Assisting Central American Refugees

By , Arthur C. Helton, director of the Political Asylum Project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York, is an observer at the Conference on Central American Refugees in Guatemala City.

THIS week representatives of the governments of the Central American nations, the United States, and other countries, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme, are meeting at the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) in Guatemala City. Their purpose is to prepare a plan to deal with refugees and displaced persons in the region. The plan for development and reintegration assistance is to be an adjunct to the Central American peace process. For those of us in the relief community, there is urgency to the discussions, because there are new risks to humanitarian protection in the region.

Central America has experienced a massive displacement of over 2 million people who, because of war, have been forced to abandon their homes and countries. It is critical to the formulation of comprehensive, responsive solutions to this displacement to provide a broad legal mandate to protect refugees. Yet some governments in the region now resist an expansive notion of protection.

In 1984, a colloquium was held in Cartagena, Colombia, to discuss the human displacement caused by war. The governments at the meeting sought to initiate a humanitarian process and to formulate a legal mandate to meet the specific needs of the region. The resulting Cartagena Declaration expands the universal definition of refugee to include ``... persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed the public order.''

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This wider definition acknowledges that such threats to life or freedom are sufficient to warrant refugee protection for those who have fled their homelands. In contrast, the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention limits protection to ``persecution'' linked directly to ``race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.''

Any retrenchment of the Cartagena Declaration's concept of protection can only jeopardize the humanitarian objectives of the conference. More protection of refugees, not less, is needed to implement the peace process. The expanded refugee concept provides a clear basis for humanitarian intervention and rescue by the international community.

The governments in the region should not deny the special protection needs of Central Americans or unduly compromise the conference's plan of action as developed by the preparatory committee to implement the peace process. The plan must unequivocally affirm the Cartagena Declaration and specifically link it to economic and social development of the region as a means to attain stabilization and peace.

Both peace and development are vital in establishing solutions to adverse economic and social conditions in Central America. As a result, the international community has been called upon to increase technical, economic, and financial assistance to Central American countries. The plan of action proposes a scheme of assistance that is closely linked to the development efforts arising from the Special Plan of Economic Cooperation for Central America, adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 1988. Specifically, the preparatory committee proposed the establishment of a formal link between aid to refugees and development projects on a country-by-country basis.

While recognizing the interdependent relationship between development and peace, we must remain ever mindful that past regional economic efforts have often exacerbated rather than allayed the protection problems of refugees, returnees, and displaced persons when aimed at countries involved in civil war.

Take, for example, El Salvador. As initially discussed in our 1984 report, ``El Salvador's Other Victims: The War on the Displaced,'' millions of dollars in US and other assistance has been provided to El Salvador in recent years. Yet in some instances that assistance has been subverted by civil war. The report's fundamental conclusion is that a government involved in civil strife is virtually incapable of providing assistance and protection to all of its nationals in a neutral and nondiscriminatory fashion.

The conflict in El Salvador has recently increased. Yet the preparatory work for the conference contemplated the provision of $23 million over the next three years to assist about 10 percent of the 400,000 internally displaced persons in El Salvador. There is a real risk, given past experience, that assistance will be diverted and distorted by the current situation of civil strife.

A realistic and flexible approach to the provision of reintegration assistance and development funds must be taken. The region should be closely monitored and development programs postponed in those areas where ongoing civil conflict would make such investments not only futile but counterproductive.

The needs of displaced persons for protection and assistance is at times as great as, if not greater than, those of refugees who have fled their homelands, particularly since the displaced may be living in the midst of turmoil. Considering the magnitude of the displacement in Central America, CIREFCA should call upon the UN to establish a regional mechanism to ensure their protection.

The UNHCR has a well-established presence in Central America. Yet no general precedent exists for extending the legal protection mandate of UNHCR to displaced persons. A specific request to do so should be made to the UN Secretary General or General Assembly.

In the past two decades, upon request, the General Assembly has formally requested and endorsed UNHCR assistance to internally and externally displaced persons. Two approaches used in the past may provide models for discussion in the current Central American setting: the employment of UNHCR's ``good offices'' jurisdiction, or the creation of a special UN program, such as the Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) in Indochina. The situation dictates a regional protection solution.

Respect for human rights depends upon the ultimate goals the CIREFCA is seeking to achieve - stabilization and peace throughout the region. Care must be taken, however, to respect fundamental human rights in the search for solutions to the plight of refugees, returnees, and the displaced in Central America.

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