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 Conference on Regional Response to Forced Migration in Central America and the Caribbean

Organization of American States
September 30-October 1, 1997
Washington D.C.

by Roberta Cohen *

     When internal conflicts, strife or massive human rights violations occur, the consequences at the regional level are dramatic. Neighboring countries have to cope with substantial political and economic disruptions within their own borders as a result of conflicts next door and often have to bear the brunt of refugee flows. Despite the impact, capacities at the regional level are exceptionally weak for preventing the situations resulting in displacement, resolving them or addressing the protection, assistance or development needs of those internally displaced. Governments often turn to international organizations for support, but the international response may be slow in coming owing to limited resources, ineffective emergency systems or unwillingness to become involved.

     Because the burden of addressing emergencies can not depend on international organizations alone, regional institutions are increasingly being expected to assume some of the responsibility in their own geographic areas. The knowledge and entree they have in their regions make them likely candidates to become the first line of defense, the first to alert the international community to potential problems, and the first to seek to avert and resolve crises. In the event that conflict and large-scale displacement occur, regional bodies are being expected to cooperate with international organizations in addressing situations of internal displacement to ensure that adequate protection, assistance and reintegration support are provided.

     Regional initiatives, however, remain at an early stage of development. The Organization of American States (OAS) and other regional bodies, such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have not traditionally dealt with humanitarian emergencies and the massive displacement they produce. Each faces constraints in addressing emergency situations involving internal displacement. Some are reluctant to interfere in what they deem the internal affairs of states; others lack the political will, structures and resources. Almost all lack experience and expertise in dealing with emergencies. Political rivalries within regional organizations also limit their effectiveness. Nonetheless, regional organizations have begun, in varying degrees, to become involved with conflict prevention and the problem of mass displacement. Clearly, they have an important role to play in cooperation with international efforts.

The Challenge of Internal Displacement

     The end of the Cold War has witnessed a greater willingness on the part of international and regional organizations to become involved in protecting and assisting internally displaced persons. Growing acceptance of the idea that persons in jeopardy within their own country can call upon and receive international protection and assistance is reflected in the wide range of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations which have become involved when governments fail or are unable to meet their responsibilities toward their citizens. These efforts, however, are still largely ad hoc and often do not reach large numbers of internally displaced persons at risk.

     It is estimated that there are some 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons worldwide. According to the United Nations working definition, internally displaced persons are those forced to flee or leave their homes because of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters but remain within the territory of their own country.1 While their numbers have declined dramatically in the Americas, there are still about 2 million, mostly in the Andean region (Peru and Colombia) and in Central America (Guatemala).2 Although conditions vary from country to country, region to region, and even within countries, most internally displaced persons lack minimum standards of food, health care and shelter, suffer high mortality rates and are beset by serious protection problems.

     Frequently, it is argued that the internally displaced should be treated as if they were refugees who have not crossed an international border, but the border factor is crucial in legal and institutional terms. Crossing a border qualifies one as a refugee who is thereby entitled to receive international protection and assistance from the international community, most notably from UNHCR. Although many internally displaced persons are forced from their homes for the same reasons as refugees, there is no clear institutional responsibility for them nor any specific legal instrument that defines protection for them. Yet they are often in need of international protection because they are alienated from the national sovereignty that is supposed to provide protection and assistance for them. In cases of civil conflict, they are often perceived as the "enemy" by their governments, either through their association with an identifiable insurgent group, political or ideological tendency or with an ethnic, cultural, religious or social group seen to be inferior, threatening, or simply "different." In many cases they are simply caught up in the crossfire between warring factions. The most daunting challenge for the international community is dealing with governments that deliberately bar or obstruct international assistance to their displaced populations.

Institutional Innovations in the Americas

     Greater progress has been made in the Americas than perhaps any other continent in dealing with the problem of internal displacement. Much of what has been accomplished must be attributed to the end of the Cold War which led to the settlement of the civil war in El Salvador, which at its height is believed to have caused the displacement of up to one million persons, the resolution of Cold War related tensions within Nicaragua and between that country's government and its neighbors, and to the ousting of the military regime in Haiti, under which some 300,000 had become displaced. But credit must be given as well to governments, local NGOs and the displaced themselves. These last two, in particular, have made extraordinary efforts, going beyond anything seen in other parts of the world.

     Institutional innovations at the regional level have also been noteworthy. The 1989 International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), convened by UNHCR and the governments of Central America, following peace initiatives in that area, focused attention on the plight of internally displaced persons and put into place mechanisms at the international, regional and national levels for the design and implementation of programs for the reintegration of uprooted populations. The CIREFCA Plan of Action committed Central American governments to far-reaching humanitarian and development programs for displaced persons and refugees and committed international donors to channel funds in support of programs for the displaced. CIREFCA projects have been credited with facilitating the reintegration of displaced persons and refugees who returned to their homes in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

     Prevention of the situations that lead to mass migration has also received special attention in recent years. The Organization of American States has assumed a more vigorous role in the defense of democracy in the hemisphere, which has helped reduce the potential for massive displacement in the Americas. Since 1991, the OAS Permanent Council has been authorized to hold an emergency meeting and decide upon a course of action when there is an interruption of the democratic process in a member state. Although its 1948 Charter prohibits intervention in internal affairs, the overwhelmingly democratic nature of the region now makes it easier to override lingering inhibitions about interference. In the cases of Haiti, Guatemala and Paraguay, the OAS took strong steps to reverse actual or potential threats to the democratic process.3

     The OAS General Assembly has nonetheless acknowledged that despite these democratic advances, "large numbers of internally displaced persons continue to require special attention" and that it is important to identify the causes of the problem as well as innovative solutions.4 In 1995, it underscored the need to undertake "programs of assistance and human rights protection for internally displaced persons." 5 And in 1996, it suggested the "possible convocation" of a regional meeting to develop "quick-acting mechanisms" for the timely addressing of the needs of refugees and displaced persons.6

     The OAS, however, needs to follow through on these proposals and take concrete institutional steps to deal with internal displacement. In 1993, its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that the Assembly appoint a working group to elaborate a program to address the needs of internally displaced persons and refugees and to establish emergency measures that in particular would address the human rights aspects of internal displacement.7 The Commission recommended that the working group prepare a code of conduct that would obligate governments to protect the internally displaced; that an early warning system be created to identify potential or emerging situations of displacement; and that internally displaced and other uprooted persons be included on the agenda of international development institutions.

     In addition to heeding these recommendations, there are other steps the OAS could take as well. It could urge the establishment by the Governments of Guatemala, Peru and Colombia of more effective national institutions and remedies for the internally displaced and then monitor the performance of these institutions. In Guatemala, with the signing in 1994 by the government and insurgent groups of an Accord for the Resettlement of Persons Uprooted by the Armed Conflict, the government to its credit made various promises and plans with regard to the internally displaced. These plans, however, remain to be implemented. A National Commission to Aid Repatriates, Refugees, and Displaced Persons (CEAR) has been created but it is reported to be concentrating mainly on returning refugees while officials at the national land agency, INTA, are reported to be reticent to support internally displaced persons' claims to land or to give them low-interest credit for new land.8

     Because government officials often view the displaced with suspicion, the OAS could play a role in promoting conflict resolution activities designed to promote reintegration, help resolve displacement and prevent further displacement. In Guatemala, the OAS has introduced a pilot project which provides training in conflict resolution to groups in rural areas. Among the conflicts identified are those between returning displaced persons and the persons who have occupied their property during their absence.9

     The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its
     Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons

     The spearhead for action on internal displacement within the OAS has been the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Since 1959 it has developed into an effective and autonomous body for investigating and disclosing human rights abuses in OAS member states and recommending remedial action. In making its recommendations to the General Assembly in 1993, it underscored the need for mechanisms "for monitoring and supervising the situation of the internally displaced" and "for assistance, protection and prevention for the internally displaced."10

     In its own investigations, the Commission found that military repression prompted large-scale internal displacement in a number of countries.11 A 1994 report on Guatemala called upon the government to cease military harassment of the displaced and to extend them legal recognition.12 A report on the forcible displacement of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua made the farreaching recommendation that compensation be awarded to the Miskitos for the damage done to their property.13

     To create a more systematic framework for addressing the problem of internal displacement, the Commission decided in February 1996 to appoint a special rapporteur on internally displaced persons. The decision was made "in recognition of the grave situation of internally displaced persons in several countries of the Hemisphere" and following a meeting with the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons.14 It is expected that the appointment will result in a more consistent examination of the conditions of displaced populations, sustained dialogue with governments, and greater collaboration with international organizations. At the same time, the position is a voluntary one with limited human and material resources made available to it. Commission reports, moreover, do not always receive sustained or serious attention by the OAS. Nonetheless it is the first institutional position at the regional level to deal with internal displacement and should raise the visibility of the problem and help stimulate solutions.

     Additional steps the Commission could consider include adopting an emergency procedure so that when a severe case of internal displacement develops, an emergency mission could be sent and an urgent action report issued; and deploying staff in the field to increase protection for the displaced and help prevent violations. To date, the Commission has not yet developed an operational capacity for human rights protection. The stationing of regional staff in the field to defuse tensions and protect the internally displaced has been tried to date only by Europe's regional organization, the OSCE.15 An operational role by the inter-American system in this area merits consideration.

     Further, the Commission could make known to displaced populations how to bring cases before the Commission. (Neither NGOs nor individuals representing the displaced have as yet come before the Commission with violations of their rights.) The Commission could also bring questions of internal displacement before the Inter-American Human Rights Court. The Court has broad jurisdiction and an important advisory opinion role. It could be requested to determine whether a government has violated the American Convention on Human Rights in cases of internal displacement or it could be asked to issue an advisory opinion, for example, on the extent to which insurgent forces are obligated under international law to respect the rights of the internally displaced.

     Joint initiatives could be undertaken and strategies developed with international bodies, in particular the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General who has paid visits to three countries in the Americas and issued reports on their displacement problems. In 1996, the Representative met with the Commission to discuss ways in which they might work together to promote better protection, assistance and development for the internally displaced. One way to enhance cooperation would be for the Commission to apply in its missions to the field the guiding principles on internal displacement which the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General plans to introduce into the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1998.

     The Commission's role of course is constrained by its enormous workload of individual cases of human rights. Moreover, its resources are limited; it receives less than two percent of the OAS' overall budget of more than $100 million even though human rights and democracy are considered major OAS objectives. However, the Commission has made a commitment in appointing a rapporteur on internally displaced persons and has emphasized "the need to include the protection of refugees, repatriates, and internally displaced persons within the mandate of the regional human rights mechanisms."16 It remains for the OAS to make good on this promise.

     The CPDIA

     Outside the OAS structure, but in collaboration with Commission members, a unique, innovative hemispheric initiative has been launched to focus on the problem of internal displacement. It is called the Permanent Consultation on Internal Displacement in the Americas, or CPDIA in its Spanish language initials.

     CPDIA was created in 1992 by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH). Concerned about internal displacement in the hemisphere, IIDH invited governments, U.N. agencies, independent experts and NGOs to discuss the formation of an independent, informal group to coordinate efforts with regard to internally displaced persons. CPDIA is comprised of representatives from intergovernmental organizations such as UNHCR, UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, IOM, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and IIDH; non-governmental organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the Refugee Policy Group; independent experts; and an observer from ICRC.17 Its functions are to serve as a clearinghouse of information on internally displaced persons; to analyze specific country situations and make recommendations for solutions; to provide technical assistance to governments and organizations working with the displaced; to establish a legal framework; and to promote respect for the human rights of displaced populations through meetings, forums and educational and training programs.18

     CPDIA to date has produced a draft body of legal principles, which has proved valuable in the U.N.'s development of guiding principles on internal displacement. It has undertaken two on-site missions to Colombia and one to Guatemala, with government invitation or support, and has developed recommendations for improving the situation of internally displaced persons in those countries.19 It has also lent support to local grass-roots projects for the displaced.20

     CPDIA's unique nature deserves examination. It is an organization that brings together both human rights and humanitarian bodies, intergovernmental bodies and NGOs, and draws upon their combined expertise in approaching the problem of internal displacement. The membership of U.N. agencies enhances its influence with governments; yet because agency representatives serve in their private capacities, CPDIA is not subject to the kinds of political constraints that U.N. agencies and officials are.

     At the same time, CPDIA faces constraints of its own. First it relies upon IIDH for staff and resources but IIDH can not always make these available for CPDIA's work. Second, IIDH has quasi-governmental status which at times could make it unwilling to exert pressure on governments when they violate human rights.21 To assure a consistent, dynamic and ongoing program, the Consultation should explore developing into a more autonomous body replete with staff and resources of its own, but closely collaborating with IIDH. In 1996, UNHCR and UNICEF made contributions to CPDIA's work, an encouraging sign, and CPDIA began to take steps to develop its own resource base.

     CPDIA also will have to decide the extent to which its work can be made public. At present, its reports are presented to governments privately which can be effective in certain situations. But to become a useful clearinghouse of information on internal displacement, it will have to find ways of making its information known. For instance, when governments do not carry out its recommendations, or otherwise obstruct its work, keeping reports confidential will not help the plight of the displaced. At a minimum, CPDIA should consider publishing certain basic information about the numbers, needs and problems of internally displaced populations and making it available in different languages.

CPDIA would also benefit from stronger institutional links with the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons and with the new Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. CPDIA could serve as an early warning alert for both, calling to their attention information and problems in different countries. It could also monitor the extent to which their recommendations have been implemented in different countries. In addition, joint on-site missions could be planned or at least coordinated so that they complement each other.22

     A colloquium organized by IIDH, UNHCR and the Government of Costa Rica in 1994 featured CPDIA's work. It is noteworthy that the San Jose Declaration on Refugees and Displaced Persons, adopted at the meeting, affirmed that internal displacement is a human rights problem of international concern and endorsed the preparation of an international declaration for the protection of internally displaced persons.23 CPDIA's role is a unique example of a regional solution for internal displacement.

     Local NGOs and Organizations of Displaced Persons

     Another promising sign in the Americas that should merit regional support is the work of local organizations, both indigenous non-governmental groups and the associations of the displaced themselves. These local initiatives, in fact, largely distinguish the Americas from other regions of the world, where there may be little or no tradition for NGOs or where the displaced themselves do not organize in self-help groups or engage in advocacy. By contrast, in the Americas, displaced persons' associations have sprung up in many areas, and significant numbers of displaced persons have joined these groups and have been active in speaking out for their protection and rights. The National Council of the Displaced in Guatemala (CONDEG), for example, was formed in 1989 to represent the displaced, revive their cultural customs and help recover their lost identification documents. Other organizations, such as the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) of the Sierra and Ixcan regions, have demanded government recognition as civilian groups and have worked with international NGOs and the Catholic church to secure humanitarian assistance. Additionally, organizations such as the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CHRLA) have been representing internally displaced persons attempting to return to their land, both in Guatemalan courts and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, while the Center of Christian Services (CEDESCRI) has sent observers to accompany returns of internally displaced persons.24

     The resources of these groups, however, are limited and frequently they suffer persecution because governments allege that they protect insurgent groups or are sympathetic to their cause. Here, regional efforts could be valuable in lending support to the work of local NGOs and displaced persons associations, defending them from government persecution, and encouraging the development of regional organizations on behalf of the displaced.


     If internal displacement is to be dealt with effectively, greater capacities will need to be developed at the regional level and a division of labor worked out with international organizations. The dynamics of population displacement require the involvement not only of the affected countries but of those which surround them. Regional efforts, if supported and strengthened, can provide a framework for the prevention and resolution of displacement problems and also for reconstruction and peacebuilding in post-conflict situations.

     In the Americas, particularly innovative institutional responses have been developed for displacement issues. The CIREFCA process to help reintegrate displaced persons, the appointment of a rapporteur on internally displaced persons within the OAS framework and the creation of the Permanent Consultation on Internal Displacement in the Americas could all serve as models for other regions. The work of local NGOs and organizations of displaced persons are also instructive for other regions. There is need, however, for the strengthening of these mechanisms and for the undertaking of additional steps, as outlined above, to increase the ability of the Americas to respond effectively to the challenge of displacement.

* Roberta Cohen is Co-Director of the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement, Senior Adviser to the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and co-author with Francis M. Deng of the forthcoming study, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, from which this paper is drawn.


1 See Analytical Report of the Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, United Nations Document E/CN.4/1992/23, 14 February 1992, para. 17.

2 According to the World Refugee Survey 1997, there are 600,000 internally displaced persons in Colombia, 420,000 in Peru, and 200,000 in Guatemala, see World Refugee Survey 1997, U.S. Committee for Refugees, p.6. Other estimates, however, place the number of displaced in Colombia at one million.

3 See Tom Farer, "Collectively Defending Democracy in a World of Sovereign States: The Western Hemisphere's Prospect," International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Canada, 1993, pp. 18-20; Christina Cerna, "Universal Democracy: An International Legal Right or the Pipe Dream of the West?," New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, vol.27 (Winter 1995); and Thomas W. Lippman, "Joint Effort Helps Head Off Coup Threat in Paraguay," Washington Post, April 26, 1996.

4 OAS General Assembly Resolution, Legal Situation of Refugees, Returnees, and Displaced Persons in the American Hemisphere, AG/RES.1214 (XXIII-O/93), June 11, 1993.

5 OAS General Assembly Resolution, Situation of Refugees, Returnees, and Displaced Persons in the American Hemisphere, AG/RES. 1336 (XXV-O/95), June 9, 1995.

6 OAS General Assembly Resolution, AG/Com.I/doc.5/96, 3 June 1996.

7 Organization of American States, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1993, Washington D.C., 1994, p. 559.

8 See Hiram A. Ruiz, El Retorno: Guatemalans' Risky Repatriation Begins, Issue Paper (Washington: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1993), p.17. See also "Guatemala's Peace Program: Empty Promise or Peace Dividend for the Internally Displaced," unpublished report by Julianna Lindsey for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, March 1997. It reports that in Los Cimientos in 1994, local officials opposed returns of internally displaced persons to their former lands while local inhabitants forcibly barred entry to displaced persons trying to return to their villages.

9 Interview with Senior Political Officer at the U.S. Mission to the OAS, Washington D.C., April 19, 1996.

10 Inter-American Commission, Annual Report, 1993, p. 559.

11 See for example, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Fourth Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala," June 1, 1993; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Peru," March 12, 1993; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, "Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti," March 9, 1993 and February 9, 1995. See also Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Press Release, no. 11/94, Port-au-Prince, May 20, 1994.

12 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, "Special Report on the Human Rights Situation in the So-Called 'Communities of Peoples in Resistance in Guatemala,'" Washington, 1994.

13 See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, "Report on the Situation of Human Rights of a Segment of The Nicaraguan Population of Miskito Origin and Resolution on the Friendly Settlement Procedure regarding the Human Rights Situation of a Segment of the Nicaraguan Population of Miskito Origin," Washington, 1984.

14 The Rapporteur selected was Commission member Robert K. Goldman, Professor of Law at the Washington College of Law of American University and Co-Director of its Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. See Press Release no. 3/96 of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, March 8, 1996.

15 In Tajikistan, for example, OSCE field officers, following UNHCR's departure, have been playing a protection role in the case of returning internally displaced persons and refugees, have taken up individual cases of illegal house occupation and have brought instances of harassment of internally displaced persons to the attention of the authorities in order to facilitate their return and reintegration. In Bosnia, OSCE has also been playing a critical operational role in the peace-building phase.

16 Inter-American Commission, Annual Report, 1993, p. 539.

17 Participants from U.N. and regional agencies act in their individual capacities; CPDIA's activities are not supposed to duplicate those of the agencies.

18 Inter-American Institute of Human Rights Program of Refugees, Repatriated and Displaced Persons and Human Rights, Aide Memoire on Technical Meeting of the Permanent Consultation on Internal Displacement in the Americas, San Jose, Costa Rica, April 15, 1993.

19 The Guatemala report, "Informe Final Mision In Situ A Guatemala, CPDIA, Costa Rica, 1996, contains 22 recommendations to the Government for improving the conditions of the internally displaced. The report is confidential.

20 For example, it has given technical support to church organizations in Colombia that offer legal protection to the internally displaced, organize self-support projects and undertake campaigns to prevent violence against the displaced. One such project in Sincelejo, capital of the Department of Sucre, is intended to serve as a model for other regions of Colombia. IIDH, moreover, has been providing technical support for the first national research program on the internally displaced carried out by the Catholic Church in Colombia. It has developed human rights training programs for internally displaced indigenous women in Guatemala in collaboration with local women's organizations; and in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Paraguay and Colombia, it has organized, together with NGOs, training programs for migrant women, including those who are internally displaced. Interview with Cristina Zeledon, Director of CPDIA, May 23, 1996.

21 See Carlos Alberto Sarti Castaneda, "In Search of Human Security in Central America," in Regional Responsibilities and the United Nations System, ACUNS Reports and Papers, No.1994-2, p. 72.

22 In 1994, the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General and CPDIA undertook missions to Colombia within six months of one another without planning or coordination. Although they did in the end supplement each other's work, a regular institutional link would avoid duplication and strengthen collaborative efforts.

23 See Memoria Coloquio Internacional, Inter-American Institute of Human Rights-UNHCR, pp. 279-330, 415.

24 See Ruiz and Lindsey, supra note 9.

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