by Rhodri C. Williams
As we enter a series of twenty year milestones from the meltdown of the former Yugoslavia, it has been a bit too easy for many of us who came of age back then to reflect on internal conflicts – the crucible in which the internal displacement advocacy movement was forged – as a phase we were all moving beyond. Until recently.
Until recently, it was possible to think of conflict displacement as a ‘first wave’, still problematic in the sense that frozen conflicts from the 1990s had entrenched patterns of protracted internal displacement, but no longer of primary concern. With some of the initial nationalist spasms of the post-Cold War thaw exhausted and a practiced UN-led peace-building and mediation response at the ready, it has been easy enough to be lulled by the overall statistics on declining numbers of active internal conflicts.
Moreover, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami and dawning awareness of the effects of climate change, an effective advocacy campaign by then-Rapporteur on Internal Displacement Walter Kälin shifted attention firmly to rights-based responses to a ‘second wave’ of internal displacement, that caused by natural disasters. As reflected in the UN Human Rights Council’s recent undertaking to address internal displacement , the focus on disasters has come to define much of the advocacy in the field, to some degree eclipsing conflict concerns. Meanwhile, a third wave looms as pressure on land and natural resources gives a sharp new edge to the issue of development-induced displacement.
Reading all this, one would be tempted to take some relief in the fact that each new impending crisis appears to be accompanied by changed conditions or improved responses that help to ameliorate the last. If only it were so tidy. While the peaking of sectarian violence in Iraq after 2006 was a wake-up call to the persistence of internal conflict and displacement, it had begun to look like an isolated incident again until recently. However, with Syria now presenting a full-blown ‘human catastrophe’ and Burma accused of crimes against humanity in Rakhine state, conflict displacement is once again center stage in all its awful glory.
Not that we might not have seen it coming. The peace and conflict crowd have had it on their radars for some time, as conflicts proliferated and intensified after 2008 while peace processes dried up (see here, in pdf). However, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has now very clearly identified the humanitarian consequences, in a Global Overview for 2012 that does not mince words:
The total number of people internally displaced by armed conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations worldwide as of the end of 2012 was estimated to be 28.8 million. This represents an increase of 2.4 million on the previous year, and is the highest figure IDMC has ever recorded. Around 6.5 million people were newly displaced, almost twice as many as the 3.5 million during 2011.
For better or for worse, what we are witnessing is a long slow thaw of disputed borders and authoritarian regimes long frozen in place by the Cold War and in some cases given a lease on life by the post-9/11 hangover. The schizophrenic procession of lurches toward freedom and anarchy, convergence and fratricide did not end in the 1990s. As people and peoples in regions like the Middle East and Southeast Asia engage in more and more meaningful self-determination after decades of repression, we may find the choices they make or are led to by irresponsible politicians repugnant and dangerous, but that can no longer be an argument for denying their voices.
Just like before. Which is why Syria carries such gut-wrenching associations for those of use who watched Bosnia, wondered how it would ever end, and then were all too ready to assume we would never witness such protracted horrors again in our lifetime once it miraculously did. For every Northern Ireland then, we may witness a Kosovo now. And for every Bosnia, a Syria.