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………………..