After twelve years as Co-Director of the Project on Internal Displacement at the Brookings Institution, Roberta Cohen retires at the end of 2006.
Although I have received generous praise over the years for my efforts on behalf of the world’s internally displaced persons as representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue, I say, without hesitation, that without Roberta Cohen I could not have done what I did.
The creation of the mandate of the Representative of the Secretary General on Internal Displacement in 1992 and the adoption of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998 would not have happened without Roberta Cohen’s vision, dedication and persistence.
The issue of internally displaced persons is highly sensitive, with potential to trigger deep divisions among states. And yet controversy has been minimised. How has this been possible?
In 1998, in their groundbreaking book Masses in Flight, Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng noted the weakness of inter-agency coordination, lack of clear institutional responsibility for IDPs and uneven response to their needs. Has anything changed?
Roberta Cohen has encouraged, cajoled and even shamed the UN into assuming a more effective role to protect IDPs. Throughout two decades of tireless advocacy she has consistently argued that UNHCR should be more engaged in IDP protection. Her hopes are now being realised.
Reviews of humanitarian response have highlighted protection capacity as a major gap. A particular challenge has been rapid deployment of experienced protection staff to support the UN protection response for IDPs and other vulnerable groups in emergencies and complex crises.
The regions of the world characterised by conflict and displacement have relatively high fertility rates and young populations. Women and children thus constitute around 80% of IDP populations. Their specific protection cannot be met without provision of key services.
Information on the number, locations and demographic characteristics of IDPs is scarce and chronically unreliable. Lack of information is a key impediment to a more effective response to internal displacement crises.
South Asia is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world and internal displacement is a fact of life. Governments have been loath to acknowledge IDP issues but is change afoot?
The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies is a non-profit agency representing those working in the humanitarian sector in Sri Lanka. Our work on internal displacement, the knowledge we have gained and the capacity we have developed owe much to collaboration with Roberta Cohen and her Brookings colleagues.
In 2004 Colombia’s highest court declared that the inhumane living conditions of the country’s IDPs were ‘unconstitutional’ and ordered the authorities to take action. Colombia has, arguably, the world’s most progressive IDP legislation, but can the state guarantee IDPs their constitutional rights?
Roberta and I differ on both substantive issues and methodological approaches to the protection of IDPs. The key problem facing IDPs in Africa’s Great Lakes is not lack of regional mechanisms but the absence of strong national protection systems.
The single most important idea promoted by the project which Roberta Cohen has co-directed is the concept of sovereignty as responsibility. This provides a theoretical and legal platform for supporting all those displaced within their own countries – including those displaced by development projects.
In 1989 Roberta Cohen challenged scholars, policymakers and practitioners who focused exclusively on refugees – people who had crossed an international border – to rethink their approach. She has continued to identify research questions intersecting the interests of the two communities.
It is thanks in great part to the Project on Internal Displacement and the determination of Roberta Cohen that IDPs are now firmly on the international humanitarian agenda.