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Reviewed by:
  • Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, and: The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced
  • Astri Suhrke
Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, Roberta Cohen & Francis M. Deng (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1998), 436 pp.;
The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced (Roberta Cohen & Francis M. Deng eds., Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1998), 512 pp.

More than any other person, Francis Deng, the former Sudanese diplomat, has put the issue of “internally displaced persons” on the international human rights agenda, adding it to the growing weave of rights-based, institutionalized concern for vulnerable people that is one of the hallmarks of the second half of the twentieth century.

Deng was appointed Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in 1992. The mandate—issued by the UN Commission on Human Rights, reaffirmed by UN resolutions, and subsequently renewed—was to study the causes and consequences of internal displacement, the status of the internally displaced in international law, the extent to which these needs were addressed by current institutional arrangements, and ways to improve protection and assistance. Empowered with this mandate, Deng has been a tireless advocate of the internally displaced, arguing that the international community has both a right and an obligation to aid them. His numerous reports to the United Nations (UN) have documented the plight of IDPs throughout the world. Working with a team of legal experts, he has compiled an analysis of existing legal norms that support the provision of international protection and assistance. At the request of the UN, these norms were formalized into a set of principles designed to induce states and rebels to treat the victims of conflict according to standards consistent with human rights and international humanitarian law, and to encourage aid organizations to assist them accordingly. Adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in 1998, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were also to be a principal instrument for Deng to look after the needs of the IDPs in his continued capacity as the Representative of the Secretary-General.

This work has contributed to the wide recognition of IDPs as a particular group of vulnerable persons. Their status recognition is indicated by the fact that several UN resolutions specifically identify them as a category of beneficiaries, even in cases where they would seem to be covered by the more general wording. For instance, Security Council Resolution 929, which authorized the French intervention in Rwanda toward the end of the 1994 genocide, empowered Operation Turquoise to contribute to “the security and protection of displaced persons, refugees, and civilians at risk.” While not all civilians at risk might be displaced, presumably all displaced persons entitled to protection would be covered under the category “civilians at risk.” Yet, their identification as a distinct group of beneficiaries speaks to the success of the efforts in the 1990s to aid the IDPs. 1

Another reason for the greater recognition of IDPs originates in the selfish [End Page 541] interests of states. Protecting persons within their own state can of course be a substitute for conventional asylum in other countries. As many governments in the 1990s judged the actual or potential burden of conventional asylum to be excessive, the interest in developing a regime for IDPs increased.

The claims of IDPs to international protection and assistance are grounded in human rights, international humanitarian law, and the principles on which international refugee law is founded. As a matter of strategy, advocates for IDPs commonly take the similarities between the internally displaced and international refugees as their starting point. Besides the fact that refugees have crossed an international border and IDPs have not, their deprivations and need for assistance are basically similar. Hence, the discrepancy in treatment whereby (international) refugees are receiving international aid, but (internally) displaced persons are not, violates a sense of basic fairness as well as humanitarian principles.

The critical difference, of course, is that the IDPs are still located within the bounds of the state that often caused their misfortune. Unless the state concerned readily agrees, aiding IDPs is an enormously more complex task politically and legally speaking...

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pp. 541-544
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