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1. Mass displacement caused by conflicts and one-sided violence: national and international responses


I. Overview

II. The scale and nature of mass displacement

III. Responding to violence-related mass displacement

IV. Conclusions: the way forward


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Massive displacement of people within countries and across borders has become a defining feature of the post-cold war world. It is also a major feature of human insecurity in which genocide, terrorism and egregious human rights violations wreak havoc on civilians. The underlying causes of mass displacement are conflicts over power, wealth and resource sharing. Opportunities therefore exist for both national and international authorities to address the deeper structural divisions in societies when trying to end conflict and displacement through peace processes.


The need of internally displaced persons (IDPs) for international protection was one of the factors that prompted a shift in global policy and thinking on state responsibility. Over the past two decades, a state-centred system in which sovereignty was absolute has evolved into one in which the behaviour of states towards their citizens has become a matter of international concern and scrutiny. The human rights movement has long championed the view that the rights of people transcend frontiers and that the international community must hold a government to account when it fails to meet its obligations. The deployment of more humanitarian and peacekeeping operations to protect civilians reflects this new reality as do preventive and peacebuilding efforts.


Nonetheless, concepts of sovereignty as responsibility and the responsibility to protect (R2P) remain far ahead of international willingness and capacity to enforce them. The failure of states to protect their citizens has often met with a weak international response. It is critical that the United Nations, concerned governments, regional bodies and civil society (a) assist states in developing their own capacities and (b) press for the development of the tools needed to enable the international community to take assertive action when persuasive measures fail and masses of people remain under the threat of violence and humanitarian tragedy.


Recent peace agreements have made some provisions for the return, resettlement and reintegration of those uprooted. Involving IDPs and returning refugees in discussions can avert violence, prevent continued exploitation and abuse, create greater trust and promote the recovery of local economies.


Governments must assume their responsibility towards IDPs, and the UN Peacebuilding Commission should work more actively with them to ensure secure and sustainable returns, eliminate the marginalization of different groups and address the root causes of disputes by redressing past injustices.


Roberta Cohen is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Senior Adviser to the Brookings–Bern Project on Internal Displacement, SeniorAssociate at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Senior Adviser to the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.


Francis M. Deng (Sudan) is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.