Forced displacement failure of multilateralism, says former UN Under Secretary General

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United Nations
United Nations


The growing number of displacements worldwide shows what happens when multilateralism fails to live up to its promise, leaving refugees, internally displaced and host countries as pawns in “chess games of international politics,” a former UN Under Secretary General has said.

Adama Dieng from Senegal, who between 2012 and 2020 was Special Adviser of the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide, said: “Most worrying is perhaps the situation in the Sahel, where rising displacement numbers mirror the impact of armed conflict, climate change, food insecurity and, with COVID-19, the closure of essential social services, including schools, vocational training centres, among others.

“The ongoing conflict in the Sahel has meant that thousands have abandoned their habitual homes of residence.

“They cannot farm their land or undertake any productive economic activities to support their livelihood while thousands of children have missed out on learning opportunities, creating a lost generation in the years to come with its attendant consequences on the country’s manpower and ability to grow its economy, ” he added.

Mr Dieng, delivering the keynote address at the recent virtual Oxford and Volkswagen Foundation Conference on Governing Humanitarianism – Past Present and Future, said that in the troubled Sahel, governments that were meant to protect citizens were currently unable to exercise jurisdiction over their territories.

“The implication is, most of these people have been left at the mercy of jihad groups with no hope for the future,” said Mr Dieng, who was recently appointed by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to serve as one of his 17 Special Advisers.

The Senegalese lawyer, who served as Registrar of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 2001 to 2008, spoke of the challenges facing those working for humanitarian organisations in the midst of insecurity and violence.

He noted that over the past two years major attacks on aid workers had taken place in many countries, especially in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.

Mr Dieng said that in 2020 alone, more than 470 aid workers were attacked, with more than 100 killed, more than 200 seriously injured and over 100 kidnapped.

“These tragic numbers are a sober reminder of the dangerous nature of humanitarian work, especially when all the rules and laws governing the conduct of hostilities are ignored and those in positions of power don’t summon courage to hold to account those responsible,” he added.

Mr Dieng, who was once Registrar at the Supreme Court in Senegal, said that despite several resolutions and statements at the UN on the need to protect humanitarian workers, “killings and violence continue with impunity”.

He went on: “Truth is, we can’t address these challenges without commitment to dialogue and willingness to address our differences without resorting to violence.

“But most important, even when dialogue fails, as it has done often, it is critical that parties to the conflict respect the law, and those who don’t, should be held to account with the full force of the law.”

Mr Dieng said it was unfortunate that parties to conflicts continued to deny protection to the displaced and “unhindered humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilians”.

He said the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the 2009 Kampala Convention provided useful guidance on specific aspects of displacement.

“Many of the rules contained in these instruments are part and parcel of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” Mr Dieng added.

But he stressed that the most important aspect of dealing with forced displacement was the question of accountability, whereby conflicts were often between “government allied forces and multiple groups of rebels with multifaceted demands and claims”.

Mr Dieng added that belligerents often failed to respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

“Unless we gather political will and summon courage to address violence and conflicts by all necessary tools at our disposal, including the UN Charter and other human rights instruments and institutions we have painstakingly adopted and created over years, it is unlikely that we can tackle resultant effect of wars, especially conflict induced displacement,” Mr Dieng warned.

Before joining the UN, Mr Dieng served for 10 years as the Secretary General of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.

While in that position, he was appointed as the UN Independent Expert for Haiti.

Mr Dieng was the driving force behind the establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and he also produced the draft of the African Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption.

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