Refugees in contemporary international relations

Today, when the forces of globalization at one level, and those of ethnic conflict,

nationalist secessionism, and communal violence at another level contribute to

instability in many parts of the world, the concepts of good governance, civil society,

the protection of human rights/security, individual sovereignty and humanitarian

intervention are gaining currency in policy discourse. The prominence these concepts

enjoy, at least rhetorically, is tied in no small way to two related but distinct

phenomena: migratory movements and the forced displacement of peoples.

The former is attributable, generally, to glaring inequalities in wealth between

industrialized and poorer countries, and the impact of market forces. The latter is

directly attributable to massive human displacement as a consequence of armed

conflict, persecution, if not attempts on the part of one group in a state to either

annihilate or drive out another entire group of people.

The phenomenon of forced displacement has resulted in refugees becoming a defining

characteristic of the post-Cold War era and contemporary international relations.

Long regarded as a peripheral issue or a matter of discretionary charitable concern to

policymakers, refugees now figure prominently on the international policy agenda.

Liberal internationalists argue that in the name of basic values something should be

done to address this issue.  Realists largely driven by concern for national interests

and the sentiment that conflict is a natural feature of international politics do

acknowledge, however, that the sheer numbers involved often constitute a threat to

regional security (Great Lakes, Africa) and at times international security (Balkans,


Along with the impact of a globalizing economy, the refugee issue has forced many

academics and policy-makers to recognize that the basic unit of analysis in

international relations, i.e. “the state”, is no longer wholly adequate as an explanatory

or predictive tool. By extension, traditional conceptions of dealing with security issues

are inadequate in an increasingly post-Westphalian world.

The following pages focus on the causes of forced displacement and then the legal

and normative framework of refugee protection. The section discusses developments

in the post Cold War period and current challenges confronting the Office of the

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), not least in the

aftermath of September 11. It is argued that there is an increasingly solid basis for

action which would significantly mitigate if not resolve the refugee issue if the

political will can be marshaled to do so.

World disorder: concepts in conflict

While greed, ideological differences and religious tensions have always played a role

in displacement, to understand the genesis of forced displacement, especially since the

end of the Cold War, the continuing inability of the “international community” to

coherently and consistently deal with this problem and the likelihood of future

displacements, it is useful to look at the four underlying principles of world order –

most of which are enshrined in the UN Charter and all of which, as Stanley Hoffman




has observed, “are flawed and in conflict with one another.”


These principles are

state sovereignty, the right to national self-determination, democracy (based on

constitutional government), and respect for human rights. While limits of space

preclude a full discussion of these principles, the contradictions rather than

complementarity of these concepts can briefly be outlined as follows.

Although the UN Charter enjoins the members via the principle of state sovereignty to

respect the territorial integrity of other members, the concept has little relevance in a

rapidly globalizing economy given the nexus of financial, industrial and commercial

relations that consistently breach traditional notions of state sovereignty.

However, the principle does tend to shield smaller states from more overt forms of

imperialist or military aggression, which explains why the Group of 77, among other

state actors, (including the U.S.), so fiercely uphold this principle. Unfortunately, it

also provides states an excuse to carry out domestic atrocities against their own

citizens whose televised plight and requests for assistance in the information age,

come to the attention of an increasing number of people around the world. This,

having offended our sense of basic justice, results in pressure for intervention.

The second principle is that of the right to national self-determination. From the late



century, liberals from Mazzini to Woodrow Wilson believed that a world of

sovereign nation-states, each having achieved their destiny by obtaining a state of

their own, would live in harmony.  The problem is that no one has ever adequately

defined what the “national self” is. Moreover, if one takes the concept of “nation” or

ethnic group and language as the principle determinants of what constitutes a nation,

there are an estimated 5,000 nations and 6,000 distinct languages in the world.


The possibilities for further challenges to state sovereignty and international order in

terms of an exponential increase in state formation may be imagined.  To counteract

the potential divisiveness of nation-states, Wilsonian liberals proposed a third

principle, that of constitutional democracy, basing themselves on the Kantian

assumption that democracies with their respect for citizens’ rights and rational

discussion would not resort to war. However, as Hoffman has noted, the UN Charter

unlike the European Community does not require that all UN members be

democracies. In essence, sovereignty and self-determination have more legitimacy

than self-government.  When it comes to how states govern themselves, as a

counterbalance to sovereignty the Charter mentions the fourth principle of respect for

human rights and fundamental freedoms via international cooperation.  In terms of

world order, the gulf between domestic affairs and interstate relations remains


The problem is further compounded by the fact that not all democracies are liberal in

nature, ensuring respect for individual and minority rights. Indeed only a few

democracies are democratic in name only if not Jacobin in nature, allowing nothing to

stand in the way of the majority or dominant ethnic group. In many new democracie………………..

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