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  • The Impact of State Failure on Migration
  • Francis M. Deng (bio)

State failure is a matter of degree. A successful state is one that lives up to an optimum degree of responsibility to protect its citizens and others under its jurisdiction and to provide for their general welfare. This should entail containing violence, managing diversity, developing and implementing sound economic policies that balance growth with equitable distribution, respecting democratic values and fundamental rights, and forging cooperative relations at the regional and international levels. Failure begins to manifest itself when a state cannot manage conflicts to minimize violence, ensure physical security, protect human rights, and provide essential services and development opportunities. In particular, failure to meet the survival needs of its citizens, respond effectively to human or natural disasters, and provide emergency protection and assistance are elements of a failed or failing state. Viewed in this light, many, if not most, states experience varying degrees of failure to live up to the optimistic standards of good governance and the management of the affairs of the state. At the extreme end of failure is the total collapse of the state, when the capacity to respond to crises disappears or diminishes to a minimal standard.1

Whatever the degree of failure, the international community is called on to step in to lend a helping hand when a state is failing. It should be noted with emphasis that the state remains the centerpiece of the international system and that the concept of state sovereignty remains a fundamental norm of the [End Page 16] international order. Human rights and humanitarian principles, of course, provide a basis for international involvement, which can take a wide variety of forms with varying degrees of intensity, ranging from diplomatic dialogue on behalf of the affected population to more coercive measures, peaking in military action. Yet when all is said and done, international access to needy populations can be significantly impeded by a negative exercise of state sovereignty, as long as a semblance of the state still exists. The paradox is that from a normative perspective, it is generally assumed that the responsibility to enforce the rule of law and provide protection and assistance to needy populations falls first and foremost on the states concerned, and even when these states are undergoing degrees of failure and maybe even collapse, there is a reluctance on the part of the international community to step in with appropriate action. Whether or not this reluctance is due to the costs involved, both material and human, respect for sovereignty may provide a convenient shield. In any case, a disaster of grave magnitude that is already under way, rather than the need for prevention, is often what drives effective international response.

In this essay I build largely on the experience of the international community with the global crisis of internal displacement. First, I analyze the nature of the conflicts and human-rights violations that generate displacement, focusing especially on the identity crises in these conflicts. These conditions create vacuums of moral responsibility and the ensuing need for the international community to take remedial action. I then outline the way the international community has responded to challenges and the obstacles that still constrain international response. This is followed by a brief outline of recent developments aimed at improving the performance of the international system's response.2 I then draw attention to the dilemmas and ambivalences involved on both sides when state failure makes humanitarian intervention [End Page 17] imperative. I end on the need to address the root causes of the crises that provide a basis for response, solutions, and circularly, prevention.

The Crisis of Internal Displacement

Internal displacement is a microcosm of the broader challenges facing states and the international system. Every year, some 25 million people in over fifty countries are uprooted and forced to flee from their homes or areas of habitual residence as a result of internal conflicts, communal violence, or egregious violations of human rights but have remained within their national borders.3 As a consequence of their forced displacement, they are deprived of such essentials of life as shelter, food, medicine, education, community, and a resource base for self-sustaining...


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pp. 16-36
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2019
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