even government security forces who are charged with their protection. IDP camps are often sites of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, drug and alcohol abuse, disease and crime.

But displaced persons are far more than simply victims of armed conflict.  They are often key to the success of peace efforts.  Including IDPs in these processes raises the likelihood of peace agreements holding.  The return of IDPs to their places of origin or resettlement elsewhere helps re-establish a sense of normalcy, rule of law, economic recovery, and extension of state authority throughout the national territory. The repeated failure to draw on the wisdom and ground truth of displaced persons reduces the odds of a successful return and resettlement program.

Further, returns are often pushed by impatient negotiators seeking good news and tangible signs of progress from stalled processes.  But the premature return of displaced persons to their homes, in the absence of security and sustainability, can lead quickly to new displacement and new instability.  Displaced persons themselves are best positioned to know when it is wise and safe to return to their homes, and their voices on this crucial question must be heard and respected.  Further, they must be allowed to advocate for fair treatment, including generous compensation packages: why should ex-combatants be the only ones receiving assistance packages, training opportunities, and government employment?

A particularly disturbing problem occurred in Angola while I was serving as U.S. ambassador and a member of the Peace Commission. In our rush to return four million displaced persons to their homes in a country plagued by landmines, we focused primarily on demining major roads. Regrettably, our humanitarian demining efforts in local fields, forests, and lakes were given secondary priority. When the displaced returned to their homes and started to plant fields, collect firewood, and fetch water, there was a rash of tragic landmine accidents. Had IDPs been at the table, this tragedy might have avoided.  The principle must be: “Nothing about us without us.”

More broadly, excluding IDPs and other civil society groups from a peace process means that they come to view the peace process as belonging to the armed combatants, not to them.  There will be little civil society pressure on the combatants if the peace process falters.  For example, the exclusion of IDP representatives – as well as women, Arab tribes and others – from the Darfur peace talks in Abuja in 2006 was a key factor in creating an unsustainable and unworkable peace agreement that lacked local “ownership” and was quickly repudiated.

Who Speaks for the Displaced

Yet the exclusion of IDPs persists, leaving the odd specter of maniacal and homicidal combatants such as Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh, and Uganda’s Joseph Kony claiming to represent IDPs in their respective negotiations.  This is particularly pernicious, given that these leaders are themselves perpetrators of actions that caused displacement and cynically use IDPs as leverage to gain greater concessions. Too often, peace processes begin with these individuals and their government counterparts granting amnesties to each other for crimes committed during the conflict.  While there is scope for limited amnesties in pursuit of national reconciliation, amnesties often mean that men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes against powerless civilians, including the displaced.  Perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable after the guns go silent, lest we undercut the re-establishment of rule of law.

Even if the principle is established that IDPs and their issues need representation, the question remains: whose voices are “legitimate”?  There are rarely clear leaders of the displaced: leaders of the communities from which the displaced came may have been killed, displaced elsewhere, or discredited, and IDP camps lack stability to elect their own leadership.  Further, individuals in IDP camps themselves may be far from innocent victims, but actual perpetrators of the violence, such as in the case of IDPs in the secured areas of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide.

Further, legitimate voices of the displaced are often ill-prepared to argue their cases in formal peace processes.  Many lack formal training and education, are restrained by traditional and cultural practices, or are subject to threats and intimidation from powerful forces within their communities.  This is particularly true for women daring to step forward in these settings.  The displaced typically come from marginalized and disadvantaged groups, such as the Afro-Colombian community in Colombia or the Acholi population in northern Uganda, where the skills necessary to participate in diplomatic negotiations must be fostered and nurtured. Training for their participation is essential, as is financial support and physical protection and security.

Again, given the lack of interest from the negotiating partners in engaging displaced persons in the process, these questions often fall to the international or domestic mediator and the commission implementing the agreement.  These individuals should be guarded in large part by consultations with credible human rights and governance bodies, taking into account previous leadership patterns and the structures that may have emerged in IDP camps or communities.

Mediators must also be sensitive to questions of timing.  Issues surrounding displacement are particularly sensitive, including questions like accountability for human rights abuses, financial compensation for displacement, security sector reform, and restoration of land rights. Emotions can run high as the abused and abusers confront each other, even in polite conference rooms. These questions can be so disruptive to a fragile peace process that there is an argument for delaying their consideration and resolution during the initial stages when the principal issues is negotiating a ceasefire or permanent cessation of hostility. Still, nothing should be agreed to in those initial contacts that will jeopardize the full engagement of displaced persons in the subsequent broader peace negotiations and implementation bodies.

Ideally, implementation of a peace process can help rebuild local capacity of civil society groups that have been destroyed or polarized during conflict. The displaced should be a principal target of these efforts. As the priorities move from humanitarian relief to reconstruction and development, the resources flowing to the country progressively diminish.  Using return and resettlement resources to engage IDP groups as planners and implementers of projects is preferable to relying solely on foreign entities such as the International Organization on Migration and international NGOs.

The International Role

The international community has a legitimate right to insist that displacement issues are addressed in peace processes mediated by the United Nations, the African Union, individual countries, or “track two” processes.  States like Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Myanmar that protest against interference in their internal affairs ignore hide the fact that in our interconnected global community, the line between domestic and international crises has been blurred, if not obliterated. Conflicts and the waves of instability flow easily across borders. Today’s IDP is tomorrow’s refugee, as the four million Zimbabweans now taking refuge in South Africa and elsewhere in the region demonstrate.  And failed and fragile state threaten international peace and security by serving as breeding grounds for pandemic disease; transit sites for trafficking in arms, persons, and drugs; and launching pads for terrorism and piracy.

It is vital that the full expertise of the UN and other international bodies on displacement is incorporated into peace processes and that these issues are “mainstreamed.”  It is not enough for a well-meaning UN envoy to be sensitive to these issues.  Mediators must have the full backing of the UN Security Council, including specific references to IDP participation in the mandate for UN peacemaking and peace enforcement missions. Mediators must draw on the experience of the UN Special Representative for the Human Rights of IDPs; High Commissioner for Refugees, especially given its role as IDP cluster lead on protection; Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs; International Organization for Migration; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; World Food Program; UNICEF and UNDP – in addition to representatives of civil society and private humanitarian/development NGOs.   

Beyond Victimhood

Many in the international community view internally displaced persons as mere victims of conflict and extol their remarkable capacity for survival. But let me repeat that displaced persons are much more: they are an essential piece of the puzzle in making and building sustainable peace.  A mediator ignored their knowledge of local conditions, their power to generate civil society support for agreements, their willingness to return home and rebuild stable societies, and their commitment to the future of their countries at his or her peril. In the pursuit of peace, we must make displaced persons part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.