Marcia Byrom Hartwell
D.Phil. Development Studies
Queen Elizabeth House
Refugee Studies Programme
University of Oxford

Written at LSE, MSc. Development Studies 1998

[Document first posted on 3 May 1999]

Once dismissed as an irrelevant religious concept in a political world, the concept of forgiveness has begun to be increasingly associated with highly secular post conflict reconstruction. As the post Cold War world has splintered into violent wars and persistent low level conflict, its potential for healing civil society has begun to be explored in media, popular, and academic analysis. Despite this increased profile, forgiveness may be one of the least understood and yet potentially necessary acts required for a society to fully break a cycle of violence. The mere fact that it is being considered or discussed implies that extreme suffering has occurred. Given that the most horrendous acts of spiritual, emotional, and physical violence have taken place between the same persons attempting to rebuild a society after conflict, it is logical to ask, how is forgiveness possible? Is it necessary for reconciliation? And most importantly, how do former enemies find a way to live together once again?

This paper will address these questions by defining forgiveness and by focusing on its possibility and relevance in a post conflict situation. It will consider this topic within the framework of social reconciliation – a collective attempt to rebuild a mutually beneficial and co-operative civil society –by examining the concept of justice, by drawing upon psychological models of interpersonal forgiveness, and by considering other strategies for social healing. The traditional model of “justice as fairness” is questioned in its effectiveness to stop cycles of revenge and violence within a country. A more recent evolution of a “justice as reconciliation” paradigm developed by Mahmood Mamdani and derived from the South African experience, is explored as an approach that can embrace the process of forgiveness within the construction of reconciliation.

Defining forgiveness is almost as problematic as determining its role in reconciliation. The notion of forgiveness was for a long time almost exclusively associated with the language of religion. It occupied a prominent part in the early teachings of the New Testament as a powerful social and personal action, but “[forgiveness] seldom if ever attained an impressive place in the ethics that the church sought to commend to its secular host society”. The Protestant Reformation also strove to incorporate a socialised form of forgiveness but reinforced the concept of “the power of the divine over human forgiveness”, emphasising the relationship between the individual and a higher power rather than between other humans. (1) Within Judaism human imitates divine forgiveness and considers “forgiveness to be a moral duty”.(2) John Bowker emphasized that almost every religion has its own view and interpretation of suffering and atonement. Each can be seen as setting the stage for some form of forgiveness. The Islamic approach tends to seek justice as a way of addressing peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.(3) Buddhists begin from a sense of self that wishes to be free from suffering and deemed worthy of experiencing happiness. Followers identify the causes of both suffering and happiness, and actively pursue the ones leading to happiness as a way to avoid “suffering and mental afflictions”. (4)

A more politically focused interpretation of forgiveness depicts forgiveness and hope as a means of launching a new beginning by rebuilding social, political and economic structures on a national level. It has been described as a “collective turning from the past that neither ignores past evil nor excuses it.” Forgiveness.. “neither overlooks justice nor reduces justice to revenge, ..[but] insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of dehumanizing deeds, and ..values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it”. Acknowledgement of a transgression, or “remembering not forgetting”, abandonment of revenge, and the intent to seek genuine renewal of human relationships are its most important principles. Donald Shriver argues that “precisely because it attends at once to moral truth, history, and the human benefits that flow from the conquest of enmity, forgiveness is a word for a multidimensional process that is eminently political”. “(5)

True forgiveness can be seen as a complex and prolonged evolutionary process separate from but also interwoven with justice, apology, truth, and reconciliation. Its enactment belongs entirely to the offended and is a courageous and powerful expression of unconditional acceptance and love that can be seen as an attempt to stop the transfer of hate from one generation to the next. A genuine collective and individual willingness to try to release the hurts of the past, accompanied by hope and determination to begin anew, can be argued to be a beginning point in this process. But what are the emotional roots of forgiveness, the source of feeling that makes it possible? Recent development of a psychological “process model” and analysis of interpersonal forgiveness is some of the most promising work done so far in explaining the internal human dynamics of forgiveness.

In 1992, Robert Enright and his colleagues Elizabeth Gassin and Ching-Ru Wu published the results of a five year study conducted among adults in the U. S. outlining an eighteen step process of forgiveness. Called the “Psychological variables engaged in a process intervention on forgiveness”, it listed the following progression.

  1. Examination of psychological defences.
  2. Confrontation of anger; the point is to release, not harbour, the anger.
  3. Admittance of shame, when this is appropriate.
  4. Awareness of cathexis [hurt].
  5. Awareness of cognitive rehearsal [replaying the scene repeatedly in one’s mind] of the offence
  6. Insight that the injured party may be comparing self with the injurer.
  7. Insight into a possibly altered ‘just world’ view. [issue of justice]
  8. A change of heart/conversion/new insights that old resolution strategies are not working.
  9. A willingness to explore forgiveness as an option.
  10. Commitment to forgive the offender.
  11. Reframing, through role taking, who the wrongdoer is by viewing him or her in context.
  12. Empathy toward the offender.
  13. Awareness of compassion, as it emerges, toward the offender.
  14. Acceptance/ absorption of the pain.
  15. Realization that self has needed others’ forgiveness in the past.
  16. Realization that self has been, perhaps, permanently changed by the injury.
  17. Awareness of deceased negative affect and, perhaps, increased positive affect, if this begins to emerge, toward the injurer.
  18. Awareness of internal, emotional release. “. (6)

Acknowledging the potential for great individual variation in this process, it was understood that some of these steps would be skipped, while others would be repeated several times. In this process, the first two steps require identifying the psychological defences such as denial or repression that had been used to mask the pain of the injury. (These first two steps could result from knowing the “truth”. – such as facts about how an incident occurred etc., that were previously withheld or unavailable.) This acknowledgement – either of emotions or release of denial – often leads to anger. The next steps, 3 – 7, explore the additional emotional and psychological discomfort resulting perhaps in an altered perception of appropriate justice or in an understanding that life is not fair. Steps 8 – 10 are the turning points in the process of exploring options to revenge. “A commitment to forgive is usually an intellectual decision to forgive the offender, perhaps influenced by the change of heart and the exploration.” The final steps, 11-18 bring the offended through the process of reframing the injury of “seeing” it in a new way, while beginning development of compassion and empathy toward the offender. Step 14 may be the most significant step in this process for post conflict situations in stopping future cycles of violence. It is as an indication that “the person is ready to accept the pain that justice tells us should not have been his or hers in the first place” – and that this “courageous absorption of pain keeps that pain from being transmitted to future generations in displacement”. From 15-18, the offended is recognising his/her own imperfections and perhaps developing empathy toward the offender along with a willingness to let the hurt become part of the past. The result is an “abandonment of resentment” and the emergence of “unconditional love”.(7) Overall, the key to achieving forgiveness appears to be the offended’s willingness to explore the range of options within the process and to persist until genuine forgiveness is attained.(8)

The relationship between anger, revenge, and forgiveness is particularly important in understanding the role of forgiveness in reconstructing a society following conflict. It can be argued that anger – an understandable reaction to extreme offence – is the root emotion of both forgiveness and revenge, each of which can be seen as an opposite side of the same coin. Hannah Arendt recognised this duality maintaining that the act of revenge was self-perpetuating and unending while forgiveness stopped the vicious cycle. “Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process…” To her the act of revenge was predictable as an automatic response to a transgression, while the act of forgiveness was not. “Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it. …Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever…” (9)

Tavuchis mentions the “complex lesson about anger and apology” where the victim nurtures “a sense of righteous anger and indignation”, which prompts the call for the necessity of an apology (thus a request for forgiveness).(10) While this anger may trigger an apology, it is clearly understood that one is not required (or always possible especially if the offender is dead or otherwise unattainable) for forgiveness to occur.

Sociologist Georg Simmel too felt that the “psychological and sociological character” of conciliation shared a common source of anger with the dynamics of forgiveness. “After all, forgiving, too, does not presuppose any laxity of reaction or lacking strength of antagonism. It too is lit up in all its purity after the most deeply felt wrong and the most passionate struggle. Hence in both conciliation and forgiving lies something irrational, something like a denial of what one still was a moment before. This mysterious rhythm of the soul which makes processes of this type depend precisely and exclusively on the processes which contradict them is perhaps most clearly revealed in forgiving. For forgiving is probably the only affective process which we assume without any question to be subordinate to the will – otherwise, the begging of forgiveness would be meaningless. A request can only move us to something over which the will has power. That I spare the vanquished enemy or renounce all revenge on the individual who has offended me, can understandably be achieved on the basis of a request: it depends on my will. But that I forgive them, that is, that the feeling of antagonism, hatred, separateness yield to another feeling – in this respect, a mere resolution seems to be as powerless as it is in respect to feelings generally. Actually, however, the situation is different, and cases where we cannot forgive even with our best will are very rare.”(11)

If one understands the source of the forgiveness paradigm to be rage and anger, with its possible result as either forgiveness or revenge, then an alternative perspective of the role religion-based ritualistic violence plays in community “healing” may be seen. Tim Allen described such a case in northern Uganda that he encountered while doing fieldwork in the late 1980s and early 1990s among the Madi. In this instance a woman, accused of being a witch was tortured and killed along with her daughter by a group of intoxicated males. Other, more formal instances occurred where individuals, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft, given a swift public trial, and executed. The aftermath of each killing appeared to result in a type of social bonding which prompted Allen to propose the idea that “torture and killing can become essential for the establishing of interpersonal accountability and the re-emergence of viable community life”. While it is too early to judge what role this type of ritualistic killing truly plays, one suspects while reading the description, that it has much more in common with psychic “scape-goating” and anger directed toward revenge rather than with forgiveness and reconciliation.(12)

The close relationship between anger, revenge, and forgiveness is especially clear in a justice/forgiveness model, “Stages of justice and styles of forgiveness development”” constructed by Enright et al. The first five forgiveness styles depict different forms of “pseudo” forgiveness, not to be confused with the authentic version described in Style 6. Each like numbered stage and style is considered to be the equivalent action in each area. Stage 1 is justice as “Heteronomous Morality. I believe that justice should be decided by the authority, by the one who can punish.” Style 1 for forgiveness is “Revengeful Forgiveness. I can forgive someone who wrongs me only if I can punish him to a similar degree to my own pain.” (There is an old Hindu proverb that warns “Forgiveness looks good on the snake which has the venom.” (13) Justice Stage 2 is “Individualism. I have a sense of reciprocity that defines justice for me. If you help me, I must help you.” Forgiveness Style 2 is “Conditional or Restitutional Forgiveness. If I get back what was taken away from me, then I can forgive. Or, if I feel guilty about withholding forgiveness, then I can forgive to relieve my guilt.” Both of these strategies equate forgiveness with justice as punishment or restitution, demanding that something be given before forgiveness is extended. Justice Stage 3 is “Mutual Interpersonal Expectations. Here, I reason that the group consensus should decide what is right and wrong. I go along so that others close to me will like me.” Forgiveness Style 3 is “Expectational Forgiveness. I can forgive if others put pressure on me to forgive. I forgive because other people expect it.” Justice Stage 4 is “Social System and Conscience. Societal laws are my guides to justice. I uphold laws, except in extreme cases, to have an orderly society.” Forgiveness Style 4 is “Lawful Expectational Forgiveness. I forgive because my religion demands it. Notice that this is not Stage 2 in which I forgive to relieve my own guilt about withholding forgiveness.” Forgiveness Styles 3 and 4 suggest certain social pressures that must be in evidence in order for forgiveness to be granted. Justice Stage 5 is a “Social Contract. I am aware that people hold a variety of opinions. One usually should uphold the values and rules of one’s group. Some non-relative values (life, liberty) must be upheld regardless of majority opinion.” Forgiveness Style 5 is “Forgiveness as Social Harmony. I forgive because it restores harmony or good relations in society. Forgiveness decreases friction and outright conflict in society. Note that forgiveness is a way to control society; it is a way of maintaining peaceful relations.” Both of these steps differ from the previous ones only in the order of reciprocal action, in that their expectation of a certain condition to be met follows the extension of forgiveness rather than preceding it.(14)

Only the sixth step is genuine forgiveness because it is given freely without expected reciprocity, instead focusing on mercy and the “forswearing of personal justice”. In Justice Stage 6 “Universal Ethical Principles” states “My sense of justice is based on maintaining the individual rights of all persons. People are ends in themselves and should be treated as such. Forgiveness Style 6 is “Forgiveness as Love. I forgive because it promotes a true sense of love. Because I must truly care for each person, a hurtful act on her part does not alter that sense of love. This kind of relationship keeps open the possibility of reconciliation and closes the door on revenge. Note that forgiveness is no longer dependent on a social context as in Stage/Style 5. The forgiver does not control the other by forgiving; he releases her.” This version of forgiveness “includes the concept of justice [the offended realise they have been treated unfairly and have no duty to show compassion]…but goes beyond seeking a “fair solution” and instead reaching for a compassionate one.(15) In doing so a different paradigm of power emerges. By counter-intuitively and freely choosing to show compassion and forgiveness in the face of destruction, the victim breaks the self-limiting power of the cycle of guilt, shame, rage, reaching instead for the greater and more universal power of hope.

This concept of forgiveness as an optimistic release empowering the giver challenges Nietzsche’s claim that “those who forgive are weak and unable to assert their right to a just solution”. Enright and colleagues concluded that Nietzsche may have been referring to a style of acquiescent (pseudo) forgiveness that stems from low self esteem (perhaps a form of the preceding Style 3 or 5). This is when the individual feels powerless to achieve justice rather than achieving an “intrinsic forgiveness [that] valu[es] forgiveness in and of itself, displays self-acceptance, psychological strength, and respect for others, despite the presence of anger”. Responding to the criticism of “forgiveness as a reversal of societal justice” the authors maintain that social justice and interpersonal forgiveness can exist together and that “a forgiving individual indeed may serve on a jury and see that justice is served. While forgiveness primes society to welcome the freed criminal, it does not require us to hastily open the jail cell door.” Countering the accusation that sees “forgiveness as perpetuating injustice”, they assert that forgiveness is being confused with reconciliation. “Forgiveness is an internal release and involves one individual. Reconciliation, on the other hand, involves two people who are behaviourally coming together.”(16)

Forgiveness is the driving force behind an apology. While forgiveness is the sole province of the offended, an apology belongs entirely to the offender and is a classic confrontation between both. Dissecting the process of apology – “a speech act that seeks forgiveness” in his book Mea Culpa, Nicholas Tavuchis describes the relationship between the two. “Something happens; something is said or done that is interpreted and judged offensive, improper, or harmful. An apology is called for, someone apologizes, the apology (let us assume) is accepted, the offender is forgiven, and life goes on as if nothing had happened.” His emphasis on the “as if” in that statement, acknowledges that some tension and lingering antagonism may remain, but on the surface, “the social slate is wiped clean” although the act itself cannot be undone. (17) Thomas Scheff describes the significance of the apology-forgiveness relationship as a removal of a “threat to the social bond …a relationship in which solidarity prevails” caused by alienation that can occur equally in both modern and traditional societies. “Modern societies tend toward individualism and isolation… – each cannot know the other and reveal the self because both are too distant… traditional ones, toward conformity and engulfment – …each cannot know the other and reveal the self because loyalty and conformity demand that important parts of the self, basic desires, thoughts, and feelings may be hidden, even from the self. Secrecy, deception, and self-deception go hand in hand….Both formats are equally alienated.”(18)

Both Tavuchis – who insists that one must also feel genuine regret in the form of sorrow or grief – and Scheff – for whom embarrassment is the driving emotion feel that the genuineness of an apology is the key to its success. Both would agree with Erving Goffman’s description. “In its fullest form, the apology has several elements: expression of embarrassment and chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct had been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved; espousal of the right way and an avowal henceforth to pursue that course; performance of penance and the volunteering of restitution.”(19) While a sincere apology may help to facilitate the process of forgiveness – in another U.S. study conducted on interpersonal forgiving, McCullough et al, found that an apology often triggered first empathy, then forgiveness toward the offender – its presence is not necessary to begin the process of forgiveness. (20)

And what about the relationship between forgiveness and justice? Shiver observes: “Simple justice is elusive…forgiveness thrives in the tension between justice-as-punishment and justice-as-restoration. To take both sides seriously is to ponder how “due retribution” can play a restorative role in the future relation of wrongdoers and wrong-sufferers, and how forgiveness makes room for punishment while making wider room yet for the repair of damages and renewal of relation between enemies.”(21) As Connerton points out forgiveness has not been considered an option in the traditional forms of justice. “…Those who have suffered most severely at the hands of the old regime want not only revenge for particular wrongs…the settlement they seek is one in which the continuing struggle between the new order and the old will be definitively terminated, because the legitimacy of the victors will be validated once and for all. The present is to be separated from what preceded it by an act of unequivocal demarcation. The trial by fiat of a successor regime is like the construction of a wall, unmistakable and permanent, between the new beginnings and the old tyranny.” (22)

This traditional concept of justice – of righting wrongs and settling grievances through trial and punishment is the “justice as fairness” concept described by John Rawls in his 1972 book A Theory of Justice, and updated in his 1993 Political Liberalism. Rawls’ concept of justice relies upon two basic principles. The first requires that each person have equal access to a “fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, ..with the same scheme for all” within which “equal political liberties are to be guaranteed their fair value”. The second principle accepts “social and economic inequalities of wealth and authority” if they satisfy two conditions. “First, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (23)

In seeking a concept of justice that can be supported by the “religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines” of society, Rawls describes a “political conception of justice”. By political he means a “moral conception worked out for …political, social, and economic institutions”, in other words, the “basic structures of society…and how they fit together into one unified system of cooperation from one generation to the next.” “Thus justice as fairness starts from within a certain political tradition and takes as its fundamental idea that of society as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next. This central organizing idea is developed together with two companion fundamental ideas: one is the idea of citizens (those engaged in cooperation) as free and equal persons; the other is the idea of a well-ordered society as a society effectively regulated by a political conception of justice.” Rawls concedes that “at some point a political conception of justice must address the just relations between peoples, or the law of peoples”…but he leaves that tricky issue to be worked out by others. (24)

Robert Nozick questioned the conflict of interest inherent in Rawl’s description of the unequal distribution of society’s cooperative benefits. Given the choice, Nozick maintained that individuals would prefer a larger rather than a smaller share of benefits and should be given the freedom to attain whatever size share that they could manage to get. He felt that this problem of “distributive justice” required a set of principles that determined the “division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares.” “These principles are the principals of social justice. They provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.” His solution to this dilemma was to create a minimal institutionalist state – a sort of free market version of civic justice, where any person could gain access to as many benefits as he was willing to work for. (25)

Mahmood Mamdani has challenged both these interpretations of justice in exploring a new paradigm of social reconciliation that lies somewhere between the “justice without reconciliation” as enacted in 1959 Rwanda, and the “reconciliation without justice” being attempted in contemporary South Africa. Taking the place of justice is the “ascendancy of another, that of rights [Justice Stage 6 in the Enright et al model] which goes by the name of “reconciliation” in South Africa”. Although potentially problematic, this concept of reconciliation is perhaps the closest to the evolution of an institutional framework that encourages the possibility of forgiveness. In his paper “From Justice to Reconciliation: Making Sense of the African Experience”, he recounts how the traditional type of “justice as fairness” perpetuated alone and unaccompanied by reconciliation (or forgiveness) can lead to a perpetual cycle of revenge as illustrated by what happened in Rwanda following the 1959 “social revolution.(26)

Mamdani begins this by describing how the historic concept of the Rawls/ Nozick type of justice – based on the racist colonial civil society and legal system – framed the struggle for independence from African colonisers, setting the stage for the “justice” dispensed in Rwanda. In the urban centre of (white) power in the African colonial state -split into both a modern urban power and as a traditional rural Native Authority – “civil power was the source of civil laws which guaranteed civil rights to citizens”. This arrangement perpetuated the racist organisation of “the power, the law and the bearers of rights”. The Native Authority defined in terms of ethnicity and “customary” law played the parallel role of civil law to the community rather than to civil society. In this way two identities – a racial one for citizens and an ethnic “particularism amongst victims” emerged from this legal and institutional framework. “Race was the identity that united beneficiaries, and ethnicity the identity that fragmented subjects.” (27)

But as Mamdani points out the two artificially constructed worlds in equatorial Africa– civil/ urban and ethnic/ rural – were undermined by the reality of the demands for urban migrant labour in the colonial political economy. This crossing of boundaries created urbanized subjects who were racially excluded from the rights of the civil society they were living in and helping to support. It was this “racial grievance that formed the social base of nationalism”. Rural definitions of ethnicity also became blurred as chiefs who comprised the Native Authority began developing an “insurgent peasant identity” that called for ” ‘genuine’ custom to replace that which had been officially crafted and enforced as custom”. Defined in this way justice was interpreted as “first and foremost, deracialization of urban society, civil society and the central state” and “denial of the stigma…that went by the name ‘tribe’”. The dependency theorists argued that the colonial political economy had been intentionally underdeveloped, leading to a global division of labour regulated by and subject to an imperialistic domination. Thus a true reformation of social justice for the post colonial states required an internal revision of the racially constructed colonial state as well as a transformation of positioning in the external global economy. The core of Mamdani’s argument is that “The failure to deracialize power [after independence] was a double failure. Epistemologically, it was a failure to historicize/ problematicize notions of race and tribe as identities reproduced by a form of power, and embedded in a set of institutions. Militant nationalism either accepted these identities and definitions as the hallmarks of a positive science, or it dismissed them as ideological constructs. Politically, it was a failure to produce a practice that would change the paradigm. When revolutionaries succeeded, they managed to turn the world upside down; but they failed to change that world. More than anything else, that failure was political.” (28)

To Mamdani, the epitome of this failure was illustrated by the “social revolution” of Rwanda in 1959 where the quest for justice turned into revenge. “Culturally, the differences between Hutu and Tutsi are like differences along a continuum. Politically, however, Hutu and Tutsi are as bipolar opposites, constructed by a form of the state in which if one has the identity of power, the other has the fate of being a subject. In colonial Rwanda, Tutsi was the identity of the Native Authority, Hutu of the subject peasantry. It is, I think, similar to the difference between the identities ‘Afrikaner’ and ‘coloured’ in apartheid South Africa. As cultural identities, they illustrate more differences along a continuum. But as political identities, they were bipolar opposites: ‘Afrikaner’ was an identity of power, while ‘coloured’ was a subject identity.” (29)

When the new “Hutu Power” emerged from the 1959 insurgence assisted by the Catholic Church and tacitly supported by the Belgian colonial power, the political tables were simply reversed and “Hutu” and “Tutsi” became politically enforced permanent identities, with one symbolising the wielding of and special access to power, and the other, the unquestionable subject of that power. This failure to recognise and to change the historic colonial construction of this political and social power and its resulting identities contributed most to turning justice into revenge – thus launching and perpetuating the cycle of conflict, then genocide between the two groups. The irony of this situation is that both shared a “victim consciousness” in different realms of power – the Hutus resisting “an ethnic dictatorship in the Native Authority” and the Tutsis fighting against a “racial dictatorship in civil authority”. Instead of attempting to collectively identify and reshape these externally imposed political constraints, they simply chose to trade places. The result was then a “programme of redress, heralded as revolutionary justice, [which] became permanent” and that further solidified their political separateness. “As revolutionaries vowed never to forget the past, they accented the past over the future, giving a longer leash to the identities which animated that past, and shorter shrift to forging a common identity and community of survivors of that past tragedy. …It is the failure to frame justice within notions of an inclusive political community that turned justice into a permanent preoccupation, a vendetta that increasingly spelt revenge.”(30) To Mamdani, the recent South African experience represents an opportunity to redefine the old vengeful winners/ losers relationship. With its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa, unlike Rwanda, is a society striving to reach an ideal political balance that Shriver describes as “a social existence that encompasses both a just love and a loving justice”.(31)

In Mamdani’s new paradigm of “rights” instead of “justice”, social reconciliation as opposed to political reconciliation may open the door to forgiveness and offer an escape from the self perpetuating cycle of revenge by encompassing a broader and different interpretation of justice as reconciliation that restores individual rights rather than simply punishing those perceived to be members of a group of perpetrators. “It includes ordinary members of society, those who benefited or got victimized as part of the logic, the outcome, of an ongoing system, regardless of agency; the embrace of social reconciliation includes the vast majority, in a word, beneficiaries and victims.” On the other hand the narrowness of political reconciliation confines its process to addressing the issues of “systemic group disadvantage”, and to the political elite – to activist victims on one side and the state perpetrators on the other – defined in terms of group identities. By widening the reconciliation framework as has been done in South Africa, the collective winner/loser syndrome is eliminated by redefining the interaction of perpetrators and victims as “gross abuses of human rights – murder, torture, rapes – but not on gross systemic outcomes such as pass laws and forced removals”. This approach is based on individual violations and treats these crimes as a minority of the population. This individualisation of blame has also been extended to targeting political figures, thus allowing guilt and evil to be defined in individual rather than in group terms, allowing the majority of citizens to transcend the past by forging a future out of new identities. By shifting the focus “from perpetrators to beneficiary, and from beneficiary to victims as the majority” the blame is individualised. Thus “perpetrators are personally and individually guilty, [but] beneficiaries may not be”. “…Many a white South African can honestly have benefited from the system and yet be totally surprised at the injustices perpetrated in the name of the system.” (32)

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed by an Act of Parliament in April 1994, approximately one year after the “relatively peaceful transition – described as “miraculous” by many – from oppression, exclusivity and resistance to a new, negotiated democratic order”. The initial timetable was for two years, from December 1995 until 1997, but was extended until 31 July 1998. When introducing the bill, the Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar called it a “pathway, a steeping stone… for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross human rights violations…and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge …[to] commence the journey towards a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.”(33)

It was composed of three committees: The Committee on Human Rights Violations – which was formed to collect stories of the victims on a voluntary basis; The Committee on Amnesty – assigned with hearing evidence on political crimes and allocating amnesty; and The Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation – which sought to help the victims through monetary payments or commemorative ceremonies. An Investigation Unit composed of “lawyers, members of the police force and international experts” was to follow up on the factual investigation of the stories of both victims and perpetrators. The concept behind its formation and leadership by President Nelson Mandela, was to gather the “truth” about all the politically motivated human rights violations – “murder, torture, disappearance/ abduction, severe ill-treatment” – that took place in South Africa between 1 March 1960 until 5 December 1993. Bishop Desmond Tutu was chosen to be chairman of the TRC.(34) Of these committees the one on amnesty, confronting the traditional concept of justice as punishment (“fairness”), has proven to be the most controversial and difficult for many to accept.

The vivid portrayal in the mass media of witnesses’ pain-filled accounts of death, torture and various forms of severe ill-treatment during the hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee, combined with court challenges by prominent victims (such as the Biko, Mxenge and Robeiro families) to the removal of their right to seek civil redress as a result of amnesty being granted, have highlighted difficult questions concerning the value of “truth”, amnesty, justice as punishment, and the role of forgiveness. These criticisms confirm the fact that the concept of justice in ordinary life and language functions mainly as a (passionate) protest against wrongdoing as well as a demand for rectification.(35)

There is yet another important set of criticisms deploring the TRC’s “lack of justice”. From the perspective of those who are accused, mostly former enforcers of Apartheid, there is a troubling contrast between the impartiality and the procedural protection of the justice system and a Commission allowing, for example, untested allegations to be made in public HRV hearings. In the words of retired police commissioner General Johan van der Merwe: “We have been quite disappointed, especially with the committee investigating gross violations of human rights. The principles of natural justice are not being adhered to. There is no way we will be able to say afterwards that justice has prevailed”.(36)

Apart from amnesty, which has been dispensed on a case by case basis, public articulation of the “truth” raises its own questions. Who is telling the “truth” and what do they have to gain by doing so? While it may be effective in promoting healing and in inspiring forgiveness in some circumstances, it has its own set of limitations. In a 1997 editorial in the British Medical Journal, Derek Summerfield asked the question “Does a truth commission promote reconciliation [in South Africa] ? …Does the truth purify?” He suggests that the truth is elusive and influenced by other events so that its revelation may be “inflammatory and divisive rather than reconciling”.(37) Michel Foucault questions the source of the “truth” -who is telling it and for what reason – by describing the battle to acquire it as about “the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays”. “‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it. A ‘regime’of truth.”(38) Michael Ignatieff feels that it is important to distinguish between factual truth and moral truth. One tells the chronology of what happened while the later is a narrative that attempts to explain who is responsible and why events took place. He points out that the version of truth depends on who is telling it. “What you believe to be true depends, in some measure, on who you believe yourself to be. And who you believe yourself to be is mostly defined in terms of who you are not.” In other words, if you are Serb, you are “first and foremost not to be a Croat or a Muslim”. If you are Catholic, then you are not Protestant –if Hutu, then not Tutsi – if white African, then not black African, and so on. He finds Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be admirable but finds the assumptions he makes – “that a nation has one psyche, not many; that the truth is one, not many; that the truth is certain, not contestable; and that when it is known by all, it has the capacity to heal and reconcile” – questionable.(39)

Brandon Hamber, clinical psychologist and co-ordinator of the Transition and Reconciliation Unit for the Centre of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa, reinforced this point in a paper he presented at a conference on Ethnic Studies in Northern Ireland. “[Hamber] concluded his remarks by cautioning the audience that it is a mistake to assume that story telling and giving testimony, either in public or private spaces, equates with healing. Truth alone will not lead to reconciliation nor will it guarantee that a human rights culture will permeate the society and that those who suffered in the past will be able to deal with their traumas.” He has cautioned that despite the success of TRC hearings, many of the victims have had varied reactions. Some have found it to be the final leg in a journey of personal healing, while for others it has been only the beginning step. “…Truth may heighten anger and calls for justice…[and] there is also the constant threat of a perpetuated cycle of revenge. …Thus, survivors and families of victims need to accept their anger as legitimate without feeling they are expected to forgive perpetrators.”(40)

The concept of confession implied by truth telling is also relevant to this discussion. Its religious overtones and relationships of power have much in common with secular apologies. Both seek an absolution from transgressions and past “sins” and are directed toward the one or many who have the power to forgive or absolve. Foucault described it as a “ritual of discourse …that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of …[an] authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile.”(41) Tavuchis also speaks of the victim’s power to redeem and reconcile after an apology. “This power also entails a profound moral obligation since the helpless offender, in consideration for nothing more than a speech, asks for nothing less than the conversion of righteous indignation and betrayal into unconditional forgiveness and reunion.”(42) The questions that remain are similar to those concerning “truth” – who is absolving and why?

The issues of truth, amnesty, and forgiveness have been addressed by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, member of the Human Rights Violations Committee, TRC. “Amnesty was never meant to diminish the trauma that families and individuals had to go through. In fact, some witnesses who have come to the Commission have expressed a preference for the truth, rather than a need for the punishment of perpetrators. I think that it would be more difficult for families of victims to accept the total and unconditional amnesty adopted in the Guatemalan model, where perpetrators from all sides are not supposed to be named. Human rights groups and families of victims in that country have criticised the terms of the amnesty as breeding ground for bitterness, and not reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hopes that one of the lessons from these confessions is the importance of individual choice. I think that individual conscience should be elevated above the service of the state, or other institutions of power, especially for those acts cloaked in legitimacy. This is why I cringe at the thought of political parties who discourage free speech, and instead push a “party line.” I believe this is another form of oppression that takes away decision making from the individual, and can also be seen as mocking the notion of “making a clean break with the past.”(43)

Cautioning against seeing the TRC as a quick fix to South Africa’s societal problems she continues: “…One can neither legislate nor proclaim reconciliation from above. “The significance of the notion of “breaking with the past” has been variously interpreted in the public arena. Some equate it with “forgive and forget.” In other words, simply turning the page, wiping everything from memory, and moving on. The danger with this conceptualisation of reconciliation is that it trivialises the process of forgiveness, and reduces pain into something that can be easily chucked away, in exchange for joyful unity with the one who caused the pain. Yet forgiveness is a journey and a challenge. Acknowledging and accepting a plea for forgiveness is a first step, and one that requires both parties to work at. Assuming anything more profound than a first step would be unrealistic, and tantamount to a form of false reconciliation.” In her view it is a long process best achieved through “interpersonal contacts that ultimately are the best way to break down stereotypes and antagonisms”, an echo of the Enright models of forgiveness. .”(44)

Are there other ways for a society recovering from conflict to begin taking the steps toward reconciliation – with or without a truth commission- that encompasses the possibility of forgiveness? Isak Dinesen’s quote; “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” may offer some insight. (45) Perhaps a collective and individual reconstruction of social memory and “history” holds the key. Social memory as illustrated by author Paul Connerton, is defined as a group beginning anew through enactment of collective social, political or historic recreation, often in the form of “commemorative ceremonies” or “bodily practices”. David Turton also describes a collective “mythico-historical narrative” or a creation of a group homeland mythology as a way of coping with the past, present and future. Another view – essentially “pragmatic” and represented in the work of Derek Summerfield for example – emphasises the value of remembering but not dwelling on the past, preferring to focus on the present and future instead. A type of religion based behaviour described by Naila Nauphal promotes forgiveness as a form of personal and collective action. An alternative perspective is the psycho-analytical, Western diagnostic and therapeutic style of individual talk-therapy which centres on the recall and reworking of traumatic events and finds the possibility of forgiveness in an individual’s full acknowledgement of what has happened to him or her. A multi dimensional approach to forgiveness education has potential to broaden this concept and has just begun to be explored.

Social memory can enact a public willingness to begin again in several different ways. Connerton describes this collective will in the social and political arenas by pointing out the French “commemorative” ceremonial approach to the trial and execution of Louis XVI following the Revolution. “By putting Louis, as the embodiment of kingship, to death in such a way that official public abhorrence of the institution of kingship was actually expressed and witnessed”, the monarchy was finished forever in France. “Bodily practices” were demonstrated in the dramatic changes in styles of dress that took place within French society almost simultaneously after his beheading. Connerton states that this form of bodily practice emphasising a newly classless society took place from 1791 to 1794, when clothing became a type of standard uniform. But, as he goes on to say, despite appearances nothing is truly new.

“All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of complete arbitrariness in the very nature of any such attempted beginning. The beginning has nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as if it came out of nowhere. For a moment, the moment of beginning, it is as if the beginners had abolished the sequence of temporality itself and were thrown out of the continuity of temporal order. …But the absolutely new is inconceivable. It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start…More fundamentally, it is that in all modes of experience we always base our particular experiences on a prior context in order to ensure that they are intelligible at all; that prior to any single experience, our mind is already predisposed with a framework of outlines, of typical shapes of experienced objects. To perceive an object or act upon it is to locate it within this system of expectations. (46)

The recreation of historic narrative as social memory is another forum in which the process of political forgiveness could be enacted on both a group and individual level. In this context the past is not forgotten, but simply relegated to an event that may or may not be relevant to the present and future. David Turton’s paper on “Forced Migrants as Makers of History” discusses how two groups, the displaced Hutu camp refugees fleeing genocide and civil war in Burundi and the Mursi, who were forced to move because of drought and famine in Ethiopia, recreated their own histories “. The Hutus, who were camp refugees fleeing from conflict, were constantly preoccupied by “an impassioned construction and reconstruction of their history as a ‘people’”, seeing themselves as an exiled nation with an eventual return to a “homeland” which was more an imagined concept than an exact physical location. Interestingly, the Hutu “town refugees” who were integrated into a non-refugee population in Kigoma Township on Lake Tanganyka, and who did not have the issues of enforced isolation and outside administration as did the camp refugees, did not seem to feel the same need to recreate their history. Alternatively, the Mursi, forced to move because of climate and land problems, developed a history of a migrating people searching “for a cool place” where greener pastures and fertile fields are in abundance. Both historic recreations are seen to be a way of reaffirming each group’s identity by overcoming the negativity of their past while positively preserving their present and future image.(47)

Another group of survivors, described by Derek Summerfield, emerged from the World War II and Holocaust death camps without becoming psychologically ill. “Both veterans and those emerging from concentration camps in 1945 mostly sought to rebuild their social and work lives and to put the war behind them. Most did not seek, nor were offered psychological help as post-war society in Europe and America did not see them as carrying a permanent psychological wound. … Psychological trauma is not like physical trauma; people do not passively register the impact of external forces (unlike, say, a leg hit by a bullet), but engage with them in an active and social way. All over the world, huge numbers of ordinary, unremarkable people demonstrate a capacity to endure, adapt, and transcend that scarcely suggests psychiatric casehood.” It is important to remember, however, that others did suffer a “survivor syndrome” with symptoms very similar to those described by Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. (48) The Save the Children Fund and Celia Petty have developed a set of practical steps that they see as helpful in encouraging children in particular to recover from trauma.

Each culture has its own ritual for acknowledging forgiveness. Lebanon, a country torn apart by fifteen years of civil war in the 1970s and 80s, can be seen as an example of the overlapping of religious, political, and cultural processes on the road to reconciliation. The concept of an apology rooted in shame and embarrassment has played a major role in this process. Those who have committed acts of violence are encouraged to confess and seek forgiveness by entering the house of the slain person, asking for protection of the house, formally admitting to having committed the killing, and requesting the host’s mercy. If the apology is accepted, the offender’s head will be shaved and he will be dressed in new clothing to signify his rebirth. This ritual carries great weight in a country where “public opinion is the worst tribunal”. As Naila Nauphal points out, “This does not mean that hostility and violence have suddenly disappeared. Only they have been transferred into/and neutralised by the highly institutionalised rituals of hospitality. …the conflict has been replaced by a reciprocal code of honour.” (49)

Social memory is the link between all these forms of analysis. Social theorist Maurice Halbwachs has argued that individual memory is shaped by membership to a social group and strengthened by religious, class, and family ties. It differs from academic historical reconstruction in that it may or may not accurately reflect the facts or the chronology of an event. Halbwachs states that “society tends to eliminate from its memory everything which could separate individuals” and at certain moments “society is obliged to become attached to new values, that is to say to depend upon other traditions which are in better relation with its needs and present tendencies”. (50) It would appear that by issuing a public apology, dispensing monetary restitution, and/or articulating the language of forgiveness in this climate of ritual and pragmatic re-invention, a symbolic and pragmatic purpose would be served in promoting healing and the process of forgiveness.

Western Psycho-Analysis has an individually focused approach to recovering from trauma, as embodied by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the development of which focused primarily on American male Vietnam War Veterans. This approach has been strongly challenged as of doubtful usefulness among Western and more especially non-Western populations.(51) However, if carefully chosen aspects for its utilization are sensitive to the population’s needs, it may have possibilities as a building block. Assisting groups to set up centres for short term diagnosis and treatment, accompanied by long term development of centres for mental health has been proposed, but the criteria of such help must be acceptable to the recipients. Training and supporting local fieldworkers, perhaps drawing from the pool of teachers has been suggested. “Listening, seeking a solution within the family or community rather than trying to explore feelings or traumatic experiences in depth; support[ing] children [and adults] in building up their defences rather than exploring them; us[ing] traditional ceremonies to purify; engag[ing] traditional diviners and healers” are all ways to culturally sensitise this form of healing. Forgiveness and its process would be possible in such a setting, as it could set the tone for a positive reconstruction of social, political, and economic structures. (52)

This same culturally sensitive approach could be extended to formal forgiveness education. Using a limited version of the basic eighteen step process model developed by Enright and his colleagues on groups of “parentally love-deprived late adolescents” in the US, Radhi Al-Mabuk concluded that “a curriculum focused on a commitment to forgive” increased hope, optimism, and a willingness to forgive. The actual enactment of forgiveness seemed to occur more often when the curriculum included the entire eighteen steps of the Enright model. Their conclusion states that; “We believe that the positive psychological outcomes here may be a function of the process of forgiveness rather than only one’s initial commitment to forgive. The results of this study imply that those hurt by another need to go beyond saying they will forgive. They need to courageously explore and understand their injurer’s humanity. This is the precursor to the empathy and compassion that may be the keys to psychological healing..[and] may allow the person to absorb the pain, which consequently may transform the person from a victim mindset to a survivor mindset.” (53)

It also must be recognised that in some circumstances forgiveness may not be possible. “There are monsters who do such evils as ordinary people dare not dream of. They may be towering titans who trample whole populations. They may be crawling worms who seduce little children into prostitution. Whether giants or punks, they hurt people so badly that they may disqualify themselves forever from forgiveness by a fellow human being”.(54) In cases such as these, the best course of action may be to participate in reconciliation to the best of one’s individual and collective ability as observed by Gobo-Madikizela and Summerfield.

Of all these alternatives, it may be Mamdani’s concept of reconciliation -as a mix of beneficiaries and victims as a minority of society, defined in strictly individual terms- that may be most supportive for the possibility of developing interpersonal and intergroup forgiveness. In proposing his new paradigm of reconciliation as justice, he recognises the struggle to balance the acceptance of past wrongs against the unpunished enactment of past evil. “There is no Chinese Wall between good and evil; the two are interred in the same bones. The dilemma is how to live with evil: Love Thy Enemy. In secular terms the dilemma is how to live in a pre-revolutionary, nay, non-revolutionary, world. …Is the point of identifying evil to embrace it, or to struggle against it? Before you can love thy enemy, must you not recognize the enemy? …In avoiding a quest of justice that turns into revenge, by treating evil exclusively as the Other and ignoring the potential for evil in Self, should we not also beware of a pursuit of reconciliation that turns into an embrace of evil?” (55)

He points out two lessons learned to prevent reconciliation from embracing injustice and evil, have focused on the quest of a new type of political and social justice. The first lesson is that a distinction between political and social reconciliation may allow a population to “chart a process which makes manageable the tension between reconciliation and justice”, by approaching reconciliation in degrees, moving from the political leadership to the population, from perpetrators and victims as a minority to beneficiaries and victims as the majority”. The second is that the quest for justice does not have to be self-righteous and can be framed instead as an historic response to injustice. “The challenge is to bound that quest within a larger objective, the quest for a re-defined political community in which the identities victim and perpetrator, victim and beneficiary, can be transcended as those of survivors of an era gone by.” (56)

In his paper, “Breaking the Cycle of Violence”, psychologist Malvern Lumsden endorses that broader view. “The construction of a peaceful world society requires that individuals, groups and nations can negotiate shared meanings, including coherent but compatible identities and patterns of social relationship. …It is in the transitional zone between society and individuals that shared meanings can be (informally) constructed and negotiated, and it is shared meanings that form the core of group identity and culture, as well as peaceful interpersonal and intergroup relations.” (57)

It is important to realize that a formal understanding of the process of forgiveness in reconstructing a post conflict society is in its infancy. As Nicholas Tavuchis stated: “Although I have referred frequently to forgiveness as a crucial element in the apologetic equation, this mysterious and unpredictable faculty has not been adequately addressed or formulated. If, as I have argued, sorrow is the energizing force of apology, then what moves the offended party to forgive? In historical and cross-cultural terms, what is deemed forgivable and unforgivable?” (58) And if forgiveness can be achieved, what is its role in rebuilding social, political, and economic structures?

In the end, it may be wise to remember that no matter how much a group promotes or supports a climate for reconciliation and healing, it is the capacity for forgiveness that lies within each individual that arguably influences the long term success of these efforts. We can not only recreate communities but ourselves by using the same techniques of history, memory, narrative, and psychological interventions previously described. If each of us can find within the capacity for enacting that magical internal moment of letting wrongs go, no matter how horrendous the grievance, of trying to forgive in order to step painfully toward a more positive future, then perhaps we can say that there’s hope for the human race. Until this point, the wronged individual risks suffering a three fold oppression: first, by the wrong itself; second, by the hatred (of others, of self) that may consume him or her; and thirdly, (reentering a political dimension) by the continuing social conflict that a lack of forgiveness helps to keep alive.



  • Shriver, Donald W. Jr., An Ethic For Enemies; Forgiveness In Politics, (Oxford University Press, 1995) p.58
  • Enright, Robert D.; Gassin, Elizabeth A. ; Wu, Ching-Ru: Forgiveness: A Developmental View”🙁Journal Of Moral Education, Vol. 21: No. 2 , 1992) p.100
  • Bowker , John, Problems Of Suffering In Religions Of The World: (Cambridge University Press, 1970) p. 46-7:101: 254-7
  • Goleman, Daniel, Healing Emotions: Conversations With The Dalai Lama On Mindfulness, Emotions, And Health (Shambhala Publications, 1997) p.170
  • Shriver: An Ethic For Enemies (1995) p.9:X
  • Enright et al: “Forgiveness: A Developmental View” (1992) p.107
  • Ibid, p.108
  • l-Mabuk, Radhi H.; Enright, Robert D.; Cardis, Paul A.: “Forgiveness Education With Parentally Love-Deprived Late Adolescents” (Journal Of Moral Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1995) p. 440-2
  • Arendt, Hannah ,The Human Condition (The University of Chicago Press, 1958) p.240-1
  • Tavuchis, Nicholas, Mea Culpa, A Sociology Of Apology And Reconciliation: (Stanford University Press, 1991) p.65
  • Simmel as quoted in Tavuchis (1991) p.36
  • Allen, Tim, The Violence Of Healing (unpublished paper, 1997)
  • Naithaui, Sadhana PhD; Lecturer: Jawaharlal Nehru University: Folklorist: New Delhi, India; in conversation 1998 July: London.
  • Enright et al: “Forgiveness: A Developmental View (1992) p.104-6
  • Ibid
  • Ibid, p. 103-4
  • Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: (1991) p.27: 4
  • Scheff, Thomas J., Bloody Revenge, Emotions, Nationalism, And War (Westview Press, 1994) p.136
  • Ibid, p.131-6
  • Mccullough, Michael; Worthington, Everett L. Jr, Rachal, Kenneth C.: “Interpersonal Forgiving In Close Relationships” ( Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, Vol. 73, No. 2, 1997) p.328-9
  • Shriver: An Ethic For Enemies (1995) p.32
  • Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (Cambridge University Press, 1989) p.7
  • Rawls, John, A Theory Of Justice (Oxford University Press, 1972) p.13-15 Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993) p.5-6
  • Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993) p.10-12:14 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, And Utopia: (Basic Books Inc: Basil Blackwell Ltd,1974) p.184-5
  • Mamdani, Mahmood: “From Justice To Reconciliation: Making Sense Of The African Experience”: (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Crises And Reconstruction- African Perspectives: Discussion Paper 8, 1997) p.17
  • Ibid, p.17-8
  • Ibid, p.18
  • Mamdani, Mahmood: “Reconciliation Without Justice” ( 26/03/98: 17:27: Issue 46, November/December 1996) p.5
  • Mamdani, Mahmood: “From Justice To Reconciliation (1997) p.19-20
  • Shriver: An Ethic For Enemies (1995) p.30-1
  • Mamdani, Mahmood: “From Justice To Reconciliation (1997) p.20-24
  • Verwoerd, Wilhelm: Justice After Apartheid? Reflections On The South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission (Centre For The Study Of Violence And Reconciliation Commission- S. Africa, –: 26/03/1998) (Paper Delivered At The Fifth International Conference On Ethics And Development, “Globalization, Self-Determination And Justice In Development”, Madras, India, 2-9 January 1997)
  • Centre For The Study Of Violence And Reconciliation; The Storyteller Group:“Truth And Reconciliation”; An Introduction To The Truth And Reconciliation Commission“: 1995? This was an instructional leaflet written in a comic book style to explain the intended function of the TRC.
  • Verwoerd, Wilhelm: Justice After Apartheid? (1998)
  • As quoted in the Sunday Weekend Argus, June 29/30 1996, Verwoerd, Wilhelm, Justice After Apartheid? (1998)
  • Summerfield, Derek: “South Africa: Does A Truth Commission Promote
  • Social Reconciliation?” (British Medical Journal (BMJ): Vol 315, Editorials, 29 November 1997) p.1393
  • Rabinow, Paul Ed, The Foucault Reader (Penguin Books, 1984) p.74-5
  • Ignatieff, Michael: “Articles Of Faith” (Index: Censorship Issue, http://www.Oneworld.Org/Index_Oc/Issue596/Ignatieff.html, May 1996 ) p.1-5
  • Wigfall-Williams, Wanda: “The Burdens Of Truth: An Evaluation Of The Psychological Support Services And Initiatives Undertaken By The South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission”: (Centre For The Study Of Violence And Reconciliation Commission- S. Africa,, 26/03/98 ) (1997 August: Extract from Third International ESN Conference Report In The Ethnic Studies Bulletin, Number 13) p.1-2
  • Foucault, Michel: The History Of Sexuality, Vol 1: (Penguin Books Ltd, p.61-2
  • Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: (1991) p.35
  • Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla, “On Reconciliation And Reflecting On The Truth Commission” (TRC home page:, December 1996) Member, Human Rights Violations Committee,TRC
  • ibid
  • Arendt, Hannah ,The Human Condition (1958) p.175
  • Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (1989) p.8;10;6
  • Turton, David, Forced Migrants As Makers Of History (An Unpublished Paper Written For The Commonwealth History Seminary, Nov. 1997; Delivered As A Lecture At LSE, March, 1998 ) Director, Refugee Studies Program; Queen Elizabeth House; University of Oxford
  • Summerfield, Derek: “The Psychological Legacy Of War And Atrocity: The Question Of Long-Term And Transgenerational Effects And The Need For A Broad View” (The Journal Of Nervous And Mental Disease Vol 184, No. 1, p.375-6
  • Nauphal, Naila, Healing The Wounds Of War, Civil Reconciliation In Post-War Lebanon (Refugee Studies Program, Oxford University, 1995 January) p.4:8: 10-12:16-17
  • Halbwachs as quoted in Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (1989) p.36:13
  • Young, Allan, The Harmony Of Illusions, Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton University Press, 1995) p.3:266-7


Parker, Melissa: “Social Devastation And Mental Health In Northwest Africa” (Allen, T. Ed: In Search Of Cool Ground: Displacement And Homecoming In Northeast Africa,London: James Currey, 1996)


  • Wolters, W.H.G., Traumas Of Children And Youth In Armed Conflict, (Introduction IDF Conference 20, 20 November 1995: Unpublished, Save The Children Library, London) p.5
  • Al-Mabuk, Radhi H.; Enright, Robert D.; Cardis, Paul A.: “Forgiveness Education With Parentally Love-Deprived Late Adolescents”, (Journal Of Moral Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1995) p. 440-2
  • Smedes, Louis B., Forgive & Forget; Healing The Hurts We Don’t Deserve: Harper San Francisco, 1996) p.78
  • Mamdani, Mahmood: “From Justice To Reconciliation: Making Sense Of The African Experience”: (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Crises And Reconstruction- African Perspectives: Discussion Paper 8, 1997) p.24-5
  • Ibid
  • Lumsden, Malver: “Breaking The Cycle Of Violence” (Journal Of Peace Research: International Peace Research Institute; Oslo, c.1997)
  • Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: (1991) p.122


Graeme R. Goldsworthy and Dr Frank Faulkner


This paper will examine the efficacy of the Ottawa treaty as an instrument of arms control. The rationale for this rests with a belief that whilst Ottawa was a nobly principled exercise, there appears to be little meeting point between theoretical postulation and practical outcomes. The text intends to illustrate the nature of this dilemma by looking at Angola as a case in point, noting that the country as one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, is a signatory State Party to the Convention, and yet has abrogated both the spirit and the letter of the treaty by embarking on a new round of mine laying. It is put forward that disregard for legal strictures freely entered into by signatories renders the philosophy and applications of Ottawa unsafe, and thereby endangers the lives and well-being of those peoples the treaty was originally designed to protect. Moreover, failure of this landmark international event bodes ill for other nascent forms of arms control, including proscription of the trade in small arms.


Silent enim leges inter arma … [1]

In the declining days of 1997, a seemingly momentous event took place in Ottawa, Canada, that presided over the elimination of an entire class of weapon system from the majority of the world’s military inventories. The purpose of this gathering was to invite States Parties to sign away their sovereign right to produce, stockpile, sell, or transfer antipersonnel mines (APMs) and to destroy existing stocks within a reasonable time frame. Some weeks earlier, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and its global co-ordinator, Jody Williams of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) had been jointly awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their efforts to this end. Williams, in her Nobel Lecture, hailed civil society as the ‘world’s new Superpower’ 2] in presumed acknowledgement of the apparent triumph of ‘bottom up’ politics and by implication she offered a resounding debunking of the so-called ‘timeless wisdom’ of Realism. Whilst Ottawa remains far from being the universal panacea that some of the ICBL’s many advocates may have worked for, there is no doubting that at least in the public perception, it preserved the belief that a step had been taken in the right direction. In short, that something had been done. This belief was rewarded by the treaty’s legal Entry into Force six months after Burkina Faso became the 40th state to ratify the treaty in September 1998. Unfortunately it gave the wrong impression, that at the stroke of a pen; the world’s landmine problem had been effectively dealt with.

Like a snowball impelled by the logic of gravity, the Ottawa juggernaut gathered pace and grew out of all proportion to the original vision in the early 1990s, to the point that it was being seen as a benchmark instrument for the eventual banning of other types of weapon systems, and was accordingly afforded serious consideration. The assumption here would be that a ‘new’ polity was emerging from grass-roots activism, ready and eminently able to take on the state-level Goliath that had presided more or less unchallenged in the arena of arms control. The message was clear and unambiguous: ignore the vox populi at your peril; we have set the agenda, and we won’t go away.

Underpinning this argument was a dissatisfaction with traditional ‘top down’ thinking, a mindset straitjacketed by preoccupations with security, power, influence and apparent obsession with ‘big picture’ politics that offered little in the way of concession to ordinary peoples’ image saturated by an almost Stalinist style media campaign, which stifled all debate, and thus were duly horrified by the ICBL sponsored imagery of the gratuitous and random nature of mine warfare. In moral terms, the victory of ‘people power’ over narrow power-security dichotomies presented the chance for a new dawn for decency, common sense and simple humanity. However, as cynics would point out, this crusade to address and rectify perceived imbalances in the people-state relationship was at best illusory, and at worst dangerous; that when military necessity, national security and political expediency are factored into the equation, human rights and the popular will are punching above their weight – and losing.

Credence is given to this argument when one considers the ‘outsiders’, or those states not party to Ottawa now, or in the foreseeable future. In arms manufacturing terms, and as far as APMs are concerned, many of the major players have shown a marked reluctance to embrace Ottawa’s requirements in any form. Key regional powers, with a high degree of state militarisation are not signatories to the Ottawa treaty. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and others also remain effectively outside the process, with little or no sign of policy reversal. The United States, another non-signatory, cites key strategic interests for remaining outside, but has agreed to review its position by 2006, if alternative weapon systems can be developed to replace landmines in their military arsenal. On this point, however, one must bear in mind the unilateralist mindset currently abroad in Washington; accordingly, 2006 represents a ‘work in progress’ project that may or may not bear fruit. These states invariably cite the ‘national interest’, ‘national security’ and other compelling reasons for not joining the treaty, whether or not observers see these sentiments as valid. In other words, internal political matters are not for debate and that is all there is to it. Naturally, that is not all there is to it, but the problem here is to accept the fact that states cannot be compelled to sign, especially those powerful enough to resist overtures to fall into line. It was at the time of the Ottawa signing ceremony, and remains to this day, evidence that the moral argument alone is seemingly impotent in the face of national security concerns.

Many of the non-signatory states also cite the existence of the CCW treaty 1980, which already regulates the use and removal of landmines. It is argued by them that Ottawa is not necessary because a workable international legal instrument is already in place and strengthening the convention was all that remains necessary. Those responsible for the reckless deployment of landmines that constitute 95% of the problem of uncleared mines in the world today, could have been indicted under existing law rather than obfuscate the issue of mine clearance and regulation of mine warfare by the ‘emotionally’ based Ottawa process, which advocates of the CCW and the non-signatories argue is effectively a worthless document.

Having a treaty to ban APMs, whether the key land powers are on board or not, rather than not having one at all, is always going to win arguments between those who debate the merits of arms control regimes. As matters stand, the logic of this position should be transparent. Ottawa is not perfect, but the ICBL argue that at least this represents a step in the right direction. This line of reasoning appears to be perfectly rational in the light of its achievement, not least due to the successful grafting of state-level functionaries into the process, including then Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, (ironically) US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, and a host of other members at the system-level decision-making process.

The inclusion of significant decision-makers notwithstanding, the philosophy and moral force of Ottawa is in danger of implosion at some point in the future. The problems, some more obvious that others, are primarily structural in origin. As we have seen, state-level non-signatories leave a gaping hole in the matter of universal, single-issue arms control by distancing themselves from the process. How this affects the long-term legitimacy of Ottawa is still to be seen, but the impediments to greater progress and transparency are also located elsewhere, and which are more tightly bound to the treaty and the effects are immediate and devastating.

Post-Ottawa euphoria gave the impression of creating a new paradigm in the international community, one that offered a significant and sustainable challenge to the established order and traditional policy implementation agendas. The work of grass-roots activism, the ‘Diana Factor’ and sheer determinism of the ICBL suggested some kind of equilibrium in global political discourse. What was then vital, namely creating a legal document banning APMs, took priority over an issue of greater moment long-term, that is and which remains clearing the redundant minefields already in existence. Humanitarian mine clearance operations at NGO level were operating in conflict and post-conflict zones long before the Ottawa bandwagon began rolling and some would argue it has rolled right over the actual mine clearance issue itself, upending priorities and even diverting much needed funding from clearance operations to campaigning and other displacement activities. As some critics have already stated, what is the use of a document that many ignore and that cannot protect the innocent from the existing threat? [3] Over five years on from the treaty signing ceremony, as contemporary news footage informs us, mined fields (whether real or suspected) still lie fallow and lethal; populations still suffer food shortages as a result; innocent people still lose limbs and lives to landmines; and more mines are still being sown in various conflicts around the world, [4] many thousands during the most recent conflict in Iraq with neither the US or Iraq being signatories to Ottawa.

Landmines continue to be deployed and not only by non-signatories to the Ottawa Process. Of some concern to the ICBL and its supporters, including with reference to Ottawa Signatory states and within certain other aspects of the international community, is the use of so-called ‘hybrid’ or quasi-landmine ordnance. 5] From a legal perspective, this is a cause of disquiet, as the language of weapon definition is a cause for concern. For those who suffer the effects directly, it is an ongoing tragedy. It will be near impossible to control weapons use and proliferation through the international legal regulation of warfare if the language is not precise. For example, the use of ‘area denial’ weapons, or ‘area impact munitions’ notably in Kosovo and now Iraq is creating a huge minefield in all but name, in that the weapons deployed, whilst exhibiting certain characteristics of mines, are not designated or directly intended for use as such. There is however, a key difference between these munitions. Area impact munitions differ form landmines because they are designed to expend their energy at the target, in other words it explodes on impact. In contrast, landmines are victim-operated traps designed to lie inert in the ground until some one stands on one or pulls the trip wire. The problem many observers of the global mines issue and in political circles feel is that the ICBL and its cohorts are losing direction over the clouding of different weapons systems, in that they are simply the vanguard of a wider disarmament agenda and are therefore, like the wider peace movement, simply unable to accept lesser evils. The landmine, as already stated, is a victim operated trap, not unlike a burglar alarm or a shop doorbell and thus is not simply a weapon but a concept in warfare and it is impossible to ban a concept. But what is clear is that the humanitarian tragedy continues and as time unfolds, the victim statistics are steadily growing to include the latest casualties of all these uncleared devices. Moreover, in poor regions of the world, exposure to unexploded ordnance creates problems out of all proportion to the perceived and actual utility of the weapon systems in several ways.

It has been oft stated elsewhere about the multi-dimensional nature of mine warfare, not least the economic and social devastation that often follows extensive use of these weapons. Mines prevent development projects from progressing, inhibit infrastructural cohesion and create havoc within a country’s healthcare apparatus. Moreover, given the ‘area denial’ properties of certain weapon systems, agricultural paralysis results from a lack of clearance implementation designed to remove these devices from workable fields. Thus, and the triumphs of Ottawa notwithstanding, the emphasis must now return to mine clearance as an absolute priority, if only based on the rationale that a treaty banning mines is of little use to an Angolan or Cambodian farmer unable to grow food due to chronic and uncleared APM infestation. What will solve the actual problems of uncleared mines impacting against such communities is simply to clear the mines. That is the real humanitarian imperative.

The matters discussed above, whilst being of significant moment, are nonetheless peripheral to the argument to be discussed in this paper. The point of conducting durable arms control (or eradication) regimes is to achieve the aims set out in the treaty or legal document; in other words, the issue of enforcement or compliance is the qualifying factor that judges the success or failure of any such binding international legal instrument. Taken in tandem with measures to ensure verification, the issue of compliance appears to have hit a brick wall with regard to certain signatories. Logically, if one signatory can get away with it, then this clearly sends the wrong signal to others in the event of a deterioration of the security situation, one in which the temptation or perceived necessity to use APMs may be too great to resist. Quite where this may leave the Ottawa Convention in future is open to conjecture, but it nonetheless offers negative prospects for future arms control mechanisms, unless more intellectual and operational vigour is applied to such processes. Existing instruments need to be reviewed and enforced in such a manner, without the decoration of unobjective and emotional media saturation coupled with celebrity endorsement.

Out of Africa – a cautionary tale

As a case in point, we will now examine the current problems with uncleared landmines in Angola, a country that has a chronic and devastating acquaintance with these weapons. The prevailing climate regarding landmines in Angola, as a backdrop to the country’s active participation in Ottawa and subsequent Signatory status, was by any criteria critically severe. 6] With one of the highest ratios of APM-disabled to able-bodied populations on earth, this troubled former Portuguese colony has suffered more than most. Actual numbers of landmines, on a global basis, have been difficult to compute and are notoriously inaccurate. Indeed the over inflation of landmine statistics which were a key foundation stone of the ban campaign, has been a severe blow to the credibility of the ICBL since Ottawa. 7] The oft-cited figure for Angola is put at between ten and fifteen million devices scattered across the country, although, in the absence of a complete level-one survey, the final figure may be well under six million. 8] In any event, what remains indisputable is the severe scale of mine-related amputees in the country, variously put at between 70,000 and 90,000, dependent upon whose totals one refers to. 9]

Statistics will, of course, remain subject to interpretation in whatever field they may be presented; what matters, in the final analysis, remains the problems faced by ordinary people who have to exist alongside patently lethal inventions that threaten livelihoods on a daily basis. For Angolans, this means having to address renewed hostilities and a new round of mine laying despite the government’s ‘commitment’ to eradicating, and future non-involvement with, the scourge of APMs. One might have been forgiven for thinking that the Angolan government’s desire for a mine-free country was self-evident, given the enthusiastic endorsement of the ICBL and its declared aims. However, almost before the ink had dried on the Ottawa document, the security situation deteriorated to the point that hostilities again resurfaced, accompanied by yet more mines being laid. Interviewed by journalists in 1998 as to why the government forces had laid landmines in breach of the Ottawa treaty, the Angolan foreign minister bemusedly replied, “Why, because we are at war of course!” Renewal of hostilities may be seen to have been inevitable, given the climate of mutual mistrust between the governing party MPLA and the ‘rebel’ UNITA forces dating back to the Cold War era. Attempts at rapprochement have met with mixed success, although the leaders of both factions actually talked by telephone in December 1997 after several months of being mutually incommunicado.

From a tentatively promising beginning, the two main factions embarked on a process that was designed to bring about national reconciliation, power sharing and some semblance of normality within the country. On February 28, 1998, the full restoration of the state, a government of national unity, and the complete demobilisation of UNITA were expected to be in place. However, irregularities in timetabling events and other obstacles conspired to delay national solidarity, not the least being apparent mischief by UNITA supporters and activists in pursuit of other agendas. 10] The causes for missing a golden opportunity to end decades of war are many; delay in meeting deadlines, excuses, and general obfuscation. It seems that much of the problem lay with UNITA’s reluctance to surrender key strategic positions, (notably in the economically-critical diamond fields of the north-west) and this despite the presence of UN peacekeepers of the UNAVEM mission. 11] That particular peacemaking initiative came about through the auspices of the Lusaka Protocol, a document designed to broker a cease-fire between UNITA and government forces. However, given that neither leader deigned to actually sign the Protocol and thereby denying authentic legitimacy, the objective appeared to have been doomed from the start. 12] The culmination of these, and other divisive events translate into a further descent into a classic model for intrastate violence and the concomitant problems of bloodshed, random atrocity, population haemorrhage and extensive use of mine warfare.

The travails of Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, in much more extensive and analytical form than this article can cater for, have been well documented elsewhere, but for the aims of this paper, the current unrest is now less ideological than economic. The country boasts extensive valuable and strategic deposits of diamonds, oil, bauxite, and uranium, 13] control of which underwrites the level of power and security wielded by the possessor. This scenario has received much in the way of exposure in recent months, but has tended to concentrate on Sierra Leone as a ‘fashionable’ case study, documenting the problems of child soldiers, massive population displacement, atrocities, war diamonds, and internecine strife. The struggles of Sierra Leone and Angola have certain parallel aspects in relation to their internal situations, apart from the fact that Angola’s are more chronic and recurring, and that the latter does suffered from the effects of wide-scale landmine infestation.

The deterioration of Angola’s security situation reflects the type of warfare that lends itself well to the use of APMs; frequent hit-and-run operations, a perceived need to hold territory that has obvious economic, political and strategic value, and the weapon’s inherent properties of intimidation, psychological distress, low cost and easy obtainability. Situations where perceived military necessity prevail, as epitomised by Angola in recent years, become fertile ground for the renewed use of mines, primarily for both defensive and offensive configurations that minefields are aimed to provide. 14] This is a direct violation of Ottawa’s requirements by signatory states, and calls into question Angola’s commitment to the treaty as well as the viability of the treaty itself.

The obverse side of the dilemma confronting the Angolan government, or any other state-level authority for that matter, concerns the need to balance a secure environment with humanitarian principles on a concurrent basis. For example, this would be a relatively straightforward matter in Western Europe where a stable security climate allows the theory of a landmine ban to merge unhindered. It is naive to expect the same regime to flourish according to the vision set out by the ICBL and its adherents in a country that has to look to the most cost effective military option for security solutions. In the ebb and flow of military confrontation, especially when strategically vital areas may change hands several times, the use of APMs provides the belligerent parties with the means to interrupt offensive operations, in addition to meeting immediate security needs. Angola, as a country that typifies a state bereft of an overarching and hermetically secure regime, has to fall back on whatever means are available for the full range of its operational requirements.

Where this leaves Angola’s future security needs is open to question, given the chronic instability and concomitant anarchy that bedevils the country. The death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi presupposed that with his demise and the ongoing overtures to end hostilities that the business of national regeneration would have proceeded unhindered. However, until a system of mutual confidence and transparency is yet fully installed and some form of real and cohesive national unity becomes apparent, it will be difficult to prescribe a durable and democratic outcome. Removing landmines, and returning to the requirements of the Ottawa treaty or other relevant international legal instruments, will be problematic until the underlying rationale for laying these weapons in the first place is removed, because clearance of redundant minefields remains key to post conflict redevelopment, personal security and the removal of the reminders of the conflict and thus vital to provide a stable platform a lasting peace and confidence building process to emerge and to hold firm. Of course, this scenario does not confine itself to Angola alone; there are several other theatres of conflict across the globe that would undoubtedly benefit from reduced tension and arguably, even a level of ‘mine free’ open warfare which would at least bring swifter resolutions of the military issue.

Overall, the position that Angola has adopted vis-à-vis the Ottawa Declaration and treaty does not bode well for the future of this particular instrument of arms control, as a single-agenda concord on landmines attempting to bench press up to a wider spectrum of weapons proscription. Assuming that Ottawa would be the benchmark that would act as a direction finder for this type of initiative, one might ask where the impetus would come from, if at all. It had been mooted that the next item on the agenda would be a move toward curtailment of the traffic in small arms, seeing as these weapons have been prominent during various low-intensity conflicts and larger conflagrations over several continents, as will now be discussed.

Guns don’t kill people – people kill people

The contentious slogan adopted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US emphasised that the act of discrimination remains a human property, unlike landmines, which are variously described as indiscriminate, remote, and so on. This aspect of the ICBL’s clarion call for total abolition of APMs – no exceptions, no excuses – struck a chord with ordinary people due to the image presented as the insensate nature of these weapons. Therefore, the then vaunted ‘success’ of the Ottawa Declaration offered a signpost for other incremental proscriptions within the orbit of arms control matters.

However, measures to constrain the trade in and use of small arms has more fundamental, and probably difficult obstacles to surmount. As the authors have written elsewhere, 15] small arms, notably the ubiquitous Kalashnikov, including those carried and used by young children, have visited appalling damage in the developing world, where 90% of casualties in recent conflicts have been civilians, and in which 80-90% of victims were killed by small arms. 16] The principal difference between small arms and landmines, as the subtitle offers clues to, refers to the perception of these weapons in the public consciousness. Certainly in the US, where the Second Amendment provides for the citizens’ right to bear arms, the idea of a complete blanket ban on small arms is unthinkable at this point in time.

At the system level, one may firstly have to contemplate the conditions that necessitate a substantial traffic in small arms; like landmines, they can act as a security guarantor for the possessor, presumably because in conflict areas it is safer to be armed than not. Moreover, they reflect a wider concern about the legal and illegal traffic in weapons across the world, and that, in purely political-economic terms, they are an aspect of the supply-demand equation. Initially, for example, there had been a measure of optimism that the end of the Cold War – the so-called ‘peace dividend’ – would help curb military expenditures that exceeded over US$ 1 trillion in the 1980s 17] Moreover, as far as the industrialised ‘core’ nations were concerned, military spending had reduced significantly, although it is accepted that prevailing concerns tend to change that state of affairs. Analysis of the poorer states in the system, however, reveals that spending on arms had taken a reverse trend and that a ‘bottom up’ remilitarisation has occurred as a result of the ‘dumping’ in one way or another, countless surplus weapons from both NATO and WARPAC sources, a situation exacerbated in the states of the FSU, where many unpaid Soviet garrisons simply sold off their armouries. The expenditure has thus increased, to the level where sub-Saharan Africa, as a case in point, military spending as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has escalated from 0.7 per cent to 3.5 per cent today – a five-fold increase. 18]

Furthermore, in separating small arms from APMs one must bear in mind the issue of legitimacy, [19] that is mines have been stigmatised by the majority of states, whereas light weapons systems have not. Dependent on which region and country under examination, the matter of gun or small weapon control varies with the prevailing local culture. For example, the problem rests with the state itself; in others, it is sub-state groups, or perhaps the country has an ingrained gun culture, [20] like the United States or indeed Jamaica where a gun is regarded as common a tool as a wrench is to a plumber. Whilst the former present difficult if not insurmountable obstacles, the latter observation presumes an altogether more incorrigible scenario that suggests arms control measures would be an infringement of the citizen’s inalienable right to bear arms, certainly in the US, irrespective of the impact on the general population.

Matters relating to arms and the state-citizen dichotomy have, however, to be taken largely in context. It would be analytically unwise, and theoretically unsafe to compare the US with, say, a sub-Saharan country; to relate an advanced industrialised nation with an entity from the global South. The former has, in broad terms, a durable, extensive security regime in place that extends to protecting the majority of the population. Regarding the latter, for example Sierra Leone, [21] national cohesion had effectively imploded due to the presence of large numbers of small arms – notably, carrying arms for the individual affords greater security than the state can provide. These are, simply the characteristics of so-called ‘failed’ states, where the rule of law, national infrastructures, civil society and economic stability are conspicuous by their absence. Moreover, the lack of state responsibility for the legitimisation of violence carries certain penalties for the long-term viability of peace programmes, post-conflict resolution, social cohesion and future national prosperity. A state awash with legal and especially illicit light weapons exhibits a tendency to conflict escalation, widespread civilian attrition and makes reconciliation initiatives much more difficult. [22] As Greene aptly points out, even the most primitive of unregulated weapons can have a devastating effect on populations, citing the 1994 Rwandan genocidal atrocities, which were largely executed with machetes and home-made weapons. [23]


The arguments advanced thus far make a clear distinction between the industrialised nations and those that are euphemistically described as ‘developing’, although perhaps in some ways the word ‘undeveloped’ may be more accurate. Either way, it should be evident that some parts of the world have a greater need for light weapons control than others. Paradoxically, it is precisely those regions that display greatest need that are the ones most likely to suffer from inertia, for reasons to do with trade, investment, strategic value and also because of matters of dominance and dependence – with undeveloped states assuming the submissive role, as Neo-Marxists and others would have it. [24]

Given the vexed issues of global security, and the problems of extending a secure environment to places where such a regime is effectively non-viable, presents further evidence of anarchic forces that preclude a truly world-wide system of protection. As such, the limited guarantees offered by Ottawa, and the lack of a durable compliance mechanism, indicate a future that is far from reassuring. Breaches of the letter and spirit of Ottawa, and certainly in the Angola scenario, send a clear signal to potential transgressors that renewed mine laying is acceptable, especially due to raisons d’état, and nothing can be done to redress these situations. The obvious danger here is that, because Ottawa is not set in stone for all time, new landmine crises will appear in places that ostensibly are mine free, or in the process of becoming so.

Moreover Ottawa, as a case in point, stands as a post-Cold War or ‘’new’ treaty, which has rewarded the conscience of western liberal idealism at the terrible cost of life saving and development programme supporting mine clearance; it is a ‘comfort food’ for the chattering classes. It penalises the poor and marginalised of the south. How can you criminalise a poor Cambodian villager for placing mines around his village at night to prevent lethal attack or ruinous robbery by bandits or the Khmer Rouge? Are the defenders of Sarajevo or Srebrenica from the Serb ethnic cleansers now also war criminals? As an instrument of international arms control it must be judged accordingly. Perhaps a process of strengthening the CCW, among whose signatories include the United States, would the best path for anti land mine campaigners to take, but also perhaps a more dull course which would have precluded the sheen of the media spotlight and celebrity attention, brought no glittering prizes and no six figure riches. If the NGOs that comprise the ICBL were institutionalised by Ottawa, they were bought off at Oslo. Signatories to the treaty from Cambodia through Angola to El Salvador have exploited the treaty’s lack of intellectual and technical rigour by cynically manipulating its spirit and letter. The final word thus goes to the Foreign Minister of El Salvador during a meeting in 2001 with one of the authors,

“We don’t have a mines problem, after all you know, we signed and ratified the Ottawa treaty!”

1] ‘In war, the law is silent.’ Cicero, c. 87 B.C.

2] Williams, J. Nobel Lecture. Oslo, Norway, 10 December, 1997.

3] This issue was raised between the author and the Director of the International Demining Group (IDG) during discussions that took place throughout August, 1999, and on a number of occasions since.

4] Noting, for example, recent landmine-related incidents in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the West Bank.

5] See, for example, Chapman, J. ‘Betrayal of Diana Legacy.’ Daily Express, London, 26 February, 2001, pp 1; 6.

6] US Department of State. Hidden Killers: The Global Problem With Uncleared Landmines. Washington, USDS, 1993, p 45.

7] This refers to ICBL campaign statistics pre-Ottawa, when figures as high as 110 million landmines deployed globally were quoted, even though the real total may have been less than half of that. It was a figure used to presumably highlight the gravity of the global APM problem.

8] See Human Rights Watch, Landmine Monitor Report 2000, p 134. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000.

9] Ibid., p 150.

10] Human Rights Watch, ‘Angola: Human Rights Developments.’ WashingtonDC, HRW, World Report 1998. pp 1-2.

11] Ibid., p 2.

12] Human Rights Watch Arms Project. Still Killing: Landmines in Southern Africa. New York: HRWAP, 1997, pp 24-25.

13] For more statistical data on Angola, including mineral wealth, see: CIA World Factbook, located at This site also offers other data relating to capabilities, population facts, etc.

14] Human Rights Watch. ‘Angola: Human Rights Developments’. New York: HRW World Report 1999, p 5. Obtained from

15] See: Faulkner, F. ‘Kindergarten Killers: Morality, Murder and the Child soldier Problem.’ Third World Quarterly, 22, 4, August 2001.

16] Oxfam. Small Arms: Wrong Hands. Oxford: Oxfam publications, 1998, pp 7-8.

17] United Nations Dept. for Disarmament Affairs. Disarmament: Ending Reliance on Nuclear Conventional Arms. New York: UN, 1995, p 76.

18] Ibid., p 77.

19] Lawson, R. in UN Dept. for Disarmament Affairs. Disarmament: Disarmament at a Critical Juncture. New York: UN, 1996, p 109.

20] Ibid., p 109

21] See: Faulkner, op. cit.

22] Greene, O. ‘Tackling light weapons proliferation: Issues priorities for the UE. Saferworld Report, April 1997, p 1.

23] Ibid., p 1.

24] See, for example, Smith, H. in Groom. A.J.R. and M. Light, (eds.) Contemporary International Relations: A Guide to Theory. London: Pinter, 1994, especially pp 146-149; Booth K. and S. Smith, (eds.) International Relations Theory Today. London: Polity Press, 1995, especially pp 52-53; 143-144; 333; Prebisch, R. Towards a New Strategy for Development. Geneva: UNCTAD, 1964.

Gender issues in building the community voice into planning

by Dr Neil Andersson

Founder and Executive Director, the CIET group of NGOs

[Document first posted on 28 March 1998]



Women are key players in development and a decade of CIET experience in 42 countries has produced several lessons worth sharing and many mistakes worth avoiding as we work to build the community voice in planning.CIET is a South non-governmental organisation consisting of an international cadre of professionals from a variety of disciplines who bring scientific research methods to the community level.CIET had developed a method of sentinel community surveillance (SCS) which involves communities in information gathering and analysis.The method facilitates the gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data, its analysis in term of impact, coverage and costs, and community-led solutions that are sustainable and locally relevant. The CIET method of facilitating community access to appropriate measurement technology, builds national and local evaluation capabilities in reiterative cycles.

This article distills the experience with gender issues using the SCS approach. The five identifiable methodological steps may be of relevance to other methods: the first is the analysis of existing data in terms of gender; second is the stratification of responses, analysing differences by sex of respondent; third is the processing of key findings by female focus groups, to obtain their interpretation of the data even when respondents are men; fourth, the epidemiological backbone of SCS permits analysis of gender-related risk and resilience; and, fifth, logistics of fieldwork are configured to maximise participation.With support from the World Bank, UNICEF and the IDRC, the methods have been adapted for use in public sector reform, national campaigns against corruption, and improving the effectiveness and transparency of the police, judiciary, environmental programmes and urban transport.


In many societies, it is difficult even to speak to the women.In some, it is barely acceptable to promote “the community voice”, both men and women, much less is it possible to begin with strengthening the voice of the most oppressed groups.

The CIET approach is to do whatever possible and sustainable to promote the full participation of both women and men.This makes good development sense, incorporating more energy and ideas into development and not only laying the burden on women.Also, as donor agencies increasingly realise just how detrimental the limited access of women has been to development, they place increasing emphasis on gender analysis and effective strategies to overcome the barriers to women’s access and participation.In some cases, a strong gender component is a precondition to funding.

The CIET method known as Sentinel Community Surveillance (SCS) has been implemented in over 40 countries around the world in the last decade (Andersson, 1985; Anderson et al., 1989; CIETinternational, 1997). Many continue to use the approach and some have institutionalised it to the extent that it requires no external support.In many situations where this approach is used, there are considerable challenges to overcome the political, social and legal barriers to involving women.

The SCS method

SCS has proved useful in increasing representation of the community voice in both epidemiological and participatory senses. Household and community-level evidence produced on the impact, coverage and costs of development includes people from all walks of life and from all types of community.Ordinarily, SCS focuses on the use of evidence in local or national planning (Ledogar and Andersson, 1993).This may be at the level of a municipality, a city, a state, a number of provinces or an entire country (Arostegui, 1992; McTyre, 1993; Munroe, 1993).More important, perhaps, the participatory nature of the exercise allows people to have a say in the interpretation of data, helping them determine the way things are run in the future. At local level and in the way they aggregate to complement national information systems, repeated cycles could represent an indelible link between human well-being and governance (Andersson, 1996).

The reiterative process addresses one set of issues at a time.Each cycle consists of a cross-design of qualitative and quantitative techniques that permits a holistic picture of — and locally desinged solutions to — a particular problem (Ruijter, 1991).It is a cost-effective way to collect community data, presenting them in an appropriate form for planning at local, regional and national levels.

Central to SCS is interaction with the research partners — the communities.The product is the aggregation of data from the epidemiological analysis distilled through interaction with communities.Feeding back information to the communities, dialogue for action is stimulted within households, in communities and between communities and local authorities.The ideas behind evidence-based planning were first implemented in health related projects specifically those dealing with child survival and development.Over the last decade, SCS has been appliedin a wide range of development concerns: education, food security, child rights, environment, land mines, economic structural adjustment, urban transport, justice and corruption in the police and judiciary. This flexibility across sectors, considering the very real differences across sectors and countries, has become almost a defining characteristic of SCS.The very diversity of these initiatives — from almost mechanical vaccination programmes, through water and sanitation and education — led to the development of a pragmatic cross-design synthesis of methods.

A cross-design included critical review of existing data, household surveys, physical measurement, rapid anthropological procedures and institutional reviews.With the household survey as the methodological cornerstone, SCS allows the application of powerful modern epidemiological tools to look behind the indicators.Thus a combination of quantitative and qualitative fact-finding instruments produce reliable, actionable data, all the while building the national capacities to make the scheme sustainable in the longer term.

The CIET approach to gender

Some societies have accessible and strong women’s networks, agitating to improve their position; partnerships with these groups make implementation relatively straightforward.However, in many settings where CIET works, the fact that the CIET Research Fellow might be female or that the design group is made up of women does not guarantee a full gender analysis. In this sense, SCS is a learning process where a suitable gender approach is continuously being tested and refined in each of the setting where SCS is applied.So far, five methodological steps make a pragmatic starting point.

The first is a gender stratified analysis of existing data; simply asking for existing data to be broken down by sex can provide a starting point. Second, in households and key informant questionnaires, whatever the subject matter, it is standard CIET practice to stratify all responses by sex of the respondent; this prevents a numerical bias in favour of men translating into a gender bias in the analysis.

Third, in societies where men frame the questions and the answers, female focus groups are used in SCS design, in interpretation of findings and to develop appropriate strategies for change.Fourth, gender is also treated as a factor in risk and resilience analysis, focusing on the differences in sex and generational categories.Fifth, logistics are given special attention and local women researchers are almost always recruited to the CIET team. In countries where women and men cannot travel together, for example, an extra budget allocation is required for transportation and often, recruitment and security.

Analysis of existing data

Each SCS cycle begins with the critical review and analysis of existing studies and data from routine sources.Much of the data available is only partially processed.Part of the reason for non-use of these data up to now is the lack of analytical capacity next to the volume of data produced.Specific steps can be taken to improve this, and the SCS links with existing data are contemplated in this light: even if the data from routine sources are partial, beginning to use them and to compare them with other sources is a first step to improved capacity for their management and, over time, the improvement of the data themselves.

A first step to any CIET analysis is disaggregation by sex.For many traditional data sets, national and sub-national, simply requesting the data in this form will produce it.

Disaggregation of responses

The CIET Mali survey of access to services illustrates a disturbing but typical gender issue in community-based fact finding, and one way of managing it.In rural settings in this predominantly Muslim country, it is difficult for men to interview women at household level, and even more difficult to have women interviewers move around alone in remote rural communities.Some 91% of the household questionnaire respondents turned out to be men.Reducing the data by simplistic average, pooling male and female responses, produces the obvious problem of a bias towards the male response.

With CIET methods, a disproportionate number of male responses does not represent an insurmountable problem: all responses are gender stratified before combining the results (Mantel, 1963; Mantel, 1959).In practical terms, this means looking at what female respondents said separately to male responses.Provided there are sufficient female responses to analyse, the issue is not if the responses make up 80%, 50% or 10%;it is a question of how different they are to the men’s responses.If they say the same thing, data are pooled.If they do not say the same thing, responses are presented separately by sex of the respondent and the difference becomes an issue for further analysis.

In the Mali survey, the responses of men and women were similar throughout with the exception of health, which more women identified as important (65% vs 50%).There was also a difference in the type of service that women found unsatisfactory.Women were twice as likely to report problems in dealing with administration issues, whereas men were twice as likely to report problems dealing with police.

Viewed as the first step in a longer term process, the fact that one in ten responses was female in Mali is actually a positive achievement.Many surveys of similar communities have returned much lower female participation rates.The usual SCS approach is to ensure some female responses; or at least some male responses if the respondents are predominantly female, as was the case in Nepal and Nicaragua (National Planning Commission, 1996; Andersson and Arostegui, 1995)

A realissue for further investigation is the difference in conditions of those women who do or can respond, compared with those who do not.

A particular type of gender bias in responses is evident in surveys in South Asia.A study of gender and primary school drop-out in one of these countries revealed that many households simply did not report the female children when asked about school attendance.Overall, six out of ten children in the study were boys.In some communities, as many as eight out of ten were boys.In this case, it is inadequate simply to analyse drop out separately for the two sexes.Households that do not report presence of female children, it can be argued, may be more likely to prevent girls attending school. Ignoring their exclusion from the survey underestimates the female drop out rate, and any solutions will be, at best, partial.

There is no simple remedy to this non-reporting.Such efforts as could be made, were made.In the questionnaire, interviewers specifically asked about female children; but if respondents consider that girl children “do not count as people” and do not report them, the survey will be irremediably biased.A clue about the possible size of the bias was obtained by analysing only those households where both male and female children were reported; this was compared with households where only female children were reported.This does not solve the problem of non-reporting, but it does begin to focus attention on it as an issue for further consideration.

It was also possible to code communities as high, medium or low levels of non-reporting female children, using the male:female ratio as an indicator.Female dropout from primary school was much higher in communities where non-reporting of female children was high, confirming perhaps the non-preference nature of these communities.

In the Balochistan survey of gender gap in primary education, an effort was made to quantify the undeclared girls in two ways.First, based on the assumption that there should be a similar number of boys and girls aged five to 12 years, the number of girls was reinflated, considering none of the undeclared girls as enrolled (Figure 1).Secondly, the answers of male and female respondents are considered separately.Male respondents, it turned out, reported that 59% of children in their households were boys; female respondents reported that 50% of children in their households were boys.These data confirm the notion that male respondents do not count girls.There was significantly higher female non-attendance and drop-out in households where there was a female respondent.Part of the explanation of this could be that these are different, less advantaged, households.Another part of the explanation is that some male respondents ignore girl children.

Focus groups interpret results and design strategies

One recurring problem experienced in implementing SCS is that official counterparts are usually men.Effort is usually made, frequently withoutsuccess, to include effective women’s participation in these design stages.

An example of how this affects the work comes from one South Asian country, in an SCS cycle investigating the causes of childhood malnutrition, in which the women’s social position, labour and wife-beating were included as issues for inquiry.In the piloting, it turned out, a staggeringly high proportion of women reported being beaten repeatedly over the previous year, and indications were that this might have something to do with the way they see themselves and their offspring.No woman who was asked in the pilot expressed this sentiment, many of them providing more detail than was requested. Yet at the very final stage of government clearance, this question had to be omitted as “socially unacceptable”.


A key to the success of SCS is that national planners, service workers and community members all feel comfortable with the reiterative contacts and with the way the data are obtained and handled; therefore the question of wife beating could not be included in the household questionnaire.A substitute for the question was permitted in another instrument, the focus group.Here the question, vetoed by the government steering committee, was put to 144 groups of 8-10 women, one in each sentinel community, who discussed the experience with beating and how they felt this impacted on their child-rearing practices.Although losing the quantitative data, it was thus still possible to link opinions emerging from focus groups with local levels of malnutrition.

Even in this indirect form, the impact was patent: in communities where women’s focus group concluded that wife-beating was a particular problem, children under the age of three years were more than 50% more likely to be stunted (more than 2 standard deviations below median height for age) (National Planning Committee, 1996b).As comfort levels of the key players increases, it will hopefully be possible to get a more direct measure of this important determinant of malnutrition and its link to the abuse of women.

The difficulty of contacting women and the potential bias toward the male view in the quantitative data collection was very clear in Mali; there focus groups were run solely with women.Thus the women’s perspective, although not as widely representative as the men’s, was brought out and differences between women’s and men’s concerns identified.The challenge in successive cycles in Mali is to find other ways to increase the women’s voice.

Gender risk and resilience analysis

In every survey since the inauguration of CIET in 1986, highlighting inequalities has been a cornerstone of the analytical framework.It is standard practice to look at malnutrition, vaccine efficacy, costs of corruption and land mines, access to education, justice and transport — everything — as potential gender issues.For example, in a survey of indigenous youth on-Reserve in Canada, a male youth is 40% more likely to resist smoking than a female (95%CI 1.2-1.6); female youth were more resilient to peer pressure in their smoking uptake (CIETcanada/Wunska, 1996).

In Bosnia, there were different child care practices for male and female children in the different ethnic groups during the four years of war (CIETinternational, 1996 and 1994).There was a reduction of breast feeding over the past three years, to less than one half of 1989 levels, after an improvement early in the crisis (1991-2). Unlike most other son-favouring societies, male children were more at risk of never breast feeding than females (odds ratio 1.4, 95%CI 1.1-1.8, p=0.07).This gender gap in favour of females was larger among Muslim and Croat children, and reversed among Serbs.The reason for this is not immediately clear; breast feeding patterns were not worse in communities near the conflict lines, and there were no notable differences among residents, host households and displaced-headed households.

In Nepal, literacy (reported ability to read and write a simple letter) is highest among 11-15 years old (77% in males and 56% in females) (National Planning Commission, 1996).It falls steadily with increasing age, down to 29% in males and 2% in females of 61 years or older.Overall, females have nearly four times the risk of males of being illiterate.Households reported a drop-out rate of children enrolled into school of only 3% (weighted value), with boys being at half the risk of girls of dropping-out. Pursuing the analysis into the possible solutions, female teachers are associated with higher attendance and lower repetition and drop-out in classes one and two and for both boys and girls.

In Balochistan Province in Pakistan, a similar survey demonstrated a gender gap in school enrolment of children, more pronounced in rural than urban areas (Figure 2) (CIETinternational, 1996b).The analytical framework applied in this analysis, geared to actionable results without major additional injection of resources, was to focus on communities without gender gaps and to compare them with those with a gender gap.The immediate implication of this analysis is that, under prevailing conditions in rural Balochistan, it is possible to have no gender gap.The communities without a gender gap are, in this sense, held up as best case scenarios.In the Balochistan survey, it was found that Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and religious leaders (Pesh Imams) could have a positive effect on school enrolment; however, despite enrolment rates being higher when either of these is active in primary education, the gender gap tends to be larger where we see more boys than girls being enrolled.

The head of household is a very real economic and repressive category in many countries of the South.The SCS concern is that, in male-dominated societies, female-headed households have quite different life chances; some of these, if well understood, can be redressed by development programmes.The usual CIET risk and resilience analysis bases categories on demographic characteristics of the household (defined usually as those who eat from the same “plate”).We group together those households that do not have males over a certain age, the age (typically around 20) depending on the country.For example, in Nepal, children from households with a female head were more likely to be enrolled into school.Household composition is a strong risk factor for access to basic services and food security.

An interesting finding was returned from gender stratification of school attendance in Afghanistan (CIETinternational, 1997).Perhaps predictably in the context of the suppression of female education under the Taliban, very few girls are at school in the south and centre of the country.However, even in the heartland of Kandahar, women have organised illegal underground schools to educate their daughters the numbers are not great, but they are sufficient to show a few percent attending school when none are supposed to.

Operational aspects

To build the community voice into planning requires more than manipulation of the data.CIET methods are defined by the capacity-building — of women and men — implicit in the fieldwork.However, there are sometimes considerable cost implications of a gender approach to community-based measurement: sometimes we have to invest twice or three times as much per cycle for security and cultural reasons.For women to be part of the CIET team, in some countries they must be accompanied by guards and twice as many people requires more vehicles. There investments, are a source of tension in the discussion with donors.

An example of how CIET approaches these operational issues in studying the gender gap in a challenging environment is the “Gender in Primary Education” cycle in Pakistan.Considerable discussion was held with local and Government counterparts as to who should be interviewed.Some of the issues grappled with included the following:

(i) If male attitudes lie behind girls not going to school or dropping out, and this was the general feeling in the design group, then it was important to understand their perspective to work out ways to address it.Thus the men should be interviewed.(ii) The women’s view is also important because they can perhaps provide clues on how to deal with the men.Thus the women must also be interviewed.A women’s focus group should also be conducted to concentrate opinions on what can be done about the gender gap in primary education.

(iii) It is difficult to have both sexes traveling together in Pakistan.Yet, in order to get the women’s views in focus groups, these must be facilitated by women.In order to get the men’s views in focus groups, they must be facilitated by men.

The operational decision was to recruit for each team one male supervisor and five male interviewers (the supervisor facilitated the male focus group (FG)); one female FG facilitator did household interviews, to get at least 1/6 answers from women; one male journalist interviewed the Pesh Imam and monitored the male FG; one female journalist interviewed the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and monitored the female FG.In order to facilitate the travel of two women with seven men, two vehicles per site (one small, one large) will be needed, and this of course will increase costs.This operational formula was applied across 250 communities that make up the national community voice framework in Pakistan.


The last 12 years of systematising an approach to gender issues in SCS has produced several lessons worth sharing and many mistakes worth avoiding.The five methodological points identified might have a broader application in clarifying gender issues.A perhaps bigger contribution is in the substrate SCS provides for increasing women’s voice in planning.

SCS offers a pragmatic way to obtain community-based evidence for planning and to encourage public services to be increasingly beneficiary-driven, and to involve women increasingly in this process.Once workable instruments are designed, SCS follows a tightly focused process of fact-finding, analysis and dissemination of results.The large samples of household permit a baseline of occurrence rates, needs and perceptions.Insofar as women’s voice is woven into this process, their role as citizens and clients will be recognised increasingly.

Building women’s voice into planning involves several simultaneous learning curves.Challenging as it is, the easiest to deal with is the skill to conduct the community-based measurement and feedback.Then there is the challenge of building a ‘culture of evaluation’.Successive cycles that generate clear and compelling evidence make it increasingly normal to ask what works and what does not, to have information on who has access to which services.As decision-makers at policy, service and household level find practical application of the evidence, (ideally) they begin to see evaluation as integral and indispensable to programmes.A third learning curve has to do with the gender gap.Consistent questioning of the differentials between males and females, or of the disadvantaged social position of women can help to draw attention to these inequities.Constant demands to have routine data produced with gender break-outs will eventually make this standard practice.Solutions posed consistently in terms of gender, by the same token, might over time increase consciousness of the validity of this perspective.

Our modest gains in systematising an approach to gender are more than matched by the challenges that remain.In some cases, like the under-reporting or non-recognition of girls, the discrimination is so deep seated that repeated and increasing insistence is the only way forward, attempting on each successive cycle to reduce the reporting gap.Identifying gender differences in responses is important, but the real issue is to address the difference in conditions of those women who can respond, compared to those who cannot.


Bringing the women’s voice into planning would not be possible without the commitment and hard work of the thousands of community-based researchers trained by CIET in dozens of countries. Insistent support for the process has come from UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, World Bank and the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank, World Food Programme, CIDA and IDRC Canada and various foundations, NGOs, and universities.

There are also the CIETistas out there, committed and moving from country to country at a moments notice to provide technical support, often in difficult circumstances.


Andersson, N. (1996) Public participation in decision-making. In Governance, public participation, decentralisation and integrity, ed. P. Langseth and K. Galt, pp. ….Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and EDI World Bank, Copenhagen.

Andersson, N. And Arostegui, J. (1995) Nicaragua Service Delivery Baseline Survey Report. CIETinternational, Managua.

Andersson, N., Martinez, E., Cerrato F., Morales E. And Ledogar RJ. (1989)The Use of Community-based Data in Health Planning in Mexico and Central America.Health Policy and Planning 4(3), 197-206.

Andersson, N. (1985) Impact, coverage and costs: an operational framework for monitoring child survival, emerging from two projects in Central America.UNICEF, Guatemala.

CIETcanada/WUNSKA. (1996) First Nations Youth Inquiry into Tobacco Use. Medical Services Branch, Health & Welfare Canada, Ottawa.

CIETinternational. (1997) Service Delivery Surveys: Applying the Sentinel Community Surveillance Methodology Country Overviews. Economic Development Institute of the World Bank, Washington D.C.

CIETinternational. (1996) The 1996 Vulnerability Survey. CIET, New York.

CIETinternational (1996b)Gender Gap in Primary Education in Sindh Province, Pakistan. Education Department, Government of Sindh/UNICEF /CIET, Karachi, Pakistan.

CIETinternational. (1994)Food security, Social support and Agriculture in Central Bosnia & Herzegovina. CIET, New York.

Ledogar, RJ and Andersson, N. (1993)Impact Estimation Through Sentinel Community Surveillance: An affordable epidemiological approach.Third World Planning Review 15(3), 263-272.

Mantel, N. and Haenszel, W. (1959)Statistical aspects of the analysis of data from retrospective studies of disease. J Natl Cancer Inst 22, 719-748.

Mantel N. Chi-square tests with one degree of freedom: extensions of the Mantel Haenszel procedure. J Amer Stat Assoc 1963;58:690-700.

Massoud, N. (1996) Enquête sur les services publics au Mali. CIETinternational, New York.

National Planning Commission. (1996)Nepal multiple indicator surveillance. Primary education. Final Report of the Second NMIS Cycle. NPC/CIET/UNICEF, Kathmandu, Nepal.

National Planning Commission. (1996b) Child feeding, development milestones and nutrition; Nepal Multiple Indicator Surveillance Cycle 4 Report. NPC/CIET/UNICEF, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Ruijter, Jose M. (1991) Sentinel Site Experience in Angola. Convergence XXXIV(4).

Schacter, Mark. (1995) Mali Service Delivery Survey: Summary Report of Preliminary Results World Bank, September 1995 and World Bank EDI: SDS Highlights (4 January 1996).

Aiding peace and war: UNHCR, returnee reintegration, and the relief-development debate


Working Paper No. 14
Joanna Macrae

Humanitarian Policy Group
Overseas Development Institute
Portland House
Stag Place
London SW1E 5DP
United Kingdom

e-mail: <>

December 1999

These working papers provide a means for UNHCR staff, consultants, interns and associates to publish the preliminary results of their research on refugee-related issues.

ISSN 1020-7473


The involvement of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the area of refugee return has increased significantly over the past decade. The size of its returnee caseload has expanded, as has the scope of its reintegration work. This expansion has been driven by events outside the aid sphere, in particular the attempts to resolve many of the proxy conflicts of the Cold War. It has also been influenced by UNHCR’s placing greater emphasis on its role in ensuring sustainable return. This trend towards greater involvement in reintegration raises a number of questions with regard to the interpretation of UNHCR’s mandate, working objectives and institutional arrangements with other bodies. UNHCR has not been alone in facing these challenges.

This paper seeks to situate UNHCR’s evolving policy with regard to reintegration in the context of wider debates on relief-development aid linkages, and of broader changes in international relations in the post-Cold War era. It is based on an analysis of the UNHCR’s policy approach to the issue of reintegration, as reflected in the decisions of the Executive Committee, global policy initiatives and guidelines. It is an analysis of the ideas which shape the organisation’s identity and practice, not an evaluation of operations.

The paper argues that although UNHCR’s constituency is unique, its analysis of the challenge of reintegration has conformed with what might be seen as an emerging orthodoxy: namely that relief aid should serve a developmental role, and that it can and should play a role in peace-building. These claims have been based on an analysis of the causes of conflict which focuses largely on internal and economic factors. They also assume that developmental aid and principles can address these effectively. The solution to the ‘problem’ of reintegration has therefore been conceptualised as a problem of aid management. Improving the coordination and funding instruments, and adopting more developmental methodologies are proposed as the way to improve reintegration strategies.

The paper questions this approach on a number of grounds. First, it suggests that despite some modification in terminology, UNHCR’s reintegration strategy continues to pivot on the concept of ‘post-conflict transition’, premised on a continuum from war to peace. This envisages a parallel aid transition from relief to development assistance. The persistence of this terminology is very misleading, since the majority of refugees return to situations of on-going conflict. There is also the assumption that a functioning state is in place in the country of origin, which has the legitimacy and the ability to coordinate and implement developmental policies.

In practice, however, the aid community is often struggling to work in what have been called ‘quasi-states’ – namely those countries where governance is unstable and public institutions are extremely weak and of uncertain legitimacy. In these chronic political emergencies developmental approaches, which remain state-centric, face fundamental problems – technical, political and ethical. In the absence of a functioning state, the quality and quantity of developmental space is severely compromised.

The economic conditions prevailing in many conflict-affected ‘quasi-states’ mean further that claims regarding the sustainability of reintegration assistance must thus be treated with considerable caution. The developmental objective of sustainability may thus be inappropriate in these environments, and may compromise the humanitarian objective of achieving minimum standards of provision of basic goods and services, and the key objective of protection.

The paper concludes that improving UNHCR’s response to reintegration assistance will require a re-examination of the nature of the challenge it faces. It argues for a shift in emphasis from a focus on the managerial and technical issues of inter-agency coordination and of aid instrumentation, towards a more fundamental review of the actual political conditions under which reintegration takes place.

At the same time, UNHCR might reflect on the fundamental issues the reintegration problem raises for the mandate and identity of the organisation. In particular, there is a growing gap between the idealised conditions of repatriation envisaged by the mandate and guidelines of the organisation and the actual conditions under which repatriation takes place. Plugging this principle-reality gap implies looking hard at the type of organisation UNHCR sees itself as being. More specifically:

  • is UNHCR humanitarian or developmental in its outlook?
  • is UNHCR primarily a protection agency or a deliverer of assistance in partnership with states?
  • is UNHCR concerned with minimum standards of provision of basic needs or with sustainability?
  • does UNHCR work impartially and neutrally, or is it actively seeking a role in peace-building?

Jeff Crisp commissioned this study for UNHCR, and provided a constant stream of documents and good humour during its preparation. David Moore provided invaluable comments on the first draft. A number of colleagues at ODI contributed to a brainstorm to discuss the earlier draft, providing many insightful and challenging comments.


  1. Introduction


1.1 Rationale

In 1985, UNHCR’s Executive Committee confirmed the legitimate concern of the High Commissioner for Refugees for the consequences of refugee return. At this time, ‘legitimate concern’ was interpreted primarily in relation to protection, and specifically in monitoring states’ adherence to guarantees and amnesties granted to returnees (UNHCR, 1985).

Since that time, UNHCR’s involvement in the reintegration of returning refugees has expanded significantly. This expansion has been one of scale: in the five years to 1990 an estimated 1.2 million refugees returned to their home countries; in the following five years, the number rose to nine million. There has also been an expansion in the scope of UNHCR’s support for returning refugees.[1] In addition to providing a basic package of material support, UNHCR’s approach has become more ambitious, concerned not simply to secure physical survival but also to enable social, economic and even political processes which it sees as crucial to ‘sustainable return’. So, for example, a 1997 policy paper defined reintegration as

virtually synonymous with ‘sustainable’ return, which implies a situation where a constructive relationship between returnees, civil society and the state is consolidate. (UNHCR, 1997a)

The expansion in UNHCR’s repatriation and reintegration[2] activities is reflected in its finances. Before 1985 2 per cent of UNHCR’s funds were spent on repatriation operations but by 1997 this had risen to 14 per cent (UNHCR, 1997b). In 1996 UNHCR spent US$214 million[3] on reintegration, nearly double the levels in 1994 (figures supplied by UNHCR).

This paper is an attempt to put into a broader context UNHCR’s approach to reintegration. This context has two related dimensions: first, a changing geopolitical landscape, characterised by new economic, political and military formations; second, changes in the organisation and values of international assistance. These changes reflect the broader evolution of international relations in the post-Cold War era.

The need for such a paper is not self-evident. UNHCR has been actively engaged in discussions regarding reintegration and its relationship with broader debates on relief-development aid linkages for at least a decade. This issue has been the subject of numerous sessions of its Executive Committee (UNHCR, 1985; 1992; 1994a; 1997b), as well as the focus for a series of internal policy documents and guidelines (UNHCR, 1994b; 1996; 1997a; 1997c; 1999). It has also been the subject of many inter-agency discussions, consultations and memoranda of understanding. UNHCR has also participated in a number of UN standing committees such as the UN Consultative Committee on Programme Operational Questions (CCPOQ), the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) and the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), all of which have debated these issues at length over the past decade (United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination, 1993; United Nations Inter-agency Task Force, 1993; United Nations, 1994; United Nations Inter-agency Task Force, 1994; United Nations Consultative Committee on Programme and Operational Questions, 1995; United Nations, 1996; Lautze and Hammock, 1997; United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, 1997).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has been pursuing additional mechanisms to take forward its concerns to improve reintegration strategies. In particular, it has emphasised the need for closer collaboration with the Bretton Woods Institutions, specifically the World Bank. Thus in 1998/1999, UNHCR’s most substantive initiative on the reintegration agenda was its co-hosting with the World Bank of a round-table meeting at the Brookings Institution on the ‘reintegration gap’ (UNHCR and World Bank, 1999).

This paper does not seek to replicate or detract from these on-going processes. Rather, it is seen as an opportunity to reflect on them, and to think about where they fit into a wider discussion of aid responses to complex political emergencies and their aftermath. Such a reflection is seen to be of value in part in response to the repeated concern, expressed in several UNHCR documents, that the Office has sometimes found it difficult to interpret the wider trends in the aid environment, and the functioning of other aid agencies, particularly those working in development (see, for example UNHCR, 1994c; UNHCR, 1997c).

A second justification for the paper is that in reviewing UNHCR documentation comparatively, it may be possible to discern more clearly how the organisation has conceptualised the ‘problem’ of reintegration and sought to respond to it. Thus, it provides an opportunity to ask the question why the issue of reintegration[4] is sufficiently problematic to merit such sustained attention; and why despite this attention it continues to prove a controversial issue within and outside the organisation.

1.2 Methodology and scope

This study draws upon documentation from UNHCR and, where relevant, from other sources and agencies. In addition, a short visit was made to Geneva in May 1999 during which time there was time to consult with a small number of UNHCR staff.

The methodology is necessarily opportunistic, taking advantage of the availability of UNHCR staff, but also suffering from the sometimes random appearance of the agency’s document collection. It was strikingly difficult to locate ‘policy’ on reintegration, since it is spread across a range of documents and departments within UNHCR. It is important to emphasise that the paper is not based on fieldwork, rather it is an analysis of the evolution of the organisation’s official global policy as represented by the Executive Committee, key statements by the High Commissioner and global initiatives. It is thus an analysis of ideas, not an evaluation of operational policy. It is a working assumption of the paper, however, that ideas do matter, as they shape the values and practice of any human undertaking. Clearly, an analysis of ‘discourse’ is no substitute for fieldwork, however, and in view of these constraints of time and access the paper is necessarily broad and tentative in its approach, hoping that in so doing it will stimulate further debate on the issue.

1.3 Structure of the paper

The remainder of the paper has three main sections.

Section 2 aims to situate the evolution of the concept of reintegration in the context of the parallel debates regarding relief-development aid linkages in chronic political emergencies.

Section 3 examines the implications of this earlier analysis for the organisation and definition of reintegration assistance. It reviews, the conditions under which legitimate and accountable mechanisms for aid coordination can emerge where statehood is contested, weak or of uncertain international legitimacy. It also analyses the concept of the sustainability of reintegration assistance in chronic political emergencies.

Section 4 concludes the paper. It outlines some of the tensions and dilemmas faced by organisations such as UNHCR as they seek an effective and ethical approach to the problem of chronic political emergencies.

  1. 2. The stubborn continuum: a critical history of the relief-development-reintegration debate

2.1 Cold wars, relief, development, and reintegration assistance


It is a truism that the distinction between relief and development assistance is grounded in politics, rather than in any assessment of the changing needs of particular communities. The entitlement of populations to official relief or development resources depends not only upon the national political context, but the interpretation of that context by international political actors. This is particularly the case in relation to conflict-related emergencies, better known as ‘complex political emergencies’, which are the subject of this paper.

Understanding the ‘discourse’ surrounding the relationship between relief and development aid, and by implication between refugee and development aid, requires an understanding of the changing conditions of international political engagement with conflict-affected communities and states. In approaching this political history, the organising principle of international relations – namely the state, is necessarily a central focus.

During the Cold War, the principle of absolute sovereignty of states was respected almost universally at least at the level of international rhetoric. Respect grew from the tradition of ‘idealism’, particularly with regard to the principle of equity of peoples in the wave of decolonisation (Jackson, 1990). It also derived from a more pragmatic, realist perspective which saw respect for sovereignty as a means of regulating the conduct of the Cold War, in particular to prevent conflicts spilling over and overt invasions by the respective superpowers of third party states (Clapham, 1996).

This respect for negative sovereignty set the parameters for international responses to the persistent conflicts which continued to haunt the Third World in the post-colonial period. With the important exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), international responses to the humanitarian impact of these conflicts were confined largely to the periphery of conflicts. In other words, to ‘safe’ government-held areas, and to refugees who had sought asylum across an international border (Duffield, 1994a). Access to conflict-affected communities was subject to the consent of governments, including those which were belligerent parties to the war.

Until the mid-1980s, this meant that the humanitarian impact of conflict remained largely hidden from public view and from public action. War was not widely seen as an important obstacle to development, rarely meriting mention in official policy statements, nor in the mainstream literature on development theory, policy and practice. In Africa, as in other non-strategic areas, the thawing of the Cold War began before the fall of the Berlin Wall and was evident from the mid-1980s onwards (Clough, 1992). It was signalled by a steady political disengagement of the West (Ellis, 1996).

This political disengagement was accompanied by a softening of regard for sovereignty. The political necessity of maintaining allies at all costs coincided with increasing public pressure to stop aiding regimes associated with major violations of human rights. This pressure had mounted in the wake of media publicity regarding the excesses of regimes such as those of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in Uganda and Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, for example. This combination of pressures, exerted by realists and idealists alike, meant that continued support for Third World regimes became more contingent upon their adhering to the political and economic prescriptions of the major donor governments. The era of economic and then political conditionalities thus signalled the increasing confidence of the Western powers in intervening in the affairs of other countries (Clapham, 1996). De facto the empirical sovereignty of states was under threat.

Paralleling these trends were developments in the humanitarian sphere. Increasingly, relief agencies were no longer confined solely to the periphery of conflict, but could engage in conflict zones (Duffield, 1994a). In countries such as Ethiopia and later Sudan, where development assistance was withheld because governments did not conform with the political and economic priorities of donor governments, relief aid (which was unconditional) remained the only instrument for bilateral aid engagement.

The economic conditionalities proposed during the 1980s were based on the principles of neo-liberalism. These argued for a rollback of the state and the privatisation of many of its functions, including that of public welfare. The weakening of international support for the state was thus effected through withdrawal of unconditional political engagement with state structures. It was reinforced in an increasing number of conflict-affected countries by working outside state structures. In particular this meant working through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Borton, 1994) or through international organisations which specialised in humanitarian operations. These latter, including for example UNHCR and ICRC, targeted their aid at individuals rather than at public, governmental institutions, which remained the primary interlocutor for official development aid.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s the international humanitarian system expanded significantly as a result of this opening of humanitarian space. This expansion was numerical, with a larger number of agencies becoming involved, particularly NGOs. It was also associated with an increasing willingness on the part of the West to provide the political, and occasionally military, backing to secure humanitarian access despite the constraints of state sovereignty.

The implications of these trends were and are significant. The distinction between relief and development was effectively hardened. While development aid became subject to increasing economic and political conditionalities, relief remained (at least in theory) free from conditions, but was also managed outside state structures. Thus, for example, in 1976 the then European Communities channelled more than 90 per cent of the EC relief budget through national governments in affected countries. By the early 1990s, this had fallen to less than 6 per cent (Borton, 1993). This trend occurred at the same time that there was a steady increase in the value of relief budgets, which trebled between 1980 and 1990 from $353 million to just under $1 billion.

While the respective political meanings of relief and development aid became increasingly distinct during the 1990s operationally the limitations of relief as a response to protracted conflict were obvious to aid agencies, host governments and, of course, to refugees (see, for example, Harrell-Bond, 1986; UNHCR, 1994c).

As a review of this period notes, The 1984 ICARA II[5] Declaration and the Principles for Action in Developing Countries, adopted by UNHCR’s Executive Committee laid out a framework for considering the links between refugee aid and development. This defined refugee aid and development in the following terms:

Refugee aid and development is assistance that is: development oriented from the start; enables refugees to move towards self-reliance and self-sufficiency from the outset; helps least developed countries to cope with the burden that refugees place on their social and economic structures; provides benefits to both refugees and to the local population in the areas where they have settled; is consistent with the national development plan. (UNHCR, 1994c)

According to one UNHCR report, translating these principles for responding to protracted refugee operations into sustained action was constrained from the start by a combination of political and technical factors (UNHCR, 1994c). According to this report, a split emerged between donors and host countries regarding the approach. Donors emphasised repatriation as the preferred solution and were therefore reluctant to invest in expensive and innovative projects in asylum countries without a clear prospect of a durable solution. In contrast, host countries emphasised the principle of burden sharing and the compensatory role of the refugee aid and development approach. In the absence of agreement between these key parties there could be little innovation in the funding and organisation of assistance in protracted refugee crises.

The stand-off between donor countries and those host countries receiving refugees in relation to refugee aid and development, was mirrored by a similar debate within the United Nations to examine the root causes of migration (and by implication conflict), and to identify whether and how aid might be used to address them (Suhrke, 1994). Again, a stand-off ensued between the Eastern bloc and the South and the one hand, and the Western donor countries on the other. The socialist and non-aligned bloc argued that international factors were the primary cause of poverty and therefore migration. Global inequality, extractive capitalism and military expansionism were all identified as the primary external causes of migration and conflict. Meanwhile, the West focused on the internal causes of conflict: poor and authoritarian governance, bad economic policies, environmental degradation. In the context of the Cold War, the debate stalled.

The debates regarding relief/refugee aid-development linkages and the role of assistance in conflict management changed in the aftermath of the Cold War. Using the framework of the United Nations, the major powers sought to conclude a wave of conflicts extending across three continents from Cambodia, to El Salvador to Mozambique to name only some. At the same time, there was a military defeat of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, so ending (at least temporarily) one of the most intractable conflicts in Africa.

In tying the loose ends of the Cold War the international community utilised a political formula to facilitate a transition from war to peace. This moved from negotiation to signed peace agreements, which then triggered the deployment of UN peace-keeping troops to monitor demobilisation and establish security for the holding of elections. These would yield a democratically elected government, which would then be recognised nationally and internationally as the legitimate representative of the state. This political continuum was mirrored by an aid continuum, which would move from relief to rehabilitation to development assistance (see figure 1).

Figure 1. The political and aid continua

The political continuum

War ——————————->peace accords/ ————–> peace/elections


interim administration

The aid continuum

Relief —————————> rehabilitation ———————-> development

Importantly the aid continuum was not necessarily seamless, nor was it consistently applied in practice. Rather, it required a decision on the behalf of official aid bodies as to the legitimacy of the incumbent regime at all stages of the political transition. Thus, for example, in Cambodia development aid funds could not be released until after the elections in 1993 because there was no functioning state recognised internationally. By contrast, those international development bodies which had withheld aid from Ethiopia during the Mengistu period, sought to re-establish aid flows quickly following the seizure of power by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991. In contrast again, Mozambique’s development aid was sustained by all key donors and financial institutions throughout the conflict.

2.2 ‘Beyond’ the continuum? The emergence of a new orthodoxy


2.2.1 The need for a new aid paradigm

The wave of ‘peace’ settlements and regime changes in the early 1990s was seen to signal an opportunity for many refugees to return home. The decade of repatriation began on a wave of optimism that the political formula for peace illustrated above would work. The experience of the international community in seeking to respond to their needs was to have a significant effect on the shape of reintegration assistance, and on debate within and outside UNHCR. This is discussed further in section 2.2.2.

The changing geopolitical context also raised new questions regarding the function of aid more generally. In the post-Cold War era the role of aid was no longer self-evident, and required new justification for its continuation OECD, 1993.

This need was urgent. During the 1990s official development assistance (ODA) from the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) declined at a rate unprecedented since the 1960s (Riddell, 1997b).[6] This decline reflected the diminished political support for the aid enterprise in the aftermath of the Cold War. They have placed the aid establishment on the defensive and in need of re-establishing the rationale for international assistance. This has been done in part by claiming, or rather reasserting, that international assistance can play a role in the prevention and resolution of conflict (see, for example, European Commission, 1996; OECD, 1997).

These claims have rested upon a particular analysis of the root causes of conflict, namely on internal factors (Macrae, 1996).[7] Thus, for example, the former UK Minister for Overseas Aid stated in 1996 that:

In the long-term it is clear that poverty and deprivation contribute to disorder and conflict. More prosperous countries with better educated and healthier people are better able to cope with the effect of disaster when it does strike. This is one of the reasons why our long-term development assistance strategy to poorer countries of Africa, Asia and elsewhere is so important. It helps people progress out of poverty… At a time of transition, aid also forms part of our efforts to enable major changes, political and economic, to take place without disorder. (Chalker, 1996)

Such an analysis is not uncommon,[8] and is shared for example by the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD (Development Assistance Committee, 1997) and by the European Commission (European Commission, 1996. It reflects too an important element of the former UN Secretary General’s analysis of the challenges of peace and development, represented in his respective agendas for peace and development (Boutros-Ghali, 1992 and 1994).

In framing the causes of conflict in terms of poverty and the role of internal reform in its management, a role for development assistance quickly becomes apparent. The expertise of aid institutions is in the realms of economic development, environmental management and increasingly in institutional change. If underdevelopment in these areas is also a cause of conflict, then aid actors can claim an important role in its prevention and resolution.


A further pressure encouraging review of international aid responses to conflict was the apparent paradox that relief budgets were rising, but emergencies were not going away. As indicated earlier, the trend was towards emergency aid consuming a larger proportion of total ODA. The limitations of existing relief packages, which had been apparent in relation to protracted refugee operations during the 1980s, were now becoming visible in conflict zones. Relief aid was doing little to address the underlying causes of vulnerability of war-affected populations.

At the same time, a new critique of international assistance in war time was emerging which asked whether rather than benefiting conflict-affected populations, aid was actually being used by the powerful to secure political, economic and military advantage (see, for example, (Keen, 1994; Duffield, 1994b). The question therefore became whether aid could be used to address the underlying causes of vulnerability. Given that aid delivered in war zones might have an unintended negative impact on the conflict dynamic, was it not possible that it could be used more positively to provide incentives for peace (Anderson, 1996)?

UNHCR, in common with other UN bodies, has seized upon this new role of aid in peace-building in the formulation of its reintegration strategy. Thus, for example, a 1992 report to the Executive Committee on reintegration argued that:

Given the number of countries involved, the magnitude of the numbers returning and the fact that their successful reintegration is critical to any national reconciliation and reconstruction process, the issues are not simply humanitarian. International security is at stake. (UNHCR, 1992, page 2)

  • 2.2 The continuum revisited: QIPs plus

The aid community thus faced two key challenges simultaneously. On the one hand it was asserting a new role in conflict management. On the other, it was also seeking to improve the effectiveness of its response to protracted political emergencies. One approach was to link these two issues. The mechanism adopted for linking these two issues was simply the adaptation of an old idea – that of the relief-development continuum.

Initially formulated in relation to natural disasters, particularly drought and floods, the continuum concept was based on the idea that well-planned relief could be used to reduce the vulnerability of communities to future hazards, for example, by using emergency food-for-work schemes to invest in key infrastructure. Similarly, well-planned development assistance needed to take account of the hazards faced by populations, particularly the poor. In addition to strengthening infrastructure, reducing the financial vulnerability of communities and developing networks for the collection of early warning information could all help to prepare and protect communities better against known hazards, so helping to prevent them from becoming disastrous.

A similar model is now used to explain and justify the role of aid agencies in conflict prevention and resolution. By conceptualising conflict as a hazard which derives primarily from underdevelopment, it becomes possible to see ways in which developmental inputs can be used to reduce conflict. If the causes of conflict are rooted in internal economic and political systems, then the task becomes the reform of these. Thus:

[a common strategy for rehabilitation] must be dynamic and sequenced so that over time humanitarian type subsidies are replaced by developmental inputs and the economy is moved from a situation of dependence to one where it is self-sustaining and able to engage in the global market. This often requires a difficult process of adjustment, but one agreed with governments, donors and agencies. (Ogata and Wolfensohn, 1999)

In the case of UNHCR, this model envisages two elements of reintegration, both of which are seen to contribute to the wider goal of peace-building. The first is reconstruction, the rebuilding or development of economic and material resources which have been damaged or destroyed through conflict. The second, reconciliation, ‘refers to the consolidation of constructive social relations’ (UNHCR, 1999). Through its programming methodologies – namely Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) and capacity-building – the organisation seeks to address both these elements. For example, in relation to QIPs, considerable emphasis is placed on securing the participation of community members:

Central to the programme’s strategy, therefore, is the incorporation [sic] of community members in the planning and execution of micro-projects as a means of encouraging former adversaries to work together and develop social links in community organization. (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992, emphasis added)

Similarly by targeting key sections of the community, UNHCR identifies some groups as a priority. For example:

They [UNHCR’s reintegration interventions] will be aimed at particular groups of people such as women and adolescents most affected by inter-communal violence and who can therefore become catalysts for dialogue. (UNHCR, 1998b)

The Office’s approach to reintegration has deepened and broadened over the past decade. From the provision of a package of relief goods in the 1980s, it has grown to include a focus on infrastructure and community development (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992) and on capacity-building, reconciliation and peace-building (UNHCR, 1998a). The claims now being made regarding the rationale and strategy for reintegration have become much more sophisticated than those made in the early part of the decade.

For example, a 1994 review of lessons from UNHCR’s experience of returnee aid and development questions the broadening of the Office’s intervention into the field of reintegration on a number of grounds. In particular it argues that:

Despite reference to the ‘vicious cycle’ of exile, return, internal displacement and exile again, there is actually very little evidence to suggest that difficult economic conditions and an absence of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development assistance leads to the renewed flight of refugees. Indeed, there is much greater evidence to suggest that returnees tend not to become refugees again whatever the level of economic privation they encounter. When the vicious cycle is evident it is likely to be driven by political and military considerations. (UNHCR, 1994c, page 10, emphasis added)[9]

Arguably what such an analysis fails to capture is that during the 1990s the new rationale for providing economic assistance is not only to alleviate poverty, but in so doing to prevent the renewal of conflict. In other words, it is an explicit strategy to influence the course of political violence, one based on a particular analysis of its causes and on the assumption that aid can effectively address them.

2.2.3 The new ‘paradigm’ in practice

The operational constraints to realising the new reintegration agenda were well recognised from the start. As early as 1992 in a report to the Executive Committee, the Office of the UNHCR identified the ‘gap’ existing between return and reintegration (UNHCR, 1992). The reasons for this gap were seen to lie in a failure to involve all the relevant actors – national and international – in long-term planning for reintegration and development, and in the different mandates and modalities of developmental and humanitarian agencies and the lack of participation of communities themselves. Addressing these constraints was seen to require wider use of the QIPs approach, first developed in Central America (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992), and improved inter-agency cooperation and coordination.

While QIPs were refined and expanded throughout the decade, the issue of the institutional relationship between UNHCR and developmental agencies, in particular the UN Development Programme (UNDP), proved more difficult to resolve. UNHCR’s disappointment with the ‘handover’ of reintegration measures to its sister agency during the early 1990s led it to seek other developmental partners to sustain reintegration. By the end of the decade, UNHCR was collaborating closely with the World Bank.

This cooperation has focused particularly on trying to establish mutual understanding of each organisation’s mandate and programming modes, through joint training and secondment of staff (Wolfensohn and Ogata, 1998). It has also entailed facilitating a common dialogue regarding the renewal of institutional arrangements to develop a coherent approach to reintegration and on the funding instruments required to finance this strategy (Ogata and Wolfensohn, 1999). The Roundtable co-convened by the two organisations at the Brookings Institution in early 1999 was a first step in trying to facilitate a system-wide discussion on these issues and has been followed up by subsequent meetings and papers (see, for example, Center on International Cooperation, 1999). The focus on issues of inter-agency coordination and on funding instruments has been justified by arguing that aid actors are in a position to address these issues, in contrast to the wider political variables, over which they can exert little influence (Ogata and Wolfensohn, 1999).

Figure 2 summarises the key trends in the aid policy context and the evolution of UNHCR’s policy over the past three decades.

Figure 2. The evolution of UNHCR’s reintegration policy in context – a summary

Context UNHCR policy
The Cold War years, particularly 1970-1985
Respect for sovereignty restricts aid action in war-affected countries; rising problem of refugees and migration to the West, protracted crises ‘Root cause debate’ 1980-1985UNHCR approach limited to reintegration and provision of material supplies
Sovereignty weakenedIntroduction of conditionalities on development assistanceRelief beyond the state ‘Root causes’ debate continues and dies1984 ICARA Declaration on refugee aid and development;1985 UNHCR Executive Committee broadens interpretation of mandate as to UNHCR’s reintegration responsibilities
Effort to resolve proxy Cold War conflictsConceptualisation of war-peace and relief-development continua Massive expansion in UNHCR repatriation and reintegration caseloadQIPs and the expansion of the reintegration ‘mandate’ – community development and reconstruction of social infrastructure
Need to reinvent the aid project and to redress decline in political support for ODACritique of relief (dependency and fuelling conflict)‘Relief as development’‘Aid as peace-builder’ Reintegration gap identified (UNHCR Executive Committee 1992)’QIPs plus’ (capacity-building; the strategic framework; micro-credit; new funding lines; strategic alliances)Reintegration as sustainable developmentReintegration as peace-building

and conflict prevention

These are seen to be contingent upon new coordination and funding arrangements

  1. 3. Public policy in ‘quasi-states’: legitimacy, accountability and sustainability of ‘reintegration’ assistance

3.1 Defining the ‘problem’ of reintegration assistance: war, peace and other matters

The ‘problem’ of reintegration can be seen as primarily one of aid administration. Alternatively, these administrative problems can be seen as symptomatic of a much more fundamental problem, namely, how to organise aid relations with countries experiencing not only chronic violence, but also structural political and economic crises.

An important characteristic of current debates on rehabilitation/reintegration is that the concepts they deploy were largely developed in relation to a very particular type of context, namely, situations of ‘post-conflict transition’. This assumed that a political transition would be completed, yielding a state able to exert its benign authority over its sovereign territory, and which was recognised internationally. This was indeed the process which was designed in the late 1980s/early 1990s to end the series of proxy Cold War conflicts.

As a UN agency, it is a condition of UNHCR’s analysis of reintegration approaches that it refers to the role of the state as a key partner, not only for the planning of reintegration activities but also in sustaining them.[10] In other words, it must adhere to the principle of unconditional respect for national sovereignty, and assume that the state will be the legitimate and competent body for reintegration planning.

A second, related assumption is that the war is over. However, in recent years the concept of ‘post-conflict’ situations has been broadened to include those which continue to experience significant levels of violence. So, for example, the recently published UNHCR operational framework for repatriation and reintegration activities in post-conflict situations states:

As some of these [internal] conflicts subside, states re-emerging from the ashes of destruction may still undergo periods of intense if sporadic fighting. It may therefore be inaccurate, even misleading to talk about ‘post-conflict situations’ as such as situations do not pass directly from conflict to post-conflict conditions. We shall however retain the term ‘post-conflict’ to indicate those war-torn societies that are undergoing some form of transition towards a more peaceful and stable situation. (UNHCR, 1999, page xvii, emphasis added)

It continues:

In countries still in conflict, but where certain areas are safe enough to allow for spontaneous return, the proposed approach needs to be adapted to prevailing conditions, but overall remains valid and applicable. (Chapter 2, emphasis added)

Reading this and other policy statements, the Office of the UNHCR clearly recognises that the idealised model of voluntary repatriation assumed in its mandate and by conventional political formulae are failing. The return of hundreds of thousands of refugees by force to Rwanda in 1996 is but one, if perhaps the most dramatic example. Even prior to this, figures from the Office suggested that the majority of refugees were returning to often unstable home environments.[11] Given the elusive nature of settlements to many contemporary conflicts, including those which formed part of the post-Cold War phase (e.g. Angola), it is not uninteresting to ask why it is that the international community adheres to the term ‘post-conflict’ and is extending it to include countries where the conflict is more evident than its end. Problematic is the fact that no criteria are given in UNHCR policy statements which indicate when a particular state might be accurately identified as embarking on ‘some form of transition’, nor when it is seen to end. Even more significant are the implications of aid actors continuing to rely upon a model of political process whose relevance is increasingly questioned. In other words, what are the implications of blurring the distinction between war and peace, and subsequently of relief and development?


  • 1 Chronic political emergencies


3.2.1 ‘Quasi-states’, relief and development

As indicated above, it is rare that the formal process of political transition, mediated by an international body, yields a sustainable and categorical peace. Mozambique has proved the exception rather than the rule. Rather, the landscape of concern here might better be characterised as a series of chronic political emergencies. In countries such as Angola and Sierra Leone international efforts to mediate a sustainable peace have proved highly problematic, while elsewhere, for example in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo regime changes have been enacted by force. A defining feature of these is the institutional crisis, particularly of the state. They are extreme forms of what Jackson has called ‘quasi-states’, those countries where

unauthorized and empowered domestically, and consequently lack[ing] the institutional features of sovereign states as defined by international law, … their populations do not enjoy many of the advantages traditionally associated with independent statehood. Their governments are often deficient in the political will, institutional authority and organized power to protect human rights or provide socio-economic welfare. (Jackson, 1990, page 31)

The concept of ‘quasi-statehood’ presented by Jackson is not unproblematic, in particular with regard to his analysis of the causes of state breakdown and international responses to it.[12] However, the term is seen to be useful in a number of respects. Firstly, it overcomes the problems of terms such as ‘weak’ states, in noting that problem states are not all problematic because they are weak – in some cases, such as Iraq and Sudan the very strength of the state is problematic. A second useful attribute of Jackson’s terminology is that he disaggregates the juridical and empirical components of sovereignty. Juridical sovereignty is that element which defines a government as the sovereign representative of a population living within a territorial border. It is this which is embodied, for example, a country’s representation to the United Nations. The empirical component of sovereignty is that in which a state acts as a state, that is, its ability to control all the territory within its borders, maintain law and order, levy and redistribute taxes etc.

The political context of the Cold War meant that respect for sovereignty was absolute. In the post-Cold War era, concepts of statehood and sovereignty are seen as more conditional. Regimes judged to be violating international standards are selectively subject to an array of sanctions, ranging from aerial bombardment to trade sanctions to the withholding of development aid. Further, the empirical weakness of states is also increasingly recognised, fuelling further policy adjustments to try to increase the absorptive capacity of aid, such as the use of NGOs and quasi-autonomous government organisations. ‘Quasi-statehood’ has thus gone from a state of being, long familiar to those living in peripheral areas of poor countries, to an international judgement of (il)legitimacy.

The problem for the aid community is that the pace of experimentation in political relations with ‘quasi-states’ has outstripped that at which the basic legal and institutional framework of the international political and aid relations has been modified. This has left aid actors, particularly in the United Nations, in the uncomfortable position of having only very crude instruments with which to engage with ‘quasi-states’, particularly those where violence is on-going. On the one hand, relief aid is unconditional but delivered outside the state. On the other hand, development aid is conditional upon the presence of an internationally accepted recognised state and assumes that the government is the legitimate and primary counterpart for aid relations.[13] Relief and development aid are thus categorically distinct in terms of their political meaning and modalities, not conceptually seamless. Blurring this distinction means fudging the issue of whether or not it is ethically appropriate to strengthen any particular regime.

3.2.2 Scaling up

One way of understanding the difference between relief and development aid and the pivotal role of the state in switching from one aid modality to another is through the idea of ‘scaling up’.

This process of ‘scaling up’ aid is evident in relation to the target of assistance – from the individual to the community and indeed the whole national population; in time – from the short-term (perhaps three to six months) to the medium and long-term (three to 10 years). These differences in ‘scale’ are reflected in the very different working methods of relief and development agencies. Thus, UNHCR in common with other relief assistance agencies targets individuals, working through a series of micro-projects, usually managed by large numbers of NGOs. By contrast, aid from UNDP, the World Bank and bilateral donors is channelled primarily through state institutions.

The reason why developmental aid bodies are so dependent on the state is not simply historic, it is constitutional. The state is the only body which has the international authority to determine whether and how international public resources are deployed on its soil. While in practice international policy elites may be increasingly involved in the micro-management of third world economies, penetrating policy making and implementing spheres as diverse as health, trade and taxation, their task is to ensure that their recommendations are still endorsed and ‘owned’ by governments, not by the international institutions making them. In this sense, sovereignty still matters.[14]

As yet, there is no substitute for the lack of national governance; the global system has yet to respond formally to the problem of ‘quasi-states’. Instead it has adapted in an ad hoc and pragmatic way, often at the margins of policy. Arguably, the evolution of the humanitarian system has been the most developed response of the aid community more broadly. It has been developing ways of working outside the state, and experimenting with new rules and means of regulating international public action in these stateless environments. These have included, for example, the NGO-Red Cross Codes of Conduct, the idea of an international ombudsman, the UN Strategic Framework[15] and the Sphere Project.[16] While very important, none of these represent a consistent and juridical framework upon which international relations with ‘quasi-states’ can be built. The implications of the persistent gap in global governance are explored further in section 3.3.


3.3 Constitutions, coherence and accountability: dilemmas of legitimacy


  • 3.1 Constitutions: in search of an aid ethic in ‘quasi-states’


In blurring the distinction between genuine post-conflict situations and those where conflict and violent governance persist, what is masked is the very different institutional framework for aid. This is important given that UNHCR notes that a large proportion of those situations to which refugees are repatriated are characterised by on-going violence (UNHCR, 1997a, page 148).

In situations of on-going violence the state is typically a belligerent to the war and is frequently associated with significant abuses of human rights. The withholding of development aid from these states as a sanction is not consistently applied. Where development aid is provided, this is subject to the agreement and participation of the government concerned. In other words, development aid is necessarily partial and designed to reinforce the political, economic and de facto military structures of the state.[17] For humanitarian agencies, particularly those like UNHCR whose mandate relates primarily to protection, developmental programming is inherently problematic since it implies recognition of and engagement with a state which is also often a party to human rights abuses.

Where there is no functioning state, as in Kosovo and Somalia, or where that body is not accorded international juridical legitimacy (the Taliban in Afghanistan) or political support (the National Islamic Front in Sudan), there is an issue regarding whether and how aid should be channelled. Major development agencies are largely unable engage in these environments at the macro-level. Instead, aid interventions (whether described as humanitarian or developmental) are confined to the micro-level of individual projects.

Where aid is delivered outside the state there is no authority to direct macro-level policy on a range of issues from the design of health systems through to the macro-economic framework. Instead, aid responses remain characterised by the modalities of relief – in other words highly decentralised, project-based and often short-term. Thus, what distinguishes developmental and humanitarian programming is not only project content (for example, support for health, education or food security), but also the processes by which these goods and services are delivered.[18]

The question then becomes who decides, whether and when a country becomes categorised as moving from the status of a chronic political emergency to one of post-conflict transition, and what criteria are used. Put another way, under what conditions does the international community legitimise an incumbent state which remains engaged in a conflict?

At present the trend seems to be towards international actors engaging sooner, rather than later in many conflicts (see, for example, UNHCR, 1994c; UNHCR, 1997c; Kreimer et al, 1998), ostensibly on the grounds that such involvement may contribute to the resolution of that conflict. The criteria are patchy and not obviously transparent. The policy of bilateral donors in relation to development and developmental relief varies considerably globally and in relation to each donor country’s position on a particular conflict.[19] This disparity and selectivity of developmental engagement presents multilateral and non-governmental agencies with difficulties in maintaining a consistent approach within their programmes, so further undermining the global and humanitarian nature of their mandates.


3.3.2 Coordination and coherence

The weakness of many state institutions in conflict-affected countries and their uncertain legitimacy is what makes the issue of inter-agency coordination particularly contentious and difficult in violent ‘quasi-states’.

The evolution of the UN’s Strategic Framework approach is an attempt to enhance the coherence and consistency of international engagement in chronic political emergencies. Importantly, its original aim was to achieve improved coordination between relief and development aid agencies, and between the political processes of conflict resolution and the aid spheres (Cholmondeley, 1997b). While this latter element has been slowly but steadily dropped (Wiles et al, 1999), the extent of donor government involvement in aid decision-making has been increased.

While the Strategic Framework process can draw on the moral authority of key UN committees such as the ACC and CCPOQ, and of the Deputy Secretary-General who manages the Strategic Framework, it does not, nor does it claim to, replicate the juridical authority of statehood. Rather, it is dependent upon achieving the consent of relevant parties (including aid agencies) and has no authority to monitor or sanction those who violate the principles according to which it works.[20] It is an open secret that UNHCR has not been a supporter of the Strategic Framework process, seeing it as threatening the Office’s operational autonomy (see, for example, Wiles et al, 1999). The lack of support from agencies such as UNHCR threatens the viability of the Strategic Framework concept and its attempt to fill at least partially the sovereignty gap in chronic political emergencies.

Thus, the problem of inter-agency coordination is not just managerial – it is juridical. In Meier’s (1993) terms there is a constitutional question to be resolved; decisions need to be made regarding how decisions can be made. Who, for example, has the authority to define priorities and to ensure that all parties, including aid agencies, adhere to them? It is the lack of a legitimacy and the competent body to regulate political life in conflict affected countries which constitutes the primary challenge in these environments.

3.4 Sustainability in ‘quasi-states’


3.4.1 The sustainability of return: a core concept

A second major dilemma in relation to relief-development aid linkages in these environments relates to sustainability. A substantive claim of many internationally- funded rehabilitation activities, including UNHCR’s reintegration programmes, is that they will contribute to longer term, sustainable development. This is implicit in the idea of sustainable return, and is an explicit aim of the QIPS and capacity-building approaches adopted by UNHCR in recent years.

Clearly, the pattern and type of investment made by the international community in rehabilitative measures will have a significant impact on sectoral sustainability in the medium term. It is thus important that an assessment of their suitability is made with respect to the particular context.

Further, in line with the idea that by making more developmental investments, rehabilitation and repatriation assistance can contribute to conflict reduction, UNHCR’s recent Operational framework for repatriation and reintegration activities in post-conflict situations states:

A transition phase is the most crucial step in the reintegration process. A successful transition will ensure that reintegration is sustainable – averting the recurrence of displacement such as a massive exodus from rural to urban areas or renewed outflows. (UNHCR, 1999, page 71)

Yet the particular institutional weaknesses and the extreme scarcity of resources, particularly in the public sector, make claims regarding the sustainability of rehabilitation and reintegration inputs very difficult to achieve in practice. This section briefly explores these dilemmas.

3.4.2 Institutional sustainability


Scaling up from relief to developmental aid requires a transition in the implementing approaches taken by aid agencies. In particular, it implies a move away from a direct role in implementation and delivery to strategies which rely increasingly upon national actors (private as well as public) taking on an increasing role. Effecting this institutional transition is a pre-condition for establishing sustainable development of public systems, such as health and education. In the area of agricultural production, a different institutional framework is required, one which protects property and enables markets to function effectively. Institutional sustainability thus relies to a considerable extent on the re-formation of the state, either to assume a direct role in the regulation, financing and provision of public services, or to provide a framework which can provide physical and economic security for production.

Both these aspects of sustainability are inherently problematic in many of the chronic political emergencies which characterise UNHCR’s caseload. The problem is twofold.

The first is that outlined above, namely whether or not political conditions provide for legitimate engagement by international actors with the state. This in turn is contingent upon whether bilateral donors wish to engage with the relevant national authorities for development purposes. It also depends upon whether it is compatible with the mandates of international organisations to engage with those authorities with regard to developmental initiatives. This may be an issue if the juridical status of an authority is in question; it may also be an issue if there are major issues surrounding authorities’ human rights records.

A second point which emerges in both ‘true’ post-conflict situations and chronic political emergencies is that the capacity of national institutions is often extremely weak, particularly in the public sector. This raises the question of the time-frame for more developmental approaches: in other words, what should be done while the institutional capacity for service delivery and regulation is being developed?

The problem of sustainability of reintegration interventions has been highlighted in a number of evaluations and reviews (see, for example, Bernander et al, 1995; Netherlands, 1994; UNHCR, 1997c) and is raised, but not fully resolved in many UNHCR documents on reintegration. The primary solution to this dilemma is seen to be identifying more effective aid partners with a developmental mandate to address these institutional dilemmas (see, for example, UNHCR 1997b; 1997c). However, such an approach fails to acknowledge the extent of the problem – the fact that in many cases the institutional weaknesses are very severe and likely to take decades rather than years to redress.

Important to emphasise is the volatility of the institutional framework in chronic political emergencies. Given the consistent threat of further political violence, potentially culminating in the overthrow of existing authorities, capacity-building is an inherently risky investment, particularly higher up the public administration hierarchy.

  • 4.3 Financial sustainability

Similarly, existing policy regarding reintegration assistance seems based on little analysis of the economic environment within recipient countries. UNHCR is not alone in this respect. Expectations of the sustainability of rehabilitation assistance are often assumed rather than proven (Macrae, 1999).

As UNHCR recognises, conflict-affected environments are among the poorest in the world. This poverty needs to be disaggregated, however. The high costs of prosecuting contemporary wars, need to be stated: in Sudan, for example, it has been estimated that it costs at least $1-2 million per day to sustain the war. In addition, there are also elements of war economies which are extremely lucrative. For example, in Afghanistan, it has been estimated that the Taliban has received some $2 billion in military assistance from Saudi Arabia, in contrast to an estimate $200-230 million for relief and development assistance spent on Afghanistan and for Afghani refugees. Similarly, the annual value of Afghani drug production at the export point to Pakistan is estimated at some $1.25 billion (Killick and van Brabant, 1999).

As is well recognised, war economies are extremely profitable for some sections of the population, while deliberately impoverishing for others (Keen, 1991). A particular feature of war economies is that they critically weaken mechanisms designed to redistribute wealth, namely those designed for public action. Thus, non-military aspects of the public economy, such as health and education services, as well as support for key infrastructures such as roads, tend to be weakened as a result of the dual pressures of declining ability of the state to collect taxes and the militarisation of public expenditure (see Macrae, 1999).

Redressing these trends is neither easy nor quick. Reforming parallel economies so that the economy starts to function in support of the public good, rather than private and military gain remains a formidable policy challenge (Cholmondeley, 1997a). Demilitarisation tends to be a slow process, where it occurs at all, and is thus slow to yield major changes in the allocation of resources to non-military sectors.

  • 4.4 Sustainability, accountability and standards

The inherent difficulty of achieving sustainable initiatives in these environments implies important trade-offs between the different objectives of different actors working in them. In particular, if sustainability is to be an important goal of aid programming in these environments, this suggests compromising another objective, namely coverage.

The sustainability issue is another point where the tensions between the programming approaches of humanitarian and development agencies become apparent. While the emphasis of humanitarian agencies is on maximising the access of individuals or, in the case of UNHCR, individual members of a particular target group (refugees) to particular health services, development agencies focus at the level of populations. Thus, two populations could share the same basic indicators of health, nutrition and access to water, but these would prompt different responses from the relief and development communities.

There are no universal criteria which specify whether and when countries are able to access humanitarian or developmental aid, in other words, specifying what constitutes an emergency and when it is over.

This raises a question with respect to the ‘phasing out’ of welfare inputs targeted at the level of individuals and according to basic standards. In relief operations, while coverage may be limited, the standards and conditions according to which assistance is given are frequently quite high, for example, allowing populations access to free drugs supply and nutritional input. This emphasis on access switches to a focus on sustainability in developmental programmes (see also section 4.4). This shift in programming objectives often takes place in a way such that the phasing out of relief inputs is not paralleled by a concomitant rise in development aid. In other words, there is a de facto reduction in the population’s access to assistance. In this way, concern for sustainability may simply mask budget cuts (see, Karim et al, 1996; Apthorpe et al, 1996; Stockton, 1996; Macrae and Bradbury, 1998). Many aid operations responding to chronic political emergencies have been experiencing sustained declines in their funding over recent years. In this context, there is a need to monitor quantity and quality of coverage of basic services and of standards of nutrition, and to use such information to lobby for more resources when these standards are not met.

  1. 4. Exploring ‘developmental’ space in chronic political emergencies: implications for reintegration

4.1 Reintegration: beyond a technical and managerial response

Commenting on current debates regarding the ethics of humanitarian action, Hugo Slim has noted that

the international community has a tendency to colonize, and this tendency is no less apparent in its moral debates where all too often it has shown signs of making all the moral problems of the world its own. … [T]his has sometimes meant that relief agencies and their critics have tended to overstate the moral burden on humanitarianism. (Slim, 1996, page 2)

Current debates regarding the role of international assistance in reintegration and rehabilitation show a similar tendency. In these difficult environments, the aid community (including both relief and development agencies) is assuming responsibility for an increasingly broad range of objectives. In the case of UNHCR, this means no longer being there ‘simply’ to meet basic survival needs and to monitor protection of returning refugees, but making increasing claims regarding its role in longer-term peace-building and development.

This ‘colonisation’ of the issue of return and rehabilitation by the aid community, including UNHCR, has been enabled, and indeed encouraged, by donor governments as part of a wider process by which responsibility for non-strategic countries has been delegated from the political to the aid sphere (Ellis, 1996; Macrae, 1999).

In accepting increasing responsibility for the management of conflict, not simply responding to its effects, the aid community treads a difficult line. On the one hand, it needs to demonstrate clearly its role to donors by emphasising its ability to influence the internal causes of conflict. This requires being increasingly ambitious in its claims. On the other, the terms on which it does so are formulated in a way which is essentially apolitical and technocratic in order to avoid alienating both donor and recipient governments.[21]

In this context, there is a tendency for the problem of conflict, and the problem of providing aid in politically unstable countries, to be defined in essentially technocratic and managerial terms.[22] In this respect, a review of the evolution of UNHCR’s policy with respect to reintegration shows a striking consistency in its analysis of the definition of the problem of reintegration. Two themes predominate.

From 1992 onwards there has been consistent recognition of the problem of identifying effective partners which will sustain UNHCR’s interventions.[23] In particular, there has been disappointment with the performance of UNDP (UNHCR, 1994c). This has driven UNHCR to seek alternative developmental partners, and in particular to solicit the support of the World Bank for the reintegration agenda (Wolfensohn and Ogata, 1998). While clearly an important strategic alliance, the move to work more closely with the World Bank implies that the World Bank does not share many of the structural features of UNDP which precluded the latter sustaining reintegration projects initiated by UNHCR.

Arguably, however, all official development assistance agencies suffer from an inability to work effectively in ‘quasi-states’. This structural problem derives from the uncertain legitimacy of many governments in conflict-affected states, their weak public institutions and the absolute poverty of the formal economy.

A more recent preoccupation, and the experience of Rwanda seems to have been particularly formative here, has been concern regarding under-funding and the difficulty in securing adequate and appropriate resources to finance the expanded programme of repatriation and reintegration assistance that has emerged since the mid-1990s.

While important, both these strands of debate represent a somewhat aid-centric analysis of the problem of repatriation and reintegration. It is striking, for example, that the recent UNHCR-World Bank consultations over the past year have focussed almost exclusively on the issue of aid instrumentation, and the creation of a specialist new fund to respond to the needs of post-conflict situations – a half-way house between relief and development aid (Center on International Cooperation, 1999).

What this signals is less a fundamental reform of the aid system, based upon an analysis of the emerging post-Cold War political order, than the reassertion of an existing consensus regarding the relationship of relief and development aid, albeit with improved technocratic procedures. Such modifications cannot accommodate the removal of two of the key pillars which have guided and continue to inform development assistance. Both the goal of development (sustainability) and its tactics (through the vehicle of a modern state) are in jeopardy.

The aid system, already suffering the effects of declining international support, has responded to this conceptual and operational crisis in a pragmatic and defensive manner. The pragmatic quality of its response is explored further in section 4.3. Its defensive character is indicated by the fact that there has been no review of the continuing relevance of the predominant development aid paradigm in countries characterised by chronic political instability, and in particular experiencing crises of statehood. Thus, despite the persistent failure of the political and aid continua to deliver either peace or development in countries such as Angola, Sri Lanka and whole regions such as the Greater Horn of Africa, the Balkans and large chunks of Central Asia, the organising objective of current reintegration debates remains premised on the presence of a benign state, willing and able to implement neo-liberal policy reform.

4.2 Escape from ‘la-la land’: developing a politically informed response

Aiding ‘quasi-states’ more effectively is contingent upon ensuring that aid strategies are based upon a clearer and more explicit analysis of the national and international political context. Such an analysis needs to review both the political economy of recipient countries, and of aid itself. Both are risky undertakings for any single aid body to undertake, particularly within the UN; arguably both are also crucial for the survival of the system as a whole.

4.2.1 The political economy of war, peace and aid

Part of an interview with a UNHCR staff member is worth citing here. Referring to a country where the UN-brokered peace process had steadily broken down, he noted how UN operational aid agencies became trapped in what he called ‘la-la land’, where the political reality bore less and less resemblance to the formal and formulaic politics of an internationally-brokered transition. Operational agencies such as UNHCR had significantly more access to the country concerned, and were seeing daily the effects of deteriorating security conditions on their operations and on their constituents. Yet, as a UN agency, UNHCR’s ability to reorient its programme and prepare for a major collapse in the peace process was limited, since this would have signalled the failure of the political process.

It is this constitutional inability to formulate an independent political analysis, and to (be seen to) act upon it that constitutes an important constraint to the efficacy of UNHCR’s conceptual and programmatic approach to reintegration. It is perhaps this which explains the growing gap between the Office’s own policy guidelines (UNHCR, 1999), which continue to assume the voluntariness and desirability of return, and the findings of UNHCR’s and others’ review of actual reintegration experience (UNHCR, 1994c; UNHCR, 1997c; Chimni, 1999). Symptomatic of this is the persistent glossing over of the very substantive distinction between post-conflict situations and chronic political emergencies.

The blurring of these distinctions, and of the corresponding distinction between relief and development aid, has major implications for the definition of the mandates, modalities and principles according to which aid is disbursed (see section 4.3). It is also significant in terms of the technical efficacy of rehabilitation interventions, which are unlikely to prove either sustainable or appropriate in the absence of an informed political analysis. In the absence of extensive fieldwork it is difficult to gauge more precisely how and whether field staff negotiate room for manoeuvre in the face of such structural obstacles to developing political analysis.

What is more evident from a review of the Office’s global policy documents is that the rationale for its engagement relies upon a model of conflict which largely emphasises the internal causes of conflict, and in particular identifies the risks of conflict in situations of underdevelopment.

Such a model risks being partial and ahistoric, failing to acknowledge, for example, the continued and historic role of neighbouring and other countries in fomenting and fuelling conflict through arms transfers and covert operations. It underplays the fact that its not the poor per se who usually constitute the leadership of warring parties. The complexity of the conflict dynamic is thus lost, as is in particular the fact that, as well as losers, war also yields substantial political and financial rewards for some groups (Keen, 1991). Confronting these ‘winners’ tends to be overlooked by political and aid actors alike, but remains a critical challenge. While poverty is associated with conflict, the causal link between poverty and violence is far from as straightforward as often implied.

4.2.2 The political economy of aid

The pragmatic[24] character of the international response to the reintegration problem is revealed by the apparent acceptance of aid actors of the increasing encroachment of donor government foreign policy goals into programme design. This is signalled, for example, by the fact that UNHCR’s adoption of the repatriation and reintegration agenda has coincided with the changing priorities of donor countries seeking to reduce the number of refugees in their home countries (Chimni, 1999), as well as the broader need for the aid community to provide a new rationale for its work (see section 2.2.1).

Documents produced by the Office of the UNHCR and its collaborating partners, frequently acknowledge the political factors which determine the type and scale of donor support for reintegration activities (Ogata and Wolfensohn, 1999). Less often mentioned is the fact that these political decisions imply a highly selective response, which compromises the neutrality and impartiality of the aid system. As a UNHCR report suggests, confronting this selectivity requires aid agencies being proactive in defining the conditions which would inform their decisions regarding when they initiate and withdraw from reintegration and rehabilitation efforts (UNHCR, 1997c).

Such definitions would be important in countering the trend identified by Chimni (1999) and others, whereby there is increasing acceptance by the international community that refugees return to their countries of origin despite conditions there remaining very difficult. These pressures, from donor and host governments, require aid agencies to condone earlier return and to undertake measures which suggest that there is a process of political transition in play (UNHCR, 1997c; Kreimer et al, 1998). In so doing, not only is the efficiency and effectiveness of aid potentially compromised, so too are the principles and mandates of aid organisations.

4.3 Plugging the principle-reality ‘gap’

Refugees are coming under increased pressure to return home, often to environments which remain insecure politically and militarily. These pressures arise from a combination of an increasing reluctance of host countries to provide asylum, dwindling aid funds to support refugee populations, and/or instability in host countries. For UNHCR this environment poses many dilemmas. The basic principles which should inform its programming are increasingly difficult to adhere to and, seemingly, even to defend. As the Office extends its work into the developmental sphere, so these dilemmas become more acute because it must work with the very authorities who may also threaten the human rights of returning refugees. The premise of reintegration assistance, as currently formulated by UNHCR, is that the government is a key partner, and that a major objective is to build the capacity of national institutions (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992; UNHCR, 1998a).

This raises important dilemmas regarding the terms of its engagement with national authorities, and in particular how UNHCR interprets its mandate for capacity-building. It was of some surprise, for example, that in the Practical guide to capacity-building as a feature of UNHCR’s humanitarian programmes (UNHCR, 1998a) no guidance was given as to whose capacity should be built. Given that as well as providing the solution, state and also civil institutions are also often responsible for mass violations of human rights, the lack of an analysis of protection issues is a significant omission. A similar comment might be made with regard to the policy on QIPs and indeed the more recent UNHCR operational framework for repatriation of reintegration activities in post-conflict situations (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992; UNHCR, 1999).

The lack of fieldwork prevented scrutiny of the protection aspect of reintegration programmes.[25] However, a more general review of UNHCR’s approach to reintegration suggests that the Office lacks the legal or ethical framework offered by international refugee law or equivalent humanitarian principles to guide its interventions in this area of its work.

The need for such principles is evident to allow for consistent programming approaches, and in particular as a basis for engagement and advocacy both with authorities in recipient countries and with other developmental aid agencies. Such principles might address such issues as respect for human rights, equitable and impartial distribution of resources across ethnic and religious groups. They become particularly important when protection work in reintegration situations emphasises building the capacity of the state, through judicial reform for example (UNHCR 1998c).[26] Once again this strategy raises the question of how UNHCR sees its relationship with the state in countries of origin as opposed to its mandate in relation to the protection of returnees. While clearly not inseparable, there are obvious potential conflicts when the state continues to threaten the rights of returnees.

Also important is to ensure that UNHCR’s aid partners, including NGOs, are fully aware of the principles which guide its reintegration work, and that these are reflected in UNHCR’s contracts with implementing partners. Induction for UNHCR’s NGO partners, including the legal requirements for voluntary repatriation, might be useful in this regard. Systems for monitoring NGOs’ adherence to humanitarian and technical principles and standards would be required to make such an approach meaningful.

In addition to principles to help navigate the political environment, there is also a need to promote consistency with respect to the technical standards of operations. Such standards, and mechanisms to monitor them, are necessary to ensure that the withdrawal of humanitarian agencies does not lead to a decline in populations’ access to basic goods and services, as is often the case (Macrae and Bradbury, 1998). They could be used to inform the development of criteria regarding withdrawal, as suggested by UNHCR’s 1997 ‘Review of UNHCR’s phase out strategies’ (UNHCR, 1997c). This review argued that such standards would help to avoid the pitfall of the timetable for reintegration being driven by artificial deadlines imposed by a political process, not by operational factors. It would be important for any such standards to be set at a meaningful level, and for them to include protection criteria, in order to make them meaningful. This does not necessarily sit comfortably with the objective of ending UNHCR’s involvement as soon as possible (UNHCR, 1999).

Monitoring standards of basic services and nutrition over time is important before what are usually very low levels of provision become effectively normalised and re-labelled as ‘development’. Initiatives within the NGO sector such as the Sphere Project (1998) may be useful in defining such standards; until these are met, UNHCR may not wish to withdraw. Setting criteria to determine withdrawal is clearly not the same as securing funding to enable these standards to be met. However, adopting consistent criteria and developing objective indicators of basic welfare and of protection would provide much more powerful information for advocating the allocation of greater international resources than are currently available. It would quantify the gaps in provision more than is currently the case and could provide an advocacy focus for negotiations with donors, which might encourage them also to adopt such standards.

4.4 Sustaining and broadening the debate


In contrast to some of its sister agencies in the UN, UNHCR has been relatively proactive in seeking to broaden the debate regarding the links between relief and development aid. Specifically, it has engaged extensively with the World Bank, which itself has undertaken a broad and detailed review of its work which is influencing the evolution of new policies, instruments and organisational structures (Kreimer et al, 1998; World Bank, 1998a; World Bank, 1998b). These consultations and attempts to develop joint programming culminated in the Brookings process, which has also sought to engage other UN agencies and importantly the donor community.

The potential problem with many such fora is that they remain largely aid-centric, focussing on the issues of mandate, comparative advantage and instrumentation. Lacking is a more fundamental debate regarding the role of aid in the post-Cold War era and, in particular, how existing aid instruments designed in an era of unconditional sovereignty can and do work in a radically different political landscape. This a tough area of policy, one in which there remain major tensions between principle and pragmatism. Thus, the apparent renewal of concern for human rights and humanitarianism within donor countries is accompanied by declining funding and an absence of an internationally accepted framework which provides a legitimate basis for engagement in ‘quasi-states’.

It is in promoting urgent debate on this issue of the implications of weak, violent and even absent states where the aid community has been less confident. While the issue is alluded to in UNHCR documents (for example, UNHCR, 1997a), it is commonly sidelined in favour of the apparently manageable technical issues of funding and coordination (Ogata and Wolfensohn, 1999).

However, unless the broader political dimensions are placed at the centre of the debate, then the technical and managerial weaknesses of aid responses will remain problematic, further undermining their credibility. At present, donor governments appear to be demanding more and more of aid agencies, while disengaging politically. This does not provide a framework for effective or sustainable aid action. More fundamentally, the basis for protection hangs critically upon the political will of the government and non-state entities in the country concerned. Where this is absent, the international response remains patchy with a consistent mechanism for global action at a nascent and controversial stage of its evolution. Further engagement with governments, including donor countries, on the protection dilemmas of reintegration and of their responsibilities in securing protection would be important.

  • 5 Conclusions

Placing UNHCR’s reintegration in the context of wider debates regarding relief-development linkages is insightful in a number of respects. The apparent difficulty of many organisations in reaching consensus regarding arrangements for inter-agency coordination in chronic political emergencies is not a primarily a result of their having markedly different analyses of their role in reintegration and rehabilitation. Indeed, there is remarkable consistency within the official aid community regarding the new function of aid in these environments. An orthodoxy is emerging whereby the objective of humanitarian aid is no longer primarily palliative, but rather that it should serve developmental and peace-building functions.

This paper has argued that achieving these developmental and peace-building objectives is likely to prove problematic for political, technical and ethical reasons. In this context, humanitarian agencies might do well to reassert their particular competence and mandate with regard to protection and human rights. Uncritical adoption of developmental and peace-building objectives risks compromising not only the technical quality of UNHCR’s work, but also its mandate for protection. Ensuring that reintegration approaches are driven by an analysis of need and grounded in principle, rather than by the interests of donor and recipient governments, will be crucial in protecting the rights of returnees.


Anderson, M. (1996). Do no harm: Supporting local capacities for peace through aid. Boston MA: Collaborative for Development Action Local Capacities for Peace Project.

Apthorpe, R., A.-M. Waeschle, P. Atkinson, F. Watson, G. Landart and R. Corsino (1996). Protracted emergency relief food aid: towards productive relief. Programme policy evaluation of 1990-1995 period of WFP-assisted refugee and displaced person operations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Rome: World Food Programme.

Bernander,B., J. Charney, M. Eastmond, C. Lindahl and J. Ojendahl (1995). Facing a complex emergency: An evaluation of Swedish support to Cambodia, Stockholm: Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA).

Bonafacio, A. and J. Lattimer (1992). A primer on Quick Impact Projects (QIPs): A formula for consolidating durable solutions. Geneva: UNHCR.

Borton, J. (1993). ‘Recent trends in the international relief system’. Disasters 17:187-201.

Borton, J. (1994). NGOs and relief operations: Trends and policy implications. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Boutros-Ghali, B. (1992). An Agenda for Peace. New York: United Nations.

Boutros-Ghali, B. (1994). An Agenda for Development. New York: United Nations.

Center on International Cooperation (1999). ‘Meeting essential needs in post-conflict recovery’, paper prepared for the round table discussions on the ‘relief-development gap’, 18 May 1999, New York.

Chalker, L. (1996). ‘Can development programmes reduce conflict?’, address to the Institute for International Affairs, Stockholm, 1 October. London: Overseas Development Administration.

Chimni, B. (1999). ‘From resettlement to involuntary repatriation: towards a critical history of durable solutions to refugee problems.’ New issues in refugee research: Working Paper No. 2. Geneva: UNHCR.

Cholmondeley, H. (1997a). ‘Mission to Afghanistan and Islamabad 18 June-7 July.’ New York: United Nations.

Cholmondeley, H. (1997b). ‘The role of the UN system in response to crisis and recovery’, a report to the UN Consultative Committee on Programme and Operational Questions, 10th session. Geneva: United Nations.

Clapham, C. (1996). Africa and the international system: The politics of state survival. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clough, M. (1992). Free at last? US Policy towards Africa and the end of the Cold War. Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations.

Development Assistance Committee (1997). DAC guidelines on conflict, peace and development cooperation. Paris: OECD.

Duffield, M. (1994a). ‘Complex emergencies and the crisis of developmentalism’, IDS Bulletin 25:37-45.

Duffield, M. (1994b). ‘The political economy of internal war: asset transfer, complex emergencies and international aid’, in War and hunger: Rethinking international responses to complex emergencies, ed. J. Macrae and A. Zwi, pp. 50-69. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

Ellis, S. (1996). ‘Africa after the Cold War: New patterns of government and politics’, Development and change 27:1-28.

European Commission (1996). ‘Communication from the Commission to the Council and Parliament on linking relief, rehabilitation and development.’ Brussels: European Commission.

Harrell-Bond, B. (1986). Imposing aid: Emergency assistance to refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hathaway (1995). ‘New directions to avoid hard problems: The distortion of the palliative role of refugee protection’, Journal of refugee studies 6(3): 288-94.

Jackson, R. (1990). ‘Quasi-states’: Sovereignty, international relations and the Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karim, A., M. Duffield, S. Jaspars, A. Benini, J. Macrae, M. Bradbury, D. Johnson, G. Larbi and B. Hendrie (1996). Operation Lifeline Sudan: A review. Geneva and Birmingham: Department of Humanitarian Affairs/University of Birmingham.

Keen, D. (1991). ‘A disaster for whom? Local interests and international donors during famine among the Dinka of Sudan’, Disasters 15:150-65.

Keen, D. (1994). The benefits of famine: The political economy of famine in southwestern Sudan 1985-1988. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Killick, T. and K. van Brabant (1999). ‘The use of development incentives and disincentives in influencing conflict or civil violence. Afghanistan case study.’ Report prepared for the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Kreimer, A., J. Eriksson, R. Muscat, M. Arnold, and C. Scott (1998). The World Bank’s experience with post-conflict reconstruction. Washington DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Operations Evaluation Department.

Lautze, S., and J. Hammock (1997). Coping with crisis, coping with aid. Capacity building; coping mechanisms and dependency; linking relief and development. New York: Department of Humanitarian Affairs, 1997.

Leftwich, A. (1994). ‘Governance, the state and the politics of development’, Development and Change 25:363-86.

Macrae, J. (1996). ‘Aid and war: Reflections on current debates’, paper presented at a workshop for Oxfam staff, Birmingham, February. Oxford: Oxfam.

Macrae, J. (1999). ‘Aiding recovery? The role and functioning of international assistance in the rehabilitation of health services in ‘post’-conflict Cambodia, Ethiopia and Uganda’, draft doctoral thesis, University of London.

Macrae, J. and M. Bradbury (1998). ‘Aid in the twilight zone: A critical analysis of humanitarian-development aid linkages in situations of chronic instability’, a report for UNICEF. London, New York, Providence: ODI, UNICEF and Brown University.

Netherlands (1994). ‘Humanitarian aid to Somalia’, Operations Review Unit, Ministerie van Buitenlande Zaken, The Hague.

Meier, G. (1993). ‘The new political economy and policy reform’, Journal of International Development 5:381-9.

OECD (1993). Annual report of the Development Assistance Committee. Paris: OECD.

OECD (1997). ‘Draft DAC policy guidelines on conflict, peace and development cooperation’, note by the Development Assistance Committee Secretariat. Paris: OECD.

Ogata, S. and J. Wolfensohn (1999). ‘The transition to peace in war-torn societies: Some personal observations’, paper delivered to a conference at the Brookings Institution, Washington, January. Geneva and Washington DC: UNHCR/World Bank.

Reno, W. (1999). ‘Sovereignty matters: The local politics of government recognition’, mimeograph. Miami: University of Florida.

Riddell, R. (1997a). Aid in the 21st Century. New York: UNDP, Office of Development Studies.

Riddell, R. (1997b). ‘New directions in foreign aid’, paper presented to seminar, 17 June. London: Overseas Development Institute.

The Sphere Project (1998). Humanitarian charter and minimum standards in disaster response, Geneva: Sphere Project.

Slim, H. (1996). ‘Doing the right thing: Relief agencies, moral dilemmas and moral responsibility’, paper prepared for the Scandinavian NGO workshop on humanitarian ethics, 24 October. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.

Stockton, N. (1996). ‘Defensive development? The role of the military in relief and development’, Disasters 20:144-8.

Surkhe, A. (1994). ‘Towards a comprehensive refugee policy: Conflict and refugees and the post-Cold War world’, in Aid in place of migration? ed. W. Bohning and M.-L. Schloeter-Paredes. Geneva: International Labour Organisation/UNHCR.

UNHCR (1985). Conclusion No. 40 (XXXVI) of the Executive Committee. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1992). ‘Bridging the gap between returnee aid and development: a challenge for the international community.’ Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, Sub-committee on Administrative and Financial Matters, 21st meeting. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1994a). ‘Activities in countries of origin: reintegration and durable solutions to refugee problems’. Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. Sub-Committee on Administrative Matters. 29th meeting, 4 May, EC/1994/sc.2/crp.12. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1994b). ‘Policy and methodological framework for Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) as a means of facilitating durable solutions through integration’, 20 June. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1994c). ‘Returnee aid and development’, May. Geneva: UNHCR, Central Evaluation Section.

UNHCR (1996). ‘UNHCR: Local capacity, relief and development, some elements of UNHCR’s experience’, paper presented to the IASC Sub-Working Group on Local Capacity/Relief and Development. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1997a). Policy paper on ‘Reintegration in the transition from war to peace’. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1997b). ‘Annual theme: Repatriation challenges’, paper presented to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner for Refugees, 48th session, 9 September.

UNHCR (1997c). ‘Review of UNHCR’s phase out strategies: Case studies in countries of origin.’ Geneva: UNHCR, Inspection and Evaluation Service.

UNHCR (1998a). ‘A practical guide to capacity-building as a feature of UNHCR’s humanitarian programmes.’ Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1998b). ‘Consultations on reintegration.’ Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, Standing Committee, 13th meeting, EC/48/SC/CRP.42. Geneva: UNHCR.

UNHCR (1998c). ‘Reconstituting national protection and promoting social reconciliation’, paper prepared for the Brookings Institution and UNHCR Round Table, November. Geneva: UNHCR, Division of International Protection.

UNHCR (1999). ‘UNHCR operational framework for repatriation and reintegration activities in post-conflict situations’. Geneva: UNHCR, Division of Operational Support, Reintegration Section.

UNHCR and World Bank (1999). ‘Report on the roundtable on the gap between humanitarian assistance and long-term development, Brookings Institution, Washington DC.’ Geneva and Washington DC: UNHCR/World Bank/Brookings Institution.

United Nations (1950). Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations (1994). ‘Inter-agency working group on the relief-development continuum: Position paper’. New York: United Nations.

United Nations (1996). ‘Survey of the United Nations System’s Capabilities in Post-conflict Reconstruction.’ Vienna: UN Department of Development, Support and Management Services.

United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination (1993). ‘Summary of conclusions of its meeting 19-20 April.’ Rome: United Nations.

United Nations Consultative Committee on Programme and Operational Questions (CCPOQ) (1995). ‘The Relief to Development Continuum.’ New York: United Nations.

United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs (1997). ‘Building local capacity and strengthening coping mechanisms in the context of relief and development: Some challenges for the international community.’ New York: Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

United Nations Inter-agency Task Force (1993). Working group on the operational aspects of the relief-development continuum. ‘Minutes of a workshop’. 16-17 November, Villars, Switzerland.

United Nations Inter-agency Task Force (1994). ‘Operational framework for the United Nations system’s role in the relief-development continuum’ (draft). New York: United Nations.

Wiles, P., N. Leader, L. Chan, and C. Horwood (1999). ‘Danida’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. An evaluation’, draft report. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Wolfensohn, J. and S. Ogata (1998). ‘Letter regarding a framework for cooperation between United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank’, 17 April. Washington and Geneva: World Bank and UNHCR.

World Bank (1998a). ‘Post-conflict fund: Guidelines and procedures.’ Washington DC: IBRD.

World Bank (1998b). ‘Post-conflict reconstruction: The role of the World Bank.’ Washington: IBRD.


[1] It is probably no coincidence that this period has also coincided with an expansion in UNHCR’s concern for internally displaced persons, for example in the former Yugoslavia. Arguably this is symptomatic of wider efforts to contain the effects of war within the borders of countries, so preventing large outflows of refugees. See Hathaway (1995).

[2] Repatriation is taken to mean the physical return of refugees to their country of origin in which UNHCR and others might assist, for example, through the provision of transport, registration etc. Reintegration, its objectives and activities, are defined further throughout the report. In broad terms it is equated with the achievement of a sustainable return – in other words the ability of returning refugees to secure the political, economic and social conditions needed to maintain life, livelihood and dignity.

[3] This excludes reintegration assistance in the former Yugoslavia, which was not separated from care and maintenance assistance.

[4] Or in non-refugee parlance, ‘rehabilitation’, ‘linking relief and development’ to name but two synonyms.

[5] Declaration and Programme of Action of the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa.

[6] Riddell (Riddell, 1997a) reports that in 1989 the volume of ODA fell by 0.5 per cent relative to previous years. Since then, annual falls in ODA have been much steeper, 3.9 per cent in 1992, 5.4 per cent in 1993, 1.3 per cent in 1994, 5.4 per cent in 1995. Not only do these figures represent an absolute fall in the value of ODA, they also reflect a fall in their value relative to the gross national product (GNP) of donor countries. In mid-1996, aid provided by OECD member states had fallen to 0.27 per cent of GNP, the lowest recorded since the UN established its target of 0.7 per cent.

[7] This is in common with the West’s conclusions regarding the causes of migration nearly a decade earlier, see Suhrke, 1994.

[8] Nor is it particularly new. The classical modernisation theorists of the 1950s such as Walter Rostow made very similar claims regarding the role of assistance in compensating those who lost out in the short-term from the development of Third World economies. At that time, the added dimension was that the incentive for the West in providing such compensation was that it would prevent the emergence of a dissatisfied group of the poor who would constitute the basis of a communist opposition.

[9] See also, Chimni (1999), pages 4-5.

[10] For example, an early paper on QIPs argues that: ‘Essential to the QIPs concept is the involvement of the government at the national, regional and local levels’ (Bonafacio and Lattimer, 1992). Similarly a 1998 UNHCR Executive Committee paper argued that: ‘UNHCR’s involvement should be but one within an agreed comprehensive framework or plan of action in support of the national Government’ (UNHCR, 1998b, emphasis added).

[11] The 1994 review of lessons learned from returnee aid and development programmes concluded that: ‘Fifteen countries of origin experienced actual or assumed returns of 20,000 people or more. With the exception of Vietnam, fourteen states are characterised by continuing conflicts or other political/military problems that are not conducive to return.’ The problem of wars not being absolutely over prior to return is not new, therefore. It has gained renewed prominence as the pressures for refugees to return home (or indeed not to leave home at all) have intensified in an era when states are increasingly reluctant to grant asylum (see, UNHCR, 1997c).

[12] I am grateful to David Moore for highlighting Jackson’s imperialist tendencies. To denote that the concept of quasi-statehood is used here descriptively, rather than carrying the full theoretical baggage of Jackson, I use inverted commas around the term.

[13] This remains the case where relief operations are running in parallel with development aid operations – in other words, whereas in situations of internationally contested legitimacy relief is likely to become the predominant mode of delivery of aid to the exclusion of development assistance, the converse is not the case.

[14] A phrase used by William Reno, but referring to a slightly different context (Reno, 1999).

[15] There is some potential for confusion between the Strategic Framework process initiated as UN system-wide mechanism for coordination and coherence by CCPOQ, and the UNHCR strategic framework for reintegration (UNHCR, 1997a). Unless stated, the term is used here to refer to the UN-wide Strategic Framework.

[16] The Sphere Project is a joint initiative by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, Interaction, VOICE (an umbrella group of NGOs receiving funding from the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO)), ICRC and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Its ‘Humanitarian charter and minimum standards in disaster response’ sets out humanitarian principles and defines technical standards for response in the areas of nutrition, food aid, water and sanitation, health and shelter.

[17] Interestingly, the whole idea of developmental relief is increasingly opening the way for aid agencies to invest in a similar way in non-state entities, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Sudan. Here rebel movements take on many of the empirical attributes of statehood – controlling territory, levying ‘taxes’ and to a greater or lesser extent facilitating the delivery of public welfare and security. Although they lack the juridical basis of sovereignty, the fact that external actors, including aid agencies engage with them reinforces their legitimacy, making them more powerful opponents to the juridical state (Clapham, 1996).

[18] Relief aid is usually delivered directly by relief agencies, whereas developmental aid is concerned to strengthen the ability of national institutions to finance and deliver services.

[19] For example, a forthcoming evaluation of humanitarian assistance provided by the Danish government aid agency Danida to Sudan notes the wide variety of positions in relation to developmental relief in SPLA- and government-held territories held by different bilateral bodies. These range from the US government aid agency USAID’s heavy investment in ‘development’ in some SPLA-held territory to that of the UK which holds that only a very narrow range of relief inputs should be provided (Overseas Development Institute, forthcoming).

[20] A similar tension is apparent in other negotiated political frameworks such as Operation Lifeline Sudan where the UN, specifically the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has the de facto responsibility for coordination of public welfare functions in rebel-held territory but lacks either political authority or military capacity to enforce its responsibilities (see Karim et al, 1996).

[21] And indeed to conform with the economism that has dominated development studies and assistance, particularly since the 1950s.

[22] Leftwich (1994) makes a similar point regarding the ‘technicisation’ of the governance agenda.

[23] Interestingly, a 1997 UNHCR policy paper on ‘Reintegration in the transition from war to peace’ explicitly sought to end the idea of handover, recognising that it implied continued adherence to what it saw as the outdated relief-development continuum model. However, the 1999 Operational Framework document implicitly assumes the idea of handover, stating: ‘UNHCR’s involvement should end as soon as possible, and at the latest after the completion of the transition phase. The programmes will then be progressively handed over to national, regional and local line departments with the support of the agencies involved in longer-term development of the country’, page 21, emphasis added.

[24] See, Chimni (1999) for a discussion contrasting pragmatic versus principled approaches to reintegration.

[25] But see, Chimni (1999) in UNHCR’s New Issues in Refugee Research series, Working Paper No. 2.

[26] In its contribution to the Brookings Institution discussion, UNHCR’s Division of International Protection highlighted the need to clarify the division of labour for monitoring the human rights situation of returnees. It also identified a role for UNHCR and others to provide assistance to national authorities to re-establish their capacity to protect their citizens, for example through judicial reform and support for civil groups engaged in human rights promotion activities. Thus protection activities are seen as buttressing efforts towards reconciliation and peace-building by enhancing the legitimacy of the state. Importantly, however, the paper does not appear to distinguish clearly between those situations where there is a genuine commitment on the part of the state to fulfil its protection role, and those where the state continues deliberately to violate the rights of sections of its citizenry. In other words, the conditions under which UNHCR engages in the capacity building of state institutions are not clear.

Africa’s World War in the DRC and International Consciousness

Virgil Hawkins



The world’s view of the state of armed conflict is severely distorted, in that it bears almost no resemblance to the actual scale or severity of conflicts in the world. This is primarily due to the highly selective and increasingly assimilated agendas of the media, policymakers, the public and academia. This situation results in ‘stealth conflicts’ – conflicts that are undetected and absent from these agendas. Using the massive conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the prime example of such stealth conflicts, this paper demonstrates how, for the past five years, the largest and deadliest conflict since World War II has been almost completely absent from international consciousness outside the region.


Perception defines our reality. Where access to information that may enhance our perception is limited, the reality we see becomes distorted and warped. Our view of the state of armed conflict in the world today is one of the most unfortunate victims of such distortion. In spite of supposedly unprecedented access to information, the information presented to us on conflicts occurring throughout the world is so skewed that the reality is almost unrecognisable. This is primarily due to the highly selective and increasingly assimilated agendas of the media, powerful governments, academics, NGOs and lobby groups. One or two of the 20 to 30 conflicts ongoing throughout the world are ‘chosen’ to be the subject of intense scrutiny and selective indignation – very rarely on the basis of scale or the level of humanitarian emergency. The others remain, to all intents and purposes, undetected – absent from international consciousness.

This is particularly true of the most conflict-torn region of the world – Africa, which has produced more than 90 percent of the conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War. Despite the scale of the human suffering, it seems that Western-centric consciousness (and outrage) ends at the Suez Canal. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which, from the perspective of media, public, policy and academic agendas outside the region, almost does not exist. In reality, it is a humanitarian catastrophe of virtually unfathomable proportions, caused by a war that has raged across more than half of a country almost the size of Western Europe, and has seen the direct military involvement of eight foreign countries. Not only is it the deadliest war in the world today, it is the deadliest since World War II, having resulted in an estimated 3.3 million conflict-related deaths since fighting broke out in August 1998.[1]

After introducing the concept of stealth conflicts and presenting a background of the conflict in the DRC, this paper will demonstrate the dynamics behind the almost complete marginalization of the conflict through an examination of media, policy, public and academic agendas in the Western world. Based on this examination, it attempts to systematize the concept of stealth conflicts. It concludes with a somewhat pessimistic outlook as to the possibility of a change in this disturbing distortion of reality.


Stealth Conflicts

Recognition that certain conflicts are marginalized and excluded from the media, policy and public agendas is not new.[2] Such conflicts are sometimes referred to as ‘forgotten conflicts’ or ‘orphan conflicts’. It can be considered, however, that these terms are misnomers. For a conflict to be ‘forgotten’, it must once have been ‘remembered’, or some significant attention given to its resolution. For a conflict to be ‘orphaned’, it must once have had ‘parents’ that were concerned with the well-being of the country in question.

The conflict in Somalia, or even that in Angola (to some extent), could be considered forgotten or orphan conflicts, for they were once remembered, and efforts (albeit unsuccessful) were made towards bringing about a conclusion to the hostilities. The lack of genuine and determined interest soon became apparent, however, and troop contributors withdrew and the ongoing conflicts were forgotten. The conflict in the DRC, however, does not fit this profile. It did not disappear from the ‘radar’ of international consciousness. The fact is, it was never really on it.

Perhaps the term ‘stealth conflict’ is more appropriate in such a case. If we consider the term in the context of the military technology that allows bombers to remain undetected on radar as they bomb their targets, certain parallels become apparent. Like the stealth bomber, the conflict in the DRC has caused a huge amount of death and destruction, while somehow remaining undetected on all of the manifestations of the international community’s radar screens. Those waging the war have not necessarily been deliberately secretive:[3] the conflict simply hasn’t been noticed by the outside world. The term can also be considered appropriate in the sense that the majority of those who have died in the war have been killed by stealth. They were not killed by noisy gunshots or explosions, but by starvation and/or preventable and treatable diseases directly resulting from people fleeing their homes and farms, the destruction of infrastructure, and the breakdown of agriculture, public services and supply lines.

Whether or not a conflict is noticed depends on the awareness of, and interaction among, the manifestations of international consciousness (the media, policymakers, the public and academia). Attempting to systematize the concept of stealth conflicts requires a more detailed examination of international consciousness in this sense, which is provided below. Suffice it to note at this point that the DRC is by no means the only stealth conflict. The majority of conflicts in the world do not appear (or appear only fleetingly) on the radar screens of international consciousness.

The conflict in the Sudan (which has resulted in more than 2 million deaths since 1983), for example, remains a very low priority on the policy agenda, and is totally absent from the media agenda. The later stages of the conflict and historic peace in Angola went by virtually unnoticed and unsupported. Other major conflicts, such as those in Algeria and the Republic of the Congo, are also almost completely ignored. Prolonged conflict in Liberia was briefly noticed only when rebels had already entered Monrovia and the question of possible US involvement was raised. Similarly, Burundi’s conflict received fleeting attention when Nelson Mandela (with celebrity status in the West) took on the role of mediator. While the USA, UK and Australia were invading Iraq, a democracy in the Central African Republic fell unnoticed, overthrown by an armed rebellion. These are just a few examples of conflicts that are routinely marginalized and ignored.

Nor is the stealth with which the victims in these conflicts die unique to the DRC. Contrary to popular belief, bullets and bombs (‘smart’ or otherwise) are not the biggest killers in modern-day war. Starvation and disease are by far the biggest killers in almost any war. The proportion of such ‘silent’ killings, however, is particularly pronounced in stealth conflicts, largely because conflicts that are undetected do not attract the attention or indignation of aid donors or humanitarian NGOs and are therefore unchecked.

What makes the DRC unique, however, is the scale (absolutely unparalleled in recent history) of death and suffering, coupled with the fact that despite this suffering, it has somehow managed to remain undetected. Let us put aside, for a moment, the millions of those who have been injured, tortured, raped, orphaned, forced to flee their homes, starved or have otherwise suffered as a result of the conflict in the DRC, and focus only on the number of those who have actually lost their lives: 3.3 million. Three point three million is a number so high that it is extremely difficult to fathom, especially when it is used to represent the number of human lives lost as a result of a catastrophic war. It is worth noting that more than 60 of the world’s countries have populations less than 3.3 million. To further emphasise the relative scale of the conflict, the following graph compares the death toll of the conflict in the DRC to other more ‘popular’ conflicts.

Africa conflict death


With jet airplanes, television, fax machines, computers, e-mail, internet, satellite videophones and other technological innovations, our ability to gather, process and disseminate any amount of information literally from anywhere in the world is at a level unprecedented in human history. Newspapers carrying detailed information of the day’s events around the world arrive on our doorsteps the next morning. So-called ‘world’ news now spews out of television sets on multiple cable channels twenty-four hours a day. With a computer and a telephone, the internet allows us to access any amount of real-time information from anywhere in the world at any time. Considering this, and in light of the massive scale of the conflict and unparalleled level of death and suffering, it can be considered that the DRC is, without a doubt, the greatest stealth conflict in human history.


Africa’s World War in the DRC

The DRC’s current conflict is extremely complex, and describing the conflict in a singular sense may be somewhat misleading. It is in fact an intertwined convergence of several conflicts – on local, national and regional levels – which are focused primarily on the eastern half of the country. It has its origins in the legacy (in terms of citizenship rights and land ownership) of forced migrations of Rwandan-speaking people under Belgian colonialism, in internal divisions exacerbated by decades of misrule under the US-backed Mobutu, in decades of ethnic conflict and refugee flows culminating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and in the spillover of five foreign civil wars deep into DRC territory.

Each of the players – the DRC government, the numerous rebel groups (and their often opposing factions), the local militias, and the eight foreign countries who have intervened militarily – has or has had different objectives and agendas. Interestingly, it has been primarily the interests of the surrounding African states, rather than those of the colonial masters or Cold War patrons, that have dictated the course of the conflict.[4] The hostile operations of rebel movements from bases in the DRC provided much of the rationale for intervention by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. The DRC’s relations with rebel movements from Angola and the Sudan also weighed heavily on their decision to intervene. Access to resources in the DRC has also been a key factor in foreign involvement on both sides, with deals between the DRC and Zimbabwe and Namibia in particular proving critical in securing their intervention.

The territory – which has an area roughly the size of Western Europe, covered in jungle – was cut virtually in half by the conflict. The terrain and lack of infrastructure do not generally allow long overland troop advances, and typical offensives saw troops transported by boat or plane, securing only major towns, ports, airfields and mines. Already delicate supply lines (most notably commercial traffic on the Congo River) needed to provide basic necessities to the general population have been largely cut off. Agriculture, health care and other public services have collapsed, particularly in the east.

In terms of a history of the conflict, the 1994 Rwandan genocide is perhaps an appropriate starting point. As the genocide passed its peak, Hutu perpetrators of the genocide, their families, and innocent civilians fearing reprisals, fled Rwanda as refugees into neighbouring Zaire as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) entered Rwanda from its bases in Uganda. In the refugee camps near the Rwandan-Zaire border, the Hutu militants regrouped, recruited and trained soldiers and, using the camps as bases, began to launch attacks against Rwanda. In response, Rwanda, together with Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Eritrea, entered the DRC in 1996 in support of a loose alliance of anti-Mobutu rebels. Rwandan forces broke up the refugee camps, and the Hutu militants fled deeper into Zaire. Finding little resistance in their pursuit, the anti-Mobutu alliance headed for Kinshasa, toppling the regime in 1997. Laurent Kabila was installed as president, and Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rifts soon developed in the friendship between the new government and the backers that had propelled it to power. Dissatisfied with Kabila’s failure to deal with the Hutu militias and other rebel groups based in the DRC, and confident that, having done it before, they could once again bring about regime change, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi troops crossed the border into the DRC in August 1998, allying with a new set of domestic groups opposed to the Kabila regime, and advanced rapidly across the country. Part two of Africa’s World War was underway.

Kabila moved quickly to attract support for his regime. Rwanda’s bold attempt to take Kinshasa from the west using airborne troops was foiled (much to its surprise) by Angolan intervention. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad and Sudan also rallied to Kabila’s call, and a stalemate ensued. The Lusaka Peace Accords were signed in 1999 by the countries involved and by the main Rwandan and Ugandan proxies – the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). The UN Security Council established an observer mission, which was later transformed into a small peacekeeping mission (known by its French acronym MONUC). The full deployment of the force was repeatedly delayed, and its role remains relatively negligible against the backdrop of the conflict.

Several other African peace initiatives have brought about numerous agreements, including a plan for an interim government pending elections, but the impact on the situation on the ground has been limited, particularly in Ituri, and the Kivus. While most of the foreign forces deployed in the DRC have now been withdrawn (Uganda began its withdrawal in April 2003), the internal conflict continues between Rwandan and Ugandan proxies (closely controlled by their backers), DRC Government forces and its allies, Mai Mai militia groups, Hutu militias and other rebel movements from neighbouring countries. Allies (most notably Rwanda and Uganda) have become enemies, and enemies, allies. Factions have split again into factions, and despite some positive developments, widespread and sustainable peace remains elusive.[5]

Ironically, the conflict is economically self-sustaining, thanks to the DRC’s mineral wealth. The continuation of the conflict perpetuates conditions favourable to the exploitation of the resources of the DRC by parties to the conflict (as well as the individuals representing these parties) and opportunistic corporations and individuals. Many such entities have been implicated in the final report of the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[6] Apart from the parties to the conflict, those implicated include multinational corporations based in Belgium, the UK, the USA and South Africa. While resources exploited include diamonds, gold, silver, copper and timber, it is coltan – a mineral that is an essential component in mobile phones and other electronic devices – that has been the most influential resource in the conflict.[7]


International Consciousness and the DRC

International consciousness is used in this study to refer to the collective contents of the agendas of the media, policymakers, the public and academics.[8] The position of the conflict in the DRC in relation to each of these agendas will be dealt with individually below, but it is necessary first to examine briefly how these agendas interact – giving birth to stealth conflicts.

Agenda-setting research to date seems to support the hypothesis that the media agenda plays a key role in shaping the public agenda, and that the public agenda in turn affects the policy agenda (through public opinion and powerful lobby groups).[9] While the full extent of the so-called CNN-factor is not completely understood, it can be considered that policymakers and the media both exert considerable influence over each other. Clever policymakers use the media to broadcast their policies and raise the position of an agenda item.[10] Conversely, where there is indecision or indifference among policymakers, saturated media coverage can propel an item into a high position on the policy agenda.[11] Collectively, academics are able to project some influence on the policy agenda, but are also subject to considerable influence from the policy and media agendas, as will be demonstrated below.

Whatever the dynamics of the projection of influence, it can be considered that all of these agendas have become tightly intertwined, with each feeding off and mimicking the one that takes the lead in agenda setting (usually the policymakers and sometimes the media). Ironically, this is partly a reflection of the assimilation of the flow of information in society, rather than the diversification that might have been expected with the explosion of the internet and other advances in information technology. The dissemination of information technology has led to a greatly pronounced bandwagon effect in and between all sectors of agenda setting.

In terms of conflict, the media, policymakers, the public, and even academics have shown that collectively, they are only able to consciously process one or two conflicts at a time.[12] Thus, usually at a rate of about one a year, a conflict is ‘chosen’ to be the subject of intense scrutiny (primarily based on the interests of powerful policymakers), and it will appear as a blinding spot in the centre of policy, media, public and academic radar screens – obscuring all other points of possible interest. In 1999 it was Kosovo (and later East Timor), followed by a minor upsurge in violence in Israel-Palestine in 2000.[13] The 9-11 attacks and war on Afghanistan covered late 2001 and early 2002, and a non-conflict (and in fact non-crisis) situation in Iraq was taken up as the chosen conflict-to-be for late 2002 to early 2003.

In the absence of such a blinding spot, other conflicts (or developments in peace processes) will sometimes make appearances on international consciousness, such as Kashmir, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, and Sierra Leone. For the past 5 years, the conflict in the DRC, however, has been notably absent, not only from the list of chosen conflicts, but even from the list of peripheral conflicts that appeared on Western radar screens.


The Media Agenda

In this era of increasingly competitive commercial mass media, simplicity and sensationalism are the keys, and news is commonly packaged as a form of infotainment. Coverage of conflict is highly oversimplified and is typically forced into the framework of a Hollywood-style morality play – complete with villain, victim and hero.[14] As a product to be bought and sold, news must also be ‘fresh’ – live coverage is certainly preferable, and any story that takes more than a day or two to reach and report is deemed unworthy of reporting.[15] Competition has also seen budgets for newsgathering slashed, such that rather than stationing reporters in the field, news corporations rely heavily on news gathered from government officials in the reporters’ home countries. This has considerably raised the influence of Western governments in agenda setting.[16]

With all these factors in mind, the odds are certainly stacked against the DRC making an appearance on the media agenda. Firstly, it is far too complex to be bent to fit a simple morality play formula, or to be marketed as a product that can easily be understood in a thirty-second sound bite by the consumer. Secondly, its location does not allow its stories to reach the market as fresh news. With the terrain, lack of infrastructure and sheer distances involved, it may take days (and considerable cost, danger and/or discomfort) for a camera crew or reporter to find a story. Thirdly, the media industry is wary of perceived compassion fatigue in the West (dating back to its saturation coverage of war and famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s) with regards to the suffering of black Africans.[17] Finally, as the DRC is not on the radars of Western governments, it does not appear on those of a media industry that has a tendency to take its cues from the government.

For all of these reasons, gatekeepers in the media industry decided (and have continued to decide over the past five years) that covering the DRC conflict is simply not worth the cost or effort that would be required. The dominance of a handful of powerful Western media corporations and the bandwagon effect ensure that this blackout is practically universal. In a study that ranked the level of coverage of conflicts in television news and newspapers in the year 2000, the lack of coverage on the DRC and the nature of the ‘other side’ of the CNN factor were made abundantly clear.[18] The DRC was barely noticed by CNN and BBC world news, being the 14th and 15th most-covered conflict, respectively. In terms of coverage time, a viewer who watched one 30-minute program of world news every day on CNN and BBC would have seen just 16 minutes of coverage of the DRC conflict on CNN and 29 minutes on BBC over the entire year. The same viewer would have seen 8 hours and 34 minutes on CNN and 9 hours and 41 minutes on BBC of coverage of the small-scale clashes in Israel-Palestine.

Nor was the DRC on the radars of the newspapers. It was 8th and 11th most-covered conflict in the New York Times and Le Monde, respectively, and did not even register in Japan’s Yomiuri Shinbun. In all three newspapers, its coverage was but a fraction of that of other conflicts. Coverage of the DRC was one-twelfth of that of Israel-Palestine in the New York Times, and one-eighteenth in Le Monde.[19] The sad truth is that one can be a regular viewer of cable TV news, and read newspapers from cover to cover, and still have very little idea of what is happening in the world.

Even non-governmental media watchdog organisations critical of the media fail to notice the glaring omission of the DRC (or other major African conflicts) from the media. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), for example, largely concerns itself with exposing the rampant patriotism and self-censorship in the Western media. While this is a valid pursuit, in commenting primarily on the content of topics the media chooses to take up, it also ignores the topics that the media ignores. Among FAIR’s numerous articles and broadcasts since the war in the DRC broke out in 1998, only 1 article was devoted to the DRC (among a total of 11 on Africa). In contrast, more than 50 were devoted to Israel-Palestine, and more than 70 to Iraq.[20]


The Policy Agenda

Presidents, prime ministers, politicians and their spokespersons contribute significantly to the distortion of reality regarding the state of conflict, adjusting it to suit their policy goals. Those hoping to maintain the status quo, or avoid getting involved in a conflict, ignore (or downplay) injustice and human rights abuse. Those beating war drums single out (and often exaggerate) examples of injustice and human rights abuse. It was government policy under the Clinton Administration in the USA, for example, to avoid the use of the word ‘genocide’ in reference to what was clearly an ongoing genocide in Rwanda, to avoid involvement.[21] There were no such qualms in responding to a low-intensity conflict in Kosovo, and great liberties were taken with the use of the word in an attempt to justify NATO’s war.

The ugly reality is that injustice and human rights abuse exist in every country in the world, in varying degrees, and the level of outrage displayed by governments, to these situations, is very rarely proportionate to the degree of injustice. The deafening silence on the DRC makes it painfully obvious that the assertion that there are certain levels of killing, human rights abuse and human suffering that the West simply will not tolerate (an assertion used, for example, to justify the war on Yugoslavia), is little more than rhetoric designed to pursue narrow foreign policy objectives.

Disproportionate levels of humanitarian assistance provided by governments are one of the most telling signs of distorted Western policy radars. Lamenting “double standards” in an address to the UN Security Council, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WPF), James Morris, commented that “commitments to humanitarian aid are political choices”, and posed the question, “How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any part of the world?”[22] A comparison of the total amount of humanitarian aid offered in response to (as well as outside) consolidated appeals by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) for complex emergencies is quite revealing:[23]


Total humanitarian assistance: Jan. 1999 – Jun. 2003 (millions of US dollars)

DRC Great Lakes S.E. Europe East Timor Afghanistan Iraq
349 574 1,493 180 1,741 1,044


Four and a half years of appeals for the DRC attracted only 349 million US dollars. This pales in comparison to the more than 1 billion dollars raised in just 3 months for Iraq, or the 1.7 billion for one and a half years in Afghanistan, or the 1.5 billion for four years in South-Eastern Europe. The 180 million raised for tiny East Timor in less than one year was more than the amount raised for the DRC in any year – it was fifteen times that raised for the DRC in 2000. Even if we add the contributions for the four and a half years of appeals for the Great Lakes region and Central Africa[24] – the most conflict-prone region in the world – the total (923 million) still does not compare with the assistance provided for much smaller and much shorter conflicts.

Likewise, in the realm of peacemaking, high-level mediation from outside the continent has been notably absent. While some low-key attempts at diplomacy with a view to achieving some limited objectives have been made, such as the UK’s mediation meetings with Rwanda and Uganda (referred to as “little more than photo opportunities over cups of tea”[25]), and the US pressuring Rwanda to withdraw from the DRC, there remains little will in the West to become even politically involved in a solution. Furthermore, given the economic involvement of numerous Western multinationals and arms sales, rather than being pure apathy, there remains the possibility that Western inaction may be an indication that benefits from the continuation of conflict outweigh those of its conclusion – a view that is supported by allegations of covert involvement in the hostilities,[26] and the blocking of peacekeeping reinforcements.[27]

The DRC has not been absent from UN Security Council discussions (although it did take seven months for the Council to adopt a resolution on the issue), and the Council has continued to call for an end to the conflict through press statements, presidential statements and resolutions. With next to no political will among its members, however, little else has been done.[28] A token peacekeeping force was authorised in 2000 but the deployment has been marked by lengthy delays,[29] and was still not fully deployed in mid-2003. The decision to deploy peacekeepers appeared to be made largely out of a need to be seen to be ‘doing something’, after accusations of double standards following interventions in Kosovo and East Timor. In any case, deploying peacekeepers (as opposed to peace enforcers) where there was no peace to keep, and doing so in such small numbers, was clearly an inappropriate (and highly dangerous) response: a Band-Aid solution.

Sadly, the United Nations Secretariat and its affiliated agencies are not immune to the pressures of lopsided international consciousness, and are forced to adapt to the realities that surround and govern them. The UN agencies that set up the consolidated appeals for humanitarian aid cannot control the amount that is donated or pledged, but the setting of the amount requested reveals trends similar to those of the donors. OCHA’s flash appeal for Iraq, for example, was the largest ever, with a request of more than 2.2 billion dollars for just 6 months. The total amount requested from five years of appeals for the DRC and the Great Lakes region and Central Africa combined was only 1.4 billion.

Publications and websites of UN agencies also reveal tendencies to follow the popular conflicts of the times. In May 2003, for example, the UN main homepage displayed special links to Iraq, the Middle East ‘Roadmap’, and terrorism, as did the UN News Centre. Other agencies, such as UNICEF, UNDP and OCHA also displayed special links to pages on Iraq on their main homepages.


The Public Agenda

The conflict in the DRC has attracted so little attention in the media and policy agendas that, collectively, the public – completely at the mercy of media and policy agenda setting – has virtually no idea that the conflict even exists.

For example, in a simple questionnaire survey, 37 Australian university students taking a course on war and peace, were asked to name what they thought were the three deadliest conflicts in the world, and the three deadliest African conflicts since the end of the Cold War, as well as the conflict they thought, in terms of humanitarian suffering, was most in need of a solution.[30] Of the 37, only one person could name the DRC as one of the top three deadliest conflicts in the world (and that was at third, behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan). The most common response was that the Israel-Palestine conflict was the deadliest (9), and an astonishing 21 (more than half) thought that, in terms of humanitarian suffering, that conflict was the most in need of a solution. Only one could name the DRC as the deadliest conflict in Africa (13 could not even name a single African conflict). While the sample size is small, it serves as an example of how distorted the public’s view on conflict is – particular as those surveyed could be expected to have an above-average interest in (and knowledge of) the subject.[31]

Foreign policy polling services also reveal significant imbalances in awareness of conflict in the world, with a lack of mention of the DRC, and Africa in general. Gallup polls on foreign policy, for example, focus on China, Cuba, Iraq, Kosovo, the Middle East and Russia. No references to the DRC were returned in searches for references to the DRC on the Gallup website, demonstrating a total absence of the subject, whereas similar searches resulted in 75 references to Israel and 59 to Kosovo.[32] It should also be noted that of the 26 offices Gallup has established around the world, none is based in Africa.

Powerful and well-organised lobby groups, primarily made up of diasporas and groups with ethnic and/or religious ties to countries or regions affected by conflict, are also able to influence the position of a conflict on the radar of international consciousness. Lobby groups connected to Israel and, to a lesser extent, Palestine, for example, are largely responsible for maintaining a constant and disproportionately high level of Western media, policy, public and academic interest in the relatively minor Israeli-Palestinian conflict. African diasporas (much less those of the DRC) are not sufficiently unified, organised, powerful or motivated to influence the position of African conflicts on the various manifestations of international consciousness.[33]

Humanitarian NGOs are another manifestation of the public agenda. Such organisations are dependent on donations from the general public and government funding – making them highly susceptible to the bandwagon effect. Capitalizing on public sentiment created by the media and policymakers, many NGOs, in an effort to increase donations to their organisation and expand their sphere of influence, set up special appeals (even advertising in newspapers and on television) for donations for the victims of popular conflicts. They also take advantage of heavy government funding for NGO projects in such conflict (or post-conflict) zones. Similarly, television stations set up hotlines for donations, and rock stars (or coalitions of rock stars) hold charity concerts or produce charity albums in response to the popular conflicts of the times. The conflict in the DRC has yet to be the recipient of such attention.

The public’s lopsided view of the world shows in the comparative levels of private contributions to OCHA’s humanitarian appeals. Four and a half years of appeals for the DRC and the Great Lakes and Central Africa combined raised but one-thirty-eighth of the amount raised for South-Eastern Europe, one-thirty-second of that for one and a half years for Afghanistan, and one-fifth of that for just 3 months for Iraq.


Private contributions to OCHA appeals: Jan. 1999 – Jun. 2003 (millions of US dollars)[34]

DRC Great Lakes S.E. Europe East Timor Afghanistan Iraq
1.4 0.5 77.2 2.7 65.4 10.3


The internet has been hailed as a revolutionary tool in empowering the public to be in control of the information they can access. In theory, it should allow the public to circumvent the biases of the media and policymakers, and access information that better reflects reality. Unlike the newspapers, radio and television, however, the internet requires active participation in searching for specific information.[35] Thus, without initial interest and some background knowledge, the information will not be accessed in the first place. In this sense, conventional media (based on passive audience participation) remain infinitely more powerful than the internet in agenda-setting.


The Academic Agenda

One of the most important functions of academics in the field of international politics, relations and policy, is to step back and grasp the ‘big picture’ – seeing the world in an objective light that policymakers are generally incapable of. From such a vantage point, academics are (in theory) able to educate and advise policymakers. They also bear the responsibility for the recording of human history. All too often, however, the academic community follows the cues of its governments, devoting its attention to areas in which powerful Western governments are interested or involved. Objective analysis is generally made within the boundaries of those areas.

NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia over Kosovo, for example, was matched with a bombardment of academic studies and analytical thinking. ‘Humanitarian intervention’ and ‘sovereignty’ were the resulting buzzwords that dominated the academic journals and books in the years that followed. The 9-11 attacks on the USA and the war on Afghanistan made ‘terrorism’ the blinding spot on the academic radar. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has since brought the issue of imposed democracy to the forefront of the academic agenda, along with the related question of the relevance of the UN Security Council. It is ironic that the illegal war on Iraq, rather than the marginalization of the DRC, has been the trigger in the academic community’s questioning of the effectiveness of the Council.

The failure of the Western academic community to adequately analyse the world’s largest conflict since World War II (or most other African conflicts, for that matter), can only be described as collective academic negligence, and brings into question the very relevance of the security studies field to the modern world. With very few exceptions,[36] Western periodicals that deal with international affairs have failed to devote even a single article to analysis of the DRC. Such journals tend to devote more articles to the issue of Israel-Palestine than to the entire African continent.[37] The Keesings Record of World Events is also an example of how the recording of history is being skewed. In 1999, for example, its issues contained a total of approximately 35 pages of writing on Yugoslavia (Kosovo), compared to 5 for the DRC. In 2002, 32 pages on Israel-Palestine overshadowed the 3 pages devoted to the DRC. In the four years from 1999 to 2002, it contained a total of 81 pages on Israel-Palestine, 66 on Yugoslavia, 30 on Afghanistan and only 15 on the DRC.[38]

A similar trend can be seen in books and other academic works. A search in May 2003 of a database of books and documents available (published since 1999) on the DRC in all Japanese universities revealed a total of 11 relevant works – in English and French. An identical search for those relating to Kosovo revealed more than 120 works in over five languages.[39] In its 1999 yearbook, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) offered individual chapters of analysis on the Middle East, Russia, the Caspian Sea and Europe in its ‘Security and Conflict’ section, but no chapters were devoted to Africa’s major security issue in the DRC (or anywhere else on the continent).[40] In-depth analysis was also notably absent from its yearbooks of 2000, 2001 and 2002, with the focus being on Europe.[41]

Several explanations can be suggested for this marginalization. Academics do not conduct research in a vacuum: they watch the news, read newspapers and listen to their government officials and spokespeople. Research sparked by such triggers makes academics victims of the bandwagon effect. Furthermore, analysis is often contingent on the documents, information, and prior research available, which leads to a vicious cycle. The less information there is available to begin with, the less research academics can conduct without expending considerable effort. Finally, the seduction of influence, prestige and sales can mean that the works that academic societies and book-writers produce are often focused around the ‘fashionable’ topics of the times.

A considerable amount of credit must go to organisations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), for being some of the very few organisations attempting to draw attention to the conflict, by providing analysis, a record of history, and a record of the number of deaths. In contrast, hundreds of zealous reporters and numerous other organisations provide daily updates and analysis of the conflict and the number of conflict casualties in Israel-Palestine, ensuring that casualty figures are presented down to the single digits. Despite the efforts of such organisations as the ICG and IRC in the DRC, the conflict is still in danger of being denied its place in history.


Systematizing the Concept of Stealth Conflicts

Using the above discussion, it is possible to further develop and somewhat systematize the concept of stealth conflicts, with a view to enhancing its applicability to the world at large. Stealth conflicts are those that are consistently absent from policy, media, public and academic agendas, and typically have a pronounced level of inadequately addressed human suffering. While forgotten, or orphaned, conflicts are those that have, in the past, been the recipients of sustained international consciousness and interest, stealth conflicts consistently fail to attract such attention throughout their course (although they may make occasional fleeting appearances in extreme or unique circumstances).

Examining the factors that bring conflicts onto the radar of international consciousness is useful in understanding stealth conflicts. As noted above, the agendas of the manifestations of international consciousness have become increasingly intertwined, with closely linked policy and media agendas largely dictating public and mainstream academic agendas. As such, the factors most warranting our attention are those that determine policy and media interest.

Strategic interest is the key determinant of policy interest. A conflict becomes a high priority for a government when it affects that country’s strategic interests. Such interests may be related to perceived direct military threats (including terrorism), access to (or control over) natural resources (as in the Middle East region), an influx of refugees (as in Haiti, the Balkans, East Timor), or other potentially damaging influxes, such as narcotics (as in Colombia). For these reasons, strategic interest is generally closely linked to geographical proximity. A conflict also becomes a high priority for a government when it affects the strategic interests of the government itself (in terms of re-election). In this way, powerful special-interest groups in the public domain affect the level of policy interest in a conflict (as in Israel-Palestine).

The media interest is sparked largely by government interest (or at least by the same factors that spark government interest), but there are some factors that affect media interest differently. Compared to policy interest, media interest is more influenced by ease of access to the conflict in question (in terms of obtaining visual images of the conflict or the humanitarian suffering). Hostile terrain and poor infrastructure in Colombia and the Sudan, for example, severely limit media interest, despite some policy interest by the USA. Violent targeting of journalists, such as that in Algeria, and government restriction of journalism, such as that in the Sudan, also serve as barriers. Sensationalism is also more pronounced than it is in the policy agenda. In Rwanda, sensationalism (large-scale massacres) combined with access (reporters coincidentally returning from the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa) propelled the conflict to chosen status, but sensationalism alone under similar circumstances in Burundi was an insufficient trigger. The plight of white people (farmers in Zimbabwe, Western hostages in the Philippines and Colombia) is also a key factor in prompting media interest.

Drawing a clear line marking the boundaries of stealth conflicts would be an academic (and not particularly useful) exercise. International consciousness of conflicts may range from virtually non-existent to obsessive, and also fluctuates depending on the conflict stage. Generally, however, it can be said that there is a yawning gap between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts, and that there are few conflicts between the two extremes: as in those that attract a relatively consistent amount of low-level attention. It is perhaps the media’s commercially-driven appetite for sensationalism that has contributed the most to this yawning gap. The media’s habit of seizing upon a single conflict and providing saturation coverage of only that conflict not only makes it difficult for the policymakers, public or academia to ignore, but also makes it difficult for them to notice the existence of other conflicts.

In any case, it is, ironically, African conflicts that are the furthest from the radar screens of international consciousness, despite the fact that Africa is host to the vast majority of world conflicts. Most African conflicts are geographically and economically removed from Western strategic interests, are not easily accessible, are highly complex, do not involve white people, and are not followed by powerful diasporas in the West. These are the key factors that leave almost all African conflicts in the unfortunate status of stealth conflicts.


Recent Developments and Conclusions

In May 2003, the DRC made a brief appearance on the periphery of Western radar screens. Seven hundred Uruguayan peacekeepers that had arrived in the town of Bunia (to fill the vacuum left by the Ugandan withdrawal) found themselves severely outnumbered, under siege, and struggling to protect themselves (together with thousands of civilians), as militias battled for control of the town. The situation appeared ominously similar in nature to past tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. Two peacekeepers were killed and the UN Secretary-General frantically lobbied members of the international community, calling on them to intervene.

The international community responded. France agreed to lead a small Interim Emergency Multinational Force including troops from South Africa, Britain, Sweden and Pakistan, and the UN Security Council authorised the force on 30 May.[42] It was the first time in almost 7 years that the Council had authorised a peace enforcement mission for Africa (and even that had been aborted).[43]

Although a positive development, the appearance of the DRC on Western radar screens was prompted more by the sight of peacekeepers in danger, and by parallels drawn with the Rwandan genocide, than by the need to implement a comprehensive solution to the conflict.[44] The reluctance of the West to rise to the pleas of the UN Secretary-General was evident, and (after some delay) France agreed to lead the mission (providing roughly half of the 1,400 troops) only with support from others, only in the small town of Bunia and its airport, and only as a temporary, three-month stopgap measure until the blue-helmet peacekeepers could be reinforced.[45]

At worst, the French-led intervention can perhaps be described as a token force, deployed to project the appearance of ‘doing something’ – to be seen righting the wrongs of Rwanda. At best, it can be described as a good start. The Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations, speaking of the UN peacekeeping force, noted that the “stand that has been taken in Bunia – a small place in a remote part of very large country – was sending a very strong signal way beyond Ituri [province]. It is of critical importance how the international community is now going to follow-up in the coming months.”[46]

The international community’s follow-up has been mixed. The French force withdrew and was replaced by an expanded blue-helmet peacekeeping force as scheduled. Arms sanctions were also applied (for the first time) to armed groups operating in Ituri and the Kivus. At the same time, Western interest and follow-up (in terms of diplomatic, military and humanitarian involvement) proved to be fleeting. The DRC’s distance from Western interests and culture, the size of the country (together with its inhospitable terrain and lack of infrastructure), and the magnitude, complexity and depth of its conflict still present formidable obstacles to meaningful international consciousness. While local African efforts to bring about a comprehensive solution appear to be bearing some fruit, the resources that African nations can bring to bear on conflict resolution are but a fraction of those of the West, and will probably be insufficient to bring about a just and lasting peace.

In terms of the policy agenda, one proposal tabled for meaningful Western intervention, was a ‘curtain of troops’ along the DRC’s Rwandan and Ugandan borders.[47] This could go a long way towards assuaging the security concerns of those countries and raising the overall stability of the region. The politically dangerous and expensive long-term deployment of troops, however, is not the only form of response available to the West. The careful targeting of arms (or other) sanctions and, equally importantly, the diligent enforcement of such sanctions, can also serve as a useful response. Increased and more involved diplomatic pressure – even if conducted discreetly – is also an option that should be pursued. At the very least, greater involvement in providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict, can potentially save a considerable number of lives, even though it is unlikely to contribute to conflict resolution.

How then do we go about putting the DRC on the radar of international consciousness? This is a question not easily answered, given the near-total absence of the factors shown above to draw attention to conflicts. The example of Somalia, however, does provide some room for hope. It is thought that the trigger for Somalia’s rise to prominence was the initiative of certain agencies within the US government – namely the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) – in an effort to draw the attention of other parts of the government to the conflict.[48] This, in turn, acted as a trigger for the media and the bandwagon effect took over. The DRC is not Somalia, and Somalia certainly had the fortune of being relatively accessible, but like the DRC, it was a highly complex conflict fought between black Africans where little Western strategic interest existed, and it shows that even an internal government agency has the potential to act as a trigger for drawing attention to a stealth conflict. Perhaps academics are also in a position to act as a trigger – particularly those within advisory range of the government, or a well-planned academic movement that manages to rope in media interest.

The dynamics of international consciousness make stealth conflicts inevitable, but given its massive scale, and the considerable implications for regional security, the DRC should not be one of them. Without some bold rearranging of priorities by the media, policymakers, the public and academics to break the cycle of silence and realign themselves with reality, the conflict in the DRC will remain absent from international consciousness outside the region, and left out of the very pages of history – the greatest stealth conflict of all time.


[1] The International Rescue Committee (IRC) produced this estimation of the death toll, after a series of investigations to determine the number of people who had died above and beyond that which would have been expected under stable circumstances. While 3.3 million is regarded as the most accurate estimate, the IRC acknowledges that its estimate could vary between 3.0 and 4.7 million. See the International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey, Conducted September – November 2002, reported April 2003.

[2] See, for example, ‘Forgotten Humanitarian Crises’, Conference Paper, Conference on the Role of the Media, Decision-Makers and Humanitarian Agencies, Copenhagen, 23 October 2002.

[3] Although both Rwanda and Uganda denied their troops were present in the DRC for several months after the conflict began.

[4] For further discussion on African involvement, see John F. Clark ed., The African Stakes of the Congo War, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

[5] For more detailed background on the conflict, see Jakkie Cilliers and Mark Malan, Peacekeeping in the DRC, MONUC and the Road to Peace, ISS Monograph No. 66 October 2001; Africa’s Seven Nation War, ICG Democratic Republic of Congo Report No. 4, 21 May 1999; and Storm Clouds over Sun City: The Urgent Need to Recast the Congolese Peace Process, ICG Africa Report No.44, Brussels/Nairobi, 14 May 2002.

[6] UN document S/2002/1146.

[7] See also The Kivus: The Forgotten Crucible of the Congo Conflict, ICG Africa Report No. 56, Nairobi/Brussels, 24 January, 2003, pp. 23-26.

[8] Studies on agenda-setting function tend to focus on the relationship between three main components: the media agenda, the public agenda and the policy agenda. For the purposes of this study, the academic agenda is added, recognising its role in influencing the policy agenda and in the recording of history.

[9] Everett M. Rogers, and James W. Dearing, ‘Agenda-setting Research: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Going?’, in Media Power in Politics, Graber ed., Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc, 1994.

[10] See Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus, ‘Humanitarian Crisis and US Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered’, Political Communication, Vol. 12, 1995, pp. 413-429.

[11] See Piers Robinson, ‘The Policy-Media Interaction Model: Measuring Media Power During Humanitarian Crisis’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 5, 2000, pp. 613-633.

[12] Ironically, BBC world news continued to use its slogan “Demand a broader view” in early 2003 as it broadcast week upon week of around-the-clock coverage of war in Iraq and nothing else. Apparently, the broader view we are asked to demand refers only to the view within the particular news item that is the subject of narrow focus, and even that aspect of the coverage is highly questionable.

[13] Largely due to constant media interest/presence interlinked with the far-reaching influence of powerful lobby groups, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and related peace process is a rare instance of a conflict that manages to maintain a relatively permanent place on international radars even when it is not a blinding spot.

[14] See John C. Hammock and Joel R. Charny, ‘Emergency Response as Morality Play: The Media, the Relief Agencies, and the Need for Capacity Building’, in From Massacres to Genocide: the Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crisis, Rotberg and Weiss eds., Massachusetts: the World Peace Foundation, 1996, pp. 115-116.

[15] CNN’s slogan “Be the first to know” is quite revealing – the speed of reporting is clearly considered more valuable than accuracy, quality, breadth or depth.

[16] See Jonathan Mermin, Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[17] See Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue, New York: Routledge, 1999.

[18] Virgil Hawkins, ‘The Other Side of the CNN Factor: Media and Conflict’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 225-240.

[19] Measured by taking the area (in square centimetres) of newspaper articles related to each particular conflict. As an overall trend in any of the mass media, only sensational stories (like the volcanic eruption near Goma in January 2002 and passengers being sucked from a cargo plane with a faulty door in mid-flight in May 2003) are likely to be covered.

[20] See

[21] See William Ferroggiaro ed., The US and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994, A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, August 20, 2001,

[22] ‘40 million Africans on brink of starvation, Security Council told’, UN News Service, 7 April 2003.

[23] See the OCHA Financial Tracking System,

[24] While a small portion of this appeal goes to the DRC, it is designed for the entire region, covering Burundi, DRC, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

[25] See Francois Grignon, ‘There will be no excuses for not knowing’, Observer, 25 May 2003.

[26] See John Kakande, ‘US Army Operated Secretly in Congo’, New Vision, 17 June 2001. See also John Kamau, ‘Is the Congo facing a second betrayal?’, The Nation, 6 June 2003.

[27] See Grignon, op.cit.

[28] For a discussion on the marginalization of African conflicts in the Security Council, see Virgil Hawkins, ‘Measuring UN Security Council action and inaction in the 1990s: Lessons for Africa?’, African Security Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2003.

[29] See Mark Malan and Henri Boshoff, ‘A 90-day plan to bring peace to the DRC? An analysis of the Pretoria Agreement of 30 July 2002’, ISS Paper, No. 61, September 2002.

[30] Surveys conducted by Yasmin Hawkins, May 2003.

[31] For further analysis on the public’s understanding of conflict, see Greg Philo, ‘Television news and audience understanding of war, conflict and disaster’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 173-186.

[32] Search conducted on 31 October 2003. See Searches using the keyword of Africa revealed 15 ‘hits’.

[33] Liberia is one notable exception, where a loose grassroots coalition known as Liberia Watch successfully lobbied the USA for a 200 million dollar aid package for Liberia. The status of Liberia as a former unofficial US ‘colony’ was undoubtedly a key factor in the decision.

[34] The total amount of contributions marked by OCHA as from private or NGO sources, or from the National Committees of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). See the OCHA Financial Tracking System,

[35] News sites on the internet most commonly accessed are those offered by conventional television news and newspapers, and so the resulting bias is basically the same. According to a study by the internet search engine, Google, the three most-accessed online news resources in 2001 were CNN, BBC and the New York Times. See

[36] See David Shearer, ‘The Conflict in Central Africa: Africa’s Great War’, Survival, Summer 1999, Vol. 41, No. 2: pp.89-106; and Koen Vlassenroot and Hans Romkema, ‘The Emergence of a New Order? Resources and War in Eastern Congo’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance,, October 2002.

[37] Foreign Affairs, for example, devoted 6 articles to the African continent (none related to the DRC) and 14 to Israel-Palestine in the five years from mid-1998 to mid-2003.

[38] Figures compiled by Reiko Okumura.

[39] See

[40] See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[41] The DRC did appear, however, in an appendix to the 2000 yearbook.

[42] UN Security Council Resolution 1484 (2003).

[43] According to a UN diplomat (interview with author, New York, December 2000), the USA backed out of the intervention proposed for Eastern Zaire in 1996 primarily due to a lack of media interest. See also Simon Massey, ‘Operation Assurance: The Greatest Intervention That Never Happened’, The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance,, February 1998.

[44] The flashpoint in Bunia is being seen in isolation from the broader conflict across the DRC by the media (for the sake of simplicity) and the policymakers (to avoid a broader involvement).

[45] See Colum Lynch, ‘UN’s focus diminishes efforts on Africa’s troubles’, Washington Post, 25 May 2003.

[46] ‘UN official calls for international backing of political process’, United Nations News Service, 4 June 2003.

[47] This notion was raised by France during a Council mission to the DRC and later appeared in UN Security Council Resolution 1417 (2002).

[48] See Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus, ‘Humanitarian Crisis and US Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered’, Political Communication, Vol. 12, 1995, pp. 413-429; and Jonathan Mermin, ‘Television News and American Intervention in Somalia: The Myth of a Media-Driven Foreign Policy’, Political Science Quarterly, Vo. 112, No. 3, 1997, pp. 385-404.

Mechanisms for Conflict Management in West Africa: Politics of Harmonization

Mechanisms for Conflict Management in West Africa: Politics of Harmonization

Ambassador Olu Adeniji

The pattern of co-operation in West Africa has been marked in a most remarkable manner by its colonial past. Among the sub-regions into which the OAU has divided Africa, none has been polarised as West Africa. Indeed the sub-region was described as the most varied in Africa in terms of the size of countries, colonially inherited languages, the levels of economic development, and linkages, both internal and external.1 Of the 16 countries of the sub-region, 9 are Francophone, 5 Anglophone, and 2 Lusophone. In no other sub-region are there so many countries with such a mixture of colonial experiences; a situation which in the post colonial era dictated the nature of regional multilateral co-operation and institutions.

Great Britain and France were obviously the dominant colonial powers in the sub-region. The totally different concepts of colonialism were reflected in the post-colonial legacies. Though Britain had a long and intense contact with West Africa in the pre-colonial era, it was one dictated by commercial considerations. The competition which British merchants had to face from other Europeans for merchandise and slaves led to the establishment of bases on the west African coast, and the expansion into the hinterland. For Britain, therefore, it can be said that mercantilism propelled the later acquisition of colonies. The French on the other hand, saw their mission as a necessity for maintaining France’s status as a major power, thus the integration of the colonial territories as outposts of metropolitan France and the attempt at assimilation of the people. The development of a commercial policy towards the colonies and the build up of the necessary military power came after the great period of colonial expansion, whose principal incentive for the expansion was the political ambition to create a Greater France and enhance its role as a world power. Whereas Britain in the post Second World War years was rather quick to reconcile herself to the prospect of independence of her colonies in West Africa, the colonial consensus which existed in France at that period was as such to make decisions in favour of granting independence to the colonial territories very difficult. The African empire in particular, which had contributed so much to France’s war effort, was seen as an important source of prestige and state power. That power was most conspicuously maintained in black Africa.2

Post-Independence in West Africa

Post-independence West Africa thus became hostage, as it were, to the vagary of the imperial powers’ attitude to independence. Even if Britain was not without the desire to maintain some control after independence, it did not seek, except in the ill fated Defence Pact with Nigeria, to formalise such links. Thus the Anglophone West African states, in demonstrating their independence, found it easy to embark on the severance of such links as could be seen as abridging their new status. By contrast, and in accordance with what was virtually a conditionality of independence, every Francophone West African state maintained a ‘Co-operation Agreement’ with France. As was summarised by Albert Bourgi, ‘the new type of relationship with France under the name of co-operation was aimed to temper the process of independence which had become irreversible and to prolong, if not to consolidate beyond the indispensable political and juridical changes, the multifarious presence of the former colonizer: presence of a great number of technocrats for some time, of its army in key strategic locations, control of economic and financial life, guaranteed outlets and sources of certain articles and linguistics hegemony’.3

No doubt, therefore, that the shadow of France has loomed large in the West African sub-region through the special relationship maintained with its former colonies. The ‘Co-operation Agreements’ found expression not only in the conventional sense of development co-operation, but also included defence agreements by which the African states signatories could call upon France for direct security assistance, and military materials and equipment for their national armies. Since British presence, though not insignificant in the economic domain in its former colonies, was nevertheless less obtrusive and practically uncoordinated, the French shadow has proved very decisive in the post colonial pattern of co-operation in West Africa.

Pattern of Co-operation

The two imperial powers had adopted the policy of linking their colonies with mechanisms of common services. These inter-territorial ties, each within its area of jurisdiction, were essential for pragmatic reasons of administrative economy and convenience. Thus British West Africa had a West African Currency Board for a common currency, the West African Airways, the West African Examination Board, the West African Research Institute. For French West Africa, integration was deeper. It included various efforts at the Federation of some territories, a common Central Bank in charge of the common currency, and common institutions of higher learning. In the years immediately after independence, the anglophone countries, obviously without any attempt at persuasion by Britain, embarked on a process of dismantling the common services so that only the West African Examination Board survived. By contrast, the Francophone states not only strengthened bilateral relations, they also promoted multilateral mechanisms for economic co-operation. Shortly before independence, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali Mauretania, Niger and Senegal formed the West African Customs Union which was later to become the West African Economic Community (CEAO).

The language barrier created by the pattern of colonialism and the perpetuation of the vertical link with the former imperial power at the expense of the horizontal link with neighbouring states, discouraged much meaningful relations across the anglophone/francophone divide. This situation in the sub-region was further complicated by the division along ideological lines with Ghana, an anglophone on the radical left and Cote d’Ivoire and most of the francophone states on the conservative right. Such was the distrust within the sub-region that Ghana was openly accused of subversion by most of the francophone states. Its offer to host the second ordinary session of the OAU Assembly of Heads of States and Government in 1965 brought into the open the antagonism. Most of the West African Francophone states threatened to boycott the session as a protest against Ghana’s alleged subversive activities. When the summit was ultimately held in Accra, it had to adopt a ‘Declaration on the Problem of Subversion’ in which members solemnly undertook not to tolerate any subversive activities originating in their countries against other member states, and not to tolerate use of their territories for any subversive activities directed from outside Africa against any member state of the OAU.4 Even Nigeria, with its cautious foreign policy of maintaining friendly relations with all its neighbours, and advocacy of a functional step by step approach to African unity, was not fully trusted among the francophone states. Its size and economic potential were sources of concern to, paradoxically, the bigger, further geographically away, and relatively more resource endowed among the francophone states. This concern about the dominance of Nigeria in any sub-regional mechanism for co-operation surfaced in the consideration in the mid 1960s of the first proposal by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) for the creation of an Economic Community of West African States. Senegal proposed that the membership of the Community should be enlarged to include Zaire, whose size would counterbalance that of Nigeria. It is needless to say that Senegal was not alone in its concern of the potential role of Nigeria in the sub-region. It was a concern shared by France whose support of Biafra during Nigeria’s civil war flowed from General De Gaulle’s perceived obligation to protect the weak Francophone states in the sub-region. In the General’s calculation, Nigeria’s small Francophone neighbours would be saved from the potentially too powerful Nigeria if it were broken up.5

The Nigerian Civil War (1966-1970) interrupted the ECA’s initiative on the economic integration of West Africa. At the end of the conflict however, Nigeria began an initiative for the revival of the project. To demonstrate that a small, poor country and a large, rich country, one francophone, the other anglophone, could be linked in a mutually beneficial economic co-operative relationship, in 1972 Nigeria and Togo signed a bilateral economic agreement, as ‘an embryo’ West African Economic Community. The joint initiative of the two countries successfully culminated in the signature in Lagos in May, 1975 of the treaty creating the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by all states of the sub-region.

Though ECOWAS was meant to provide a pan West Africa economic organisation to replace similar bodies of limited membership, and to eliminate the distrust between the anglophone and francophone states, it had a long way to go. By the time it became functional in 1977 with the establishment of its Secretariat, the smaller groupings continued in existence. Though it was realized that for ECOWAS to command the total commitment of member states and be able to function at optimum effectiveness, it was necessary to dissolve these other bodies, reality dictated that in the interim, an organised modus vivendi be worked out. Thus the ECOWAS Secretariat had, in its formative years, to work for the creation of an efficient framework for co-operation among all multilateral economic institutions within the sub-region, so as to avoid duplication, unnecessary competition, and dissipation of the meagre resources of the sub-region. To this end, a meeting of the Heads of Inter-governmental Organisations in West Africa was held in Monrovia in January 1979 and a programme for co-operation was prepared.6

The difficulty in creating the necessary confidence in ECOWAS that would permit the dissolution of the other bodies was exemplified in the relationship with the largest of the francophone groupings, the West African Economic Community (CEAO). Reacting in 1983 to the pressure for its dissolution, President Diouf of Senegal said:

‘It is in everybody’s interest that if ECOWAS reaches its cruising speed the CEAO should normally melt into the structures of ECOWAS. We are convinced that the future is with ECOWAS, if it reaches its cruising speed and overcomes its present difficulties. What we do not want, we members of CEAO, is to be asked to eliminate something that works well, that produces brilliant results Ð CEAO Ð while ECOWAS has not reached cruising speed’.7Security and Development Unrelated

ECOWAS was the first major enterprise to bring all the West African countries together in a co-operative body. It had the precise purpose of union for economic co-operation, and its treaty faithfully reflected that purpose. In the era in which it was being created, economic development and state security were considered as two distinct issues, unrelated to one another. Security in that period had a narrow concept of the preparedness of a state to withstand foreign aggression on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Its sole element was considered to be military power. The more militarily armed a country was the more secure it was presumed to be. This was the justification for the arms race between the two superpowers and the two alliances under their leadership. It became a universally accepted concept by which even the newly independent states of Africa proceeded to establish themselves. In West Africa therefore as elsewhere in the era of decolonisation, the new states regarded the establishment of a national army as one of the priorities of nationhood. The issue of regional security, which was seen in military terms, did not feature even in the preambles of the ECOWAS Treaty since it was not considered relevant to the project.

ECOWAS Protocols:

(I) On Non-Aggression 1978

(II) Relating to Mutual Assistance on Defence 1981 (MAD)

The two Protocols by which ECOWAS ventured into the field of security arose out of a later realisation that for sub-regional economic co-operation, an atmosphere of peace and stability must pervade the area, and that unresolved disputes between member states could escalate into armed conflicts. Furthermore, assurance of mutual assistance in case of external aggression would serve as a deterrence to potential aggressors from outside the region. Even in the period before the conclusion of the ECOWAS Treaty, there were some events which affected the peace and security of the sub-region, which should have pointed to the necessity for the sub-regional countries to consider joint action on the issue. Among these were the mercenary attack on the Republic of Guinea in 1971, and the border conflict between Burkina Faso and Mali in 1974.

The Protocol on Non Aggression provided essentially for the peaceful resolution of disputes between members. For its part, the more elaborate Protocol on Mutual Assistance on Defence (MAD) spelt out situations that would call for joint sub-regional action on external aggression, as well as intervention in inter-state and intra-state conflicts. MAD envisaged the conclusion of additional Protocols. It also provided for organs for collective action. These are:

  • The Authority of Heads of State and Government
  • Defence Council
  • Defence Committee
  • Allied Force of the Community

and the appointment in the ECOWAS secretariat of a Deputy Executive Secretary for Military Matters.

Non Implementation of the MAD PROTOCOL

There has been widespread speculation as to why the Protocol on Mutual Assistance and Defence (MAD) has not been implemented. Some scholars have postulated that the same reluctance to create ECOWAS which certain states in the sub-region entertained was even stronger when it came to the issue of a multilateral security body. According to them, francophone states feared the overwhelming influence which Nigeria might exert within such a body, and whether such influence would always be in pursuit of common objectives. These states widely believed that Nigeria’s main interest was to whittle away the influence of France with whom they maintain defence agreements, the more easily to establish its own regional big power status. Other scholars point out that the provision in the Protocol, which calls for all foreign troops in the sub-region to be withdrawn once it becomes fully effective, is seen as a diminution of the sovereign right of states to conclude defence arrangement considered in their best interest. Difficulties connected with organising joint defence, such as language barrier, diversity in military traditions, variations in training and mode of deployment, types and sources of equipment used by the various armies, poor communications infrastructure, and lack of well developed command within the various armies have always been adduced. All these reasons are a reflection of the general lack of political will to implement the Protocol. Many observers believe that this predilection for not fulfilling obligations has been facilitated by the existence of a parallel security mechanism which is exclusively francophone.

Accord de Non Aggression et d’ Assistance en matiere de Defense (ANAD)

The Accord which was signed in 1977 is considered as the security arm of the West African Economic Community (CEAO) having the same parties with the addition of Togo. The impulse for its conclusion was the same as led to the creation of the CEAO, that is the creation of a francophone security arrangement particularly after the border war between Burkina Faso and Mali in 1974 had shown that defence links with France could not necessarily deter all forms of local threats. The Accord sets out the general principles of the commitment of the parties not to use force to settle any dispute among them and to come to each others assistance in defence against aggression. It was the first multilateral African mutual defence mechanism to be established, and, remarkably, considerable effort was made for its implementation. The Protocol of Application was adopted in 1981 and all the envisaged institutions including the Secretariat were made functional. Between 1981 and 1987, 12 other Protocols and 7 related instruments were adopted. Thus unlike the ECOWAS Protocol on Mutual Assistance and Defence, ANAD had enough commitment of parties for its implementation.

Security Interventions: ANAD and ECOWAS.

ANAD and the Burkina Faso/Mali Conflict

If the conflict between Burkina Faso and Mali in 1974 was partly responsible for its creation, the same issue was to provide ANAD occasion for its application. The ‘Christmas War’ between the two countries in pursuit of their irreconciled territorial claims in the Agacher region, broke out again on December 25, 1985. On December 29, the first extraordinary session of the Council of Ministers convened in the ANAD headquarters in Abidjan, and arranged a cease-fire which was signed by the Presidents of Burkina Faso and Mali on December 30. The following day the ANAD Truce Observation Force composed of military officers from all member states except the two antagonistics, arrived on the theatre of hostilities. On January 17, 1986, the first extra-ordinary session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government convened at Yamoussoukro to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. By January 31, 1986 it was possible to withdraw the Observer Mission. It is interesting to note that a simultaneous peace mission initiated by Nigeria and Libya was turned down in favour of the ANAD initiative. It will be instructive to compare the action of ANAD on this, with that of ECOWAS on Liberia.

ECOWAS Intervention in Liberia

Eighteen years after ECOWAS adopted the Protocol on Mutual Assistance and Defence, it was confronted with its first practical challenge. The Liberian Civil War which had broken out in December 1989, had by early 1990 degenerated into veritable mayhem. Notwithstanding its continued escalation in barbarity, and the vivid images carried on international television channels, no organisation showed any inclination to intervene. The United Nations was totally engrossed in the Gulf Crisis. The OAU had neither the mechanism nor the resources to intervene. The United States which had always been seen as Liberia’s patron, was devoting its total attention to the Gulf, and was equally totally indifferent to events in Liberia. Under the circumstances, ECOWAS waded into the Liberian crisis in order to arrange a cessation of the fighting and thereafter assist the Liberians in installing a democratic government. The saga of the ECOWAS intervention is well known and though not yet over, has been exhaustively analysed.8

The complications that arose from the intervention can be traced to the non implementation of the ECOWAS (MAD) Protocol. Unlike ANAD, which could rely on the structure it created for conflict resolution, ECOWAS had none to fall back on. Therefore, while it could not be denied that the Liberian civil war justified the invocation of Art 4b of the MAD Protocol, recourse to it had to be improvised. This gave rise to the issue of the legality of the operation first openly challenged by President Campore and later raised by many.9

The MAD Protocol provides decisions on peacekeeping action be taken by the Conference of Heads of State and Government. Therefore the initiative by the Standing Mediation Committee alone to send troops into Liberia, and the composition of the troops from among its own members, not only raised legal issues, but cracked open the politically sensitive anglophone-francophone divide in the sub-region. The Liberian operation came to be regarded by francophone states as an attempt to impose anglophone authority in the sub-region. The non existence of appropriate ECOWAS institutions, namely the Defence Council, the Defence Committee, a jointly appointed Commander of an Allied Armed Forces of the Community and Deputy Executive Secretary for Military Affairs to direct the operations further heightened the distrust. Notwithstanding efforts to arrange a sub-regional consensus starting with the meeting of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government in Bamako in November 1990, ECOMOG has remained an essentially anglophone undertaking. Members of the parallel security arrangement Ð ANAD Ð (with the exception of Senegal which contributed troops for a short period) did not heed the many ECOWAS appeals to contribute troops or resources.

Drawbacks of the Present Security Arrangements in West Africa

The existence, side by side, of two security bodies, MAD and ANAN has serious setbacks not only in the diversion of attention and resources which ought to have been concentrated into one body, but also in accentuating the weaknesses of each of them. The weaknesses of ANAD are very obvious. First it is based exclusively on linguistics identity in a multi-lingual sub-region.

Secondly, its permission of the maintenance of defence agreements by its members with non Accord parties opens up the possibility of foreign intervention in the sub-region.

Thirdly, the fact of being simultaneously parties to the agreements on MAD and ANAD creates contradictory obligations by which an ANAD party can be called upon to take action of a military nature against a fellow ECOWAS party to MAD when no recourse has been had to the latter agreement.

Fourthly, the absence of the regional big power, Nigeria, creates a big vacuum, which has been demonstrated by the ECOWAS operation in Liberia. It has become obvious that for any sub regional security body to be credible in its ability to threaten or actually undertake a peace enforcement action, Nigeria, the only state that has the capability to project power in the sub-region far beyond its own borders, must be a party. One does not need to be a believer in Conteh Morgan’s theory of collective hegemonic leadership in conflict management for Africa to face the reality of the indispensable roles of certain key countries in their respective sub-regional institutions.10

Fifthly, notwithstanding the flurry of institution setting which marked the early years of ANAD, it has fallen victim to a waning of interest among the parties. For instance, between 1987 and 1995, ANAD held no meeting, contrary to its provisions. According to the Secretary General, ‘the activities of the General Secretariat saw a great slow down in those years and only after the Extra Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers in Nouackchott in December 1995 followed by an Extra Ordinary Session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government in the same venue in April 1996, was a new dynamism breathed into the organisation’.11 In spite of that optimistic assessment, it is doubtful that the current enthusiasm will go beyond the forthcoming twentieth anniversary celebrations due to be held this year. This assessment is based on the increasing doubts about its relevance in the present security landscape of the sub-region. It is remarkable that Togo for instance was not represented at all in either the Council of Ministers or the Conference of Heads of State in the Nouakchott series of 1995 and 1996. Questions have arisen as to its relevance in a situation in which West Africa has been embroiled in a conflagration of the proportion in Liberia in which ANAD has found no role.

ECOWAS which, through the invocation of the MAD Protocol, has intervened in Liberia has the obvious advantage over ANAD in that its coverage is sub region wide. Nevertheless, it has not capitalised on its strength.

First, it has not up till the present been signed by two of the sub-regional states, namely Mali and Cape Verde. Of the other 14 countries that have signed it, 3 have not yet ratified it, namely, Benin, Mauretania and Gambia.

Secondly, though the Protocol entered into force in 1986 when it was ratified by the seventh state party, none of its provisions has been implemented. Until the Liberian crisis, it remained a mere declaration of intentions as opposed to an active mechanism. What is most remarkable is the non creation of the institutions that were intended to bring it alive.

Thirdly, until the basic step for institution building is taken, any measure by ECOWAS in the security field is bound to be at least legally controversial.

Fourthly, MAD was concluded four years after ANAD, but made no reference whatsoever to the latter’s existence nor to the necessity for its dissolution in favour of the larger body. Indeed it seems curious that MAD requires that as soon as its provisions have enabled ECOWAS to meet the defence requirements of its members, those with foreign military bases in their territories would take appropriate action to end them, but did not go further to deal with the issue of a smaller body based on exclusiveness, which perpetuates the linguistic polarisation of the sub-region.

Fifthly, the non implementation of MAD leaves open the exercise of hegemony by a strong regional power, the fear of which paradoxically, is often cited by scholars as the reason for the reluctance by smaller countries to make the Accord operational. The Liberian situation which had been dealt with ad hoc, has shown that hegemony works best in a situation of structural vacuum. The absence of a MAD structure appropriate for the situation, imposed on Nigeria the burden of leadership translated into the overwhelming preponderance of Nigerian troops in ECOMOG and therefore its veto-power-type of role in the direction of the operations, including the almost total monopoly of the appointment of the ECOMOG Commander. That predominance implies also the risk that the operation could be totally derailed if some upheaval were to occur in Nigeria itself. As Adekeye Adebanjo pointed out on the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Nigerian Presidential elections, President Babaginda’s chosen successor as the Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan11, a cost conscious industrialist keen to balance Nigeria’s books’, voiced public doubts about the $500,000 a day that ECOMOG was costing the Nigerian treasury, and talked of withdrawing Nigeria’s troops from Liberia. It is a matter of conjecture what he would have done if he had remained in office longer than the three months he spent, since his sentiments for bringing the boys back home had wide public support.12 What is not in doubt is the result of a Nigerian withdrawal or even a drastic cut back of its participation in ECOMOG. The whole operation would have come to a halt plunging Liberia back into the state of anarchy worse perhaps than the 1990 situation since there are now many more factions than at that time.

Sixth, and arising out of the ad hoc nature of the intervention in Liberia, no prior plan was made for financing the operation. The MAD Protocol’s provision of joint Community financing of peacekeeping operations could not be invoked. The ad hoc creation of a fund did not attract contributions in spite of several appeals. The result is that the burden has been heaped exclusively on the troop contributing countries.

Way Forward

Global security in the new world order compels each state to conceive its security and stability as being closely linked with those of its neighbours. This is particularly so in Africa which still confronts the unresolved problem of state formation and its conflict generating propensity. The post-Cold War era of Afro-fatigue has thrust upon the continent the onus of resolving its own conflicts, sometimes with, and often with no timely interest shown by the wider world. Yet it is increasingly clear that the resolution of these conflicts is an indispensable step for the creation of peace, security and stability which in turn are the pre-requisite for sustainable development.

How best to devise an effective conflict resolution mechanism is a problem which has engaged post-Cold War Africa. In the aftermath of the neglect of some of Africa’s new conflicts in the new era, the ECOWAS intervention in Liberia was initially hailed as a bold and practical demonstration of sub-regional concern and determination to assume responsibility for peace and security. As it became immersed in controversy and complications however, some scholars argued for decision making on such operations to be made at the continental rather than the sub-regional level. Professor Vogt for instance argued that the primary responsibility for defining the decision to intervene (especially when it involves the deployment of forces) should be at the continental level.13

While the creation of the OAU Mechanism is yet to demonstrate the disposition to support the mechanism and make the necessary sacrifices to implement its decisions. The danger which Professor Vogt was quick to point out in qualification of her continental preference, that the level of commitment and interest may not be high in states which are far removed from the area of conflict, is a reflection of the reality. The decision to inject troops from some East African countries into the ECOMOG operation in Liberia was in keeping with continental solidarity and OAU responsibility. However that involvement did not last long and those troops were withdrawn even when the end of the operation was nowhere in sight. The sub-regional; states, on the other hand, have had to persist in the operation because they have more at stake for the peace and security of their own countries as well as the sub-region. From this lesson therefore it follows that notwithstanding a continental mechanism, there is need simultaneously for sub-regional mechanisms which can effectively act. Indeed those mechanisms are necessary complements to the continental structure.

For West Africa the problem is not a lack of mechanism but of creating an effective body out of a multiplicity. The two existing mechanisms have their strengths and weaknesses as have been pointed out earlier in this paper. If ANAD has the privilege of being first among the multilateral security bodies in the continent, and a homogeneity of military transitions and similarity of equipment, it has also the fatal flaw of being artificial. As parts of West Africa that are not immediately contiguous, ANAD parties cannot pretend to be capable through that agreement to assure the peace and security of the entire sub-region. Indeed the ANAD Conference of Heads of State held in Nouakchott in April 1996 admitted this much when they observed:

‘To extend peace and security to the whole of West Africa, Heads of State will work to extend ANAD to other states in the sub region.’ They charged the current chairman to undertake the necessary steps towards that end.14 The prescribed solution of extending ANAD to other states in the sub-region ignores its origin in francophony. More important is that it ignores the existence of the ECOWAS MAD Protocol, which is already sub region-wide in its coverage.

As Peter Vale has pointed out, when a mechanism is no longer appropriate for the times, it is amended and then integrated into a wider superstructure. He gave the examples of the institutions in Southern Africa, namely the ‘Frontline States’ and the Southern Africa Development Co-ordinating Committee (SADCC). Both of these bodies were established to deal with the situation created by Apartheid. Once that system was abolished, SADCC was transformed into Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and a conflict resolution or security branch is being created to replace the ‘Frontline States’.15

In order to encourage the process of institutional adjustment, ECOWAS should commence the implementation of the MAD protocol so as to activate its mechanism and thus facilitate the abandonment of any smaller body in the same field. The Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS should resolve to convene the Defence Commission of MAD, and charge it with undertaking the elaboration of the Additional Protocols for its application, within a stipulated time frame which will also trigger the dissolution of the ANAD structure.

The Mandate of the ECOWAS Defence Commission should include the elaboration of a comprehensive mechanism for prevention as well as the management and resolution of conflicts in the sub-region. It should also include the institution of Confidence Building and Peace Building capacities.

The important issue of a focal point for conflict resolution and political co-operation may require a new approach. MAD envisages a unit in the ECOWAS Secretariat to be headed by a new Deputy Executive Secretary for Military Affairs. It will be useful to investigate if the ECOWAS Secretariat, whose primary responsibility is to follow-up the already problematic Protocols on trade liberalisation, can digest within its headquarters structure, a unit on political and security co-operation. The importance attached to conflict prevention and resolution is such that a separate outfit may have to be considered as an addition to the institutions listed in Article 6 of the Revised Treaty of ECOWAS. The rationale for upgrading the mechanism derives from the fact that strengthened political relations, and co-operation for peace and mutual security are critical components of the required environment for regional co-operation and integration. This pre-modial endeavour requires the support of an effective and efficient mechanism. It will be instructive to examine the experience of other areas in expanding mechanisms and structures which were originally created for economic co-operation, to include political and security arrangements. In Africa, an obvious example is the ongoing effort in Southern Africa.16

Beyond the continent, the institutional proliferation in Western Europe may also provide example of the pitfalls to avoid. Thus for West Africa one can conceive of a political and security arm which will be part of ECOWAS, but may function independently of the ECOWAS Secretariat particularly if its mandate is expanded to go beyond the original scope of the MAD Protocol, as contained in the recommendations of the Committee of Eminent Persons charged with the revision of the ECOWAS Treaty.17


1. UNCTAD: Current Problems of Economic Integration. Doc. TD/B/422 (1974).

2. (a) John Chipman: French Power in Africa.

Daniel Bach: France’s Involvement in Africa, A Necessary Condition for Middle Power Status in the international System. Simon Bayham ed military Power and Politics in Black Africa. Groom Helm London.

3 Albert Bourgi: La Politique Francaise de co-operation en Afrique. Librarie Genera dedroit de jurisprudence, Paris p.2.

4. OAU: AHG/Res. 27 (2)

5. John Chipman: op. Cit. Pp. 236-237.

6. ECOWAS: Report of the Executive Secretary to Council of Ministers ECW/CM/VI/2 Nov. 1979.

7. WEST AFRICA: Senegal and Africa, October 31, 1983.

8. See in particular M.A. Vogt (ed). The Liberian Crisis and ECOMOG, Gabumo Publishing Co. 1992; M.A. Vogt and L.S. Aminu (eds) Peacekeeping as a Security Strategy in Africa. Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1996.

9. See for instance Akinola Aguda: The Concept of Sovereignty and Non Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States. In Vogt & Aminu (eds) Peacekeeping as a Security Strategy in Africa pp. 213; 216

10. Conteh Morgan: Conflict and Militarisation in Africa. Conflice Quarterly, Winter 1993. P.40.

11. ANAD: Summary of the 2nd Extraordinary Session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government published by the ANAD Secretariat, 1996.

12. Adekeye Adebajo: Mad Dogs and Glory: NEWSWATCH, Lagos, Dec. 30, 1996.

13. M.Vogt: The involvement of ECOWAS in Liberia’s Peacekeeping: Vogt and Aminu (Eds) op. Cit. P.358.

14. ANAD: Conference of Heads of State and Government Nouackchott April 1996. Final Communique.

15. Peter Vale: Southern African Security in DISARMAMENT, United Nations, Jan. 1996.

16. See for instance Dennis Venter: Regional Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. AFRICAN JOURNAL. OAU Addis Ababa Vol. 1, Jan-April 1997 p.48.

17. Final Report of the Committee of Eminent Persons on the Revision of the ECOWAS Treaty para 26 (2)b.

This paper was first delivered at the AFSTRAG Workshop on Conflict Management Mechanisms in West Africa, which was held on 21-23 May 1997.


Environmental refugees: myth or reality?

Richard Black
Director, CDE
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9SJ
United Kingdom

March 2001

These working papers provide a means for UNHCR staff, consultants, internsand associates to publish the preliminary results of their research on refugeerelated

ISSN 1020-7473


As the UN Refugee Convention passes its 50th anniversary, the nature and scope of
the ‘international refugee regime’ continues to be a matter of debate. The last decadehas seen a number of arguments to extend the regime, and/or the Convention. Mostrecent amongst these is the growing consensus that ‘internally-displaced persons’
(IDPs) should be brought under some form of international protection and/or
assistance (Holbrooke, 2000). Another strong group of candidates for inclusion hasbeen those displaced by development projects (Cernea and McDowell, 2000).

This paper, though, is concerned with a third group, who although their case for
consideration has been somewhat sidelined in recent years, nonetheless represent an
important group of interest to many policy-makers at international level:
‘environmental refugees’.

Estimates of the number of ‘environmental refugees’ in the world vary widely, as do
definitions and typologies of such flows. The term was first popularised by Lester
Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in the 1970s, but perhaps the most quoted
contributions on the subject are those of El-Hinnawi (1985) and Jacobson (1988). Thelatter’s estimate of 10 million environmental refugees has been repeated by numerousauthors, albeit witho ut independent verification of its accuracy.

More recently, Myers and Kent (1995, 18) have described environmental refugees as‘persons who no longer gain a secure livelihood in their traditional homelandsbecause of what are primarily environmental factors of unusual scope’. Myers (1996) has suggested the total number of environmental refugees may be as high as 25
million, putting this group numerically well ahead of the ‘political’ refugees currently
of concern to UNHCR. Nonetheless, the term has been vigorously criticised by,
amongst others, McGregor (1993) and Kibreab (1994) for being poorly defined and
legally meaningless and confusing.

This paper seeks to go further in questioning the value of international policy-makers

focusing on ‘environmental refugees’ as a significant group of migrants, deserving of
the world’s attention. It is argued that although environmental degradation and
catastrophe may be important factors in the decision to migrate, and issues of concern
in their own right, their conceptualisation as a primary cause of forced displacement isunhelpful and unsound intellectually, and unnecessary in practical terms. Particular
reference is made to three categories of supposed ‘environmental refugees’: thosefleeing ‘desertification’; those displaced (or potentially displaced) by sea level rise;
and victims of ‘environmental conflict’. Following on from this, possible reasons for
focusing on ‘environmental refugees’ as a policy strategy are subjected to criticalscrutiny.

Environmental change and environmental refugees: the evidence

An initial difficulty in dealing with ‘environmental refugees’, or ‘environmentalmigrants’, is that there are perhaps as many typologies as there are papers on thesubject. El-Hinnawi (1985) and Jacobson (1988) started with three sub-categories of environmental refugee, namely temporary displacement due to temporary
environmental stress; permanent displacement due to permanent environmentalchange; and temporary or permanent displacement due to progressive degradation of
the resource base. In contrast, IOM/RPG (1992) drew distinctions between emergency
vs. slow-onset movements, temporary, extended and permanent movements, and
internal and international movements. Suhrke (1993) divided her discussion into
migration stimulated by deforestation, rising sea levels, desertification and drought,
land degradation, and water and air degradation, before proceeding to identify
environmental pressure points at which the combination of such factors establishes asusceptibility towards environmental migration.

Trolldalen et al. (1992) distinguished between refugees from natural disasters;
degradation of land resources; involuntary resettlement; industrial accidents; theaftermath of war; and climatic changes. More recently, the ball returned to IOM(1996), which used a six-fold division similar to that of Trolldalen et al., but also
drew an overall distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ causes.

Whatever the precise definition or number of ‘environmental refugees’, a common
feature of the literature is to talk of ‘millions’ of displaced people, and their dramaticimpact on host regions, such that regional security is threatened. The image is one of
mis- or over-use of the environment leading to progressive decline in the resourcebase, and possibly contributing to further dramatic (and unintended) environmentalcollapse. Environmentalists and conflict specialists see common cause in discussion
of ‘environmental refugees’; even if the linkages between environmental change,
conflict and refugees remain to be proven. It is the purpose of the first part of thispaper to examine the evidence for such linkages.

At first glance, the data available on environmental refugees appears quite impressive.
A number of areas of the world are cited by a range of authors as being affected by
environmentally-induced migration, ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In Ultimate security, Myers (1993d, 189) starts a chapter on the potential for
displacement due to sea-level rise (see below) with concern about the plight of
Haitian boat people, ‘abandoning their homelands in part because their country hasbecome an environmental basket case’.

Homer-Dixon (1994, 22) draws, amongst other examples, on the evidence from South
Asia, where the piecing together of demographic information and experts’ estimatesleads him to conclude that Bangladeshi migrants ‘have expanded the population of
neighbouring areas of India by 12 to 17 million’ over the last forty years, whilst ‘thepopulation of the state of Assam has been boosted by at least seven million’. El

Hinnawi (1985) and Jacobson (1988) cite additional examples of environmentalrefugees from across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, as well as the Soviet Union
and the United States.

However, despite the breadth of examples provided in the literature, the strength of
the academic case put forward is often depressingly weak. Taking first HomerDixon’sexample of migration from Bangladesh to India, caused by ‘environmentalscarcity’, it is something of a surprise to find that, even in his own article, a number of
other explanations for migration vie with that of environmental degradation. Thusmigration is also associated also with rules on land inheritance, the system of water
management in Bangl adesh, the standard of living in India, and the encouragement of
migration by some Indian politicians eager to gain new voters.

At the same time, the source of Homer-Dixon’s demographic information (Hazarika,
1993) casts some doubt on the statistics too – in this case, between 12 and 24 million
such migrants. For example, Hazarika’s estimate of migration to Assam comes notfrom any direct measure, but from a comparison of the 1951 and 1991 Assam censusfigures, adjusted for the population growth rate in 1951, which shows a notionalexcess population. Yet this increase could be accounted for in a number of ways, with
likely candidates including: a rise in the population growth rate after 1951; undercounting
in 1951 (eminently plausible in a remote region); or over-counting in 1991
(also eminently plausible given the link between population size and allocation of
government resources).

Other accounts of ‘environmental refugees’ are little better. A search through thereferences cited in another recent review paper by Ramlogan (1996) reveals littleconcrete evidence either. Thus for migration from ‘natural disasters’, we are pointed
again to work by Hazarika (1993), as well as to Mattson and Rapp (1991), Sanders(1990-91) and an unspecified report from the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa.
Yet Mattson and Rapp are respectively a climatologist and a geomorphologist, who
merely state that ‘refugee migration is linked to drought and famine’ rather than
demonstrating the linkage; Sanders indiscriminately describes as ‘environmentalrefugees’ some 4.1 million rural-urban migrants in Northeast Brazil in the 1960s and afurther 4.6 million in the 1970s, even though he admits that many areas not affected
by drought also lost population as a result of poverty; whilst for Ethiopia, Ramlogan
simply repeats an observation originally cited by Jacobson (1988) that one million
people ‘were about to move because of famine conditions’ -without actually saying
whether they did (Ramlogan, 1996, 83).

Similar difficulties emerge for the effects of ‘long-term environmental degradation’,
where Ramlogan curiously cites the ‘Black triangle’ of the Czech Republic, Poland
and south-east Germany as a region of out-migration due to pollution (a judgementthat might be questioned by German authorities who have spent the last few decadestrying to deal with in-migration!). And on the aftermath of war, Ramlogan makes theextraordinary assertion that the failure of Afghan refugees to return to their country
from Pakistan is due to poor land productivity and the number of land mines – when
surely the continuing conflict in their country of origin, and the largely favourableeconomic conditions they have experienced in exile might be considered more (or as)
relevant factors.

Such problems str ike to the core of the literature on environmental refugees, and
nowhere more so than in the generation of statistics on its prevalence. In turn, thegeneration of statistics is critically dependent on the definition of ‘environmentalrefugees’, a process which might well be seen as impossible given the multiple and
overlapping causes of most migration streams. In so far as distinctions between causes

can be drawn, the following sections consider three different types of ‘environmentalmigration’ and the evidence that has been put forward for the existence of thesephenomena. It is evidence that is far from convincing.

A ‘myth’ extended: desertification-induced displacement?

Out of the range of environmental migration ‘types’ cited above, perhaps one of themost pervasive in terms of popular recognition at least is that of the poverty-stricken
(and usually African) farmer who is finally forced to leave the land because of
drought, progressive impoverishment of the soil, and ultimately famine. The phrase‘desertification’, conjured up in the 1970s to evoke the relentless onward march of thedesert, but with its origins in colonial concern about mismanagement of theenvironment (Swift, 1996), evokes too the flight of humans towards less hostile lands,
or more likely to ‘refugee’ camps. Particularly in the Sahel, but also in other
‘marginal’ semi-arid areas across Central America, Asia and even southern Europe,
desertification-induced migration epitomises the ‘threat’ posed to industrialised
societies by an army of the poor and starving on the move. As Jacobson (1988, 6) putit:

Desertification … has irreparably damaged millions of hectares

of once productive land and made refugees out of millions of

sub-Saharan African farmers. Migration is the signal that land

degradation has reached its sorry end.

However, the evidence for ‘desertification’ causing migration in any straightforward
way is somewhat limited. First, it is important to note that the concept of
‘desertification’ itself has come under fire in recent years, particularly as availability
of satellite images of the region has improved. Thus work by Dregne and Tucker
(1988) and Tucker et al. (1991) has shown a highly elastic response of vegetation
cover to growing season rainfall, with the ‘desert margin’ in the Sahel fluctuating
from year to year as a result.

Williams and Balling (1996, 50) question as ‘equivocal’ evidence that human
activities have changed climatic patterns through influencing surface albedo, surfaceroughness, plant cover and soil moisture. Mortimore (1989) has noted thatmanagement practices that were thought to contribute to land degradation need to beplaced in historical context. Overall, there is increasing talk of the ‘myth’ of
desertification (Helldén, 1991; Thomas and Middleton 1994; Swift, 1996).

If one accepts the argument that desertification itself is largely a myth, then it is not,
perhaps, too great a step to suggest that desertification-induced migration is a myth
too. Nonetheless, even if there is no secular trend of declining vegetation cover and
land productivity in the Sahel, and vegetation recovers as rainfall increases, it ispossible that stress migration might result from a temporary decline in theproductivity of agricultural and grazing land during drought periods. Yet, for such
migrants to be termed ‘environmental refugees’, it seems reasonable thatenvironmental decline should represent the main (if not the only) reason for their

In practice, such evidence is hardly forthcoming. For example, in one review of
desertification-induced migration world-wide, Schwartz and Notini (1995) citeexamples from Mexico, Haiti, and the Sahel, as well as the cases of north-east Brazil,

and north-west India discussed above. But each case is problematic. In the case of
Mexico, after a review of general environmental problems in the country, Schwartzand Notini provide only a brief discussion of an attempt to statistically correlate areasof emigration with areas of ‘aridity’. They go on to admit that not all arid areas are‘degraded’, that not all migration from these areas is necessarily the result of
desertification. Their rather lame conclusion is that ‘our discussion with experts,
research, and analysis of the relevant statistics data will likely confirm thatdesertification is a factor contributing to migration from this region’ (Schwartz and
Notini, 1995, 82: my italics).

Elsewhere, and reliant on studies funded by the Universities Field Staff Internationaland published by the National Heritage Institute, the evidence is little moreconvincing: for example, in Haiti, it is stated that deforestation and soil erosion aresevere problems facing the country, but no clear link is demonstrated to migration.
Indeed, for the case of emigration, it is stated that ‘it is evident that most of Haiti’semigrants in recent years have been political and economic refugees’ (ibid, p.88, my
italics), influenced only ‘to some extent’ by environmental deterioration.

In other work too, the evidence that is presented for migration as a result of droughtand desertification is generally only the existence of migration from regions that areprone to such processes. A causal link to drought is seldom established, whilst in
some cases, not even the existence of ‘excess’ migration is demonstrated. ThusJacobson (1988) cites a number of Sahelian states in which rural-urban or north-south
migration occurred during the drought period of the mid-1980s, or in which
significant populations became dependent on food aid, and all of this is taken as primefacie evidence that these groups have been forced from desert margins because of
declining rainfall.

However, within the Sahel, and indeed in other semi-arid regions, there is a tradition
of migration that extends back over decades, and often centuries, and which rangesfrom nomadic pastoralism to long-distance trade, as well as the permanent relocation
of individuals and families. In turn, these migrations, though rooted certainly in thedifficult environmental conditions of the region, and the need to diversify incomeearning
opportunities, are not necessarily related to a decline in those conditions(Cordell et al., 1996; Rain, 1999). Indeed, there is now an increasing body of
literature on migration, both internationally from, and locally within the Sahel region,
which suggests that a simple link between poverty, environmental degradation and
migration is hard to sustain.

In the Senegal River Valley, one of many source areas for migration to Côte d’Ivoire,
Lericollais (1989) notes that migration has long reflected a household strategy to copewith environmental risks, which although severe, are not necessarily regarded asworsening. Studies have identified how migration plays a cultural role in thetransition to manhood, as well as being economically linked to the generation of
sufficient revenue to buy livestock (USAID, 1990; Velenchik, 1992).

Factors such as the decline of markets for traditional cash crops (which include gumarabic and cotton), the development of Senegal’s groundnut basin, and subsequentmechanisation of agriculture in the delta provide additional and more recentmotivations to move out of the middle and upper parts of the Senegal River Valley
(see Adams, 1977). Moreover, such conclusions are not limited to the western Sahel,
but can be extended across the continent. As David (1995, 18) notes from an
empirical study based in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan:

Migration does not necessarily signify a rejection of a rural

livelihood. Rather, it demonstrates that the survival strategies of
rural Sahelians are not only rooted in their immediate vicinity,
but are also linked into economies in other rural and urban
locations. It is precisely this inter-linkage which supports ruralcommunities and helps them to survive in such climatically unstable environments.

The picture is one of migration as an essential part of the economic and socialstructure of the region, rather than a response to environmental decline -a picturereinforced by numerous other studies that have confirmed the critical role of migrantremittances in household and regional economies (Condé and Diagne, 1986; Horowitzet al., 1990).

The situation appears similar in other semi-arid regions of the world allegedly proneto desertification and related migration. For example, Glazovsky and Shestakov
(1994) argue that currently 40 per cent of the population of the former Soviet Union
are living in areas characterised by ‘acute ecological situations’ that are adequately
described as desertification. But they also admit that migration from such areas is notnew, including as ‘desertification-induced migration’ such movements as themigration of Mongolian tribes northwards in the second century B.C. due to drought,
or the removal of population from the Khoresm oasis in the first century A.D. after
the invasion of nomadic tribes which destroyed irrigation systems.

This notion of ‘environmental refugees’ hardly tallies with arguments about recentdestruction of the ecological balance by modern society; rather, migration is aga in
perhaps better seen as a customary coping strategy. In this sense, movement of peopleis a response to spatio-temporal variations in climatic and other conditions, rather than
a new phenomenon resulting from a physical limit having been reached.

For the ‘environmental refugees’ thesis to be plausible in the Sahel and other semi arid
regions, what is required is not simply evidence of migration from what havealways been harsh, marginal environments; rather evidence is needed of an increase in
migration at times, or in places, of more severe environmental degradation. Such aprocess is hinted at in discussions of ‘stress migration’ in the Sahel, one of five phasesof response to famine identified by Cutler (1984), the others being sale of stock, wagelabour, borrowing of cash or food, and the sale of valuables. Yet as Pottier (1993)
observes, there are a number of analytical question marks both over developing
typologies of responses to famine, and especially over assuming that these occur in asequence, the last, and most severe of which is migration.

For Pottier, migration is not an ‘end result’ which can be labelled simply as a‘problem’, but often forms part of the solution to famine for those concerned. In each
case, the dynamic causes and consequences of migration need to be investigated, notassumed. Nor are migrants from drought necessarily ‘refugees’ even in the broad
sense of the word. Indeed, Turton and Turton (1984, 179) reported how the Mursi of
Ethiopia responded to the 1970s drought through a strategy of ‘spontaneousresettlement’ in which they systematically avoided distributed relief at institutionalfeeding points -which might ‘have turned large numbers of Mursi into permanentrefugees in their own country’.
Some of the evidence that does exist specifically on migration responses to
environmental stress points at least in part in the opposite direction. Thus a study by
Findley (1994) of emigration from the Senegal River Valley in Mali shows thatduring the drought of the mid-1980s, migration actually declined rather than
increased. In turn, there was a clear reason for this, since to migrate requires an initialcash investment to pay for travel and associated expenses on arrival, and an economicdownturn reduces the ability of families to ma ke such an investment. However, there

was an interesting nuance to this finding, in that whereas mainly male migration
(defined as departure for a period of six or more months) declined, the process of
circulation (defined as departure for less than six months, and involving many morewomen and children) did increase during the most severe period of the drought.

In a similar vein, Davies (1996) talks of the difference between ‘coping’ strategies(such as temporary circulation) and ‘adaptation’ to drought, the latter involving morepermanent and irreversible changes in livelihood, and usually an increase in poverty
and vulnerability. It is less than clear that migration represents a prominent form of
‘adaptation’ in the Sahel.

Refugees from rising seas?

Where there is perhaps some more justification of the notion of environmentalmigrants (if not ‘refugees’) is in the case of more dramatic and permanent changes to
the environment associated with catastrophic events such as floods, volcanoes and
earthquakes. Sometimes such natural events involve temporary displacement, as in thecase of the Kobe earthquake of 1995, where, according to the Japan Times, an initialfigure of displaced of over 300,000 fell to below 50,000 within three months of thetragedy. Simi larly, the floods of March 2000 in central and southern Mozambique sawthe forced displacement of up to a million people, but a few months on from thistragedy, most had been able to return to their homes.

More significant for discussion here, however, is the interaction of such ‘natural’ and
irreversible events with processes of human-induced environmental degradation: in
other words, examples where a failure to observe principles of good environmentalmanagement and sustainable development can be seen to have contributed to theenvironmental decline that is at the root of displacement. In this context, perhaps themost significant argument for ‘environmental refugees’ -and a main plank of theargument of writers such as Norman Myers – is the predicted effect of human-induced
climate change, and the impact this may have on sea-level rise, and increased flooding
of low-lying coastal areas.

A relatively simple assessment is needed to estimate the populations ‘at risk’, with
Jacobson (1988) for example suggesting that a one metre rise in sea level could
produce up to 50 million environmental refugees. Myers again quotes a higher figure,
with a forecast of 150 million environmental refugees by 2050 (Myers, 1993d, 191),
and it is this figure that is used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), the UN scientific body responsible for reviewing the causes and impacts of
climate change, in its calculation the costs of not responding (Bruce et al., 1996).
Myers (1996) has subsequently put the potential number at 200 million environmentalrefugees from sea-level rise alone.
Nonetheless, the question of predicting how many people might be forced to leavetheir homes as a result of shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agriculturaldisruption linked to climate change is far from being straightforward. In particular,
although Myers identifies a number of parts of the world, including Bangladesh,
Egypt, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan, Iraq, Mozambique, Nigeria,
Gambia, Senegal, Columbia, Venezuela, British Guyana, Brazil and Argentina, asbeing threatened by ‘even a moderate degree of sea-level rise’ (Myers, 1993d, 19495),
and is able to point to figures for flood-related deaths in these regions, he doesnot identify any specific populations that have been forced to relocate from floodproneareas in the recent past as a result of sea-level rises that have already occurred.

The point is that there are many potential responses to increased flooding, of which
migration is only one. Some of the rural-urban migration that has occurred in areasprone to flooding has been to cities that are hardly better placed to withstand the effects of sea-level rise.

In general, calculating the population ‘at risk’ from sea level rise is a long way frompredicting mass flight of a ‘refugee’ nature with its attendant need for internationalprotection and assistance. For example, in a study of response to floods in
Bangladesh, Haque and Zaman (1993) point out that there are a range of adaptiveresponses by local populations, which include forecasting, the use of warning
systems, flood insurance, relief and rehabilitation efforts. Interestingly, they note that‘in contrast to the English meaning of “flood” as a destructive phenomenon, its usagein Bengali refers to it as both a positive and a negative resource’ (Haque and Zaman,
1993, 102).

Earlier work by Zaman (1989, 197) stressed how in Bangladesh, ‘whilst erosion
removes land, new land appears elsewhere’, which can be ‘used immediately after itre-emerges’. As a consequence, although 61 per cent of his study population in thedelta had been displaced, 90 per cent of these households had moved less than two
miles from their original location.

Environmental conflict and refugee movements

In addition to the possibility of a direct link between deteriorating environmentalcircumstances or dwindling natural resources and induced migration, a further
postulated cause of ‘environmental refugees’, and a link back to the literature on
‘political refugees’, is the notion that environmental degradation is increasingly at theroot of conflicts that feed back into refugee movements. This has become a major
theme of the literature on ‘conflict studies’ as East-West rivalry is no longer aconvenient explanation of war, and other factors behind conflict and forced migration
need to be found.

However, a review of major conflicts that have caused large-scale forced migration
during the 1990s, for example, provides little evidence of the generation of
environmental ‘hotspots’ that have developed into war. Thus of the eleven distinctconflicts identifiable as being behind ‘recent’ forced migrations (i.e. since 1990),
some, far from reflecting disputes over declining natural resources, could be better
described as conflicts in whi ch the protagonists are attempting to control already or
potentially-rich natural resources.

The Gulf War of 1991 occurred as a result of one oil-rich nation seeking to control itsoil-rich neighbour; the current war in Sudan is also at least partly about control of
oilfields in the south and the building of a canal to open up the southern region
(Collins, 1990), whilst Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, currently undergoing oil-led
booms, are hardly the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Both of these latter
conflicts, and others, ranging from the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes to
Bhutan and Burma, might be seen to have more to do with the rise of ethnic (and/or
religious) nationalism than overtly environmental conflict.

Of course, in some cases, and particularly in the ‘complex political emergencies’ of
the Great Lakes, Sierra Leone/Liberia, and Somalia, environmental issues can be seen
to have some relevance in the development of hostilities, and a case can be made thatenvironmental degradation forms an important root cause of the conflict. In Rwanda,
an extreme position is put by Diessenbacher (1995, 58), who argues thatoverpopulation not only caused the genocide in Rwanda, but had ‘an exponentialeffect on other influencing variables’.

Although his thesis does not rely on environmental degradation per se, but rather thefailure of the productivity of the environment to keep up with population growth, a clear link with environmental degradation is identified. In general, the imageportrayed of muc h writing on Rwanda since the genocide is of a poverty-stricken
country in which the conflict was somehow linked to the inadequacy and deterioration
of the resource base, such that the war was partly a struggle over scarce natural

However, an alternative perspective quite reasonably locates the recent conflict in
Rwanda in a political struggle for power, in which ethnicity and access to naturalresources were both mobilised as issues by powerful élites (Lemarchand, 1994;
Prunier, 1995; Reed, 1996). Equally, the history of the region, and especially thehistory of colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ of populations that had previously lived
together over centuries (albeit not always in perfect harmony) can also be seen ashighly relevant to the ge nesis of the conflict (Davidson, 1994; Mamdani, 1996).
Indeed, the conflict itself appears now to be taking on a regional character, not limited
to the zone of high population density in the Great Lakes itself (Pottier, 1999).

Similarly, in the case of the war in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Richards (1996, 115)
reviews the evidence for an environment-conflict link, but concludes that ‘no directconnection between deforestation and the war is found’; in essence, although Liberiaand Sierra Leone have environmental problems, they do not have environmentalcrises. Instead, Richards argues, the causes of the war need to be sought elsewhere.
Regardless of the particular root of the war, an analysis such as that of Kaplan (1994,
46) which links together ‘disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of
resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and internationalborders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and internationaldrug cartels’, provides little causal explanation but much passion in an ‘analysis’ thatis symptomatic of much of the field.

Elsewhere in the world, and in earlier conflicts, once again, the evidence for
environmental pressure or degradation (or indeed population pressure itself) actually
causing conflict and forced migration itself is limited. Diessenbacher (1995) suggeststhat of the 181 wars and civil wars worldwide since 1945, 170 have occurred in placessuffering from population explosions. But such an association is not a substitute for
causal analysis, and in detail, it is a thesis that all too often breaks down.

For example, Lazarus (1991) quotes a report by USAID on El Salvador, which arguesthat conflict between the government and rebels in the late 1980s has resulted in
‘fundamental environmental as well as political problems’, but this is hardly evidencethat these problems fuelled a war so much rooted in the international politics of theCold War. In Mozambique, which saw at least three million people displaced abroad
and internally, conflict was again clearly rooted in the Cold War; here, it is interesting
that overwhelming perception of Mozambican refugees on return after the conflictwas that they were going back to a country with unlimited resources and few if any
environmental problems (Black et al., 1998a).

However, it is also quite ironic (and telling) that in one of Africa’s least populated
countries, pressure of population on resources has probably occurred, stimulated notby high population densities per se, but by granting of land concessions to privatecompanies (cf. McGregor, 1997). In Somalia, the history of western (and Soviet)
intervention is so long that it is practically impossible to disentangle from the troubled
history of this war-torn country (De Waal, 1997). The point is that in conflict, asmuch as in migration, it is difficult or impossible to isolate particular causes, outsidethe broader context within which these processes develop; indeed, conflict and
migration themselves are part of a dialectical relationship with this broader ‘context’,
such that a simple causal link from environmental degradation to conflict to migration
is hardly likely to be found.

Environmental explanations of migration: whose agenda?

The examination of statistics on ‘environmental refugees’, and of the detailed casestudies in which this category of forced migrant is supposed to be prominent, are notencouraging in terms of staking out a new area of academic study or public policy.
Yet, the list of international organizations that have stressed concern about‘environmental refugees’ remains impressive. Organizations from the InternationalOrganization for Migration (IOM) to the United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have shown an
interest in the concept, sponsoring a wide range of reports and initiatives.

Meanwhile, amongst others, Norman Myers in particular has been prominent in
popularising the term amongst dignitaries ranging from President Clinton to the then
United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Kibreab, 1997). AsKibreab points out, ‘prominent international personalities are irrelevant in
determining the explanatory or predictive value of a term’ (ibid, p. 21) – but they areimportant in allowing it to gain currency.

It is in this context that the final section of this paper turns to the question of why theterm ‘environmental refugee’ has been so seductive. For Kibreab (1997, 21), theanswer lies in the agenda of policy-makers in the North, who wish to further restrictasylum laws and procedures: thus the term was ‘invented at least in part to
depoliticise the causes of displacement, so enabling states to derogate their obligation
to provide asylum’.

Since current international law does not require states to provide asylum to thosedisplaced by environmental degradation, argues Kibreab, the notion that many or even
most migrants leaving Africa for Europe, or Central America for the US are forced to
move by environmental factors allows governments to exclude a significant number
from asylum. Academics have in turn been complicit in this process by endorsing theterm. This is a plausible explanation, given some force by Westing’s (1992, 205)
observation that the ranks of both recognised and unrecognised refugees ‘are being
swelled by environmental refugees rather than by political or social refugees’.

However, the notion that ‘environmental refugees’ have been talked up by northern
governments seeking to restrict asylum sits somewhat uneasily with the fact that much
of the literature on ‘environmental refugees’ has in practice argued for an extension of
asylum law and/or humanitarian assistance to cover those forcibly displaced by
environmental degradation, rather than endorsing a differentiation between ‘political’and ‘environmental’ causes as a matter of policy.

Thus a report by the World Foundation on Environment and Development and theNorwegian Refugee Council (an arm of the Norwegian government) argued for
establishing a system of protection for environmental refugees (Trolldalen et al.,
1992, 23), whilst the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the USbased
Refugee Policy Group (RPG) also concluded that new international instrumentswere needed to provide assistance and/or protection to a group currently ignored by
international policy (IOM/RPG, 1992, 30). Even if the practical impact of literatureon ‘environmental refugees’ has been to endorse northern states moves to restrict thedefinition of asylum still further, this does not appear to have been the consciousintention of many of those writing on the subject.

In fact, one of the ironies of writing on environmental refugees has been that whilstpurporting to highlight a ‘forgotten’ category of forced migrant, which is ignored by
international policy makers, this literature in practice serves only to differentiate a

single cause of migration, which often forms part of a set of reasons why an
individual or family may be forced to relocate. As McGregor (1993, 158) argues,
‘(t)he use of the term “environmental” can imply a false separation between
overlapping and interrelated categories’. But this separation is frequently not made in
practice by organisations such as UNHCR who already use their ‘good offices’ to
provide assistance to a range of groups in ‘refugee-like circumstances’.

In this sense, then, Kibreab is correct to state that to focus on ‘environmental’ causescould lead to the withdrawal of asylum from those who currently receive it – exceptthat the focus here would be much more on large-scale forced migrations inside thedeveloping world (where UNHCR, for example, has much more room to manoeuvrein influencing which populations should receive protection and assistance, and wherestates have not traditionally screened individual asylum applicants), rather than on
asylum in the North, where rules are already very restrictive.

If academic and policy interest in the notion of environmental refugees is not overtly
motivated by a desire to restrict asylum, the question rema ins as to why so much
effort should have been spent in trying to separate environmental causes of migration
from other political, economic or social causes, even to the point of trying to rewritethe definition of a refugee in international law. Arguably, the answer lies not in
asylum literature or policy at all, but in environmentalist literature, as well as in thefield of ‘conflict studies’.

One of the major proponents of the notion of ‘environmental refugees’, Norman
Myers, comes not from a background in migration or refugees or asylum, but from thescience of ecology: in turn, the principle concern of his writing is not migration, butthe imminent threat of environmental catastrophe surrounding climate change (Myers,
1993c, 1993d), deforestation, and desertification (Myers, 1993a). In an article for themagazine ‘People and the Planet’, he points out that he ‘does not assert that theimmigrant problem should be perceived as some sort of threat’ (Myers, 1993b, 28).

Nonetheless, he goes on to suggest that ‘without measures of exceptional scope and
urgency, Europe may have to accommodate growing numbers of newcomers’, and
poses an ominous choice: ‘either to be more expansive in our attitudes towardsneighbouring countries that are also developing countries, or accept that Europe’sliving space will have to become more expansive to accommodate extra people’. In
other words, to do something about the rising tide of environmental refugees also
requires governments to do something about the causes of environme ntal degradation.

This in turn was a point that had not escaped the organisers of a 1994 UN symposiumon ‘Desertification and migration’ at Almeria, in which sponsors of the Convention to
Combat Desertification sought to generate northern (i.e. donor) interest by
highlighting the threat of mass migration to northern countries if nothing were done.
Thus the ‘Almeria Declaration’ produced by the symposium states:

The number of migrants in the world, already at very high levels,
nonetheless continues to increase by about 3 million each year.
Approximately half of these originate in Africa. These increasesare largely of rural origin and related to land degradation. It isestimated that over 135 million people may be at risk of being
displaced as a consequence of severe desertification. (INCCCD,
1994, 1).

The driving forces behind this declaration were the representatives of southern rather
than northern governments; indeed the northern academics who attended wereprincipally responsible for ‘talking down’ the figure of populations ‘at risk of being

displaced’ from an initial one billion. It is also interesting to note Kibreab’sobservation that the term ‘environmental refugee’ originated with the United NationsEnvironment Programme – the first, and one of the few UN organisations not to belocated in the North, and seen by many as being more firmly aligned to African rather
than ‘northern’ interests within the UN.

Perhaps more important still in pushing the notion of ‘environmental refugees’ to
centre stage have been writers in the field of conflict studies, as attention has shifted
away from super-power rivalry as the major cause of conflict and forced migration
after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

For example, reporting on a major project sponsored by the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences and the Peace and Conflict Studies Program of the University of
Toronto, Thomas Homer-Dixon (1994) presented three hypotheses on the relationship
between environment and conflict: (a) that environmental scarcity leads to simplescarcity conflicts between states; (b) that environmental scarcity causes largepopulation movement, which in turn causes group-identity conflict; and (c) thatenvironmental scarcity causes economic deprivation and disrupts social institutions,
leading to ‘deprivation’ conflicts. Although Homer-Dixon rejected the firsthypothesis, the latter two were upheld, focusing for example on the Bangladesh and
Northeast India (Assam) case, in which millions of environmentally-displaced peopleare said have contributed to communal conflict.

This theme was taken up by Suhrke (1993), who drew a distinction between
‘environmental migrants’, who respond to a combination of ‘push-pull’ factors prominentamongst them environmental factors -and ‘environmental refugees’,
suggesting that ‘(i)f it is to have a meaning at all, the concept of environmentalrefugee must refer to especially vulnerable people who are displaced due to extremeenvironmental degradation’ (ibid, p. 9).

This distinction is seen in part as having a temporal aspect, as the slow build-up of
environmental degradation is associated with ‘environmental migration’, to befollowed by the reaching of a threshold point at which sudden, absolute and
irreversible degradation induces a flow of refugees. However, such a distinction begsa number of questions, not least how a ‘refugee’ is defined; as McGregor (1993)
notes, the legal definition of a refugee – and ultimately the one that guides governmentand international policy – centres not on the speed of the onset of migration, nor
primarily on whether it is ‘forced’, but on the crossing of an international boundary
and consequent need for protection that cannot be, or is not, provided by the country
of origin. Thus in circumstances where an individual satisfies the criteria for being
labelled a ‘refugee’, the term ‘environmental’ becomes redundant.

In turn, it is unclear that the complex set of factors that lead to ‘environmentalmigration’ as defined by Suhrke would suddenly evaporate or crystallise into a single‘environmental’ cause at the time people become refugees. Although a distinction
could be sustained at the level of proximate causes of flight, this is unhelpful from an
academic point of view if it is accepted that the response to forced migration needs to
be guided by underlying, rather than simply proximate causes.


Taken as a whole, the impression gained from this brief review of existing literatureon ‘environmental refugees’ is one in which lists of factors have overcome theoreticalrigour. There are abundant typologies of ‘environmental refugees’ and ‘environmentalmigrants’, but little agreement on, or understanding of what these categories mightreally mean. Practical concern with the plight of poor people leaving fragile

environments has not translated into hard evidence of the extent or fundamental
causes of their problems. Moreover, there remains a danger that academic and policy
writing on ‘environmental refugees’ has more to do with bureaucratic agendas of
international organizations and academics than with any real theoretical or empiricalinsight.

This is not to say that environmental change – or indeed the existence of high risk
environments with highly variable climatic or other conditions – are not factorsbehind large-scale (and sometimes involuntary) migration. People have historically
left places with harsh or deteriorating conditions, whether this is in terms of poor
rainfall, high unemployment, or political upheaval, or some combination of these or
other adverse factors. Yet, without a firm definition of who is an ‘environmentalrefugee’, it is not easy to say that this category of people is increasing; whilst in amulti-dimensional world, in which people’s decisions to migrate (or stay) areinfluenced by a huge range of factors, an adequate definition does not seem very

If international protection and assistance were to be offered in the future, through theGeneva Convention or some other international instrument, to the supposedly
growing ranks of ‘environmental refugees’, the basis for such intervention would need
to be much clearer than it is at present. To what extent do those uprooted by
environmental disaster, whether temporarily or permanently, have particular
protection or assistance needs? Can it be said with any confidence that addressing the‘root causes’ of their flight (as UNHCR has sought to do for political refugees) would
be any more successful or relevant in reducing ‘environmental’ displacement?
Finally, if protection and assistance were extended by the international refugee regimeto ‘environmental refugees’, would this help or hinder the battle to focus the world’sattention on pressing environmental problems?


Adams, Adrian (1977) Le Long Voyage des Gens du Fleuve. L’Harmattan, Paris

Black, Richard. (1988). Refugees, Environment and Development. London, Longman
Development Studies.

Black, Richard, Harrison, Elizabeth and Watson, Elizabeth (1998a). “NaturalResource Management Institutions in Post-Conflict Countries: A Framework
for Research”, Marena Project Working Paper no. 1, Brighton: University of

Bruce, J.P., Lee, H. and Haites, E.F. (1996). Climate Change 1995: Economic and
Social Dimensions of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to
the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cernea, Michael, and McDowell, Christopher (2000). Risks and Reconstruction:
Experiences of Resettlers and Refugees. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Collins, Robert. O. (1990). The Waters of the Nile: Hydropolitics and the JongleiCanal, 1900-1988. Oxford: Clarendon.

Condé, J. and Diagne, P. (1986). South-North International Migrations: a Case Study.
Malian, Mauritanian and Senegalese Migrants from the Senegal River Valley
to France. Development Centre Papers, Paris: Organisation for EconomicCooperation and Development.

Cordell, Denis .D., Gregory, Joel .W. and Piché, Victor (1996). Hoe and Wage: aSocial History of a Circular Migration System in West Africa. Boulder, Co:

Cutler, Peter (1984). “Famine forecasting: prices and peasant behaviour in northern
Ethiopia”. Disasters 8: 48-56.

David, Ros (1995). Changing Places? Women, Resource Management and Migration
in the Sahel. Case Studies from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan.

London: SOS Sahel.

Davidson, Basil (1994). “On Rwanda”, London Review of Books 18 August.

De Waal, Alex (1997). Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in
Africa. London: International African Institute and James Currey.

Diessenbacher, H. (1995). “Explaining the genocide in Rwanda: how populatoin
growth and a shortage of land helped to bring about the massacres and thecivil war”, Law and State 52: 58-88.

Dregne, Harold E. and Tucker, C.J. (1988). “Desert encroachment”, Desertification
Control Bulletin 16: 16-19.

El-Hinnawi, E. (1985). Environmental Refugees. Nairobi: United NationsEnvironment Programme.

Findley, Sally E. (1994). “Does drought increase migr ation? A study of migration
from rural Mali during the 1983-1985 drought”, International Migration
Review 28(3): 539-53.

Glazovsky, N.F. and Shestakov, A.S. (1994). “Environmental Migrations caused by
Desertification in Central Asia and Russia”, Paper presented to AlmeriaSymposium on Migration and Desertification, United Nations Negotiating
Committee for a Convention to Combat Desertification, February 1994,

Haque, C. Emhad and Zaman, M.Q. (1993). “Human response to riverine hazards in
Bangladesh: a proposal for sustainable floodplain development”, World
Development, 21(1): 93-108.

Hazarika, S. (1993). “Bangladesh and Assam: Land Pressures, Migration and EthnicConflict”, Occasional Paper of Project on Environmental Change and AcuteConflict, Washington, DC: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Helldén, Ulf (1991). “Desertification: time for an assessment?,” Ambio 20(8): 372-83

Holbrooke, Richard (2000). “A Borderline Difference: We Ignore Millions Who AreRefugees in Their Own Countries”, The Washington Post, 8 May.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas (1994). “Environmental scarcities and violent conflict:
evidence from cases”, International Security 19(1): 5-40

Horowitz, Michael, Salem-Murdock, M., Grimm, C., Kane, O., Lericollais, A.,
Magistr o, J., Niasse, M., Nuttall, C., Scudder, T. and Sella, M. (1990). Suivi

des activités du bassin du fleuve Sénégal, phase 1, rapport definitif,
Binghampton, NY: Institute for Development Anthropology.

INCCCD (1994). The Almeria Statement on Desertification and Migration, 11
February 1994. Châtelaine, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Negotiating
Committee for a Convention to Combat Desertification.

IOM (1996). Environmentally-Induced Population Displacements and Environmental
Impacts Resulting from Mass Migration. International Symposium, Geneva,
21-24 April 1996, International Organisation for Migration with United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Refugee Policy Group.

IOM/RPG (1992). Migration and the Environment, Geneva and Washington, DC:
International Organisation for Migration and Refugee Policy Group.

Jacobson, Jodi (1988). Environmental Refugees: a Yardstick of Habitability. World
Watch Paper, no. 86, Washington, DC: World Watch Institute.

Kaplan, Robert D. (1994). “The coming ana rchy”, The Atlantic Monthly February
1994: 44-76.

Kibreab, Gaim (1994). “Migration, environment and refugeehood”. In: Zaba, B. and
Clarke. J. (eds.) Environment and Population Change, Liège, Belgium:
International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, Derouaux Ordina
Editions, 115-29.

Kibreab, Gaim (1997). “Environmental causes and impact of refugee movements: a
critique of the current debate”, Disasters 21(1): 20-38.

Lazarus, D. (1991). “Climatic change creates environmental refugees”, IDOC
International 2/91: 1-2.

Lemarchand, René (1994). “Managing transition: Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa
in comparative perspective”, Journal of Modern African Studies 32(4): 581

Lericollais, A. (1989). “Risques anciens, risques nouveaux en agr iculture paysanne
dans la vallée du Sénégal”. In Eldin, M. and Milleville, P. (eds.) Le Risque en
Agriculture. Paris: Orstom.

Mamdani, Mahmood (1996). “From conflict to consent as the basis of state formation:
reflections on Rwanda”, New Left Review 216: 3-36.

Mattson, J.O. and Rapp, A. (1991). “The recent droughts in western Ethiopia and
Sudan in a climatic context”, Ambio 20: 172-5.

McGregor, JoAnn (1993). “Refugees and the environment”. In Black, R. and
Robinson V. (eds.) Geography and Refugees: Patterns and Processes of
Change London: Belhaven, 157-70.

McGregor, JoAnn (1997). Staking their Claims: Land Disputes in Southern
Mozambique. LTC Paper no. 158, Land Tenure Centre, Madison, WI:
University of Wisconsin.

Mortimore, Michael (1989). Adapting to Drought: Farmers, Famines and
Desertification in West Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, Norman (1993a). “Tropical forests: the main deforestation fronts”,
Environmental Conservation 20(1): 9-16.

Myers, Norman (1993b). “How many migrants for Europe?”, People and the Planet,
2(3): 28.

Myers, Norman (1993c). “Environmental refugees in a globally warmed world”,
Bioscience, 43: 752-61.

Myers, Norman (1993d). Ultimate Security: the Environmental Basis of Political
Stability. New York and London: W.V. Norton.

Myers, Norman (1996). “Environmentally-induced displacements: the state of the
art”. In: Environmentally-Induced Population Displacements and
Environmental Impacts Resulting from Mass Migration, International
Symposium, 21-24 April 1996, Geneva: International Organisation for
Migration with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Refugee
Policy Group, 72-73.

Myers, Norman and Kent, J. (1995). Environmental Exodus: an Emergent Crisis in
the Global Arena, Washington, DC: The Climate Institute.

Pottier, Johann (1993). “Migration as a hunger-coping strategy: paying attention to
gender and historical change”. In Marcussen, H.S. (ed.) Institutional Issues in
Natural Resources Management. International Development Studies
Occasional Paper no.9, Denmark: Roskilde University, 201-33.

______ (1999). “The ‘self ’ in self-repatriation: closing down Mugunga camp, Eastern
Zaire”. In Black, R. and Koser, K. (eds.) The End of the Refugee Cycle:
Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction. Oxford: Berghahn, 142-70.

Prunier, Gerard (1995). The Rwandan Crisis 1959-1994: the History of a Genocide.
London: Hurst & Co.

Rain, David (1999). Eaters of the Dry Season: Circular Labor Migration in the West
African Sahel, Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ramlogan, Rajendra (1996). “Environmental refugees: an overview”, Environmental
Conservation 23(1): 81-88.

Reed, W.C. (1996). “Exile, reform and the rise of the Rwandan Patriotic Front”,
Journal of Modern African Studies 34(3): 439-501.

Richards, Paul (1996). Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in
Sierra Leone. London: International African Institute and James Currey.

Sanders, T.G. (1990-91). Northeast Brazilian Environmental Refugees: Where They
Go. Parts I and II. Field Staff Report, no. 21, Washington DC: Universities
Field Staff International.

Schwartz, Michelle L. and Notini, J. (1995). “Preliminary report on desertification
and migration: case studies and evaluation”. In: Puigdefábrigas J, Mendizábal
(eds.) Desertification and Migrations. Logroño, Spain: Geoforma Ediciones,

Suhrke, Astri (1993). Pressure Points: Environmental Degradation, Migration and

Conflict. Occasional Paper of Project on Environmental Change and AcuteConflict, Washington, DC: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Swift, Jeremy (1996). “Desertification: narratives, winners and losers”. In Leach, M.
and Mearns, R. (eds.), The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on
the African Environment. London: International African Institute and James
Currey, 73-90.

Thomas, David S.G. and Middleton, Nick J. (1994). Desertification: Exploding theMyth. Chichester: Wiley.

Trolldalen, Jon Martin, Birkeland, Nina, Borgen, J. and Scott, P.T. (1992).
Environmental Refugees: a Discussion Paper. Oslo: World Foundation for
Environment and Development and Norwegian Refugee Council.

Tucker, C.J., Dregne, H.E. and Newcomb, W.W. (1991). “Expansion and contraction
of the Sahara desert from 1980 to 1990”, Science, 253: 299-301 .

Turton, David and Turton, P. (1984). “Spontaneous resettlement after drought: aMursi case study”, Disasters, 8(3): 178-89.

USAID (1990). Senegal Agricultural Sector Analysis. Dakar: United States Agency
for International Development.

Velenchik, A.D. (1993). “Cash-seeking behaviour and migration: a place-to-placemigration function for Côte d’Ivoire”, Journal of African Economies 2(3):

Westing, Arthur (1992). “Environmental refugees: a growing category of displaced
persons”, Environmental Conservation 19(3): 201-7.

Williams, M.A.J. and Balling Jr., R.C. (1996). Interactions of Desertification and
Climate. London: Arnold.

Zaman, M.Q. (1989). “The social and political context of adjacent to riverbank
erosion hazard and population resettlement in Bangl adesh”, Human
Organisation, 48(3): 196-205.

Global migration trends and asylum


Working Paper No. 41

Global migration trends and asylum

Susan F. Martin

Institute for the Study of International Migration
Georgetown University
Washington, DCUnited States


These working papers provide a means for UNHCR staff, consultants, interns and associates to publish the preliminary results of their research on refugee-related issues. The papers do not represent the official views of UNHCR.

ISSN 1020-7473


International migration is at record levels and is unlikely to slow in the near future. An estimated 150 million persons reside outside of their country of birth or nationality. This number does not include the additional millions of people who make short visits as tourists or business travellers to other countries.

Longer-term international migrants belong to two broad groups: voluntary migrants and forced migrants. Fuelled by a combination of push factors in source countries and pull factors in receiving countries, voluntary migration is sustained by well-developed networks that link the supply of labour with the demand of businesses for both highly skilled and unskilled workers. Forced migration is fuelled by conflicts, human rights abuses and political repression that displace people from their home communities.

Although just stated in simple terms, distinguishing between voluntary and forced migrants can be difficult. Voluntary migrants may feel compelled to seek new homes because of pressing problems at home; forced migrants may choose a particular refuge because of family and community ties or economic opportunities. Moreover, one form of migration often leads to another. Forced migrants who settle in a new country may then bring family members to join them. Voluntary migrants may find that situations change in their home countries, preventing their repatriation and making them into forced migrants.

Despite the difficulty of categorising different types of migrants, the process is more than an exercise in semantics. Countries have different responsibilities towards different types of migrants. For example, more than 130 countries have signed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and recognise that they are obliged not to return refugees to where they have a well-founded fear of persecution and to provide assistance and protection to refugees whom they admit. No similar legal obligation extends towards other international migrants although international human rights law, national laws and International Labour Organisation conventions relating to conditions of recruitment and employment protect their rights in destination countries.

It is the complicated relationship between voluntary and forced migration that challenges the asylum systems adopted by States to distinguish between refugees and other migrants. Many governments have established sometimes elaborate and costly asylum adjudication procedures to make these determinations. In some cases, where other immigration avenues are restrictive, these procedures are the only or principal means through which migrants are able to gain admission, regardless of their reasons for emigration or the circumstances they would face on return. Fearing uncontrolled migration, States have imposed such mechanisms as visa requirements and carrier sanctions to limit access to their territory.

Too often, however, these mechanisms fail to make distinctions between refugees and other migrants and limit the protection afforded to persons who, failing to find asylum elsewhere, will find themselves endangered. In some cases, they are also self-defeating, as would-be migrants, including bona fide refugees, turn to increasingly more sophisticated smuggling and trafficking operations that are able to circumvent the immigration controls. A vicious cycle then develops, with governments imposing new restrictions while smugglers find new ways to get around them.

This cycle presents particular challenges to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international organisation mandated to protect refugees. Although refugees are only a segment of the total migrant population, measures designed to manage migration and control unauthorised movements often have disproportionate effects on them. Unlike voluntary migrants, refugees and other forced migrants may be seriously harmed if immigration policies and procedures prevent them from emigrating to escape persecution or force them to return to dangerous conditions at home.

This paper assesses trends in global migration that have particular import for the asylum system. It begins with a review of the scale of international migration today, with particular focus on the interface between asylum and other forms of migration. It continues with a discussion of major trends and influences on migration patterns. The importance of these trends for asylum policies and practices are then discussed in greater detail. The paper concludes with areas where further policy development is required and, in accordance with the terms of reference, suggests options for strengthening UNHCR’s role and preserving refugee space for refugee protection within international migration management efforts.

Scale and nature of international migration [1]

The number of long-term international migrants (that is, those residing in foreign countries for more than one year) has grown steadily in the past four decades. According to the UN Population Division, in 1965, only 75 million persons fit the definition, rising to 84 million by 1975 and 105 million by 1985. There were an estimated 120 million international migrants in 1990, the last year for which detailed international statistics are available. An examination of data from selected countries of in-migration indicates that international migration continued with about the same rate of growth in the 1990s. As of the year 2000, according to estimates prepared by this author for the International Organisation for Migration, there are 150 million international migrants.

Between 1965 and 1975, the growth in international migration (1.16% per year) did not keep pace with the growth in global population (2.04% per year). However, overall population growth began to decline in the 1980s while international migration continued to increase significantly. During the period from 1985 to 1990, global population growth increased by about 1.7 percent per year, whereas the total population of international migrants increased by 2.59 percent per year.

Even with the numbers of international migrants large and growing, it is important to keep in mind that fewer than three percent of the world’s population have been living outside of their home countries for a year or longer. [2] The propensity to move internationally, particularly in the absence of compelling reasons such as wars, is limited to a small proportion of humans.

International migrants come from all parts of the world and they go to all parts of the world. In fact, few countries are unaffected by international migration. Many countries are sources of international flows, while others are net receivers and still others are transit countries through which migrants reach receiving countries. Such countries as Mexico experience migration in all three capacities, as source, receiving and transit countries.

Migration tends to be within regions, with migrants often remaining within the same continent. More than half of international migrants traditionally have moved from one developing country to another. In recent years, however, migration from poorer to richer countries has increased significantly. While the traditional immigration countries – the United States, Canada and Australia – continue to see large-scale movements, as a result of labour recruitment that began in the 1960s and 1970s, Europe, the oil rich Persian Gulf states and the “economic tigers” of east and Southeast Asia are now also major destinations for international migrants.

The industrialised countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) experienced significant growth in their immigrant population during the 1990s. In 1986/87, about 36 million international migrants (some of whom subsequently naturalised) lived in the US, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. A decade later, more than 46 million international migrants were reported to be living in these same countries, more than a 25 percent increase.

The most rapid growth in the number of international migrants tends to occur as a result of refugee crises. Massive numbers of refugees may cross a border within a very short time, often into areas with little prior immigration. The more than 800,000 refugees who fled from Kosovo to Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1999 represents one of the most recent manifestations of this phenomenon.

One of the most significant trends has been the feminisation of migration streams that had heretofore been primarily male. Significantly, many of the new female migrants relocate as principal wage earners, rather than as accompanying family members. Whereas Orlando Patterson could write in 1978 that “the greater propensity of women to move is a pattern peculiar to the New World,” by the 1990s, Stephen Castles and Mark Miller’s observation about Asian migration could be applied more generally: “A key development in recent years has been the increasing feminisation of migration: about 1.5 million Asian women were working abroad by the mid-1990s, and in many migratory movements they outnumber men.” For example, more than 60 percent of migrants from Sri Lanka are women, employed primarily in domestic service. Women heads of household are also disproportionately represented in many refugee contexts.

As stated above, migrants generally fall into two, though sometimes overlapping, categories: voluntary and forced migrants.

Voluntary migration

There are two major groupings of voluntary migrants: labour migrants and family members of prior migrants.

Labour Migrants

Many of today’s international migration streams began with the recruitment and employment of foreign workers. During the 1940s to 1960s, the United States operated a guest worker program with Mexico, called the Bracero Program. In the 1960s and 1970s, many European countries instituted their own guest worker programs, bringing in labour from Turkey, northern Africa, and southern Europe. During the same period, oil-rich Libya and Persian Gulf states recruited workers from other Muslim countries, as well as south, east and Southeast Asia. South Africa recruited migrants from Mozambique and Lesotho to work in the mining industry.

Some migrants were recruited for seasonal work, often in agriculture. Others filled short-term labour shortages in a wider range of industries produced by burgeoning economies. Often, the international migrants were hired to perform jobs that natives would not do, particularly for the low wages or poor working conditions offered. In some situations – the oil producing regions, for example – they provided technical skills not readily available within the native population.

Even after active labour recruitment ended, labour migration often continued. European countries withdrew their labour contracts after the 1973 oil crisis and resulting recession, but many of their guest workers remained. Employers who were pleased with the performance of their existing staff did not want to train new workers to fill posts held by guest workers; many employees who had established roots did not want to return to their home countries. When the Bracero Program ended in 1965, migration patterns shifted towards unauthorised routes. During the more recent financial crisis in Southeast Asia, governments found it difficult to terminate temporary work programs that had been in operation for years.

Today, labour migration is highly complex. Several distinct categories of workers migrate, differentiated by their skills, the permanence of their residence in the host country and their legal status. At the lower end of the skills spectrum, international migrants pick fruits and vegetables, manufacture garments and other items, process meat and poultry, work as nursing home and hospital aides, clean restaurants and hotels, do gardening and construction, take care of children and the elderly, and provide myriad other services. They provide these types of services in a wide range of receiving countries in almost all parts of the globe.

At the higher end of the skill spectrum, international migrants engage in equally diverse activities. They fill jobs requiring specialised skills, run multinational corporations, teach in universities, provide research and development expertise to industry and academia, practice medicine, and design, build and program computers, to name only a few activities. Again, they can be found undertaking such assignments throughout the world.

In most countries, migrants are admitted as temporary workers and they are granted work authorisation for specified periods. They have no right to remain in the destination country beyond the period of authorised employment. This is particularly true in the Persian gulf states and East and Southeast Asia. In some cases, particularly in Europe, if a permit is renewed several times, the international migrant is allowed to remain indefinitely. The traditional immigration countries, the U.S., Canada and Australia, also have mechanisms for direct admission of foreign workers for permanent settlement.

In addition to legal avenues of entry for labour migrants is unauthorised migration. Statistics on unauthorised migration are hard to find in most countries since these movements are generally clandestine, but it appears that the numbers are substantial. Unauthorised workers can be found in almost as diverse a range of jobs and industries as authorised workers, with agricultural and food processing jobs, light manufacturing, construction and service jobs being the most common types of employment. In many cases, unauthorised migrants are smuggled into countries by professional rings that specialise in human trafficking.

Family reunification

The second major type of voluntary migration is for family reunification. Governments often permit close family members of those already in the country to enter through legal channels although this policy is found more frequently in the traditional immigration countries than in those authorising contract labourers only. The anchor relative in the host country may have been married and had children at the time of arrival but left his or her family members behind. Having determined to remain in the host country, he or she petitions for family reunification. Alternately, a citizen or international migrant already living in the host country marries a foreign national and seeks his or her admission.

The willingness of states to authorise family reunification is supported by international human rights law. Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by the society and the state.” Splitting families apart deprives each member of the fundamental right to respect of his or her family life. Since the family unit is often the principal support to its members, separating families also undermines other rights. Children and women, in particular, become vulnerable to exploitation when they are separated from their relatives.

Family reunion is often seen to be a consequence of labour migration. For example, in the years after guest worker programs ended in Europe, most officially sanctioned international migration consisted of family reunion as former guest workers brought their relatives to join them. Similarly, a substantial share of the migration into the United States in the past decade has been the family members of unauthorised migrants who gained legal status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Family reunion is also a cause of still further migration. Many would-be labour migrants learn of employment prospects through their family members in other countries and then seek authorised or, in some cases, unauthorised entry to take the jobs. Moreover, once family members obtain residence status in a new country, they are often able to bring in additional relatives through family reunification programs. This process is called chain migration. Although few countries permit legal immigration of extended family members, some migration systems do authorise admission of parents and adult siblings of already resident immigrants. To take one scenario, an international migrant with long-term residence sponsors his new spouse for admission; they then sponsor each of their parents, who in turn, sponsor their other children who enter with their spouses, who in turn sponsor their parents, and the chain continues.

Aside from its strong humanitarian basis and despite the potential for chain migration, host countries value family reunification because it is generally an effective mechanism for helping immigrants adapt to their new society. Already resident family members help new arrivals find jobs, housing, and other needed assistance. New immigrants may add their earnings to augment household income. Parents of immigrants often take care of young grandchildren, thereby allowing both spouses to be gainfully employed. Families pool their savings to open businesses. At the same time, however, family migration may result in fiscal costs for the host society. Aged parents may require health services or income support that immigrant families cannot afford. Immigrants often have more children than natives and the children may have special need for language or other instruction, increasing costs for public education. These costs may be an investment in the future but they are also a current expenditure.

Eligibility for family reunification is not universal, however. Many contract labour arrangements preclude admission of family members. Admission rules often restrict family reunification for asylum seekers and those granted temporary protection, even in traditional immigration countries.

Forced migrants

A large number of international migrants have been forced to leave their home countries and seek refuge in other nations. Many leave because of persecution, human rights violations, repression or conflict. They depart on their own initiative to escape these life-threatening situations although in a growing number of cases, they are driven from their homes by governments and insurgent groups intent on depopulating or shifting the ethnic, religious or other composition of an area. In other cases, migrants are forced to move by environmental degradation and natural and human-made disasters that make their homes inhabitable for at least some period. Because the legal frameworks for responding to these forms of forced migration differ, the two groups will be discussed separately.

Refugees have a special status in international law. A refugee is defined by the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as “a person who, owing to well‑founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Refugee status has been applied more broadly, however, to include others persons who are outside their country of origin because of armed conflict, generalised violence, foreign aggression or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order, and who, therefore, require international protection.

Environmental degradation and natural disasters uproot another type of forced migrant. Unlike the refugees described above, environmental migrants do not need protection from persecution or violence, but like refugees, they are unable to return to now uninhabitable communities. Most environmental migrants move internally, some relocating temporarily until they are able to rebuild their homes and others seeking permanent new homes. Some environmental migrants, however, cross national boundaries.

The specific environmental factors that precipitate movements vary. Mass migration may result from such natural phenomena as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flooding, hurricanes and other events that destroy housing, disrupt agriculture, and otherwise make it difficult for inhabitants to stay within their communities, particularly until reconstruction is completed. For example, periodic floods in Bangladesh have uprooted hundreds of thousands of persons. Hurricanes Georg and Mitch provoked massive displacement in the Caribbean and Central America, respectively. While most of these flood victims are internally displaced, the recurrent environmental problems provide an impetus for external movements as well.

Man-made disasters also precipitate mass movements. Large-scale industrial and nuclear accidents, such as those that occurred in Bophal and Chernobyl, can displace thousands of people within a very short period. Other manmade environmental problems lead to more gradual movements. Global warming, acid rain, pollution of rivers, depletion of resources, soil erosion and desertification all hold the potential to uproot millions of people who can no longer reside or earn a living in their home communities. While some of this environmental degradation may be reversible, the most severe problems will require sustained attention and significant resources for reclamation. In the meantime, both internal and international migration can be expected.

Global trends in international migration

Seven principal trends now affect international migration and global responses, including asylum policies and practices:

  • growing economic integration and globalisation;
  • changing geo-political interests in the post-Cold War era;
  • changing demographic trends and gender roles;
  • increasing transnationalism as migrants are able to live effectively in two or more countries at the same time;
  • increasing technological innovation;
  • growing reliance on smugglers, traffickers and other intermediaries; and
  • harmonisation of migration policies through regional and international mechanisms.

Economic globalisation and economic integration

Economic globalisation is not new. Nor is the role of international migration in stimulating and being affected by global markets. More than 500 years ago, European exploration, conquest and colonisation of continents with rich natural resources were connected integrally with the growth of a new mercantile, capitalist economy. Supported by new technologies that made circumnavigation of the earth possible, migration played a critical role in the expansion of global trade. Europeans settled new territories where, too often, they used migrants as well as indigenous populations as slave labour to mine minerals, grow agricultural products, cut down trees or engage in other activities that would fuel growing manufacturing sectors.

Today’s economic globalisation, however, gives new meaning to this old phenomenon. The growth in communications and transportation technologies, combined with the willingness of states to enter into binding trade commitments and businesses to establish multinational entities, has permitted an integration of economies that had heretofore operated in separate, differentiated spaces.

The ramifications of economic globalisation and integration for international migration are considerable as is the role that migration plays in furthering globalisation. As Saskia Sassen has written, “Immigration is, in my reading, one of the constitutive processes of globalisation today, even though not recognised or represented as such in mainstream accounts of the global economy.” [3] Movement of labour within the global economy, by definition, requires new thinking about the role of states in regulating migration as well as the rules and regulations that govern entry and exit. Russell and Teitelbaum make the point that “international migration is not only a factor in the competitive production of manufactures for trade, international migration is central to international trade in services.” [4]

Economic trends influence migration patterns in a number of ways. The growth in multinational corporations, for example, has put pressure on governments to facilitate the inter-country movements of executives, managers and other personnel. Similarly, corporations use contingent labour and contract out assignments at an unprecedented rate. In manufacturing, it is not unusual for components of a single product to be made in several different countries. The corporate interest in moving its labour force to meet the demands of this type of scheduling often runs into conflict with immigration policies. [5]

Bilateral, regional and international trade regimes are beginning to have a profound effect on migration. The European Union’s evolution of a harmonised migration regime to serve as a counterpart to its customs union is but one example. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Committee on Trade and Investment, spurred by the Business Advisory Council, has overseen exchange of information on business visa requirements and is identifying mechanisms for regional co-operation to facilitate mobility. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) includes potentially important migration-related provisions permitting freer movement of professionals, executives, and others providing international services from signatory countries. Although movements of lesser-skilled workers are not regulated by NAFTA, the issue is likely to be revisited as economic integration grows. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is another example of trade negotiations affecting migration policy. To give one example, in GATS, the US guaranteed a minimum of 65,000 visas per year for admission of foreign professionals who are authorised to remain in the US for up to three-year stays.

The growth in global trade and investment has import for major source countries of migration as well as the receiving countries. The issues raised in this connection are far more difficult because they relate to the often-unauthorised movements of unskilled workers. It has long been held that economic development, spurred by access to global markets and capital, is the best long-term solution to emigration pressures in poor countries. While negotiating NAFTA, former President Salinas of Mexico described his hope that “more jobs will mean higher wages in Mexico, and this in turn will mean fewer migrants to the United States and Canada. We want to export goods, not people.” [6] In more colourful language, Salinas cited his preference for Mexico to export tomatoes instead of tomato pickers.

Academicians exploring the relationship between economic development and emigration tend to agree that improving the economic opportunities for people in source countries is the best long-term solution to illegal migration. Almost uniformly, however, they caution that emigration pressures are likely to remain and, possibly, increase before the long-term benefits accrue: “The transformations intrinsic to the development process are at first destabilising. They initially promote rather than impede migration. Better communications and transportation and other improvements in the quality of life of people working hard to make a living raise expectations and enhance their ability to migrate.” [7] Several researchers posit what economist Philip Martin refers to as an “immigration hump.” As levels of income rise, emigration would at first increase, then peak and decline. [8] The experience of such countries as Italy and Korea in transitioning from emigration to immigration countries gives credence to this theory.

Changing geo-political interests

The post Cold War era presents new opportunities as well as new challenges for migration regimes. The effects are most profound with regard to treatment of forced migration. Most current refugee and asylum policy was formulated following World War II with the lessons of the Nazi era in mind and tensions between East and West growing. To a large degree, refugee policy was seen as an instrument of foreign policy at both international and domestic levels. Admission of refugees for permanent resettlement, asylum for victims of persecution and repression, and international aid to victims of surrogate Cold War fights (Central America, Ethiopia, Vietnam, etc.) were all part of the fight against communism.

The Cold War also made all but impossible some of the solutions to refugee crises, whether defined as attacking root causes or promoting return of refugees. With the end of the Cold War, new opportunities emerged. Many decades-old civil wars came to an end. Democratisation and increased respect for human rights took hold in numerous countries throughout the globe. As a result, repatriation became a possibility for millions of refugees who had been displaced for years.

One of the most significant changes in recent years has been in the willingness of countries to intervene on behalf of internally displaced persons and others in need of assistance and protection within their home countries. Classic notions of sovereignty, which formerly precluded such intervention, are under considerable pressure. International human rights and humanitarian law have growing salience in defining sovereignty to include responsibility for the welfare of the residents of one territory.

Intervention may be expected when the actions of a sovereign state threaten the security of another state. What is new is the recognition that actions that prompt mass exodus into a neighbouring territory threaten international security. In a number of cases, beginning with Resolution 688 that authorised intervention in northern Iraq, the Security Council has determined that the way to reduce the threat to a neighbouring state is to provide assistance and protection within the territory of the offending state. [9]

The changing geo-political scene is a two-edged sword, however. The need for humanitarian intervention also is linked to the end of the Cold War. Rabid nationalism has replaced communism in some countries, while others have so destabilised that no government exists to protect the civilian population. Addressing these new situations is made all the more challenging now that the ideological supports for generous refugee responses have unravelled. That the principles of asylum and non-refoulement (non-return to places of persecution) appear to be under growing attack in Europe and North America is one manifestation of this issue. Further, as the failure of the international community to protect the so-called safe havens in Bosnia showed, humanitarian interests alone are often an insufficient substitute for political will.

Demographic and gender trends

Additional global trends affecting future migration pertain to demography and gender roles. World-wide, fertility rates are falling although many countries in the developing world continue to see rapid population growth. In most developed countries, fertility levels are well below replacement rates – that is, couples are having fewer than two children. These countries can foresee a time in which total population will decrease, leading some demographers to refer to a looming population implosion.

They can also expect an ageing population. The United Nations Population Division projects that the number of persons aged 60 or older will increase from 600 million in the late 1990s to 2 billion in 2050. [10] The population of older persons will exceed that of children for the first time in history. At the same time, the number of working age persons per each older person will decline.

Along with these changes in population growth and age distribution are changes in the role of women within society. Women are increasingly pursuing educational opportunities, working outside of the home and participating in civil society. The 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development recognised that women’s education and ability to generate income are essential elements of any strategy to restrain rapid population growth. Not surprisingly, as women gain greater autonomy through education and work, they are also migrating not just as reunifying spouses but also as principal applicants for work visas.

Demographic trends affect international migration in two respects. First, they are an important factor in explaining emigration pressures in many countries. Societies with rapid population growth often are unable to generate sufficient employment to keep pace with new entries into the labour force. Environmental degradation may also result, particularly when land use policies do not protect fragile eco-systems. Such natural phenomena as hurricanes and earthquakes often have disproportionately negative effects on densely populated areas, particularly in poor countries, with large numbers displaced from homes destroyed by these events.

Second, demographic trends influence the receptivity towards and impact of migration on countries of destination. The direction of these effects is not necessarily straightforward, however. For example, a country with low fertility rates and an ageing population may benefit from the admission of working-age international migrants, but as the migrant population becomes a larger share of total population, there may be a backlash against the newcomers. This pattern is seen particularly where the migrants are of a different race, ethnicity or religion than the native population.


A fourth trend affecting migration is trans-nationalism. Partly because of the technological revolution of the second half of the 19th century, migrants can far more easily today live in two societies at the same time. While circular migration has been a notable aspect of migration for much of the past century, when travel was more difficult, migrants tended to live sequentially in one country or the other. Now they can maintain two homes, shuttling easily between them. This phenomenon can be seen in migration from north Africa and Turkey into Europe; Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean into the United States; China into Canada, Australia and the United States; and Mozambique and Lesotho into South Africa.

Money flows between immigrants and those who remain at home is another important aspect of trans-nationalism. Remittances often exceed any other form of trade, investment or foreign aid available to the source countries of migrants. According to the International Monetary Fund, an estimated $77 billion was remitted in 1997. The decision to remit and the amount remitted varies depending on the location of family members, earnings abroad, costs of migration and destination country living expenses, duration of stay, and other similar factors. Maintaining the flow of these resources is often an important consideration in immigration policy-making.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of trans-nationalism is the growing acceptance of dual nationality. Several major emigration countries, including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, have shifted from opposition to dual nationality to active support for it. A change in Mexican law permits nationals who naturalise in another country to retain their Mexican nationality. Making a distinction between nationality and citizenship, Mexico does not, however, intend to permit naturalised citizens to vote in Mexican elections. By contrast, the Dominican Republic, which also recognises dual nationality, permits absentee voting by Dominicans who naturalise elsewhere.

Technological innovations

The communications, information and transportation revolutions transforming society are likely to have mixed effects on migration trends. On the one hand, travel is cheaper and easier than ever before, increasing the likelihood that migrants can move far distances. Similarly, global communications systems enable would-be migrants to monitor the economic, social and political situations in distant countries and determine whether and where they wish to relocate. Inexpensive transport and telephone systems also permit migrants to remain in touch with their families at home, making migration a less radical step than it was in earlier periods. These factors contribute not only to increased migration but also to the trans-nationalism discussed above.

On the other hand, such innovations as the Internet will permit people to obtain good paying jobs without moving long distances. Although a certain portion of even high-tech information technology jobs require physical proximity to other workers, other positions can be filled at long distances. Moving such jobs to companies in developing countries is far less expensive, in financial and social terms, than moving workers to the jobs. At the same time, as the economies of developing countries improve with investment of this type, the economic incentives for migration should diminish. The process will take time, however, to be measured in generations in some cases.

More immediately, technological innovations may reduce the demand for inexpensive unskilled labour in some industries. In the United States, for example, the growers of sugar cane had been highly dependent on temporary foreign workers admitted from Caribbean states. Mechanisation of the sugar cane harvest, though, sharply reduced the need for this labour. At present, the availability of foreign workers often acts as a disincentive to make technological investments because it can take several years to amortise these costs. As the cost of technology reduces, however, the interest in a steady supply of foreign workers may well diminish.

Human smuggling and trafficking

It has long been recognised that three factors must be present for international migration to occur: demand/pull from receiving countries; supply/push from source countries; and networks to link the supply with the demand. The networks explain why certain migrants move to certain locations. They also explain why the same set of push or pull factors in different countries lead to very different migration experiences. If the networks are not functioning, the supply and demand never find each other.

Networks are often familial or community-based. Migrants tend to go to places in which their relatives, friends and community members are already located. Those already settled in the new country provide many needed services, not least of which is finding jobs or helping the newcomer obtain other sources of support. Sometimes, labour contractors serve this purpose. Working on behalf of companies in receiving countries, they seek out labourers and facilitate their migration. Certainly, the large-scale migration of Mexicans to the United States or migrants from North Africa to Europe began with such labour recruitment.

A particularly troubling trend in recent years has been the emergence of professional smuggling and trafficking operations as such facilitators of migration. Smuggling is, of course, one of the world’s oldest professions. When nation states established borders and sought to regulate traffic across them, they created markets for the smuggling of humans as well as goods. What is new is the scale of smuggling, measured in both numbers and profits, as well as an emerging pattern of increasing professionalisation. This pattern may vary by the type and location of the smuggling.

At the most informal levels, aliens are helped by individuals whom they know to traverse the border. At a slightly more organised level, local agents may be used to link migrants to more formal smuggling operations. The local contacts, who are generally well known to the migrants, tell them who to contact at the border to help them gain entry into the receiving country.

Several types of services may be offered: assistance in crossing without inspection; houses in which they can hide from the authorities; transportation to interior locations; links to employers. Smugglers may sell or rent fraudulent documents to be used in obtaining entry and to verify eligibility for lawful employment or receipt of services. The use of the types of smuggling operations varies by gender and financial resources. Often, smugglers act like legitimate business people, guaranteeing their services and agreeing to receive final payment when the migrant reaches the final destination.

Other smuggling/trafficking operations are far less benign. Smugglers pack large numbers of migrants into small, unventilated spaces to cross borders or reach ports. Fearing apprehension by border authorities, smugglers have left migrants without water or protection from the hot sun.

The most troubling form of smuggling involves human trafficking, where the smugglers not only bring migrants across borders but exploit and abuse their labour in the process. As smuggling fees increase, and migrants find it difficult to pay all costs at once, smugglers “sell” migrants to businesses who cover the fees in exchange for indentured labour. This can amount to virtual slavery, particularly for women and children forced into sexually exploitive occupations.

Another new element is the cost of smuggling and the profits derived from it. Migrants smuggled from the Fujian province of China reportedly pay upwards of $50,000 per person, often finding that it takes several years to repay their debt. These operations may yield profits of as much as $5-7 billion per year.

Smugglers have the advantage over governments at the moment because of the lack of an international migration regime in which governments co-operate to prohibit and prosecute smugglers of humans. Smugglers can easily exploit the gaps in the institutional structures of international co-operation as well as the fragmentation of domestic government law enforcement efforts. It is also to their advantage that except for the violence they may inflict their basic service of supplying cheap labour for receiving countries is widely tolerated even though illegal. Their advantage over migrants is the migrants’ dependence, ignorance and lack of recourse when agreements are not fulfilled.

Harmonisation through new regional and international mechanisms

Historically, states have seen immigration policy as a matter of national interest, often adopting unilateral policies aimed at regulating entry and exit. Nations treat the admission of immigrants and control of unauthorised migration as quintessential matters of sovereignty. After all, immigration policy deals with fundamental issues of national identity as well as national security. The protection of one’s borders is key to a state’s definition of itself.

While few would question that states do, in fact, have both the authority and the responsibility for making decisions regarding immigration, there is increasing recognition that sovereignty limits the ability of states to address the realities of today’s international migration. In 1995, the UN General Assembly asked the Secretary General to report on the feasibility and desirability of convening an international conference on international migration and development. After consulting with member governments, the Secretary General concluded that there was insufficient consensus about what could be accomplished at such a conference: “The disparate experiences of countries or sub-regions with regard to international migration suggest that, if practical solutions are to be found, they are likely to arise from the consideration of the particular situation of groups of countries sharing similar positions or concerns with the global international migration system… In the light of this, it may be expedient to pursue regional or sub-regional approaches whenever possible.” [11]

During the past decade, regional mechanisms have been established in the Americas, Europe, East Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, in which receiving, source and transit countries address issues of mutual concern. The European Union has had the longest experience in this respect. Free movement of labour within the European Community first came into force in 1968. During recent years, however, discussions turned to broader themes raised by a common immigration policy. Debate about visa policy is a case in point. The intergovernmental Schengen Agreement, originally signed among five EU members in 1985, called for the abolition of internal borders between member states, largely to facilitate trade by reducing long waits at border crossings. The agreement contained the first provisions for the establishment of a single “Schengen visa” for travel throughout most of Western Europe. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty on the European Union defined a common, European visa policy as essential for the realisation of the Union’s long-term goal of establishing a single market in goods, capital, and labour. The later Amsterdam Treaty (1997) included the Schengen Agreement into the EU’s formal political architecture. Five years after the treaty’s entry into force, [12] it is envisioned that decisions on visa issuance will be decided by majority vote.

Less developed multilateral approaches to migration are to be found in other regions, some arising from the migration ramifications of economic integration and others focusing on alien trafficking, illegal migration, mass migration emergencies, and other security concerns related to large-scale movements of people. The Regional Migration Conference, referred to as the “Puebla Group”, brings together all the countries of Central and North America for regular, constructive dialogue on migration issues, including an annual session at the vice‑ministerial level. The Plan of Action calls for co-operation in exchanging information on migration policy, exploring the links between development and migration, combating migrant trafficking, returning extra-regional migrants, and ensuring full respect for the human rights of migrants, and reintegrating repatriated migrants within the region, equipping and modernising immigration control systems, and training officials in migration policy and procedures. An early and continuing issue on the agenda is averting movements of extra-regional migrants through Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States and Canada.

In East and Southeast Asia, two regional migration consultation processes, are ongoing. One, known as the “Manila Process”, is co-ordinated by IOM and focuses on irregular migration and trafficking in East and Southeast Asia. Since 1996, it has brought together each year seventeen countries for regular exchange of information. The second Asian regional process, known as the Asia‑Pacific Consultations (APC), is co‑sponsored by IOM and UNHCR. It provides for consultations amongst governments in Asia and Oceania on a broad range of population movements in the region. Both of these ongoing dialogues were strengthened by the ministerial‑level International Symposium on Migration that the Royal Thai Government hosted in Bangkok. The search for solutions to the many migration‑related problems affecting the region becomes of particular relevance in light of the economic crisis affecting parts of Asia.

Other such processes are in the making in the Southern Cone of South America, in southern Africa and in the Mediterranean. They intend to bring together the governments of all countries involved in the migration process, origin, transit and receiving.

To date, much of the harmonisation sought through these regional mechanisms pertains to management of unauthorised migration. Among the policies adopted through or supported by these mechanisms are: mandatory visa requirements, sanctions against carriers transporting improperly documented migrants, pre-inspection clearance programs, interdiction of vessels, diversion of arrivals to transit countries (e.g., safe third countries), exclusion from future admission, and detention. Although broadly applied to all unauthorised migrants, some of these mechanisms have been targeted at persons who would be likely to apply for asylum if granted admission. For example, States have invoked visa requirements on nationals of certain countries because of increases in asylum applications.

Implications for refugee protection

The global trends described above have particular importance for the refugee protection system. The trends are clearer regarding numbers and destinations than they are in predicting policy responses. All States can expect to see significant levels of international migration in the future. Some of this migration will be among the wealthier countries, as multinational corporations adopt global labour policies and countries follow the lead of the European Union in facilitating such practices. Other migration will continue within the developing world and particularly within States, as the poorest migrants and refugees find themselves unwilling or unable to move long distances or even cross borders for either work or protection. However, as has been the case in the past few decades, an increasing proportion of migration will be from developing to developed countries. Technological innovation, growing economic integration and increasingly more effective networks (including smugglers) will permit people with some capital, transnational contacts or willingness to indenture themselves the opportunity to move across vast distances as well as within economically-joined regions.

Most of the trends described above affect forced migrants as well as those moving voluntarily for economic reasons. Economic integration and development is occurring even among and within countries with vastly different political systems, protection of human rights, and demographic trends. Persons able to find economic opportunities in wealthier partner countries because of economic integration and slowing population growth may be motivated to leave or remain outside of their countries because of repression and violations of rights. Certainly, many forced migrants will be as likely as economic migrants to take advantage of inexpensive transportation and communications, be members of transnational communities and have access to or even be recruited by smugglers and traffickers.

The global trend that will have the most impact on forced migration is the changing geo-political relations discussed above. At present, there appears to be little prospect of a slowing down in the type of nationalist and religious conflicts that generated millions of refugees and internally displaced in the 1990s. Instability in the Balkans, Caucuses and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union continues. Religious fundamentalism continues to take hold in countries, in some cases precipitating the mass flight of religious minorities and secularists. Wars of liberation gave way to surrogate Cold War conflicts in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, which are now giving way to sometimes prolonged civil conflicts fuelled by illicit sales of diamonds, drugs and other commodities. All of these developments herald likely continued forced migration.

This is not to say that migration is inevitable nor that once begun, migration will not stop. The economic trends discussed above may well result in reduced movements from many countries. Formerly emigration countries such as Italy and Ireland, having significantly improved economies, have transformed themselves into immigration countries. Demographic and economic projections for such current emigration countries as Mexico, Morocco and the Philippines demonstrate that a similar process is underway. However, it is likely to take at least a generation, if not longer, for economic development to progress to a point where migration patterns are reversed. In fact, if generally agreed upon theories are correct, one can expect increased migration to occur as the economies grow before the expected reduction takes place. Similarly, democratisation and greater respect for human rights may well lead to increased migration as previously repressive governments loosen restrictions on their citizens and permit greater contact with other societies.

Will increased migration of both forced and voluntary migrants necessarily lead to increased demands for asylum or other forms of protection? There the evidence is less clear and may be determined not by the interest of individual migrants but instead by the actions of States and such intermediaries as smugglers and traffickers. Let us take four scenarios that reflect the same broad trends. The first two reduce the number of asylum applications. However, the first scenario is beneficial to the bona fide refugee seeking protection while the second places the same refugee in some jeopardy. A third scenario shows relatively little change in asylum applications and leaves refugees in much the same situation as today. A fourth scenario shifts course and examines State responses to forced migration in the context of geo-political relations rather than economic and demographic trends.

Scenario 1: To take perhaps the more rosy scenario, some trends, such as economic integration and decreasing population growth in wealthier countries, may encourage States to provide alternative avenues of admission for migrants whose only option now is to apply for asylum. Recognising that many now unauthorised migrants could fill jobs that may otherwise be unfilled because of labour shortages or the unwillingness of native workers to take the positions at prevailing wages or working conditions, the receiving States legalise at least part of the flow of migrants. Migrants whether voluntary or forced who also seek economic opportunities may avail themselves of these new options. States feeling less pressure on their asylum systems, particularly from those with weaker claims, may then be more willing to provide adequate protection to the presumably smaller number of applicants for asylum.

Scenario 2: A less promising scenario could also flow, however, from these same trends. Rather than increase legal avenues for admission, States tolerate unauthorised migration because of presumed labour shortages as long as the migrants are willing to work at lower wages or under less desirable working conditions. It would be fair to say that this response has occurred in the United States, which has taken steps in the context of very low unemployment to reduce the level of enforcement of sanctions against employers hiring unauthorised workers. Some smuggling operations that now encourage migrants to apply for asylum, as the only mechanism for admission, instead develop contacts with employers willing to pay the smuggling fees in exchange for inexpensive labour. Bona fide refugees who may have prevailed in asylum determinations are indentured to employers in order to pay off their smuggling fees. The State sees a reduction in asylum applications, but the number of unauthorised migrants does not change – or even increases to include new migrants drawn by the employment magnet and able to migrate because of the smuggling networks. Of course, there are costs to the State as well as the migrants in this scenario. The credibility of the State to manage migration is undermined; moreover, its ability to control unauthorised migration in the event of changing economic conditions is severely impaired.

Scenario 3: Under the third scenario, as in the first, States increase legal immigration opportunities in response to economic integration and declining population growth. However, the new admission categories give preference to migrants with certain specified skills and/or who come from countries that are trading partners. Even with broad admission criteria and generous quotas or ceilings, neither full employer demand nor full migrant supply is likely to be met. Would-be migrants from other countries or without specified skills do not qualify for admission, but they may well have the networks and capacity to migrate. In fact, the new admission categories may soon become oversubscribed; in the meantime, they may have raised expectations and created new networks that encourage qualified applicants to circumvent processing and attempt unauthorised entry. Some of those admitted, for example for seasonal work, may find that moving into unauthorised work in urban areas provides them more lucrative full-time, all-year opportunities. The lesson here is that legal immigration, which may offer many advantages for a receiving country, will not necessarily serve as a substitute for unauthorised migration and, under certain conditions, may even increase unauthorised movements. To the extent that asylum applicants in particular do not meet the criteria for legal admission, there is no reason to assume that increased legal immigration will divert them from the asylum system.

Scenario 4: The likelihood that forced migration pressures will increase or reduce asylum applications could be profoundly affected by future decisions to intervene or not intervene in source countries of conflict and repression. (The same could be said of economic migration; decisions regarding foreign trade, aid and investment will affect economic development in source countries and, hence, migration responses over time.) Hints as to future trends can already be seen in decisions to intervene militarily in northern Iraq, Haiti, East Timor and the Balkans. Since Resolution 688 explicitly referenced that forced movements into Turkey and Iran presented a threat to international peace and security, countries have been debating the circumstances under which Chapter VII intervention is appropriate and politically and militarily feasible. To the extent that States opt to follow the northern Iraq precedent, requests for asylum and other forms of protection may decline significantly. States are also looking towards less intrusive ways to protect persons still inside home countries or neighbouring countries. Examples include safe havens (presumably with greater protection than has been the case in Bosnia and other places where they have been tried), regional protection centres, in-country processing for admission as refugees, and enhanced use of refugee resettlement, particularly for those with strong ties in more developed countries or no prospect for local integration or repatriation.

Policy lessons and recommendations

As this brief description of scenarios indicates, States can exert considerable control over migration even in the face of increased migration pressures and opportunities. One of the most surprising things about migration is how few people move, not how many people move. Push, pull and network factors affect far more people than those who actually migrate. State policy has much, though not all, to do with whether migration occurs and, even more so, in what manner it occurs. This is a point worth emphasising because too often governments choose draconian measures to control movements because they fear they are impotent to manage migration otherwise.

A second point is that refugee protection, far from being at odds with immigration control, is an essential element in managing migration flows. As this review of the scale and nature of migration has shown, whether and where migrants go is affected by complex factors: push, pull and networks. It is important to emphasise that being pulled or smuggled to Western Europe or other highly developed countries does not negate that the push factor may well be persecution, torture or conflict. While these causes do not necessarily obligate a State to admit someone for permanent settlement, they do generally prevent them from returning the individual to the country where they would be endangered. In some cases, the States have a legal obligation (i.e., under the Refugee Convention and Convention Against Torture); in other cases, the practical barriers to repatriation – particularly to conflict areas or to countries without stable governments –are formidable. When States dismiss all migration as unauthorised movements, without giving recognition that there may be valid grounds to permit certain migrants to remain within their territory, the credibility of their immigration policies come under attack. At the same time, policies that make it harder for asylum seekers to exit their countries or to reach their destination merely shifts responsibility from one State to another, or to the broader international community, without solving the basic problem of refugee protection.

It is essential that governments have multiple tools to deal with complex flows of people. If the asylum system is the only avenue to provide protection, it will appear to be flawed since many, if not most, of those who cannot return home fall outside of the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of persecution. Even more so, if asylum is the only avenue of entry for those seeking economic opportunities, ensuring the credibility of the asylum system is made all the more difficult. Smugglers and others will take advantage of any weaknesses in the asylum system in order to ensure that their clients reach the intended destination. In the meantime, if States find it difficult to keep up with the asylum applications, those with bona fide claims to refugee status may find themselves waiting an inordinately long time to gain recognition.

Having said that States need multiple tools in their immigration and asylum systems, it is also important to emphasise that there are no easy or quick fixes in managing migration or protecting refugees. Those who argue that increasing access to legal immigration will solve unauthorised migration are bound to be disappointed. Only if borders were totally open, and governments placed no numerical or qualitative barriers (e.g., public health, welfare or criminal grounds) to entry, would legal immigration substitute perfectly for unauthorised movements. Since it is unlikely that States will take such action, there will continue to be would-be migrants who do not fit the criteria for entry and attempt to by-pass lawful immigration procedures.

Those who recommend ratcheting up control mechanisms should equally recognise that these policies and practices often have unintended consequences that make migration management all the more difficult. The U.S. experience in border control is a case in point. Since 1994, the United States has increased the presence of the Border Patrol and taken other steps to make it more difficult for migrants to cross without authorisation into urban areas along the border. The new policies shifted crossings into more difficult terrain, resulted in multiple apprehensions before a successful crossing and inadvertently increased reliance on professional smuggling operations. All of these raised the costs but did not stop unauthorised migration. An unintended consequence has been that unauthorised migrants remain for longer periods in the United States. Another unintended consequence has been an increase in deaths along the border as migrants continue to try to cross but face much more difficult terrain as well as smugglers willing to leave them behind if apprehension of the whole group is at risk.

What are the elements of a comprehensive approach to migration that will most effectively promote refugee protection? And, what role can UNHCR most effectively take in this regard? Four aspects must be considered: ameliorating the causes of unauthorised migration, with particular focus on forced movements; strengthening mechanisms that enhance protection while minimising abuses; managing all forms of migration flows and doing so in a manner that involves source, transit and receiving countries; and resolving the longer-term status of migrants.

Ameliorating the causes of unauthorised migration<

Ultimately, reducing the push and pull factors is the most sensible way to address increasing migration pressures. Peace, respect for human rights, and reduction in income differentials between rich and poor countries are the best long-term solutions to uncontrolled migration. Given the large number of people fleeing internal conflict and insecurity, and as Sadako Ogata said before the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, UNHCR “has an obvious interest in the prevention or mitigation of deadly conflict. Not only are we in direct contact with the suffering of those who manage to escape persecution and mass violence, but we also witness the shrinking willingness to offer them sanctuary.”

The role that UNHCR can play regarding prevention is a limited but important one. Clearly, UNHCR has not the resources nor the capacity to prevent conflict, ensure human rights or promote economic security. The agency can, however, 1) advocate alleviation of the causes of forced migration; 2) stimulate early warning of and response to refugee emergencies to prevent displacements and mitigate longer-term impacts; 3) utilise humanitarian assistance in a manner that reduces tensions, stabilises communities, limits the potential for its diversion to military purposes, and reaches those in need without unnecessarily requiring their movement towards the aid; and 4) encourage safe and orderly repatriation in a manner that supports peace and reconciliation. At the same time, UNHCR must continue to reiterate that prevention does not mean preventing people from seeking safety and protection abroad.

Strengthening mechanisms that promote protection

UNHCR generally defines its protection role in relationship to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The core, fundamental precepts of protection are: non-refoulement, including non-rejection of asylum seekers at the frontier; admission to safety; access to fair and efficient procedures for determination of refugee status; basic standards of treatment that accord with human dignity and integrity; and appropriate lasting solutions. Key to ensuring such protection is UNHCR’s unhindered access to asylum-seekers and refugees to monitor their situation and treatment.

Reinforcing these protection principles is one of UNHCR’s principal responsibilities. Given that numerous countries have not yet signed the refugee Convention nor implemented policies and procedures to protect refugees, UNHCR should continue to encourage signatories. UNHCR should also continue to work with States to develop and implement policies and procedures that are consistent with the protection precepts described above. Further, UNHCR should continue to encourage the broadest application of the Convention , particularly to include persecution by non-State actors and in collapsed States with no functioning government and persecution based on gender – two areas where State practices vary greatly.

Even with full accordance to the 1951 Convention, however, gaps in international protection will be seen. The Convention definition is narrow in scope, referencing a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds. Persons who flee generalised conflict, violence and abuses do not necessarily fit the 1951 Convention definition. Although the OAU Convention and the Cartagena Declaration widen the scope to include those fleeing such situations, and UNHCR considers them to be of concern, States do not consistently apply the broader criteria.

Moreover, the Convention refers only to those who are already out of their countries of origin. It does not pertain to those who are still at home, even if they are subject to the type of conditions that would make them refugees if they left. In effect, the refugee system presents a fundamental dilemma for UNHCR and States concerned with protection: only those who manage to flee are covered by the refugee Convention, but flight often requires refugees to break immigration laws and to subject themselves to danger and sometimes exploitation at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

A challenge for UNHCR is to broaden the scope of refugee protection to fill these gaps, and to do so in a manner that ensures the continued integrity of asylum while protecting the broadened system from potential abuse. A number of different approaches could be considered: Encourage adoption of forms of protection that complement asylum, with these complementary protection regimes focusing in particular on persons who flee generalised conflict and violence.

UNHCR should work with States to set out minimum standards of treatment for those granted the complementary status, encouraging States to afford similar protections to those spelled out in the Convention. The principal obligation of States should be non-return of migrants to conditions in which they would be endangered. If such conditions continue for some time, however, States should be encouraged to permit those granted the complementary status to remain permanently.

Complementary statuses serve not only to protect the large number of asylum seekers who flee conflict rather than persecution, they also facilitate both the appearance and reality of migration control. At present, it appears as if States have less control over their asylum systems than is the case. Although a sometimes small minority of applicants are accorded asylum, a much larger number are permitted to remain on other humanitarian grounds. Because the policies are framed solely as asylum policies, however, these other forms of relief tend to be disregarded. They do have value, apart from their humanitarian one, in allowing States to keep track of persons within their territory, determine what rights accrue to specific statuses, and require return if conditions permit.

Encourage development of mechanisms for in-country protection to minimise the negative effects of such migration controls as visa requirements and carrier sanctions. In particular, UNHCR should explore the feasibility of establishing procedures through which would-be asylum seekers can request protection prior to departure. Several options should be considered: creating special “refugee” visas that embassies and consulates would grant to persons who do not qualify for regular visas but who can demonstrate that they are or will be endangered if they do not leave their home countries; establishing UNHCR offices in countries of origin where would-be asylum seekers could request protection, with the understanding that they would be evacuated to countries willing and able to receive them; and broadening the responsibilities of pre-inspection personnel and other immigration officials assigned to overseas locations so that they can assess the asylum claims of persons seeking to board aircraft and other carriers without proper documentation.

These various mechanisms are largely untried, and they certainly are not substitutes for a functioning asylum system. The experience with in-country processing for refugee resettlement has been mixed, to say the least, for both refugee protection and migration management. For example, the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) from Vietnam and Cuba at least partially stemmed large-scale departures in unseaworthy boats, saving lives and providing a safer avenue for departure. The departures were stemmed, however, because both governments agreed to halt the movements. Bona fide refugees who were afraid to apply for orderly departure, thereby making themselves known to the government, had even more limited options for flight. In Haiti, in particular, the presence of in-country processing was used by the United States as a reason to return interdicted boats directly to Haiti without affording passengers the opportunity to apply for asylum. From the immigration management vantage, ODP arrangements could hinder the capacity of the receiving country to set its own priorities for admission. In the Vietnamese ODP, for example, the U.S. established lists of persons who sought entry and met minimal criteria for admission, and Vietnam set lists of those it would grant exit permission. Generally, only those who were on both lists were able to leave, but these individuals may not have been as high priorities as were other applicants. Despite these problems, and the necessity for UNHCR continually to reinforce that in-country procedures cannot be a substitute for asylum, they hold one overriding advantage: they provide opportunities for victims of persecution and other abuses to find safety without resort to subterfuge and further violation of their rights.

Explore the feasibility of establishing regional protection mechanisms. Regional protection holds promise for helping States balance twin interests: providing protection to refugees without providing admission to persons who do not otherwise qualify for entry. As discussed above, international migration generally requires both push and pull factors. In the case of refugees seeking entry into the highly developed countries of North America and Europe, the push may be persecution or conflict, but the pull is generally better economic opportunities. Regional protection – that is, protection in neighbouring or nearby countries with similar economies to those of the country of origin – offers safety without the potential magnet for unauthorised migration presented by admission to wealthier nations. It also presumably facilitates repatriation when conditions permit because the economic advantages of remaining outside of one’s country are reduced.

Regional protection is hardly a new concept. The vast majority of refugees have always found asylum within their regions of origin, generally in neighbouring countries. What is new is the interest of European and North American States in redirecting movements towards regional centres.

This approach was pioneered in Southeast Asia, when a processing centre was established in Bataan, the Philippines, to receive refugees admitted to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong for temporary asylum before they were resettled elsewhere. Because the numbers seeking entry outpaced the resettlement capacity, the processing centre relieved the pressure on first asylum countries, keeping the door opened for protection, and allowed the resettlement countries to examine applications carefully to determine who was admissible. The processing centre effectively served both protection and migration management ends.

A different form of regional protection was used in 1994 to address an increasing number of boat departures from Haiti. In this case, regional protection was offered as an alternative to admission into the United States. Fearing that access to U.S. territory would serve as a magnet to further flight, the U.S. instead offered safe haven at Guantanamo Naval Base and, through a regional agreement, in Panama and the Turks and Caico Islands – but emphasised that there would be no admission to the U.S. The implementation of this policy led to an abrupt decline in boat departures, but not before about 40,000 Haitians afforded themselves of this regional protection. The need for safe haven lessened considerably when international pressure and the threat of military intervention led to a restoration of the elected government and the presence of peacekeeping forces. The vast majority of those offered protection chose to return home when conditions permitted. A small number were permitted entry into the U.S. to pursue asylum claims or to seek medical attention.

A third example of regional protection, supplemented by humanitarian evacuation to preserve first asylum, occurred during the Kosovo crisis. By far the largest number of refugees from Kosovo remained in the neighbouring countries of Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. However, to ensure that first asylum was maintained, and in recognition of Macedonia’s concern about its own security, other States agreed to accept some refugees for temporary protection or resettlement. A regional approach was hence sustained by international responsibility-sharing.

This brief review of the experience with regional protection shows it has utility, but it reinforces that regional protection must be accompanied by mechanisms for broader responsibility sharing – in both the costs of maintaining regional protection as well as the resettlement or relocation of at least a portion of those requiring protection.

Migration management regime

While UNHCR’s principal focus is on forced migrants who require international protection, it is in UNHCR’s interest that a more fully developed migration regime evolve. At present, State obligations towards refugees are spelled out more clearly than are their responsibilities towards other migrants. For a variety of reasons, governments, advocates on behalf of migrants and the migrants themselves have an interest in defining migratory patterns, regardless of cause, as refugee movements. There are policies for handling asylum claims even in countries that routinely deny that they have immigration and, hence, the need for immigration policies. If found to be a refugee, the migrant has far more rights than accrue to others who move across international boundaries. This works two ways. In some cases, the UNHCR’s very presence makes it desirable to label migrants as refugees since some of the responsibility for assisting and protecting the individuals coming through the asylum/refugee system can be shared. In other cases, States refuse to label any migrants as refugees, fearing that they will then be asked to admit them permanently.

Either of these blurring of distinctions between voluntary migrants and forced migrants needing protection makes it difficult for UNHCR to argue for special attention to the populations within its mandate (refugees and those in refugee-like situations). UNHCR could contribute towards solving this problem in two ways: by encouraging adoption of more comprehensive and transparent immigration policies; and by encouraging and supporting the establishment of a global migration regime to address movements of people who do not fit within UNHCR’s mandate.

As discussed above, a fuller range of immigration policies will not necessarily reduce pressures on the asylum systems of receiving countries. Such countries as the United States, Canada and Australia, whose categories for admission of immigrants and temporary workers are well developed and broadly conceived, nevertheless also see significant applications for asylum from individuals with weak claims. When countries have comprehensive and transparent immigration systems, though, the ability to make distinctions among different applicants for admission or relief from removal is enhanced. So too is the ability to place migrants in appropriate categories that reflect their reasons for migrating. And, in the final analysis, decisions to remove those who fit no category – family, employment or humanitarian – are more readily justified. In turn, if UNHCR has greater confidence that all avenues of protection and admission have been explored, the organisation can more readily support such removals.

The development of a global migration regime would be useful as well. Such a regime would include international agreements to govern movements of people and mechanisms for determining the responsibilities of States towards different categories of migrants. Through negotiations, such a regime would likely take into account the interests of all parties to migration, including source, transit and receiving countries as well as the migrants themselves. The international community is at some distance, however, from having such agreements. The various regional fora for discussion of migration issues, such as the Puebla Group discussed above, are useful vehicles for moving along debate about the rights and responsibilities of migrants and States. UNHCR’s active participation in these regional mechanisms, along with the International Organization for Migration, which is serving as secretariat to a number of them, is essential not only to ensuring that refugee issues are properly addressed but to encourage a more comprehensive approach to migration management.

Resolving the status of migrants

States increasingly are turning towards temporary mechanisms to address migration flows. The growing interest in temporary protection policies, along with the increased use even in traditional immigration countries of temporary work provisions, lead to many situations in which the longer-term status of migrants, including forced ones, remains in doubt for sometimes lengthy periods. There are two likely resolutions to these situations: return of migrants to their home countries or more permanent integration into their new communities. Third country resettlement is a less frequent, though often important, alternative for migrants in some type of temporary status.

At present, mechanisms for determining which solution is appropriate are sorely lacking. States have no agreed upon criteria for determining whether conditions justify return, particularly in the aftermath of conflict. Even in the case of voluntary migration, States differ as to the extent that they should take such considerations as brain drain into account in requiring return. Similarly, there is little agreement as to the circumstances under which local integration should be permitted or encouraged. Should temporary migrants who remain outside of their country for a specific period (let us say five years), be permitted to adjust to a permanent status because they have established roots and developed equities in the destination country? Should there be different criteria for those granted temporary protection versus those with temporary work permits? Should there be assistance towards return and/or integration? These are all questions that now beg adequate answers.

Resolving status is particularly important if temporary protection mechanisms are to work towards giving refuge to the largest number of persons needing such protection. If governments fear that temporary protection is merely and always a way station towards permanent admission, they may be less likely to be generous in its grant. On the other hand, if governments persist in arguing that all of those granted temporary protection should return regardless of how long it takes for home country conditions to change, they are fighting against the realities of the equities that long-term migrants develop over time. More transparent policies that provide criteria for determining when and how return or adjustment to permanent status will occur will help to resolve some of the most difficult dilemmas now seen in temporary protection policies.


While presenting special issues and challenges, not the least of which is the need for protection, refugee movements cannot be addressed in isolation from broader migration trends. This paper has attempted to set out approaches to migration management that take into account the protection needs of refugees and others of humanitarian concern to the UNHCR. Rather than seeing protection as being at odds with migration management, the paper argues that migration management cannot work without appropriate mechanisms to protect not only refugees under the 1951 Convention but also others who would be endangered because of conflict and violence in their home countries. Similarly, asylum policies will not function properly in the absence of more comprehensive migration policies that permit States to distinguish among different categories of migrants and find solutions appropriate to their specific circumstances.


[1] The description of the scale and nature of international migration and the global trends affecting migration patterns and policy responses are drawn from work that the author undertook for the International Organization for Migration that will appear in the World Migration Report: 2000.

[2] With an estimated global population of six billion, the estimated 150 million international migrants represent 2.5 percent of the word’s population.

[3] Saskia Sassen, Globalisation and its Discontents, New York: New Press, 1998.

[4] Michael S. Teitelbaum and Sharon Stanton Russell, International Migration and International Trade, Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1992.

[5] In a far less benign manner, international smuggling operations function as multi-national corporations influencing migration patters by determining where migrants go, how they enter and what (clandestine) work they will do to pay off their smuggling fees (which may be as high as $50,000 per person). See below for more information on smuggling and trafficking operations.

[6] Philip L. Martin, Trade and Migration: NAFTA and Agriculture, Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1993.

[7] U.S. Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development, Unauthorized Migration: An Economic Development Response, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990.

[8] Wayne A. Cornelius and Philip L Martin, The Uncertain Connection: Free Trade and Mexico-U.S. Migration, San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, 1993

[9] The changing context for humanitarian action also affects the roles and responsibilities of international organizations with regard to forced migrants. Formerly, most responsibility for handling forced migration crises went to UNHCR, which mobilized resources from sister agencies. Today, new sets of actors drawn from security, military, human rights and development communities have growing involvement, particularly in situations involving internal displacement.

[10] UN Population Division (1999), Population Ageing 1999. United Nations publication, (ST/ESA/SER.A/179)

[11] UN Secretary General, International Migration and Development, including the convening of a United Nations Conference on International Migration and Development, A/52/314, 18 September 1997.

[12] The Amsterdam Treaty entered into force on May 1, 1999. Consequently, sweeping changes in European migration policy are expected to take place by 2004, the close of the initial five-year test period envisioned in the treaty. This includes majority vote in the Council of Ministers on all areas of migration and asylum policy, as well as the acquisition by the European Commission of the sole right of initiative to introduce migration-related legislation.

Genocide and Humanitarian Intervention: Incorporating the Gender Variable

Adam Jones [1]
Profesor, División de Estudios Internacionales
Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
Carret. México-Toluca 3655
Col. Lomas de Santa Fe
C.P. 01210, México, D.F., MÉXICO


The gender variable is one of the least-analyzed and most misunderstood elements of genocidal killing. This paper seeks to develop the author’s inclusive framing of “gendercide,” i.e., gender-selective mass killing, by exploring the relevance of gender to genocide prevention and humanitarian intervention. Among the specific arguments to be advanced is that the genocidal or proto-genocidal targeting of males, especially “battle-age” men, is one of the most reliable indicators of the onset, or impending onset, of fullscale genocide. In the three “classic” genocides of the twentieth century, for example – against the Armenian community in Turkey, European Jews, and the Tutsis of Rwanda – fullscale genocide was preceded by a wide range of gender-selective measures, including mass roundups and localized killings of men. The demonization of out-group males was a key feature of the propaganda discourse that paved the way for genocide. In addition, the initial stages of all these genocides overwhelmingly targeted males for extermination, a phenomenon that is also evident in numerous contemporary and historical cases. Associated patterns of the demonization of “out-group” women, and abuses including rape and sexual assault, need to be factored into the analysis. I also devote a separate section to “The Challenge of Gendercidal Institutions,” focusing on one – maternal mortality – in which state-sponsored negligence kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.


The gender variable is one of the least-analyzed and most misunderstood elements of genocidal killing. This article seeks to develop the author’s inclusive framing of “gendercide,” i.e., gender-selective mass killing, by exploring the relevance of gender to genocide prevention and humanitarian intervention. Among the specific arguments to be advanced is that the genocidal or proto-genocidal targeting of males, especially “battle-age” men, is one of the most reliable indicators of the onset, or impending onset, of fullscale genocide. In the three “classic” genocides of the twentieth century, for example – against the Armenian community in Turkey, European Jews, and the Tutsis of Rwanda – fullscale genocide was preceded by a wide range of gender-selective measures, including mass roundups and localized killings of men. The demonization of out-group males was a key feature of the propaganda discourse that paved the way for genocide. In addition, the initial stages of all these genocides overwhelmingly targeted males for extermination, a phenomenon that is also evident in numerous contemporary and historical cases. Associated patterns of the demonization of “out-group” women, and abuses including rape and sexual assault, also need to be factored into the analysis. I also devote a separate section to “The Challenge of Gendercidal Institutions,” focusing on one – maternal mortality – in which state-sponsored negligence kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

I begin by examining the incorporation of the gender variable into both international relations and genocide studies. In the latter half of the article, the gender policies of two institutions that play a key role in humanitarian interventions – the United Nations and human-rights NGOs – are considered and critiqued. The argument will be that these institutions have, on balance, paid only the most limited attention to the vulnerability of the group most typically targeted in genocidal killing – younger, “battle-age” males. This focus on males reflects, and is designed to partly redress, the marginalization of male victims from the discourse of human rights and humanitarian intervention. It should not be seen as suggesting that men and boys are in any way “more important” as subjects of analyses than women and girls. Rather, I contend that the link between women/femininity and humanitarian emergencies has been relatively well conceptualized and explored by feminist scholarship, and entrenched as a subject of legitimate concern in the policies and coverage developed by the key institutions already referred to. The challenge of expanding the framework of “gender” beyond women has, however, barely begun to be met, and urgently requires scholarly and institutional consideration.

Gendering Genocide

In the field of genocide studies, the gender variable has been “invisible or barely visible,” an “obfuscation” that “may reflect the fact that it is non-combatant males who tend overwhelmingly to be the victims of gender-selective mass killing, and this remains a powerful taboo in the feminist-dominated discussion of gender.” [2] Only one book has appeared that claims to address the subject of gender and genocide: Ronit Lentin’s edited collection Gender & Catastrophe. [3] The editor’s introduction describes women as “uniquely at risk” in genocidal outbreaks, and the volume as a whole attempts to illustrate “the ways [in which] women are targeted by genocides and catastrophes.” [4] It is a worthwhile contribution, but also a blinkered one. And apart from case-studies of women’s victimization in individual genocides, mostly focused on the former Yugoslavia, [5] nothing has appeared subsequently, to my knowledge.

It was with this analytical gulf in mind that I wrote my article “Gendercide and Genocide” for Journal of Genocide Research; and also the reason that I co-launched, in February 2000, a Web-based educational project called Gendercide Watch (, which seeks to confront gender-selective mass killings and other atrocities against both men and women worldwide. In marked contrast to the response generated by my work in gender and international relations, both projects have benefited by a quite extraordinary receptiveness. At the same time, however, criticisms have been voiced about the “gendercide” framing. One issue is whether the term itself can legitimately be used to refer to selective genocidal attacks on men and women (or boys and girls). In a paper presented to the 2001 meeting of the Association of Genocide Scholars, for instance, R. Charli Carpenter argues that a clear distinction should be drawn between (biological) sex and (culturally-constructed) gender, and what I call “gendercide” would better be referred to as “sex-selective massacre.” [6]

This is not the place for an extended discussion of this subject, [7] but I believe there are solid grounds for using “gender” as shorthand to designate for the continuum of biologically-given and culturally-constructed attributes; that such a practice is common in “colloquial usage” and in “much international discourse pertaining to women,” as Carpenter, for one, recognizes; and that use of the term “gendercide” is amply in keeping with the original deployment of the term, by Mary Anne Warren in her 1985 book Gendercide: The Implications of Sex Selection. [8] Much seems to be gained in terms of nomenclatural convenience, and little analytical force surrendered, if the specific context of “gender” is simply borne in mind.

Carpenter also notes that using the term gendercide “is not without its political advantages.” It “creates an obvious semantic corollary to the much-abused term ‘genocide.’” It helps to “advanc[e] a normative argument that policymakers and activists turn their brains on.” I would not deny for a moment that the political-activist component is integral to my research on gendercide, nor that this component is greatly aided by deployment of a term that is both evocative and concise. The political aspect of the project also prompts my focus on “sex-selective massacre.”

Carpenter is quite right when she contends that it would be disastrous for studies of gender and genocide to become preoccupied with this theme to the exclusion of all else. Her specific recommendations for building on the existing gendercide literature – such as further exploring the age variable, destabilizing heterosexual assumptions, and examining gendered discourses of humanitarian intervention – strike me as convincing and well thought-out. Thus, gendercide should not be the focus of gender-and-genocide research. In my view, however, it should remain a legitimate focus of such research. And it is perhaps one of the most urgent ones, given that the phenomenon of gender-selective mass killing has not, until now, been framed inclusively, analyzed within a comparative and global-historical framework, or integrated into the policy and humanitarian discussion and agenda.

In the activist context, in which “issues” must be carefully defined and energetically lobbied, the validity of a focus on gender-selective mass killing becomes clearer still. Primary attention to the most atrocious real-world reflections of gender bias can create the kind of cognitive “shock” that is vital to establishing phenomena as issues and problems. It is especially vital to draw attention to male victims, since the culture’s prevailing obliviousness to this category of victims means that only the worst abuses have a chance of being viewed as morally problematic and worthy of policy concern.

In the remainder of this article, I seek to extend my previous research on gendercide by concentrating on its relevance to the policy sphere and strategies of intervention in humanitarian emergencies, including genocidal and proto-genocidal campaigns.

Strategies of Humanitarian Intervention

How might more nuanced and sustained attention to the role of gender in genocide – in particular, an analytical framework that incorporates victimized or vulnerable males – affect strategies of genocide prevention and humanitarian intervention? I will build the following analysis around the prelude and onset/outbreak stages of genocide.

The Prelude Stage

There are two key areas in which gender seems to play a significant role in preludes to genocidal killing: mass detentions, torture, and selective killing of “battle-age” males, and the demonization of both males and females, but especially males, as part of the campaign of stigmatization, marginalization, and concentration that standardly precedes the onset of larger-scale or full-blown genocide. Those seeking to isolate “warning signs” of genocidal outbreaks should therefore attend closely to this gendered patterns of anathematization and persecution – along with other important (and standardly gendered) indicators, such as the development of paramilitary forces, primordial appeals to racial and ethnic identity, the cultivation of “the politics of verbal assault and physical violence,” and the deepening of inter-generational cleavages. [9]

The detention, abuse, and selective killing of “out-group” males as a signal of impending mass slaughter is quite clear in the case of the twentieth century’s “classic” genocide, the Jewish holocaust. A major marker on the road to genocide was the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) on November 9-10, 1938, when Hitler’s thugs targeted Jewish citizens and property for largescale violence and destruction. In the aftermath of the Kristallnacht, the Nazis rounded up at least 30,000 Jewish males and incarcerated them in concentration camps. As Eugen Kogon writes,

These arrests were made without regard for age. Ten-year old boys could be seen side by side with septuagenarians and octogenarians. En route from the Wiemar [sic: Weimar] railroad station [to the camp at Buchenwald] all stragglers were shot down, while the survivors were forced to drag the bloody bodies into camp. … Inside stood the Block Leaders, wielding iron rods, whips and truncheons, and virtually every Jew who got into the camp sustained injuries. The events that took place at the time are not easily described in a few words. Let me merely mention that sixty-eight Jews went mad that very first night. They were clubbed to death like mad dogs … four men at a time. … SS noncoms pushed the heads of some of their charges into overflowing latrine buckets until they suffocated.

Eventually, “for reasons that never became clear, most of the[se] Jews were set free on orders from the Reich authorities” and allowed to go into exile. Exactly a year later, however, after “an alleged attempt on Hitler’s life,” Jewish men in Buchenwald “were suddenly recalled from their [work] details and confined to barracks.” The Germans “picked out twenty-one Austrian and German Jews, entirely at random, without any list. Most of them were vigorous young men. … The SS took the group out through the gatehouse and shot them at close range in the quarry.” [10]

It is scarcely surprising that by the time such abuses and atrocities spilled over to fullscale genocide, “the [Nazis’] decision to kill every Jew did not seem to demand special justification to kill Jewish men,” as Joan Ringelheim notes. “They were already identified as dangerous. … Jewish men were always considered an objective enemy of National Socialism.” [11]

A similar process of roundup, detention, and ill-treatment of out-group males was evident in the prelude to the Rwandan genocide, beginning with the invasion of Rwanda by the RPF rebels in 1990. In October 1990 a pogrom was launched against Tutsis which began – like the 1994 genocide – with the imposition of a curfew. “I got scared as soon as I heard the word curfew” in April 1994, recalled one young man. “The curfew in October 1990 had been a disaster for Tutsi men. Thousands of them were arrested and thrown into prison. Some died. I feared the same thing would happen again.” [12] When the genocide first erupted, Tutsi males – as well as many Hutu men of an oppositionist bent – understood immediately that they were at greatest risk. “As soon as I heard that Habyarimana had been assassinated, I knew they would go for all Tutsis, especially Tutsi men,” one survivor, Emmanuel Ngezahayo, told African Rights. [13] In general, “they” did, although the nature and evolution of the mass-killing enterprise in Rwanda is a matter of some dispute (see the following section for further discussion).

One other case-study is worth citing in this context, though in scale it can hardly be compared with the Jewish and Rwandan catastrophes. In the prelude to the Kosovo war – the period from 1989 to 1998 – there is little question that the focus of Serb occupation strategies revolved around the detention, abuse, and intimidation above all of younger Kosovar males. Women certainly numbered among those detained by Yugoslav security forces during this period. But as Julie Mertus noted shortly before the outbreak of the Kosovo war, “while police … routinely stop ethnic Albanian men, women and children can usually walk the street without police harassment.” Thus, when Mertus cites the astonishing statistic that between 1989 and 1997 “584,373 Kosovo Albanians – half the adult population – [was] arrested, interrogated, interned or remanded” by the Serb police state, one can reasonably guess which half. [14]

Analyses of past atrocities, however, can do little to help the victims apart from retrospectively validating their suffering. The challenge is to apply the lessons to the conflicts of the present, and there is no shortage of contemporary case-studies meriting urgent attention.

Gender and Witch-Hunts

One of the most interesting and potentially useful fields for future research into gender and genocide is the process of demonization that standardly accompanies the “prelude” phase. Both women and men of designated out-groups may be viciously anathematized by the purveyors of genocidal hatred. But while the female side of the phenomenon has received some scholarly attention, notably in the context of the European witch-hunts and the Rwanda genocide, the male dimension, though more pervasive and analytically significant, has been almost entirely ignored. A rare and welcome exception, though hardly a sustained analysis, can be found in Deborah Willis’s study of the English witch-hunts, Malevolent Nurture. In the concluding paragraph of the book, Willis provides an important digression on “some of the most virulent of the twentieth-century ‘witch-hunts,’” in which “violence has been directed against symbolic ‘fathers’ or other figures of authority.” The trend is especially prominent “in countries where newly emergent but precarious ruling elites needed ‘others’ to blame for the serious economic or other problems they faced.” Her example is Stalin’s purges in the USSR:

During the 1930s and 1940s in Stalin’s Soviet Union, leadership fractured at all levels, not only within Stalin’s “inner circle” but also within local and regional party machines (paralleling in some ways the neighborly quarrels and religious controversies that divided early modern communities). As power oscillated between different factions, purges were carried out in the name of Stalin, “Father of the Country,” “the Great and Wise Teacher,” “the Friend of Mankind,” against the antifathers and betraying sons who had perverted the socialist program, the “enemies with party cards.” Underlying the psychology of the purges may have been, among other things, the magical beliefs of the Russian peasantry, still lively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, translated after the Revolution into the language of “scientific socialism.” Rather than the female witch, however, it was the male possessed by evil spirits who anticipated the typical target of persecutory violence – the “evil spirits” of foreign, class-alien, or counterrevolutionary ideas. Demystified, secularized, stripped of his supernatural power, the great demonic adversary no longer needed to seduce a weaker [female] vessel but could walk among the elect as one of their own. [15]

Research on this subject is so lacking that one is forced to develop Willis’s point in a somewhat impressionistic and intuitive fashion. A useful way of proceeding may be to invite the reader to engage in two rather macabre speculations. First, returning to the twentieth century’s “classic” genocide, consider the Jew – the purportedly “evil,” “shiftless,” “dirty,” “skulking,” “subversive,” “rodent-like,” “hook-nosed” Jew – of Nazi propaganda. How was this grotesque propaganda portrait gendered? Was the Jewish enemy generally depicted as male or female? It is hard not to agree with the evaluation of Claudia Koonz, who notes the standard motif in which “Germany [was] pictured as an innocent female, about to be attacked by a hyper masculinized male – the Jew.” [16] It was for this reason and by this process that Jewish men were “already identified as dangerous” (recall Joan Ringelheim’s comment earlier). Detailed content analyses of Nazi and other hate-propaganda would be needed to establish the accuracy and boundaries of this argument; but as a general proposition, it seems difficult to deny.

The second speculation may have broader applicability. The reader is asked to take the following pejorative terms and descriptions frequently applied by would-be and actual génocidaires to the members of the out-groups they target:

• evil • monster • demon • vampire/bloodsucker • parasite • vermin • sub-human • enemy • terrorist/subversive • rebel • spy • predator • bandit • criminal • rapist • schemer/scheming • corrupt • dirty • shiftless/shifty • vagabond • exploiter

Now impose a human face on each of these genocidal stereotypes – or, if this is too uncomfortable a proposition, imagine the face that the architects of genocide have tended to attach to these designations. Is it a male or a female face that comes to mind first and most vividly … perhaps exclusively?

Consider a handful of additional genocidal stereotypes:

• seducer • prostitute/whore • baby-factory • witch • child-killer

Here female “faces” would likely dominate overwhelmingly or exclusively in the first three cases, and would also figure strongly in the latter two. There are, therefore, ways in which women/females are effectively demonized. Perhaps it is fair to argue, however, that the available range of genocidal stereotypes is much narrower for women; and that when genocidal language and strategies are “gendered,” they are most likely to focus on males, especially those of “battle age.”

The sexual nature of most of the anti-female stereotypes points to the important role of sexual harassment, abuse, and attacks – as well as allegations of the same committed by out-group males – as a prelude to genocidal outbreaks. One of the most dramatic examples of the sexual demonization of women in a pre-genocidal context is Rwanda. Linda Melvern points out in her study A People Betrayed that of the notorious “Ten Commandments” propounded by the “Hutu Power” movement, “the first three … referred to Tutsi women; the first commandment forbade marriage between Hutu and Tutsi because every Tutsi woman was a traitor and Hutu girls made more suitable mothers.” In general, “here was enormous propaganda [directed] against Tutsi women in the build-up to genocide and the hatred mobilization [later] allowed the most inhumane acts of sexual violence to take place.” [17]

It should be pointed out that a corollary phenomenon, the demonization of out-group males as “rapists,” has been a common feature of proto-genocidal situations. In her study of “how myths and truths started a war” in Kosovo, Julie A. Mertus notes that “a sexualized imagery of Albanian men and women was adopted … in the mainstream Serbian and Yugoslav presses,” with “Albanian men … declared to be rapists, although Kosovo had the lowest reported incidents of sexual violence in Yugoslavia.” (Albanian women, meanwhile, “were portrayed as mere baby factories, despite statistics indicating that the childbirth rates of urban Albanian women and those of other urban women in Yugoslavia were nearly identical.”) [18] Such charges of rape – so central to the murder of thousands of Black men in lynchings in the U.S. Deep South – also serve as a powerful indicator that a campaign of mass violence, if not outright genocide, is being prepared.

A Note on Gender and Economic Crisis

One of the most predictable features of a pre- or proto-genocidal situation is the advent or deepening of economic crisis. This always has profoundly “gendered” attributes. Women, for example, are likely to be “first-fired” when widespread layoffs hit, and may be increasingly forced into the informal economy or the sex industry. Single mothers and widows may confront enormous added difficulties in securing sustenance for themselves and their children. [19]

The reality, however, is that women rarely figure directly in the organization of genocide, and somewhat less rarely in its perpetration. Men’s role as the dominant planners of genocide, and that of the willing and unwilling male executioners who are its foot soldiers, should make us particularly attuned to the gendered effects of economic crisis on males, especially younger males. They are likely to experience unemployment and poverty with a particular existential piquancy. Employment and (in predominantly agricultural societies) access to land may be essential to their self-definition as males, and to their prospects for marriage and offspring. Economic crisis undermines employment opportunities and divests many male “heads of households” of their property. They may grow, as a result, more receptive to genocidal appeals and to conscription into the ranks of the génocidaires. Those same genocidal appeals and conscription calls frequently play upon the economic and existential insecurities of younger males. Such seems to have been the case in the early years of Nazi rule in Germany. It was certainly true in the pre-genocide period in Rwanda. There, the economic crisis that descended in the 1990s, though it had a devastating impact on all underprivileged sectors of Rwandan society, constituted a special crisis for younger males: “Without land or employment, young men cannot advance in life, they cannot marry or achieve the social status of their parents.” [20] According to Elenor Richter-Lyonette, landlessness and poverty made younger males especially “vulnerable to taking compensatory action. … The hope for a redistribution of wealth in one’s favour was a distinct incentive for the commitment of acts of genocide, particularly with the landless, unemployed youth …” [21]

This gender analysis would seem to hold considerable relevance for the policymaking of international organizations and financial institutions, such as the United Nations and multilateral lending agencies. These play a vital role in managing economic crisis in the Third World. Unfortunately, too often that role has been a destructive one. In particular, the “austerity programmes” imposed on volatile and debt-ridden economies throw hundreds of thousands out of work, and undermine the land-base for subsistence agriculture in favour of cash crops (and migrant rather than landed labour). The contribution of such programmes to genocidal outbreaks should not be underestimated, and their special impact upon younger males’ life prospects and self-image should be integrated into any evaluations of their anticipated or actual impact. “Austerity” initiatives that merely fuel masculine crises (and greatly increase children’s and women’s material suffering as well) should have no place in processes of “reform,” “democratization,” and “peacebuilding.” Nation-states in the industrialized world have an additional responsibility in this area:

While espousing the virtues of free trade, the United States, Japan, members of the European Union and other rich countries continue to employ various means – including high tariffs, export subsidies and hygiene restrictions – to shelter their own industries, effectively preventing developing countries from gaining [a] greater share in the markets in which they can compete most effectively. The rich do this largely because of the political clout of certain domestic industries and unions that worry about losing jobs. … Although global trade grew 12 percent last year – the fastest pace in more than three decades – the export share of poor countries has continued to slide, contributing to deteriorating living standards for hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. … Last year, the 25 wealthiest nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spent more than $360 billion [U.S.] on agricultural subsidies – a sum equivalent to the gross national product for all of sub-Saharan Africa. The EU alone spent close to $300 billion last year on export subsidies that reward its farmers for creating surpluses which are then dumped in many Third World markets – at prices below production cost. This practice often destroys an important pillar of the farming community in poor nations and undermines their food security because local growers can’t compete. [22]

By sapping the wealth and available resources of the most fragile economies on earth, the industrialized world thus bolsters the near-perpetual atmosphere of economic crises in these countries. Riots and unrest, and sometimes the outbreak of genocidal killing, are the far-from-indirect results. Promotion of a greater degree of economic justice, therefore, can be seen as one of the most effective forms of humanitarian intervention and genocide prevention that the wealthy nations of the West can engage in. [23]

The Onset/Outbreak Phase

In “Gendercide and Genocide,” I suggested that “a gendered understanding of the dynamics of genocide throws important new light on key cases of mass killing throughout modern history.” [24] Specifically, the initial/preliminary targeting of battle-age males for concentration and extermination is so regular a feature of twentieth-century genocides that it is almost ubiquitous. It is worth revisiting the evidence for this proposition in the case of the three twentieth-century genocides that, for Alain Destexhe, [25] constitute the century’s only “true” cases of genocide: the assaults on the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire; Jews in Germany and the Nazi-occupied territories; and Tutsis in Rwanda. I rely here on sources not cited in my “Gendercide and Genocide” article.

The genocide of Ottoman Armenians began with the April 24, 1915 detention and subsequent execution of elite Armenian males in Constantinople. This was followed by a campaign of mass killing that targeted Armenian men conscripted into the Ottoman armed forces, as U.S. diplomat Henry Morgenthau noted:

In the early part of 1915, the Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army were reduced to a new status. Up to that time most of them had been combatants, but now they were all stripped of their arms and transformed into workmen. Instead of serving their country as artillerymen and cavalrymen, these former soldiers now discovered that they had been transformed into road labourers and pack animals. Army supplies of all kinds were loaded on their backs, and, stumbling under the burdens and driven by the whips and bayonets of the Turks, they were forced to drag their weary bodies into the mountains of the Caucasus. … If any stragglers succeeded in reaching their destinations, they were not infrequently massacred. In many instances Armenian soldiers were disposed of in even more summary fashion, for it now became almost the general practice to shoot them in cold blood. In almost all cases the procedure was the same. Here and there squads of 50 or 100 men would be taken, bound together in groups of four, and then marched out to a secluded spot a short distance from the village. Suddenly the sound of rifle shots would fill the air, and the Turkish soldiers who had acted as the escort would sullenly return to camp. Those sent to bury the bodies would find them almost invariably stark naked, for, as usual, the Turks had stolen all their clothes. In cases that came to my attention, the murderers had added a refinement to their victims’ sufferings by compelling them to dig their graves before being shot.

When the next stage in the genocidal campaign was decided, built around expulsion of Armenians in “caravans of death,” the focus was again on the outright slaughter of “battle-age” males, as Morgenthau relates:

The systematic extermination of the men continued; such males as the persecutions which I have already described had left were now violently dealt with. Before the caravans were started, it became the regular practice to separate the young men from the families, tie them together in groups of four, lead them to the outskirts, and shoot them. Public hangings without trial – the only offense being that the victims were [male] Armenians – were taking place constantly. The gendarmes showed a particular desire to annihilate the educated and the influential. … At Angora all Armenian men from fifteen to seventy were arrested, bound together in groups of four, and sent on the road in the direction of Caesarea. When they had travelled five or six hours and had reached a secluded valley, a mob of Turkish peasants fell upon them with clubs, hammers, axes, scythes, spades, and saws. Such instruments not only caused more agonizing deaths than guns and pistols, but, as the Turks themselves boasted, they were more economical, since they did not involve the waste of powder and shell. In this way they exterminated the whole male population of Angora, including all its men of wealth and breeding, and their bodies, horribly mutilated, were left in the valley, where they were devoured by wild beasts. … In Trebizond the men were placed in boats and sent out on the Black Sea; gendarmes would follow them in boats, shoot them down, and throw their bodies into the water. When the signal was given for the caravans to move, therefore, they almost invariably consisted of women, children, and old men. Any one who could possibly have protected them from the fate that awaited them had been destroyed. [26]

In the case of the Jewish holocaust, in “Gendercide and Genocide” I cited Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s finding that in the earliest stages of the fullscale genocide, the Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing-squads in occupied Poland and the USSR overwhelmingly targeted Jewish (and other) males. Christopher Browning concurs with this assessment, noting that “it is generally accepted that in the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa the Jewish victims were primarily adult male Jews, and that beginning in late July – at different times in different places at different rates – the killing was gradually expanded to encompass all Jews except indispensable workers …” [27] Browning’s research into the atrocities committed by police battalions attached to the Einsatzgruppen demonstrates how orders from the top were translated into gendercidal policies at the base. On July 11, 1942, the following orders went out to the police battalions: “Confidential! By order of the Higher SS and Police Leader … all male Jews between the ages of 17 and 45 convicted as plunderers are to be shot according to martial law. The shootings are to take place away from cities, villages, and thoroughfares.” Browning notes: “There was, of course, no investigation, trial, and conviction of so-called plunderers to be shot according to martial law. Male Jews who appeared to be between the ages of seventeen and forty-five were simply rounded up” and led away for execution. [28]

In both the Armenian and Jewish cases, the genocidal campaign was subsequently expanded from an attack on community males to an all-encompassing “root-and-branch” assault on the entire community, including children and women. A number of commentators have pointed to a very similar pattern in the Rwandan genocide – a preliminary targeting of adult males and boy children, followed by a more sweeping assault on the entire Tutsi community. Human Rights Watch, for examples, contends that a decision was taken in mid-May – some five weeks after the outbreak of the genocide – to extend the slaughter to these previously protected groups. [29] However, close analysis of the “policy of massacres” [30] implemented beginning on April 6, 1994, suggests a more complex picture: classic gendercidal massacres of males intermingled with “massacres in [i.e., as early as] April 1994 that were both gargantuan in scale and largely indiscriminate in targeting Tutsi men, children, and women,” including one – at the parish of Kurama in Butare prefecture on 20 April – that was almost certainly the worst of the twentieth century, with between 35,000 and 43,000 Tutsis killed in six hours. [31]

There is little doubt, however, that males (men and boys alike) were most at risk in the first and most exterminatory phases of the genocide, and that at no point in the genocide were they granted the exemptions, sometimes apparently official, that women and girls received – albeit often at the cost of sexual servitude to their tormentors: [32]

The primary targets of the hunt [for survivors of the opening massacres] were Tutsi men, particularly what extremist propaganda portrayed as the “ultimate” enemy – rich men, men between their twenties and forties, especially if they were well-educated professionals or students. Most hated of all were well-educated Tutsi men who had studied in Uganda (and to a lesser extent Tanzania and Kenya) who were immediately suspected of being members or supporters of the RPF. Within days, entire communities were without their men; tens of thousands of women were widowed, tens of thousands of children were orphaned. [33]

In the case of children, males were again at special risk: “The extremists were determined to seek out and murder Tutsi boys in particular. They examined very young infants, even new-borns, to see if they were boys or girls. Little boys were executed on the spot. Sometimes they ordered mothers to kill their children. … In what can only have been a horrific unending nightmare, older boys were relentlessly hunted down. Many mothers dressed their little boys as girls in the hope – too often a vain hope – of deceiving the killers. The terrified boys knew exactly what was happening.” [34]

This gendercidal targeting of males, particularly “battle-age” (but non-combatant) men, is more evident still in instances of mass killing that have often been designated as genocides, but around which greater debate has swirled about the accuracy of the designation. [35] Such cases include the Nazi war against the Soviet Union, East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, Iraqi Kurdistan (notably the Anfal Campaign of 1988), Kashmir and Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, Kosovo in 1998-99, the events in East Timor in mid-1999 (as opposed to the preceding period of Indonesian occupation), Colombia, Afghanistan, and Chechnya (1994-2001). Detailed studies of most of these cases can be found on the Gendercide Watch site.

It is also important to recognize that some contemporary examples of genocidal or proto-genocidal campaigns do not conform to this pattern. The gendercide analysis appears to be of relatively little utility in Algeria, for example, where both the “wholesale” terrorism of the state and the “retail” terrorism of paramilitary and guerrilla forces appears to discriminate hardly at all on gender grounds. Much the same seems to hold true in the extraordinarily destructive civil wars that have consumed West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo); whatever gendercidal assaults have occurred against “battle-aged” males, or younger boys, has been swamped by gender-indiscriminate killings of civilians as well as deaths from hunger and disease, the total apparently approaching, in the Congo case, a staggering three million people. [36]

It is notable, though, that in no twentieth-century case I am aware of have women and girls been initially, predominantly, or exclusively targeted in genocidal attacks – though this picture becomes significantly more clouded if we consider gendercidal institutions such as maternal mortality, discussed in greater detail later in this article.

Institutions and Intervention

Various proposals for integrating a gender analysis with strategies of genocide prevention and humanitarian intervention have already been touched on. The most important challenge, I contend, is to approach gender inclusively so that the vulnerabilities and victimization experiences of males, especially “battle-age” males, receive the attention they so urgently require. In this main section, I want to examine the specific mechanisms by which this social cohort is standardly marginalized from the discourse of intervention and protection. I focus on three main actors: the United Nations; the leading human-rights NGOs (Amnesty International dn Human Rights Watch); and the mass media. The analysis concentrates on examples drawn from the Balkans wars of the 1990s. Thereafter, I assess the analytically distinct “Challenge of Gendercidal Institutions,” particularly with regard to their destructive impact on ordinary women worldwide.

The United Nations and Srebrenica

The United Nations and other international organizations (like the World Bank) have increasingly moved to integrate a gender perspective in their policies and operations. This reflects the indefatigable efforts of feminist activists and researchers to “mainstream” gender. The “malestream,” however, has tended to get very short shrift in the process. The potentially catastrophic implications of this exclusion were nowhere more evident than in an event that constituted one of the U.N.’s nadirs in the 1990s: the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslim males by Serb army and paramilitary forces – under the noses of Dutch peacekeepers, and with the passive acquiescence of the international community.

After the Bosnian atrocities of 1992 and further fighting in 1993, Srebrenica was declared one of five “safe areas” under UN protection. Tens of thousands of desperate Muslims sought protection there. In an article written in 1993 and published in January 1994, “Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia,” I pointed to the plight of the civilian population in the city, noting that

Serb forces guarding checkpoints [on the edge of the “safe area”] … have repeatedly made plain their unwillingness to let through any fighting-age males – presumably for fear that male refugees might subsequently join the anti-Serb resistance once safely out of Serb-besieged communities. … Remarkably, the United Nations and other international agencies involved in refugee evacuation have tended to accommodate themselves to the blatantly discriminatory rules laid down by Serb occupiers. At the time of writing (April 1993), for example, the news from Bosnia centres on protracted attempts to secure the evacuation of civilians from the besieged town of Srebrenica. Convoys of trucks have evacuated women, children and old people, but the Serbian requirement that no males with combat potential be carried out overland has been respected – as a glance at photographs of the evacuation convoys makes clear.A certain voluntary element is likely to feature here. The “women and children first” rule seems as operative among besieged populations as it once was for ocean-liner passengers abandoning ship. But it must also be relevant that, as The New York Times reports, “during evacuations from cities and towns surrendered to Serbian fighters in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in neighboring Croatia, Serbian militia-men have summarily executed men of fighting age.” [37]

This implicit plea for intervention, if heeded, might have required the following:

  • a stronger line towards Serbs guarding checkpoints, making it clear that “battle-age” civilian males had the same guaranteed right of refuge under international law as did any other members of the population, and perhaps the use of force to defend convoys against Serb attempts to seize and abuse these prime human targets;
  • arguably, humanitarian emphasis on ensuring that all “battle-age” civilian males, as the most vulnerable members of the community, be given priority in the evacuation process (recognizing that many would choose to stay behind in favour of allowing other family members to leave first); [38] and perhaps
  • the mediation of an agreement between the two sides that “battle-age” males evacuated to safety in Bosnian government-held territory would be considered ineligible for conscription or volunteering for military service, with such arrangements monitored, as far as reasonably possible, by the U.N. and other agencies.

Failure to implement such measures ensured that thousands of Muslim males would remain in Srebrenica as fodder for genocide. The well-known events of July 1995, along with the findings reported in the section on “The Prelude Phase,” suggest that international organizations like the U.N. urgently need to develop programs and strategies that acknowledge younger males as the most vulnerable target group in cases of state-directed killing and repression; and that seek to protect this group specifically, though not to the exclusion of others, when genocidal outbreaks are recorded. Such a framing would constitute nothing short of a paradigm shift, given the narrow definition of “gender” that prevails in the IGO and NGO sphere. But it is required if the gender variable is to be employed in humanitarian emergencies and genocidal outbreaks with maximum effectiveness and analytical insight.

A specific institutional innovation that should be considered is the creation of a male-focused equivalent of the “Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences,” the position currently held by Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka. [39] The Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Men could serve as the catalyst for educational and activist efforts aimed at sensitizing both publics and governments to the special vulnerabilities of “battle-age” males in conflict situations and state “crackdowns,” broader patterns of gendered violence against men and boys (rape in prisons, violence against gay males, trafficking in male economic migrants, domestic violence against young boys, male genital mutilation, “blood-feud” and vigilante killings, and so on). He or she would also be the ideal point-person for situations like the emerging pattern of violence against younger males. The task in this case would be to call attention to the specific gendering of violent victimization; to stress that younger ethnic-Albanian males enjoyed the same rights of security of person as other human beings; to mobilize direct interventions aimed at protecting besieged ethnic-Albanian males and/or escorting them to safety; and to lobby representatives of the offending government to cease violent abuses against this population group. The Special Rapporteur could also monitor the situation of younger-male refugees, who are vulnerable to both traffickers and conscriptors. It is worth noting that the Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, Ms. Coomaraswamy, intervened vocally and directly in the cases of both Kosovo and East Timor, calling for women’s human rights to be respected. But there was no U.N. figure to express official concern over the detention, torture, and selective or mass execution of “battle-age” males, which constituted the majority of the most severe atrocities inflicted in both these conflicts.

The Human Rights NGOs

In the last decade or so, an impressive literature has arisen in the International Relations field around the growing role of non-governmental organizations in global politics. These organizations play a diversity of roles in terms of providing catalyzing ideas for the formation of international “regimes” around, for example, human rights, women’s issues, and the environment; the mobilization and articulation of public opinion; and vigilance over the actions of national governments and international institutions. The latter institutions have become especially dependent upon the research findings, organizational efforts, and “cutting-edge” activism of the NGOs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the human-rights sphere, where the international “mechanisms rely almost exclusively upon NGO information,” according to Felice Gaer. [40] The agenda-setting power of the human-rights NGOs is therefore considerable. How these NGOs address gendercidal killing and other gender-selective human rights abuses therefore has a direct bearing on international policy-formation in this area. Accordingly, in this section I examine the performance of the two leading human-rights NGOs, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in the context of the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99. On balance, Amnesty’s coverage allows us to perceive many of the flaws and blind-spots in “gendering” human-rights reportage, while Human Rights Watch, despite certain weaknesses of its own, points in a much more promising direction. [41]

Human Rights Watch

In general, Human Rights Watch deserves praise for the scope and calibre of its reporting during the Kosovo conflict. The organization issued literally dozens of “human rights flashes” before, during, and after the war. Their team in the field, led by Fred Abrahams, consistently produced the most detailed and gut-wrenching accounts of the major atrocities and acts of gendercide in Kosovo, notably at Velika Krusa, Izbica, Meja, Vucitrn, and Pusto Selo. [42]

Moreover, Human Rights Watch at several points recognized the specific vulnerability of males in particular locations throughout Kosovo, and expressed concern for their plight. A week or so into the NATO bombing campaign, for example, the organization released its Human Rights Flash #13, entitled “Serb Forces Separating Men from Women and Children in Malishevo.” The analysis was also exceedingly nuanced:

Interviews with refugees arriving in Albania today [April 1] established that Yugoslav forces were systematically separating adult males from women, children, and elderly men in the Malishevo area of Kosovo … According to the refugees, thousands of mostly unarmed ethnic Albanian men in the area have fled into the mountains, fearing arrest and possible summary execution. … According to refugees from the village of Ostrazuk, men were systematically separated from their families and taken away to an unknown location, after which the women and children were ordered to leave the village. The refugees told Human Rights Watch that the forces separating out the men were wearing green uniforms of the Yugoslav army (VJ), with a smaller number of forces in blue uniforms worn by the Serbian police (MUP). The ethnic Albanian men were questioned about the whereabouts of the Kosovo Liberation Army and of hidden guns before being taken away. Refugees from other villages in the Malishevo area told Human Rights Watch that thousands of unarmed men had fled into the mountains in advance of the Serb offensive, fearing for their lives. The fate of these men is unknown. In a number of earlier incidents in the Kosovo conflict, and in the Bosnian conflict, the Yugoslav army and Serb police were responsible for the summary execution of unarmed, fighting-aged men (emphasis added here and throughout this section).

Here a broader framing of the atrocities is briefly established, with a reference not only to the immediate Kosovo context, but to gender-selective atrocities and acts of gendercide in Bosnia as well – an important, and rare, hint of historical context. A bulletin several days later on “Violent Ethnic Cleansing in Dakovica” reiterated the point, though slightly more narrowly:

Many of the Dakovica refugees arrived without men aged between twenty and fifty. According to the refugees, many of the men had fled in the previous days to the mountains out of fear of police retaliation. … Human Rights Watch is particularly worried about areas such as Dakovica where the men have been left behind. In many of the forced depopulations documented by Human Rights Watch since the NATO bombing began, the men exited Kosovo together with their families. In some areas – namely Dakovica and Malisevo – the men have either been forcibly separated or have autonomously taken to the hills to avoid capture. In some past instances, Serbian and Yugoslav forces have executed ethnic Albanian men of fighting age (for example in the village of Golubovac on September 26). … [43]

The organization’s coverage of incarcerated ethnic-Albanian men was also detailed and insightful. The approximately 600 male prisoners released from Smrekovnica prison on May 22, 1999 were carefully debriefed – and concern expressed urgently for the fate of those who remained. [44] Consider, for example, the following bulletin, entitled “Concern About Fate of Detained Kosovar Albanian Men,” which specifically addressed the detention of male inmates at Smrekovnica prison (albeit late in the game, after two months of war):

While the majority of the detainees were released [n.b. to be replaced by new ones], the witnesses claim that a number of men from the Kosovska Mitrovica area – men who were arrested in the days immediately prior to the witnesses’ release – are still being held at the Smrekonica [Smrekovnica] prison. Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of those held in Smrekonica and other prisons, and calls upon the Serbian authorities to release as soon as possible those men against whom there is no evidence of KLA membership. Moreover, the Serbian authorities should guarantee the physical integrity of the detainees and provide them with basic items such as food, water, mattresses, and blankets. [45]

Some criticisms and concerns can nevertheless be raised about HRW’s performance during the Kosovo war. In the first place, as noted, the organization never felt it worthwhile to issue a bulletin on the general pattern of summary executions and detentions of males. The passages quoted tended to be included in broader analyses of the conflict – although when allegations of the rape of women began to circulate in substantial numbers, HRW was quick to issue not just a bulletin (“Rape of Ethnic Albanian Women in Kosovo Town of Dragacin”) [46] but a detailed “backgrounder” on the subject, entitled “Sexual Violence As International Crime.” This was one of the lengthiest reports issued by Human Rights Watch during the war. It examined “sexual violence as war crime,” “as crimes against humanity,” “as torture,” and “as genocide”; considered the question of “universal jurisdiction for international crimes of sexual violence”; and described in detail the past proceedings of criminal tribunals that heard evidence on the subject from Bosnia and Rwanda.

By contrast, the pattern of gender-selective killing of “battle-age” men in Kosovo and the wider Balkans wars was noted, but usually late and in passing. The gendercide was never deemed relevant subject material for “backgrounder” treatment, although it was by any objective measure far greater and more systematic an atrocity than the rape of women, in Kosovo and in the Balkans wars as a whole. The organization also limited its concerns for detained males to those at a single facility, or at a particular location and point in the war. Again, the wider pattern of gender-selective detention, at most times and in most places across Kosovo, was never made the subject of a specific bulletin. The most “gendered” treatment of detainees, the coverage of those released from Smrekovnica and those kidnapped to Serbia, occurred so late in the war as to be largely irrelevant.

There is, nonetheless, a solid foundation in HRW’s coverage for an inclusive conceptualizing of gender-selective victimization and vulnerability. HRW’s dedicated staff would be well-advised to build on that foundation, and to assist in the further exploration of this “other -cide” of gender-selective atrocity.

Amnesty International

By comparison, Amnesty International’s performance during the Kosovo conflict was nothing short of parlous. At no point before or during the 1999 war did Amnesty devote meaningful attention to the pattern of gender-selective mass execution, abuse, and detention of “battle-age” males – though these clearly accounted for the war’s central, most systematic, and most severe atrocities.

The organization’s obfuscation of this theme was well-established by the time fullscale war broke out in Kosovo in March 1999. The early part of 1998 witnessed a Serb offensive in which gender-selective mass executions, detentions, and “disappearances” of non-combatant males also featured as a dominant strategy. The same strategy was an equally glaring feature of the renewed offensive in Summer 1998, as with the massacre at the village of Racak in January 1999. But Amnesty’s reports from the region emphasized a different “gendering” of the human-rights situation. “Human Rights Violations Against Women in Kosovo Province” were deemed worthy of a full report as early as August 1998. It began as follows:

In areas of civil turmoil or armed conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. They are often subjected to brutal treatment simply because they live in a particular location or belong to a particular group. This report aims to illustrate the human rights situation of women, primarily ethnic Albanian women, in Kosovo … by highlighting a number of representative cases. The report does not claim to depict the full range and severity of human rights violations against women which have taken place and which, as armed conflict persists, continue to occur daily. Ethnic Albanian women are the victims of human rights abuse now, but since the early 1980s there have been cases in which ethnic Albanian women have shared the fate of many of their menfolk and like them have been arbitrarily detailed, ill-treated and convicted in unfair trials. With the outbreak of armed conflict, they now also face mass forced displacement and the risk of deliberate and arbitrary killings. [47]

The passage begged a rather important question: how could women be “particularly vulnerable,” when the abuses referred to were “cases” in which they had simply “shared the fate of many of their menfolk”? (Many more of their menfolk, is the unspoken implication.) The following month, Amnesty did deign to report on “The Hidden Victims of Conflict” in Kosovo. The reference was not, however, to the victims hidden by their own coverage. The report concerned “Disappeared and Missing Persons,” and the gender variable was invisible in the framing. The introduction deployed an impressive range of “displacement” strategies to marginalize gender from the equation:

Ethnic Albanians unseen since entering police stations or being led away by Serbian police … Serbs and Albanians taken from vehicles stopped by the armed ethnic Albanian opposition, hauled off trains, or unseen since armed Albanians came to their homes … People unaccounted for in the aftermath of armed police operations or military engagements, who may be among the hastily and anonymously buried … In Kosovo province the “disappeared” and “missing” come from all ethnic groups. The police are believed to be responsible for the “disappearance” of ethnic Albanians. Many of those who have “disappeared” were reported to have been arrested and led away by police, either captured or detained … The KLA has been accused of the abduction and presumed unlawful killing or detention of ethnic Albanians whom it alleges are “collaborators” with the Serbian authorities … Other victims include members of the Serbian, Montenegrin, Romani and other ethnic groups. … It is still to early to ascertain accurate statistics for “missing” or “disappeared” ethnic Albanians

When we look at the body of the report, we find a reference to “a disturbing series of reported ‘disappearances’ as well as many cases of ‘missing’ persons and others who are unaccounted for. It is feared that some – perhaps all – of these people are no longer alive.” But the detailed description of the atrocities tells a discernibly different, though parallel, tale:

Ahmet Berisha (40), Hajriz Hajdini (48), Muhamet Hajdini, (45), Sahit Qorri (60), Sefer Qorri (55), Ferat Hoti (39), Rama Asllani (60) and Blerin Shishani (15) were inhabitants of Novi Poklek (Poklek i Ri), a settlement which was built in recent years on the edge of Glogovac close to a factory called Feronikl. On 31 May a large operation was mounted by police in and around the settlement. … After firing at the houses from a distance, patrols of police reportedly started to go from house to house in the settlement, ordering the inhabitants out of the buildings. Many of them were reportedly collected in a house in the settlement where men were separated from women and children. The women and children were directed to leave. Reports of the events include allegations that nine or more men were killed. Despite the lack of confirmed information, the whereabouts of the eight men named above who were reportedly detained by the police remains unknown. Amnesty International believes that these eight men have “disappeared,” and may have been the victims of extrajudicial executions. The bodies of two other men, Ardian Deliu (18) and Fidai Shishani (17), were reportedly found at the scene, but it has not yet been possible to establish the circumstances of their death. Several different rumours about the fate of the “disappeared” men have circulated, including claims that bodies or body parts have been seen in the village; that the police were seen apparently transporting prisoners in the direction of the Feronikl factory where they are being held, or that they have been killed and buried in a mass grave. …

All of this was an obvious prelude to the gendercidal strategies followed in the Serb military attack; but throughout the report, and throughout the Kosovo war, Amnesty remained unable to connect the dots. There was no report entitled “Human Rights Violations Against Men [or ‘Battle-Age’ Men] in Kosovo Province.”

Amnesty’s report on the notorious Racak massacre of January 1999 was similarly obtuse. “The truth behind the killings of 45 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo must be found,” it declared. “The victims’ bodies – including three women, a 12-year-old [male] child and several elderly men – were found on 16 January …” Thus, 42 out of 45 male victims, the vast majority of them “battle-age.” The organization announced sagely that “This brutal crime is chillingly similar to the first reports of large-scale killings of ethnic Albanian civilians, less than one year ago.” How, precisely? Again, the skein of gender was all but impossible to tease out in Amnesty’s account: “Many of the victims had reportedly been shot through the head at close range and some showed signs of mutilation. The victims appeared to be local villagers … possibly with some members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) among them. As background on the atrocity, Amnesty offered this:

Over 2,000 people died after armed conflict erupted in Kosovo province in February 1998. Many of them were extra-judicially executed or deliberately and arbitrarily killed. Some 700 people, the majority ethnic Albanians but also including over a hundred Serbs, remain unaccounted for. At least 1,000 ethnic Albanians were detained by the Serbian authorities in 1998. Amnesty International has evidence that many of them were tortured or ill-treated in custody. As many as five [?] may have died in 1998 as a result of injuries sustained during brutal interrogations. Many of the detainees are currently being tried even though there is no solid evidence to support the charges against them.

Amnesty did, in this release, have the good grace – uniquely in these bulletins – to fleetingly gender the detainees rounded up at the time of the Racak massacre, and to express its standard concern for their fate: “As villagers fled their homes, some men were reportedly arrested by Serbian police and taken to the Stimlje police station. Amnesty International is extremely concerned that those arrested may be tortured and ill-treated in police custody and is urging the authorities to protect them.” [48] It would be months – not until after the Kosovo war had ended – before an Amnesty press release would again address the fate of detained men in Kosovo. Even such fleeting gestures as the one just cited were utterly absent from the organization’s public record throughout the war.

In Amnesty’s wartime press releases – the bulletins that alerted the mass media and policy circles to the human rights issues it considered most pressing – I have found only three mentions of the pattern and policy of detaining and executing “battle-age” Kosovar males. None of the bulletins focused on the subject. In fact, the first bulletin – issued on April 1 – left the subject to the final paragraph of an eleven-paragraph release: “Particularly disturbing are a series of reports describing how men of military age were separated from the women, children and elderly men. It has not proved possible to confirm these reports, but the proportion of men among the refugees crossing the borders out of Kosovo is small.” [49] If the reports were indeed “particularly disturbing,” why were they not touched on until the last paragraph of the bulletin? And why was no bulletin or background piece issued on the subject? Contrast this with the Human Rights Watch bulletin, “Serb Forces Separating Men from Women and Children in Malishevo,” issued on the same day.

A week later, Amnesty International returned to the reports of gender-selective atrocities, this time in a bulletin about refugees, whose plight was predictably uppermost. “Many of those attempting to leave Kosovo – mainly women, children and elderly people – had been waiting to cross for up to five days, and are weak from lack of food and exhaustion.” Five paragraphs later, Amnesty reported:

Refugees in Northern Albania have eye-witness tales of systematic extra-judicial executions carried out by security forces and paramilitary groups while forcing people out of their homes in towns and villages. Although the accuracy of such reports is difficult to confirm due to the lack of access for foreign journalists and other international observers, many of them appear credible. A disproportionate number of those who have succeeded in fleeing the country are women, children and elderly men. Many of those arriving continue to testify that during the expulsion or their flight they were stopped by members of the Serbian police, armed forces or paramilitaries, who separated the men from the women and children. The men were either detained while the women and children were ordered to continue their journey, or rounded up and taken away. Other refugees have reported being detained and used as human shields by the security forces in clashes with the KLA.

So ended the main part of the bulletin, and the discussion of the subject. There was no expression of concern for those detained; no declaration that Amnesty held the Yugoslav authorities responsible for their safe return; no follow-up on what their fate might have been; no bulletin issued specifically on their behalf. Rather, as noted, the bulletin focused on the plight of the “womenandchildren” refugees, and all normative injunctions were devoted to their situation and urgent requirements: “These people urgently need medical attention and have nothing to go back to. … No refugee should be sent to a third country unless it is voluntary … The places so far offered [to refugees] are only a fraction of the total required …” [50] A concluding section provided “background” on the abuses discussed in the bulletin. Again, all concerned the refugee flow, and the strain it had imposed on neighbouring countries.

The closest Amnesty came to acknowledging the gendercide in Kosovo came the following day, with a bulletin on “Killings in the Kacanik Area.” The killings, to be specific, were “of at least four men and the ‘disappearance’ of at least 22 men … who hid in the woods during the [Serb] offensive [and] remain unaccounted for. Amnesty International is seriously concerned about their fate, and is seeking further information about them.” [51] There was no indication that such killings were part of a wider pattern. On May 12, 1999, a full month-and-a-half into the gendercide, Amnesty issued a report, “Killings and ‘disappearance’ in Ade village,” describing “the killings of four [!] men, and the ‘disappearance’ of another [!] at the hands of Serbian security forces.” [52]

On May 22, 1999, as noted earlier, hundreds of Kosovar men were released from Smrekovnica prison near Mitrovica, and made their way in handcuffs to refuge in Albania. Brendan Paddy, an Amnesty representative, expressed relief at seeing a sizeable number of “battle-age” males emerging from Kosovo. “We have been extremely concerned about reports of people being removed from convoys, particularly youngish men detained at Smrekovnica,” he told The Washington Post. “We were very relieved to see a significant number of them cross the border. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.” [53] While Paddy’s relief was understandable, his statements raised serious questions. Where was the evidence of Amnesty’s “extreme concern” – for example, a single bulletin on the subject of detained males at Smrekovnica and elsewhere? And rather than the pat “nice-to-be-wrong” formulation, where was Paddy’s – and Amnesty’s – concern for the hundreds of men that the refugees described as still under detention – most for periods rather longer than the “weak,” “emaciated,” “very traumatized” prisoners freed in May? (We now know that this same weekend witnessed the mass slaughter of about 100 male inmates at Istok prison, following a NATO bombing raid on the facility.)

Late in the war, Amnesty finally got around to issuing a bulletin on the massacre of well over 100 Kosovar men at Izbica – a full week after Human Rights Watch had issued its superior, stomach-churning report on the killings. Amnesty’s bulletin was titled: “Civilians rounded up and murdered by Serbian forces.” “What is clear from these testimonies is that our fears that civilians of the Drenica region were murdered by Serbian security forces between 25 and 28 March are not unfounded,” though the organization had released no bulletin expressing its “fears,” let alone one focusing on the gender-selective character of the “civilian” extermination at Izbica. This was the case even though the release began, with impressive obliviousness, by presenting one of the more succinct survivor’s account of this act of gendercide:

The women were ordered to depart with the elderly and children … The men were lined up in two rows, and told to turn their backs. The soldiers then opened fire on the group with automatic weapons. Bodies fell on top of me and I was able to feign death until the soldiers left. [54]

The press release concluded by describing mass graves in the vicinity, filled with male corpses, as video footage released at the time clearly showed. Amnesty noted the footage of “the burial of the victims,” suggesting that the site contained “151 bodies,” some of whom “were KLA combatants.” The organization stated its belief nonetheless that “some of these bodies [were] of civilians who were killed by Serbian security forces or indiscriminately killed during shelling … Amnesty International cannot confirm the manner in which these people died.” The contrast with the much more detailed, powerful, and prompt reporting of Izbica by Human Rights Watch again did no credit to Amnesty.

One wonders what difference a concerted bombardment of e-mail messages from Amnesty’s global network of supporters might have made to the progress of the gendercide? Might it have lent a little weight to the hardline versus softline elements of the Yugoslav armed forces? How might a concerted campaign of bulletins expressing concern for the fate of the missing men have influenced the wider public discussion and policy agenda? We will, unfortunately, never know. But some sense of the contribution Amnesty could have made to the protection of ethnic-Albanian men’s human rights in Kosovo was suggested by its belated attention to the fate of remaining detainees in Serb hands. On June 23 – after an estimated 2,000 prisoners were shipped off to Serbia by retreating Yugoslav forces – Amnesty issued a bulletin on the subject, and the international wire services lit up like a Christmas tree. [55]

Why did the detainees suddenly become noteworthy only after the war was over and they were transported to Serbia? Many had been languishing in grossly-overcrowded conditions, exposed to regular beatings and torture and perhaps selective executions, for weeks or even months. And why, even now, could Amnesty only acknowledge that (genderless) “People have been detained for expressing dissenting views, for refusing military service on conscientious grounds or simply because of their ethnic origin”? [56] The majority of male detainees had been imprisoned not for refusing military service but for being deemed capable of it. They were targeted first on grounds of ethnicity – which Amnesty could not miss; and secondly, according to variables of gender and age – to which Amnesty remained oblivious, in its public pronouncements at least.

Could some of this inattention perhaps be excused by the argument that Amnesty’s task is not, fundamentally, to address mass killings, but the detention of prisoners, primarily those deemed “political”? If the argument is to be sustained, it must be explained why Amnesty felt justified in pronouncing on a whole range of “non-traditional” issues during the war. It addressed itself to the U.N. Security Council and denounced the “chronic neglect of consistent warnings by human rights organisations” and “the absence of redress for all Kosovo’s people” as underlying the crisis and war in the province. [57] It accused Macedonia of “playing politics with refugees” through “frequent closures of the border.” This, it declared in solidarity with the UNHCR (whose purview this might ordinarily have been), constituted “an unacceptable intrusion of politics in the humanitarian response to refugees in crisis.” [58] And, as we have seen, Amnesty was amply aware of Kosovar women’s (much lesser) vulnerability to “deliberate and arbitrary killings.”

These critical comments should be seen as motivated by a strong appreciation for the stellar work Amnesty International has done over the decades, and the space it has carved for itself in the public debate and the international policy arena. But the inability or unwillingness to grasp the essence of the gendercide, and to take Amnesty’s time-honoured steps to intervene (urgent actions, special reports and bulletins, etc.) was nothing less than an abdication of responsibility on the organization’s part. Both the human rights NGOs discussed here could benefit by a broadening of their frameworks and the development of specific working groups and initiatives to address human-rights abuses against males, particularly “battle-age” males. But in Amnesty’s case, the need for an overhaul of performance and policy appears far-reaching.

The Challenge of Gendercidal Institutions

Humanitarian intervention, especially in the age of media spectacle, is concentrated upon discrete events. Emergency situations arise and are dealt with or not. One way or another, the crisis eventually passes, and the peacekeepers and aid agencies pick up and move on, perhaps leaving behind a skeletal presence of monitors. This “firefighting” approach is entirely unable to engage with more structurally-entrenched crises, especially those spawned by institutions – including gendercidal ones.

Gendercidal institutions are most destructive in their impact upon females. The phenomenon of female infanticide is likely responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year, mostly in China and India. It has at least attracted significant attention internationally. [59] Much less well-known is the crisis of maternal mortality. In a 1996 report, UNICEF called the issue “in scale and severity the most neglected tragedy of our times,” citing a staggering 585,000 women who die annually from complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. [60]

In addressing such institutionalized crises, perhaps what is needed is a new concept of humane intervention – one that will promote the longterm commitment of resources and sustained campaigns, rather than the kind of limited disaster-relief efforts that usually pass for “humanitarian intervention.” If the problems are structural, the solutions will have to be as well. They must involve paradigmatic rethinkings of obligations and priorities. For example, to confront maternal mortality globally with the success that a poor Third World country, Cuba, has attained domestically would involve training some 850,000 health workers, and assigning the necessary drugs and equipment. The total cost would be about US $200 million, according to UNICEF and World Health Organization reports. This is the price of half a dozen jet fighters.

A fundamental rethinking of gendercidal institutions that are accepted and validated by the liberal-democratic countries of the industrialized West is also urgently required – perhaps especially in the sphere of gendercidal institutions that target males predominantly or almost exclusively. Three examples can be cited here: the death penalty, military conscription/impressment, and corvée (forced) labour. All three of these have received case-study treatment on the Gendercide Watch site, but it is worth dwelling for a moment on corvée. Readers may be as astonished as I was to learn that forced labour, an institution that has killed millions if not tens of millions of people, overwhelmingly younger males, in its history, is not today banned under international labour legislation. Rather, its imposition is legitimized for one group and one group only: able-bodied adult males. Article 11 of the International Labour Organization’s Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour – passed in 1930, and still in effect today – states that “Only adult able-bodied males who are of an apparent age of not less than 18 and not more than 45 years may be called upon for forced or compulsory labour,” so long as “they are physically fit for the work required and for the conditions under which it is to be carried out” and “the number of adult able-bodied men indispensable for family and social life” is allowed to remain in communities targeted for forced labour. (Specifically, the Convention states that “the proportion of the resident adult able-bodied males who may be taken at any one time for forced or compulsory labour … shall in no case exceed 25 per cent.”) [61]

In addition, in contrast to the “absolute prohibition” on female forced labour, male-dominated military conscription is exempted from forced-labour regulations, so long as the labour is used for military purposes. In drafting the Convention, the ILO reports, “there was general agreement that compulsory military service as such should remain beyond the purview of the Convention.” Prison labour, again overwhelmingly a male phenomenon, is also exempted. [62] Clearly, any international campaign against gender discrimination in forced-labour legislation – such as the one that Gendercide Watch is now mounting [63] – must inevitably spill over into a reevaluation of military conscription and the economics of incarceration. Confronting such powerful and deeply-ingrained institutions head-on can be a dispiriting task, since the challenges seem so immense and the readiness to engage in radical rethinking so limited. Much the same challenges, however, had to be faced in eliminating the closely-related scourge of slavery in the 19th century. The fact that efforts at amelioration and elimination proved possible, indeed were successful in a remarkably short period, offers grounds for hope.


This article has argued for the wide-ranging inclusion of a gender framework into analyses of international politics, genocide, and humanitarian intervention. It has suggested that, while the study of women and girls and their special vulnerabilities in emergency situations is well advanced, virtually no attention has been paid to the specific vulnerabilities and victimization experiences of men and boys. Until this range of experiences is integrated into an inclusive gender framework, only limited investigations of the multifaceted “gendering” of these phenomena will be possible, and distorted policymaking will tend to result. Politico-military gendercide against males, featuring sex-selective massacres and other atrocities, is an important and largely unrecognized subject for scholarly study and political activism. Key institutions of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organization, along with the mass media, have been critiqued for marginalizing and displacing the male victim in their discourse. At the same time, the role of gendercidal institutions such as maternal mortality and corvée labour has been reduced to a background feature in the human-rights equation, which remains concentrated on emergencies narrowly bounded in time and space. A new concept of “humane” intervention would assist in confronting such phenomena, which are deeply entrenched in social structure and historical practice.


[1] The author is professor of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. His article “Gendercide and Genocide” appeared in Journal of Genocide Research, 2: 2 (2000), and he is editing a special issue of the JGR on the subject of gender and genocide for publication in Spring 2002. He can be contacted at <>. This article was first presented as a paper to the Fourth International Bi-Annual Conference of the Association of Genocide Scholars, Minneapolis, MN, June 10-12, 2001. I am grateful to R. Charli Carpenter for her many pertinent comments on the work, and her own contribution to the study of gender and genocide.

[2] Jones, “Gendercide and Genocide,” p. 197.

[3] Ronit Lentin, ed., Gender & Catastrophe (London: Zed Books, 1997).

[4] Ronit Lentin, “Introduction: (En)gendering Genocides,” in Lentin, ed., Gender & Catastrophe, pp. 1, 6.

[5] See, e.g., Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Sara Sharratt and Ellyn Kaschak, eds., Assault on the Soul: Women in the Former Yugoslavia (Haworth Press, 1999); Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic, ed., Women, Violence and War: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans (Central European University Press, 2000); and Julie A. Mertus, War’s Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (Kumarian Press, 2000).

[6] R. Charli Carpenter, “Beyond Gendercide,” paper presented to Fourth International Bi-Annual Conference of the Association of Genocide Scholars, Minneapolis, MN, June 10-12, 2001. The paper is now scheduled for publication in the International Journal of Human Rights (forthcoming 2002).

[7] I defend my usage of “gendercide” at greater length in my article “Problems of Gendercide,” forthcoming in Journal of Genocide Research, 4: 1 (Spring 2002).

[8] Warren defined gendercide as “the deliberate extermination of persons of a particular sex (or gender)” (emphasis added). See Warren, Gendercide: The Implications of Sex Selection (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985), p. 22; and the discussion in Jones, “Gendercide and Genocide,” p. 186.

[9] See the overview of genocide “early warning systems” in Charny, ed., The Encyclopedia of Genocide, pp. 261-67; and the work of the organizations Genocide Watch <> and Prevent Genocide International <>.

[10] Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell (Berkley paperback edition, 1980), pp. 176-79.

[11] Joan Ringelheim, “Genocide and Gender: A Split Memory,” in Lentin, ed., Gender & Catastrophe, pp. 21, 23.

[12] African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, Revised Edition (London: African Rights, 1995), p. 385.

[13] African Rights, Death, Despair and Defiance, p. 587.

[14] Julie A. Mertus, Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started A War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 279, 46.

[15] Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 244-45.

[16] Koonz quoted in Miryam Z. Wahrman, “Gendering the Holocaust: Women as Victims and Perpetrators,”, 2000 <>.

[17] Linda R. Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (London: Zed Books, 2000), p. 73 (n. 9).

[18] Mertus, Kosovo, p. 8.

[19] On the plight of widows, see Margaret Owen, A World of Widows (London: Zed Books, 1996).

[20] African Rights, Death, Despair and Defiance, p. 20.

[21] Elenor Richter-Lyonette, “Women after the Genocide in Rwanda,” in Richter-Lyonette, ed., In the Aftermath of Rape: Women’s Rights, War Crimes, and Genocide (Givrins: The Coordination of Women’s Advocacy, 1997), p. 106.

[22] William Drozdiak, “Poor Nations May Not Buy Trade Talks,” The Washington Post, May 15, 2001.

[23] A step in the right direction was the February 2001 decision by the European Union “to open its markets to all products except weapons from the world’s 48 poorest countries. Although the EU initiative will delay duty-free access for such sensitive items as bananas, rice and sugar, the move was welcomed as a step toward improving the plight of the most indigent Third World nations by the world’s biggest and most powerful commercial bloc.” Drozdiak, “Poor Nations.”

[24] Jones, “Gendercide and Genocide,” p. 201.

[25] Alain Destexhe, Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

[26] Excerpts from Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, ch. 24: “The Murder of a Nation,” <>.

[27] Christopher R. Browning, Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 30.

[28] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), pp. 13-14.

[29] Human Rights Watch, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), p. 296.

[30] This phrase is drawn from the (indispensable) African Rights report, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, chapter 7.

[31] Jones, “Gender and Genocide in Rwanda.”

[32] These themes are analyzed and buttressed in far greater detail in Jones, “Gender and Genocide in Rwanda.”

[33] African Rights, Death, Despair and Defiance, pp. 597-98.

[34] African Rights, Death, Despair and Defiance, p. 815.

[35] For what it is worth, I would consider all the cases cited to qualify as genocides on a greater or lesser scale.

[36] Karl Vickers, “Toll of Congo War is Called Apocalyptic,” International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2001.

[37] Adam Jones, “Gender and Ethnic Conflict in ex-Yugoslavia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 17: 1 (January 1994), p. 124.

[38] In many cases this would involve confrontation with the local authorities, e.g., those in the Bosnian government who sought to prevent “battle-age” men from fleeing as refugees and conscript them into military service.

[39] See the collection of documents on this office at <>.

[40] Felice Gaer, “Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN,” ch. 2 in Thomas Go. Weiss and Leon Gordenker, NGOs, the UN, and Global Governance (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1996), p. 55.

[41] For more on gender and the human-rights NGOs, focusing on Amnesty International, see David Buchanan, “Gendercide and Human Rights,” forthcoming in Journal of Genocide Research (4: 1, Spring 2002).

[42] “Multiple Eyewitnesses Confirm Killings Around Velika Krusa, Kosovo,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #4, April 2, 1999; “Massacre in Meja,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #34, April 30, 1999; “Witness to Izbice Killings Speaks,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #39, May 19, 1999; “Separation of Men and Mass Killing Near Vucitrn,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #40, May 20, 1999; “Bodies Discovered at Massacre Site in Meja, Kosovo,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #46, June 18, 1999; “Large-Scale Massacre in Pusto Selo (Postoselo),” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #51, July 2, 1999.

[43] Human Rights Watch, “Violent Ethnic Cleansing in Dakovica,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #16, April 3, 1999. Though it also indulged in a fairly wide range of displacement strategies, Human Rights Watch showed a regular willingness to gender the victims of mass killing in the headlines. The bulletin on the May 2-3 slaughter in a field outside Vucitrn (Human Rights Flash #40) was entitled: “Separation of Men and Mass Killing Near Vucitrn.” Its account of the “Massacre in Meja” on April 27 included the subheading: “At Least One Hundred Men Believed Executed.” This was again atypical of commentary at the time, though not completely unheard-of.

[44] “Ex-Detainees Recount Ill-Treatment in Smrekonica Prison,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #41, May 26, 1999.

[45] Human Rights Watch, “Ex-Detainees Recount Ill-Treatment in Smrekonica Prison.”

[46] Human Rights Watch, Kosovo Human Rights Flash #31, April 28, 1999.

[47] Amnesty International, “Human Rights Violations against Women in Kosovo Province,” report, August 1998. Emphasis added.

[48] “The Truth Behind the Killings of 45 Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo Must Be Found,” Amnesty International News Release EUR 70/05/99, January 18, 1999. Emphasis added throughout.

[49] Amnesty International, bulletin EUR 70/23/999, April 1, 1999.

[50] “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – Kosovo: The Plight of Refugees Must Not Be Ignored,” Amnesty International bulletin, April 8, 1999. Emphasis added.

[51] Amnesty International, “Killings in the Kacanik area,” EUR 70/29/99, April 9, 1999.

[52] The news release noted, in passing, that “the police separated the men from the women.”

[53] John Ward Anderson, “In Singular Move, Serbs Free 1,000 Ethnic Albanian Men in Kosovo,” International Herald Tribune, May 24, 1999 (from The Washington Post).

[54] “Kosovo: Civilians rounded up and murdered by Serbian forces, witnesses tell Amnesty International delegates,” May 26, 1999.

[55] All three of the wire-services I consulted – Associated Press, United Press International, and Agence France-Presse – ran stories on the Amnesty bulletin. See “Amnesty calls for prisoner releases” (UPI); “Yugoslavia Urged To Free Prisoners,” (AP); “Amnesty calls for release of prisoners of conscience [held] in Serbia” (AFP) (all June 23, 1999).

[56] Quoted in AFP, “Amnesty calls for release.”

[57] “Unheeded Warnings at Root of Kosovo Crisis – Amnesty International Writes to the UN Security Council,” Amnesty International bulletin, May 5, 1999.

[58] “Kosovo: Playing Politics with Refugees in Macedonia,” Amnesty International bulletin, May 19, 1999.

[59] It is also the subject of a Gendercide Watch case-study (notably, the one that has received the greatest amount of traffic) at <>.

[60] Peter Adamson, article from the UNICEF Progress Report in New Internationalist, January/February 1997. For more on the gendercidal dimension of maternal mortality, see the Gendercide Watch case-study at <>.

[61] See the full text of the Convention at <>.

[62] See the International Labour Organization, Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), Report of the Commission of Inquiry, July 1998 <>.

[63] See my letter to ILO director-general Juan Somavia at <>.