THE recently signed Bosnian peace agreement breaks new ground in defining the legal rights of displaced persons. Though it remains to be seen how these legal protections will be implemented, the accord enhances prospects for the international community to more broadly address problems associated with major population movements.
More than 3 million people have been dislodged from their homes in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this isn't unique; it exemplifies a broad pattern of displacements throughout parts of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union which has accompanied the end of the cold war. About 2.5 million refugees and migrants have entered the Russian Federation, and several million more are expected over the next few years. In addition, at least 1 million people have reportedly been internally displaced by ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union.
The Bosnian peace agreement represents a major step forward in establishing guidelines for tackling the problems associated with mass population displacements. Because the peace agreement preserves Bosnia as a single state, its provisions on refugees and displaced persons properly emphasize the repatriation of these individuals. The provisions guarantee both refugees (those forced to leave their home country) and internally displaced persons the legal rights to reclaim their homes and property or receive just compensation; be protected from ethnic, religious, or political discrimination; and move freely within the region.
The Bosnia accord's explicit recognition of the rights of internally displaced persons is significant. Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons traditionally have not been protected by international legal norms and, therefore, have been vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, and deprivation of property and status. The Bosnia accord - at least in principle - extends relevant legal protections to all displaced persons.
At the same time, the premise of the peace agreement - that Bosnia remain unified and not be partitioned - creates some practical anomalies. Its focus on the return of refugees and migrants to their former places of residence may simply be too optimistic. There may be thousands among the displaced population unwilling or unable to return to their former homes. Return should not be promoted until the physical and psychological risks that attended the conflict have been eliminated, or at least minimized. Even where there are assurances against persecution, it may be impossible for many of the displaced to overcome lingering fears, suspicions, and hatreds. For such people, practical resettlement and local integration schemes in new communities will be necessary to reconcile differences of religion, culture, language, and employment skills.
What eventually happens on the ground in the former Yugoslavia could establish important precedents for the former Soviet Union, where the emergence of 15 countries from one has led displaced persons to seek resettlement elsewhere. An opportunity for the world community to address resettlement and the broader needs of displaced persons is afforded by a conference on migratory movements in the Commonwealth of Independent States, organized under the auspices of the UN, the International Organization for Migration, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The CIS conference, scheduled for mid-1996, will involve representatives of approximately 50 countries, including the US.
Among the questions that will receive serious consideration at the CIS conference is how best to employ the resources of relevant international, national, and nongovernmental organizations in implementing mechanisms to permit local integration of resettlers. The conference also will explore methods for ensuring access to humanitarian assistance in conflict areas such as Chechnya. Prevention - how to establish early-warning systems that may effectively prevent the types of widespread population disruptions that have occurred and continue to take place - will be another key issue.
Grappling with such matters at the CIS conference won't be easy, but the effort is critical. Against the background of the Bosnia accord, the CIS conference offers another turning point in the expansion of existing legal and political norms to meet the needs of uprooted populations. Only with the development of a consensus across Eurasia on principles concerning the rights of refugees and other migrants will there be promise of greater tolerance in the region.