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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Masses in Flight
Roberta Cohen & Francis M. Deng

(Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1998)
414pp. Index. $52.95; ISBN 0-8157-1512-9. Pb.: 0-8157-1511-0.

This timely book addresses a critical issue which has only recently found expression in the lexicon of international political and legal discourse. Unlike refugees who cross international borders and benefit from established legal and institutional frameworks, internally displaced persons remain within the borders of a country/state, without the benefit of a regime similar to that which avails refugees. Yet, the magnitude of the crisis engendered by this phenomenon is such that by 1997, more than 20 million internally displaced persons were reported in thirty five to forty countries!

The authors explore the factors - both natural and artificial - which account for this unfortunate state of affairs. A noticeable omission, however, is internal displacement occasioned by environmental degradation and the responsibility of the culprits, especially transnational corporations. For our purpose, given the specific focus of this Digest, the authors underscore the fact that, "most of the conflicts which lead to mass displacement have a strong ethnic component" (p.22). Accordingly, the two countries which the authors identify as having the dubious distinction of being responsible for the largest number of internally displaced persons - Sudan and Turkey - are notorious for their intractable ethnic and religious conflicts. While submitting that it is seldom mere differences of identity based on ethnic or religious grounds that generate conflict, but the consequences of those differences when the question of access to resources and opportunities is in issue, the ,authors opine that the manipulation of such differences raises a presumption to the effect that there may be genuine group concerns. In the circumstance, they draw attention to the imperative of acknowledging and addressing the underlying causes of ethnic animosity.

With particular reference to Africa, which accounts for about half of the world's internally displaced persons, the authors implicate the arbitrary balkanization of the continent by the colonial powers and warn that "the pervasive crisis of national identity created by the artificial borders of the colonial state can be expected to continue to give rise to ethnic and racial strife within and between states" (p.47). Given this reality, one would have expected a fairly elaborate discussion of the way out of this quagmire, including the question whether the appropriate prescriptions include the reconfiguration of the continent in tune with pre-colonial realities. Instead, one finds no more than a passing reference to self-determination, including issues relating to autonomy through various modes of devolution of power. This approach is replicated in the discussion of the requisite legal framework (including the guiding principles which are set out in the appendix). It is, however, refreshing that the authors address the increasing trend of recasting sovereignty as a concept of responsibility, with the result that a state which fails to be accountable to its domestic constituency and the international community loses its legitimacy and concomitantly risks having its veil pierced.

On balance, the book makes compelling reading and will undoubtedly serve as a veritable reference point in the development of concrete responses to the challenges posed by the global crisis of internal displacement.

Dakas C. J. Dakas., University of Jos, Nigeria

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