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Barry N. Stein
Department of Political Science
Michigan State University
Paper presented at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the
International Studies Association, Toronto
21 March 1997

345 South Kedzie Hall

East Lansing, MI 48824

tel. 517 355 1881

fax. 517 432 1091


rough draft: 18 March 1997

Regional Efforts to Address Refugee Problems

Regional efforts to address refugee problems have been successful in moving refugee assistance away from an emphasis on exile and towards a focus on the rights of refugees to return home and the role of the country of origin. Regional efforts, by regional international organizations an ad hoc groupings of regional actors, occur when the region either has rejected the solution advanced by the international community1 or when the international community has taken little or no action to achieve a solution.

The regional response is to put forward its own plan of action to deal with the refugee problem. Sometimes, as in Central America and South East Asia, regional organizations have led the effort in close partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In other cases, such as Cambodia, Liberia or Rwanda, regional organizations may cooperate with United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions which include UNHCR.

Regional efforts in the developing world primarily date from the late 1970s. The turning point was the Indochinese refugee crisis of 1978-1979. However, regional approaches did not fully develop until the closing years of the cold war, which contributed to a concerted movement away from the "persecution" orientation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Regional efforts are part of a post-cold war approach that treats armed conflict and disorder, rather than persecution, as the immediate cause of most refugee situations. (The causes of most refugee flows have not necessarily changed, but our view of them has changed.)

The Growth of Regionalism

Regional concerted arrangements are becoming a more common feature of efforts to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the return of refugees. Early regional response to refugees include the 1956 Hungarian refugee crisis and the drafting of the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. The growing prominence of regional assistance is a result of multiple factors including:

the shift from colonial struggles to internal conflicts;

the end of the cold war and the "use" of refugees as an element in the conflict;

growing concern by industrialized countries to contain migration/refugee flows from the developing world;

the refusal of regional actors to play previously assigned roles;

the resistance of donor countries and asylum countries in the developing world to support continued burden-sharing; and

the need of regional actors to respond when global action proves inadequate.

Indeed it is surprising that regional initiatives have only recently occupied a prominent role in addressing refugee situations. All refugee problems are, at a minimum, bilateral affairs involving a homeland and a refuge; in fact, most are multilateral problems with several neighbors providing refuge while other states are involved in relief, political and diplomatic activities.

However, until the end of the cold war, most refugee problems were viewed with an exilic perspective that ignored the homeland. A judgmental definition, that persecution causes refugees, stigmatized communist regimes and other homelands as persecutors, and made it "inevitable that countries of origin would not co-operate in any way" (Coles 1990:375).

The focus of assistance and durable solution efforts was on local settlement in the asylum country of asylum, which was mostly left on its own, with a unilateral refugee problem backed up by a modicum of international aid, i.e. burden-sharing. This state of affairs left little room for regional approaches beyond attempting to get other states to take the problem off your hands and lands.

Permanent external settlement, when it takes the form of local integration in the country of asylum, is a false durable solution because almost always it is inadequately implemented (Stein and Clark 1990). A genuine durable solution to a refugee problem requires the integration of the refugee into a society by means of citizenship or permanent residence status "on an equal footing with the surrounding population" (UNHCR 1984). The three durable solutions available are local integration or settlement in the country of asylum, resettlement in third countries, or voluntary repatriation to one's homeland. Settlement and resettlement are based on permanent exile; return, however, requires changes in and negotiation and reconciliation with the homeland.

The cold war also exacerbated refugee problems. Interventions into refugee-generating conflicts generally had devastating consequences, increasing the loss of life, protracting the conflict and reducing the scope for action by local and regional actors. The contending powers had clients and bases, provided arms and advice, and created policy linkages between proximate conflicts. The cold war regionalized conflicts not to seek solutions but in order to block or stalemate or defeat an adversary. The highly developed international refugee regime in fact prolonged some civil wars by sustaining large-scale civilian populations in exile for years, where they were a recruitment pool for rebel armies (Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo 1989).

The end of the cold war led to a shift away from an exile-settlement orientation and towards the return of refugees and prevention of refugee flows. One reason for this shift in policies was the emergence of a significant migration from developing to industrialized states. As a result, virtually all Western countries are changing their traditional approach towards refugees to and emphasis on return and prevention and seeking arrangements with countries of origin (Coles 1990).

The major factor in the movement away from exile, however, was the refusal of regional actors to play their assigned role. Exile means the refugees settle in their country of asylum. Thus the heaviest burden falls on neighboring states. Beginning in the late 1970s, regional actors in Africa and South East Asia began to question their roles in refugee assistance. In Africa, the questioning at the 1979 Pan African Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, held in Arusha, Tanzania (Stein and Gallagher 1984; Stein and Clark 1985a; and Stein 1986; Stein 1987; Stein 1991). At the same time as the Arusha Conference, the states of South East Asia were refusing to grant asylum to would-be refugees from Indochina, eventually leading to the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA). Growing regional action has thus been linked to voluntary repatriation and comprehensive solutions.


Unfortunately, the term "regional" is very poorly defined. The UN Charter deals with "Regional Arrangements" without ever defining them. In 1945, the only regional institutions were the Arab League and the Organization of American States (OAS), so the imprecision of drafters permitted a great deal of flexibility for the development of regional approaches to regional problems.

There has been an explosion of regional arrangements over the years. Some are formal multilateral regional organizations such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of American States (OAS), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Others are ad hoc regional groupings formed for a limited purpose and duration such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees (CPA), the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), and the Regional Conference of Central African Heads of State.

Although "region" is undefined; not just any grouping of a few neighbors can be considered a regional arrangement. While remaining imprecise, some of the characteristics of a region are:

three or more geographically proximate states (Stoessinger 1975);

mutual dependence arising from common interests (Russett 1967);

defined by an ad hoc problem, such as the presence of refugees; and,

interrelated units whose activities are significant determinants of each other's policies (Cantori and Spiegel 1970).

Closely related to regional efforts, but distinct from them, is the idea of a comprehensive response to refugee problems. A comprehensive approach is one in which a variety of different but concerted measures are brought to bear on a refugee situation. The "package" needed for a solution can include: temporary asylum, non-refoulement, voluntary repatriation with UNHCR monitoring in the country of origin, as well as assistance for reintegration and perhaps local integration or resettlement of refugees who refuse to return.

A comprehensive response can be contained entirely within one country involving concerted measures on behalf of refugees, returnees, displaced persons, stayees, demobilized soldiers, and impacted communities, as well as measures to remove root causes and to promote development.

Regional approaches are likely to be comprehensive responses because of the interdependence of the concerted measures. For example, refugee camps in the country of asylum cannot be closed unless the country of origin is willing to remove the causes of flight and accept the returnees. However, the removal of the causes of flight may be partially dependent on neighboring countries restricting the flow of political and military aid to insurgent groups.

Comprehensive, interrelated approaches are inherent in regionalism because unilateral actions, which can be easily implemented, are likely to lead to retaliatory actions which block solutions and leave all parties worse off.

Reflecting the complex causation of refugee problems, the regional responses often are not limited to dealing with the refugee issue--nor, indeed, do they treat refugees as the central issue. Regional efforts are centered on dealing with the country of origin. The concern is to end conflict and build peace, to avoid flight, prevent the loss of homeland, or to bring refugees home. If conditions in the homeland are not addressed, then the internal situation that caused the flight or expulsion may deteriorate leading to more refugees, tension and instability. This can affect neighboring states and refugee situations are a notoriously potent source of international tensions.

Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II)

The 1981 and 1984 ICARA conferences were an attempt by Sub-Saharan Africa to get more international assistance for the burden of African refugees. The ICARA process encompassing the 1979 Arusha Conference, a 1980 International Conference on Refugees in The Sudan, the 1981 and 1984 ICARAs and their follow-up process, known as "Refugee Aid and Development," are generally seen as a failure (Cuenod 1989), that produced "limited results mainly due to a lack of funding" (Stevens 1993). However, hindsight indicates that the ICARA process was a major step in the development of a new approach to African refugees, and refugees generally, away from an exile-settlement orientation and towards a focus on voluntary repatriation and prevention.

Until the 1979 Pan African Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa held in Arusha, the African asylum countries largely accepted their role of providing asylum and local settlement for refugees. By 1979, there had been or were seventy-three refugee settlements housing several hundred thousand refugees (Stein and Clark 1990). While the organized settlements had been established with international aid, the main burden fell on the host country. At Arusha, however, it was "estimated that well over 60% of all rural refugees" were spontaneously settled (UNHCR 1979). More importantly, it was noted that these were forgotten refugees, not dealt with by governments or aid agencies and receiving little international assistance.

The Arusha Conference was a turning point in developing country' attitudes about refugee assistance. The African host countries were made aware that they were not receiving international assistance for at least sixty percent of their rural refugee burden and that they were not getting an equitable share of international assistance. After the Arusha Conference a new expanded principle of burden sharing was advanced, calling on the international community to assist with refugee-associated social and economic infrastructural costs in addition to direct burden-sharing costs.

ICARA was held in April 1981 with the objective of assisting asylum countries to obtain international assistance to carry the extra burden placed on their services and facilities by the presence of refugees. The results, however, were that ICARA "fell short of the expectations of the African countries" (Perez de Cuellar 1983). The donor community was not ready to accept the new notion of burden sharing advanced by the African states. Donors felt that the African countries had unrealistic expectations.

However, the disappointing results of ICARA did not lead to the dropping of notion of expanded burden sharing, but rather to the calling of a second conference. ICARA II benefitted from a much longer preparation period, which was used to engage donors, concerned governments and international agencies in a fuller discussion of the new ideas and issues. ICARA II also benefitted from a separate but related series of international meetings regarding Refugee Aid and Development, which focussed on promoting durable solutions rather than expanded burden-sharing.

The issues of burden sharing and durable solutions dominated and divided the second conference, with African countries and major donors taking different perspectives on the goal of the conference. The official call for ICARA II (General Assembly Resolution 37/197) reflected the view of the host countries regarding the "burden imposed on the African countries [and] its consequences for their development." However, the theme of the meeting was "A Time For Solutions," reflecting an emphasis on durable solutions injected by the Secretary-General into the preparations and agenda of ICARA II (Perez de Cuellar 1983).

The western donors did not reject the host countries' concept of expanded burden sharing, but they were troubled by the lack of a direct connection between expanded assistance and durable solutions other than voluntary repatriation. The donors feared that waiting for repatriation could be an open-ended claim on their resources; in 1984, some refugees, such as the Rwandese Tutsis, already had been in settlements for twenty-five years. Open ended burden sharing might make the host's burden tolerable and thus impede, rather than encourage, the search for solutions.

On the other hand, the African host countries made clear their preferences regarding durable solutions; they strongly preferred voluntary repatriation and were averse to local integration. Many hosts, hoping for voluntary repatriation and rejecting local settlement, kept refugees in temporary care or limited self-reliance situations for long periods of time, thereby increasing assistance costs.

In the final analysis, the African position prevailed at ICARA II . The ICARA II Declaration indicated that voluntary repatriation is "the ideal solution" but provided that "Where voluntary repatriation is not immediately feasible or possible, conditions should be created within the country of asylum so that refugees can temporarily settle or integrate into the community" (UNHCR 1984). This was echoed by the "Principles for Action in Developing Countries" which indicated that "temporary measures pending a durable solution . . . do not necessarily imply a commitment to one or another longer-term solution" (UNHCR 1984).

Ironically, this apparent consensus was fatally flawed, as the donor countries and the African countries of asylum did not really agree regarding "durable solutions." The lack of connection between solutions and burden-sharing led to the failure of funding for the refugee aid and development concept. In the subsequent decade, the position of the African states, that exile and settlement are temporary and that voluntary repatriation is the only available durable solution, has prevailed.

Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA)

Another important shift of perspective on refugee problems has taken place since 1975 as a consequence of unilateral and regional efforts by the countries of South East Asia to deal with the problem of Indochinese refugees. These efforts have been notably successful, changing the perspective on refugee problems "from that of a predominantly Western, donor-country point of view to one shaped by the experiences and interests of the countries in the region" (Knowles 1989).

The lever at the disposal of the asylum countries was their ability to permit or block the provision of first asylum for those fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are not parties to either the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Until the 1989 agreement providing for individual status determinations, the South East Asian states treated all Vietnamese arrivals as illegal aliens subject to involuntary deportation, which was stayed if other countries would take them as refugees.

The asylum countries' use of this lever--at the cost of thousands of refugee lives--led to two international conferences: the 1979 Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia and the 1989 International Conference on Indochinese Refugees (ICIR). The 1989 ICIR approved the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA).

The primary goal of the South East Asian states has been to avoid accepting Indochinese refugees for permanent or long-term residence. They insisted that virtually all asylum seekers be either speedily resettled outside of the region or returned--involuntarily if necessary--to their homelands.

Although there had been a large refugee exodus at the end of the conflict in Indochina in 1975, the outflow had dropped sharply in 1976 and 1977. However, in 1978 a new massive exodus began from Vietnam. In December 1978, UNHCR convened a Consultative Meeting with Interested Governments on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia (UNHCR 1978) at which the representative of Thailand called for a wider sharing the resettlement burden and for accelerated movement with an agreed time limit placed on any temporary stay in countries of first refuge.

UNHCR's Director of International Protection felt that the states of Southeast Asia refused "to grant durable asylum for reasons of ethnic antagonism, internal and external national security and lack of economic absorption capacity. . . . Temporary asylum would be refused since it is only a first stage to durable asylum" (Jaeger 1981).

The December 1978 Consultative Meeting successfully identified resettlement offers for 125,000 refugees, however, in early 1979 there was a virtual quadrupling of the average monthly outflow of boat refugees from Vietnam. In the first half of 1979 over 200,000 refugees arrived in South East Asia as a result of fighting between Vietnam and China, the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea, and increased Vietnamese persecution of ethnic Chinese. South East Asian states feared that "in the end, when all resettlement programs were completed, they would be left with a substantial number of refugees" (Stein 1979). Only the United States (U.S.), France, Australia and Canada, reacted adequately to this growing fear. A crisis was created by the refusal of Malaysia and Thailand to accept any more refugees. Thailand refouled over 42,000 Kampuchean refugees in late June while Malaysia began towing some recently arrived boats back out to sea (Stein 1979).

The crisis led to the convening of the July 1979 Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia, which focussed on burden sharing rather than on finding solutions inside Vietnam. The problems and solutions were so interrelated that to succeed the Meeting needed concerted action by the temporary asylum states, the resettlement countries and Vietnam. The achievements of the meeting included:

assuring the availability of temporary asylum in the region by providing sufficient resettlement offers;

doubling of the resettlement outflow from the region to 250,000 refugees per year;

implementation the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) agreement between UNHCR and Vietnam on a much broader scale; and

obtaining Vietnam's agreement to a moratorium on unorganized departures (Bronee 1993).

The restoration of temporary asylum was achieved by assuring the host countries that refugees would leave their territory after a relatively short stay. This implied durable asylum through either resettlement or voluntary repatriation (Jaeger 1981).

The 1979 arrangement worked for many years. The ODP allowed many refugees to bypass the South East Asian asylum countries, except for processing and the number of asylum seekers declined to a manageable level. Resettlement quotas were sufficient to reassure the countries of temporary asylum.

However, the 1979 agreements had created an unusual situation. By 1987, when refugee outflows increased again, Vietnamese refugees had benefitted from more than a decade of special treatment, blanket refugee recognition and assured resettlement opportunities. Many asylum and resettlement countries felt that the refugee program had taken on most of the characteristics of a migration program, and that the availability of resettlement was an incentive for people to leave Vietnam.

Towards the end of 1987, the number of arrivals rose to levels that "exceeded the total of resettlement offers" (Bronee 1993). "A consensus was building up, especially amongst governments of first asylum countries, that, unless a regionally concerted "closing of the doors" was implemented, the problem would continue unabated" (Jambor 1992). In South East Asia, asylum was linked to resettlement and past "harsh measures" taken by the asylum countries "had succeeded in bringing additional support and resettlement quotas from Western countries" (Jambor 1992).

The 1989 International Conference on Indochinese Refugees (ICIR), convened at the request of the ASEAN foreign ministers, resulted in a Declaration and Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) adopted by seventy-seven signatories. The CPA addressed not only asylum and resettlement concerns, but also the root causes of the Vietnamese migrant/refugee flow with an interrelated package of measures including:

expansion of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) of legal migration from Vietnam;

controls on illegal boat departures from Vietnam;

guarantees of humane treatment for asylum seekers by neighboring countries;

establishment of a cut-off date, after which asylum seekers would have to be screened to determine refugee states;

resettlement of the entire pre-cut-off date caseload;

a new region-wide individual refugee status determination process;

continued resettlement abroad for all those determined to be refugees; and

the return to their homelands of those determined to be non-refugees.

The Conference objectives were to re-channel departures from Vietnam to legal means (ODP) and to limit entitlement to resettlement to recognized refugees. Although individual asylum countries could have easily implemented ad hoc and unilateral measures to close the door, this might have been met by "a retaliatory freeze on third country resettlement, leaving asylum countries to deal with the thousands stranded in camps" (Jambor 1992). Vietnamese and Western cooperation was necessary to achieve ASEAN's objectives.

The Western states agreed to provide sufficient resettlement places in order to protect the principle of first asylum, but some, particularly the United States, were reluctant to agree to involuntary repatriation for those screened out by the region-wide status determination process. The CPA provided financial and safety incentives to encourage voluntary repatriation, buying time to develop alternatives to forced return. Encouragement of voluntary return was enhanced by European Community, U.S., and UNHCR reintegration and development assistance programs directed to specific areas of return in Vietnam.

Vietnam's cooperation was due to its desire for "the recognition and assistance from the international community that it had vainly been looking for since 1975" (Jambor 1992).2 At the ICIR Vietnam agreed to control clandestine departures, expand ODP and receive the returned non-refugees. In 1988, the Vietnamese government and UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in which Vietnam agreed to UNHCR monitoring of the returnees and pledged not to take punitive measures against them (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1994:89). Some 68,000 Vietnamese were repatriated between 1988 and 1994.

By 1996, fewer than 40,000 Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers remained in refugee camps in the region. UNHCR will phase out support for "camps for asylum seekers, screened out non-refugees" as of 1 July 1996 (UN 1996).

For a decade and a half, the South East Asian states were able to export asylum-seekers from Indochina by compelling the international community to provide the largest resettlement program ever devised and by inducing the country of origin to reduce the pressures for exodus and to accept back thousands of screened-out asylum seekers.

International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA)

The International Conference on Central American Refugees3 (CIREFCA) in May 1989 was both a remarkable capstone in a regional peace process that began in the early 1980s and a notable milestone in a continuing search for peace and development. The Cartagena Agreement in 1984, the Contadora Act for Peace and Cooperation in 1986, and the Esquipulas II Agreement in 1987 (the Arias Peace Plan), are other important landmarks in a region-wide, coordinated process to promote peace, assist uprooted peoples, repatriate refugees, and strengthen democracy and human rights.

In the mid-eighties, the Central American states engaged in a process that enabled them to move beyond their cold war roles as superpower clients and pawns to shape a regional solution to their common, interrelated problems (Larkin 1991; Fagen 1993). Between 1981 and 1990 the cold war protagonists spent about $12 billion in the region and the ideological demands and expectations of the superpowers exacerbated the crisis and threatened to engulf the entire region (Crosby 1990).

Refugee problems were part of Central America's security problems thus requiring a balance between national security and humanitarian interests. Mexico and Costa Rica saw the conflicts in Central America as a regional issue requiring a regional solution and both had condemned U.S. actions against Nicaragua.

In 1987, "the Central American Presidents took matters into their own hands" (Crosby 1990) with the signing of the Arias Peace Plan. The plan called for cease-fires, coexistence between Nicaragua and its neighbors, guarantees of U.S. security concerns, and undertook to prevent interventions in the internal affairs of other nations.

Moreover, the agreement recognized that there could be no lasting peace without initiatives to resolve the problem of refugees, returnees and displaced persons in the region and appealed for international aid for these efforts. This is the role of CIREFCA--both the conference itself and the follow-on five year aid program, as an important humanitarian relief, rehabilitation and assistance piece of this larger regional process and program which includes peace treaties, elections, UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.

The "Concerted Plan of Action" which was adopted at the 1989 CIREFCA conference "recognize[d] that solutions to the problems of refugees, returnees and displaced persons form an integral part of the efforts for peace, democracy and development taking place in the region." The international community's response was to commit itself to provide political and financial support, while UNHCR and UNDP agreed to lend their support to ensure the plan's successful implementation.

CIREFCA's operations, jointly implemented by UNHCR and UNDP, are an interesting attempt by the international community to support weak, devastated states engaged in post-conflict peace-building, to contribute to the consolidation of peace. The CIREFCA process integrated repatriation to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and acceptance of some of the uprooted for permanent local settlement in Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico, with short- and long-term development in the context of a regional peace process. Since CIREFCA was created, all the formal refugee camps have closed, the assisted refugee caseload has been reduced by half, two of the three armed conflicts have been brought to a close, and agreements have been signed that consolidate the prospects for an end to 30 years of armed conflict in Guatemala.

Ultimately less successful than CIREFCA, but in their own way more heroic, have been regional attempts to deal with conflicts in Liberia and Rwanda.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

In August 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)4 made an unprecedented intervention into Liberia's civil war, which had displaced over half of the country's population of 2.6 million and caused 600,000-700,000 Liberians to flee to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. The intervention was undertaken by an ECOWAS Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) of 4,000 troops from six countries.5 Faced with a conflict of near genocidal proportions, a huge refugee flow into three member states, a government which cannot govern, and the threat that hostilities would spill over into neighboring states, a regional international organization was able to find the political will to intervene, separate the combatants, protect some 1.3 million people in its area of control and bring about the signing of a succession of peace accords, including the July 1993 Cotonou Peace Agreement (Wippman 1993; U.S. Committee for Refugees 1995).

ECOWAS intervened in Liberia only after the international community refused to become actively involved. At the urging of Ethiopia and Zaire, which "wished to avoid creating a precedent," the United Nations Security Council rejected efforts to place the crisis on the Council's agenda (Wippman 1993). The United States did not feel it had strategic interests at stake and refused requests from Liberian politicians to intervene militarily. However, the U.S. did support and finance the ECOWAS action, believing that an African problem should have an African solution.

The Liberian civil war began with a Christmas Eve 1989 incursion by a small force from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Liberia was quickly embroiled in savage, ethnic warfare with "routine destruction of human lives and property" (Wippman 1993:164). The conflict became three-sided in June 1990, with the formation of a splinter rebel faction, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). By November 1990, when a cease-fire arranged and monitored by ECOMOG halted the mass exodus, the refugee flow had reached at one million.

In March 1991, the conflict's threat to the region's peace and security became real when NPFL soldiers joined forces with Sierra Leonean dissidents and invaded Sierra Leone. This fighting caused several hundred thousand Sierra Leoneans to become internally displaced or to flee as refugees to Guinea and Liberia (New York Times 1992).

ECOWAS was able to arrange numerous cease-fires and some interim agreements, particularly Yamoussoukro IV in October 1991, in which the parties agreed to encamp and disarm, and that "ECOMOG forces would establish a buffer zone along Liberia's borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea, thus insulating those countries from further incursions" (Wippman 1993:171).

In November 1992, after heavy fighting, ECOWAS imposed an arms embargo on Liberia and an embargo of Liberian products. The UN Security Council finally dealt with the issue in November 1992 when at the request of ECOWAS, it also imposed a "complete and general embargo" on all weapons, except those for peacekeepers. However, it still left enforcement of the November 1990 cease-fire to ECOWAS.

On 25 July 1993, under the auspices of ECOWAS, at Cotonou, Benin, a Peace Agreement was signed between the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO). At the request of ECOWAS and the three parties, in September 1993 the Security Council established the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to monitor the implementation of the Cotonou Peace Agreement. The UN involvement was necessary because of the NPFL's distrust of the Nigerian-dominated ECOMOG (Wippman 1993).

As of January 1996, there have been a succession of peace accords, the most recent being the Abuja Agreement of August 1995, which amends, supplements and clarifies the Cotonou, Akosombo and Accra accords (UN 1995). The Liberian peace process is stalled and the military situation is confused "with apolitical warlords in fragmenting alliances seizing territory and claiming power" (UN 1994d). Planned elections have been repeatedly postponed and cease-fires have been repeatedly violated. UNOMIL and ECOMOG have been able to disarm very few combatants and have themselves come under attack.6 In reaction to ambushes and kidnappings of UNOMIL and ECOMOG personnel, UNOMIL has been reduced to one-fifth of its prior strength of 368 and its mandate extended for only a few months at a time. The Security Council has warned that continued international support for the peace process "is contingent on the demonstrated enduring commitment by the Liberian parties to resolve their differences peacefully and to achieve national reconciliation" (UN 1996b). A number of states have indicated they might reduce or withdraw their troops from ECOMOG because of the lack of financial support from the international community and the lack of progress in the peace effort.

ECOWAS/ECOMOG have made remarkable efforts to address the Liberian crisis. As befits a complex conflict, their efforts have not been limited to the refugee problem. ECOWAS, a multilateral regional organization with limited resources and capacity, was forced to act because of the refusal of the international community to get involved, and because ECOWAS members had a direct interest in the peace of their region. Most of its sixteen members are low-income, weak states; nonetheless, they found the political will to tackle a regional problem. For six years, ECOWAS was able to separate the combatants, negotiate, monitor and nurture a succession of cease-fires and peace agreements, return refugees and displaced persons to their homes, and not get badly drawn into the conflict itself.

Liberia has not been restored to a functioning state by the ECOWAS effort. A significant factor is the failure of the international community to act in support of the pioneering ECOWAS effort. For almost four years the international community stood on the sidelines. After the first Cotonou Agreement in July 1993, the Security Council agreed to send in UNOMIL to assist ECOMOG with disarmament. Besides being late, the UN effort has been slow and underfinanced. The Secretary-General reported that: "Without international financial support, ECOMOG will continue to be severely hampered in its commendable efforts fully to carry out its mandate in Liberia. I believe that the clearly insufficient level of such assistance has been a factor in the slow progress of the peace process in Liberia" (UN 1994e).


Ironically, the genocide and massive displacement of Rwanda's population in 1994 was set off within the context of a regional peace effort to deal with the thirty-five year old refugee problem. The massacres, renewed civil war and the refugee exodus began after the killing of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi as they returned from a peace meeting in Tanzania.

Between 1959 and 1962, the power of the Tutsi rulers of Rwanda was broken by an uprising by the majority Hutu and an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Tutsi fled and sought refuge in neighboring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire and other countries. Life for the refugees, particularly in Uganda, was anything but permanent and secure. For thirty years, despite repeated attacks on the refugees by domestic forces within Uganda and the other countries, little effort was made to bridge the Rwandan Hutu-Tutsi division and to enable the Tutsi refugees to return home. The refugees were treated as aliens and lived at the mercy of the host governments (Watson 1991).

In October 1990, the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RFP), many of whom had served in the Ugandan Army, invaded their homeland from Uganda. The right of the Rwandan refugees to repatriate was the central issue of the war (U.S. Department of State, 1993).

After the 1990 invasion, Rwanda's neighbors, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, each of which had large numbers of Rwandan refugees, became actively involved in negotiations to arrange a cease-fire and a peace agreement. Although the refugees had been in the asylum countries for thirty years, each neighbor insisted that eventually the refugees would go home.

Led by the efforts of Tanzania and Zaire, the regional heads of state, acting as a Regional Conference on Rwandese Refugees, staged a series of summit meetings at Mwanza, Gbadolite, Goma, Chanika and Zanzibar. At a meeting in Zanzibar on 17 February 1991, the Presidents of Rwanda and Uganda agreed to a cease-fire. OAU willingness to deploy a "Military Observer Team" was a factor in the negotiations.

The cease-fire was immediately followed by a Regional Conference of the five heads of state which drew up the Declaration of Dar es Salaam setting out the principles for a regional solution to the Rwandan refugee problem, including the legitimate right of repatriation and a commitment by Rwanda's neighbors to naturalize those refugees who wished to remain rather than repatriate. UNHCR actively cooperated with the regional effort and the OAU deployed a Neutral Military Observer Group (NMOG) to monitor the cease-fire (UNHCR, 1991).

New fighting broke out in November 1991. In July 1992, a more substantial truce was arranged and the two sides tentatively agreed to share power eventually, including multi-party elections, combining their armies, and abolishing the country's ethnic-based identification cards. "The truce dissolved in February [1993] with an outbreak of brief but intense warfare, forcing 600,000 Rwandans from their homes" (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1994:63).

In March 1993, the OAU brokered another cease-fire and the Government of Rwanda and the RPF requested the deployment of UN military observers. The UN rebuffed the request to assist the OAU, "preferring to leave the settlement of the conflict to regional mediation" (Tessitore and Woolfson 1994). However, in June 1993, after the reopening of peace negotiations between the RPF and the Government of Rwanda, the United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) was deployed on the Uganda side of the border as a temporary confidence-building measure.

Finally, in August 1993, the Arusha Peace Agreement was signed by the Government of Rwanda and the RPF. The Agreement called for the establishment of a broad-based transitional government, including a Transitional National Assembly, leading up to democratic elections. In October 1993, the Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to monitor the cease-fire agreement and the return of refugees and displaced persons.

Between August 1993 and April 1994, almost two-thirds of the one million displaced persons returned home and organized repatriation was planned for later in 1994. However, throughout the period, Hutu hardliners in the National Revolutionary Movement for Development, which had ruled Rwanda for decades, instigated ethnic violence in order to prevent power-sharing and change. Eventually, in April 1994, the peace process was destroyed by the assassination of the President followed by the killing of opposition Hutus and the unleashing of a campaign of genocide against the Tutsis.

The Central African states and the OAU made a valiant effort to deal with the Rwandan refugee crisis. They sustained a long-term negotiating process, committed themselves to naturalizing those refugees who did not repatriate, brokered numerous cease-fires, organized an OAU military observer group, and produced a peace agreement. In this they had the support of the OAU and UNHCR, but the UN stood on the sidelines until late in the process. In the end, conditions within Rwanda, particularly the inability of a weak government to control its own ruling party and military forces, led to disaster.

Regional Responses

Intervention in refugee situations is a novel task for many regional organizations, although some are more experienced than others. Often they are able to act more quickly than the UN, and regional actors have a direct interest in resolving the conflict and may have greater knowledge and sensitivity regarding the basis for the conflict and the relevant players (Wippman 1993). Depending on the region, with NATO, ASEAN and the OAS relatively rich and strong and the OAU and ECOWAS quite poor and less effective, the regional organizations may lack military, logistical and economic resources. Regional bodies have varying forms and capacities in their structures, mandates, decision-making procedures, bureaucracies and institutions.

Regional solutions require interdependent action. Host countries cannot reduce their refugee burden unless resettlement countries take some refugees or the country of origin allows return in safety and dignity. In both Central America and Central Africa, the willingness of the host countries to naturalize the small residual population who choose not to return was a factor in the regional arrangement. In Central America and in West and Central Africa the country of origin's cooperation was facilitated by neighbors' actions to end support, recruitment and bases for refugee-warriors. Vietnam's cooperation with the CPA was enhanced by a program of aid to returnees and the prospect of normal political and economic relations with other states.

Regional organizations that display initiative and will similar to that of ECOWAS or the OAU are likely to need assistance from the international community. That back-up assistance has not been forthcoming or has been insufficient or late. United Nations' rhetoric speaks about regional delegation, regional cooperation, regional potential and regional mechanisms in glowing terms (UN 1994a) but the needed peacekeeping forces, arms and economic embargoes, special representatives of the Secretary-General, war crimes warnings, financial resources, logistical assistance and other measures in support of regional efforts have not been timely.

There is no clear model or even pathway for the future in the regional experiences to date. The two regional situations that achieved most of their goals, CIREFCA and CPA, relied heavily on outside involvement and assistance, but on regional terms. The two situations that are still pending solutions, Rwanda and Liberia, failed to garner international support in part because the country of origin was unable or unwilling to live up to its part of a regional bargain.

Unfortunately, the Liberian civil war may be a omen of the refugee crises of the 1990s. Despite the efforts of ECOWAS and the belated UN effort, the increasingly fragmented Liberian factions have not been able to put their State together again. A major justification for the ECOWAS intervention was that "there is a government in Liberia which cannot govern and contending factions which are holding the entire population as hostage" (Wippman 1993:176). This description could apply to Afghanistan, Angola, Somalia and a number of other fragile, weak states devastated by internal conflict, where national institutions have disintegrated and the state is no longer capable of ensuring the safety of its citizens without outside assistance.

In the cases reviewed here UNHCR performed admirably, but it is limited in its mandate and capabilities in support of peace initiatives. The UN, particularly the Security Council whose major powers perceived none of their strategic interests at stake, lagged in providing regional efforts with more than rhetorical support.

In the post cold war era there is little incentive or interest on the part of the international community to intervene in internal conflicts. The rationale, norms and methods of humanitarian intervention are in flux and transition. Moreover, as the pull-out from Somalia and the long non-involvement in Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, and other trouble spots indicate, for many in the international community, Neville Chamberlain's words from 1938 have a contemporary cogency: "how horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing!" (Ziegler 1993:263).

For regional actors the problems are not "faraway." Regional organizations are grass-roots actors in much closer touch with local realities. With the end of the cold war, many regional organizations have greater flexibility and freedom of action, and the incentive to intervene in local conflicts that do not engage global actors.

The UN has recognized that regional arrangements possess a potential that should be utilized to preserve international peace or assist refugees. UN cooperation with regional agencies can take a number of forms including: consultation; mutual diplomatic support; operational support and technical assistance; co-deployment of forces--as in Liberia and Rwanda; and, joint operations, such as the joint UN-OAS mission in Haiti. To be effective cooperation needs a clear division of labor to avoid overlap and institutional rivalry and to achieve a consistent approach to a common problem.

Confronted with the break-up of some states and the breakdown of government authority in others, Secretary-General Boutras-Ghali noted that the UN:

had to adapt to recent world developments, in particular, to the fact that now most new conflicts are taking place within, rather than between, nations. . . . It becomes necessary to intervene in situations where national institutions have disintegrated and the State is no longer capable of ensuring the safety of its citizens without outside assistance (UN 1994a).

This weakness, indeed disintegration, of national authority, is exacerbated by the fact that many regional organizations in the developing world are themselves weak. The international community cannot simply "delegate responsibility" to weak regional organizations. Regional organizations' grass-roots potential must be supported with resources, actions, troops, embargoes, and in particular with assistance in building stronger regional institutions. In Central America, still in the context of the Cold War, a regional approach received substantial support in the form of CIREFCA. In post-Cold War Liberia and Rwanda, as heroic regional efforts came close to achieving their goal, the international community did too little, too late.

Speaking of the UN's attempt to intervene in Rwanda after the genocide began, the Secretary-General said: "it is a failure, a failure not only of the United Nations but also of the international community. . . . It is a scandal" (UN 1994f). Unfortunately, the UN is also weak because long, bitter experience with internal conflicts indicates that outside intervention has poor prospects of improving the situation. Regional comprehensive efforts can improve these prospects. Combining global resources and experience with regional interests and sensitivity has produced some successes. There are no guarantees, but the international community needs to use all the arrows in its quiver.


1. The 'international community' refers to the major donor states of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Oceania and United Nations' bodies such as the Security Council and the High Commissioner for Refugees. They are the main sources of financial assistance to refugees and play a leading role in influencing international security and refugee policies.

2. In 1995, the United States established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

3. CIREFCA refers to both an international conference held in Guatemala City in 1989 and to the five year follow-up process to implement the Concerted Plan of Action adopted at the meeting. The CIREFCA process, including the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Development Program for Refugees, Displaced and Repatriated Persons in Central America (PRODERE), raised $438 million from 1989 through 1994. The relative scale of these programs can be seen by the fact that UNDP's indicative planning figure for 1987 to 1991 for the six countries was only $47.4 million and the $150 million PRODERE project was "the largest and most complex single operation" ever undertaken by UNDP (UNDP, 1993).

4. ECOWAS is a regional "organization designed primarily to promote West African economic integration. Founded in 1975 under the Treaty of Lagos, ECOWAS has sixteen member states" (Wippman 1993:165).

5. In anticipation that a peace accord would hold, the ECOMOG force peaked at approximately 13,500 troops in 1994. In late 1995, there are approximately 7,500 troops in the force.

6. ECOMOG suffered 94 casualties and 10 missing in a December 1995 attack by one of the factions (UN 1996a).


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