That 1990s feeling, or how conflict-related internal displacement never really went away

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.

9 responses to “That 1990s feeling, or how conflict-related internal displacement never really went away

  1. Good post. Perhaps the underlying error here is that we would like to think of history as an inevitable march away from darkness into the light of a better day. New conflicts produce situations that might seem very familiar to someone from a hundred or even a thousand years ago. How quickly we forget, we say. How is it possible that the errors of the past come back to haunt the present?

    One answer is that man is simply not perfectible and there will never be a time when there is no conflict or greed or people behaving badly. There will be eras of great violence followed by ones of relative peace and back again. What makes me despair a bit is that the desire to do something about it also ebbs and flows. The matters you mention above? Most of us are very happy to place them in the hands of the professional classes (lawyers, sociologists, government/NGO officials and others) and then think no more of it 🙂

    Another answer is that so much of what happens is entirely beyond our control. We have a very VERY limited control of nature. I have lived in both Seattle, USA and Tokyo, Japan. Of the two the latter was extraordinarily well-prepared – earthquake, tsunami and fire drills, excellent infrastructure, a population that was well educated and aware and disposed toward cooperation and collective action in the face of a natural disaster. In the end all these things both worked and did not work. But I cringe when I hear people arguing that they were ill-prepared. Nonsense. The world is simply not a sure thing and the list of things we can control is very short indeed.

    And re-reading what I wrote above I sound terribly fatalistic. Not at all – I like to think of myself as a “cautious optimist.” I hope for the best but I won’t put any money down on one outcome or another.

  2. Oh, I’m an optimist too. There is quite a lot of evidence for instance that urbanization will be our salvation (lower carbon footprint, smaller families, better educational opportunities) but only if it and technological innovation outrun our trashing of the environment. And there are things that can still be done to improve response to disasters and other crises. And lets face it, how could we more obviously put money down than to have kids?? Lets hope the right horse wins…

  3. Thanks for this post, Rhodri. In addition to Syria’s tragedy, according to the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer (, in 2012 there were more highly violent conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa than at any point since 1945. Most of these were internal. The increase in highly intense conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa tallies with the growing numbers of displaced people in the region reported by IDMC.

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