Population displacement resulting from armed conflict is not a new phenomenon. However, human displacement became a global crisis in the 20th century as a result of changes in geopolitical relations between states and an increase in the number of wars around the world. Although the number of armed conflicts has declined since the 1990s, persistent internal conflicts in many parts of the world have contributed significantly to the rising number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), which reached 26 million at the end of 2008 (Human Security Report Project 2008; UNHCR 2009b). The international community is monitoring states’ policies and responses to the plight of IDPs as well as assisting IDPs in resettlement. In recent years, the visibility of IDPs in armed conflict situations has increased as a result of international media attention.

Within the broader framework of a global displacement crisis characterized by internal armed conflicts and violence, this paper selects the Colombian and Liberian cases and argues that the failure of the respective states to implement effective strategies to meet their commitment to global norms and principles pertaining to the rights and safety of IDPs weakens their ability to handle the displacement crisis effectively.

Although civil conflicts have directly caused the displacement crisis in both countries, the Colombian and Liberian cases are chosen mainly for the following reasons. First, these two cases clearly demonstrate direct linkage between civil conflicts and IDPs. The ongoing civil conflict in Colombia (1964-present) continues to displace a large number of people within the country, whereas The end of civil conflict in Liberia (1989–2003) has led to a substantial decline in the number of IDPs. Second, these two cases present an excellent opportunity to examine the strategies adopted by both countries to address the IDP crisis under very different circumstances, i.e. attempting to manage the crisis during and after the civil wars. Third, these two cases allow us to examine the ability of states not only to handle the displaced people, but also the ability to repatriate and resettle them.

By using the two case studies of Liberia and Colombia, this paper examines factors that contribute to the patterns of internal displacement within the context of 20th-century warfare and analyzes the responses of the respective states. The paper begins with a brief discussion of various observations scholars have made in understanding and studying internal displacement in armed conflicts. Next, it briefly explains the Guiding Principles on International Displacement, the international instrument that seeks to protect the IDPs at various stages. Finally, it provides the background of the civil wars in Colombia and Liberia and examines the two governments’ response, commitment, strategies and ability to handle the IDP crisis.

Understanding Armed Conflicts and the Global Patterns of Internal Displacement

Internal displacement as a result of armed conflict is one of many current challenges experienced by states and the international community. Although the number of civil wars rose after World War II, there has been a decline in the number of civil wars since the end of the Cold War (Deng 2004, 21; Helton 2000, 81). However, violence and internal displacement resulting from armed conflicts continue to be pressing issues for many states. The practice of trading contraband products has prolonged some wars. In Colombia, for example, the selling of coca has been linked to the prolonged armed conflict between government and opposition forces and has also contributed to the displacement crisis (Holmes et al. 2006, 157–58).

Women, ethnic minorities, children, and the elderly constitute the majority of the displaced populations (Helton 2000, 75). Although some people cross national borders to escape violence resulting from armed conflict, many remain within their state borders. Those who remain, especially women and children, are vulnerable to violence, abduction, sexual violence, and discrimination, and they lack essential services such as education and health care (Deng 2004, 19). According to recent estimates, children under the age of 18 constitute 43% of the IDP population and women about 50% (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] 2009b). This situation puts additional strain on the female population, as it is the women who care for the children. In addition, women and girls are likely to face sexual and gender based violence in if they are internally displaced. (International Displacement Monitoring Centre [IDMC] 2009b, 67). A 2006 survey found that in Colombia, almost half of the displaced women were subject to spousal physical violence (68). In Liberia, Save the Children found that displaced women were often forced to exchange sex for food (68). It is important to note that whereas those who escape immediate danger by crossing state boundaries become refugees whose protection and assistance fall under international jurisdiction (Helton 2000, 77), those displaced within the conflict zones fall under state jurisdiction.

Global Norms or Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and Responsibility of States

When the number of IDPs began to soar in the post-Cold War period as a result of rising numbers of internal conflicts in the early 1990s, the international community determined that it was essential to devise international standards to protect the IDPs. A comprehensive document known as Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (referred to as GP from this point onward) was developed at the initiative of the UN Commission on Human Rights and was adopted by the Commission in 1998 (IDMC 2009a). The document lists 30 different principles that seek to provide rights to IDPs and guarantee their protection in various phases of displacement, such as protection against displacement, protection and assistance during displacement, and during return or internal resettlement and reintegration (IDMC 2009a, under “Content”). It also outlines the obligations of state and non-state actors towards the IDPs (Wyndham 2007, 7). These principles are based on international human rights and humanitarian laws and encourage states to include them in their national legislations so that the safety and rights of the IDPs are guaranteed. The principles provide a framework for governments to identify the needs of IDPs and devise proper strategies to to address them (Kalin 2005, 8).

The GP has become the basis of IDP safety and rights since its formulation in 1998. It has not only increased awareness about the plight of IDPs around the world but also encouraged countries to devise national rules, regulations, and policies to protect the IDPs (Carr 2009, 35). Colombia, along with Azerbaijan and Georgia, had some displacement laws prior to the adoption of the GP, and 20 countries, including Liberia, have adopted similar laws or policies relating to IDPs since 1998 (Ferris 2008, 10). Although the GP is not a part of international law, the principles provide necessary tools for governments to adopt legislations, rules, and policies for managing the IDP crisis (Beau 2003, 18).

In theory, states are responsible for providing protection and general welfare to their citizens and all those under their jurisdiction. They are supposed to adopt required legislations and ensure their effective implementation (“Achievements” 2008, 7). However, in countries experiencing tensions among various groups with differentiated identities vis-à-vis race, ethnicity, religion, and language, citizenship does not necessarily guarantee an individual the protection of the state (Deng 2004, 21). Usually, those affected most by armed conflict belong to marginalized groups whose ideas and values differ from those of the dominant group. Members of marginalized groups are often labeled by states as enemies of the state because they support oppositional forces or are sympathetic to the rebels’ cause (Helton 2000, 74–75). As a result, these citizens are often denied state protection and access to essential services, and many are forced to flee from their homes and communities (Deng 2004, 22). Gaining access to these individuals can be a challenge for international organizations, as outside intervention can be viewed as a threat to state sovereignty. These displaced persons are thus forced to live at the mercy of the state, which may or may not allow them access to protection and assistance.

War and Displacement in Colombia

Political violence has been a prominent feature in Colombian 20th-century postcolonial history. In 1948, violence erupted following the assassination of a presidential candidate. The violence soon turned into a civil war that lasted for 10 years; an estimated 200,000 were killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced (Holmes et al. 2006, 163). Many of those forced to flee from their homes, land, and communities were indigenous people and Afro-Colombians. The conflict ended in 1957 with the National Front power-sharing agreement between the Liberals and the Conservatives (IDMC 2006, 8). However, peace did not last for long, as the country experienced a new wave of insurgency that began in the 1960s and continues to the present day. The insurgent forces consist of guerilla groups that have strong support from the local population (Holmes et al. 2006, 163). This popular support partly explains why the guerillas are able to sustain the struggle against the government.

In response to the new oppositional force, the Colombian government created paramilitary groups to assist the state army in counterinsurgency efforts (IDMC 2006, 9). The paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of violence and human rights abuses against Colombian citizens (16), including some targeted activities that involve murder and intimidation of those they disapprove of such as trade union leaders, drug addicts, homosexuals, prostitutes, the homeless, beggars and alcoholics (12). In a move to control the violence, the Colombian government declared the paramilitaries illegal in 1989 (Holmes et al. 2006, 164). Despite their illegal status, the paramilitaries continue to have a strong presence in the country.

Alvaro Uribe was elected president of Colombia in 2002 (Human Rights Watch 2003) and re-elected in 2006 (IDMC 2006, 9). During his presidency, outbreaks of new violence in various parts of the country have threatened country’s fragile stability and forced approximately one million people from their homes (17). Numerous incidents of massacres, sexual violence, and intimidations of civilians, especially in rural areas, have been reported during this period (Holmes et al. 2006, 164). In response to the widespread violence, in 2003 the Colombian government under Uribe adopted the “Democratic Security Policy”, which aimed at suppressing the insurgency by encouraging local civilians to participate in counterinsurgency activities, by arming peasant soldiers, and by establishing networks of informants (IDMC 2006, 4). Despite these changes, violence continues to ravage the country and forces many people from their homes.

Table 1.

Number of IDPs in Colombia

Year Number of IDPs
2000 525,000
2001 720,000
2002 950,000
2003 1,244,072
2004 2,000,000
2005 2,000,000
2006 3,000,000
2007 3,000,000
2008 3,000,000

Source: UNHCR 2009a.

As Table 1 demonstrates, Colombia has about 3 million IDPs scattered across the country, the second highest IDP population in the world behind Sudan. Among the contributing factors is a prolonged civil conflict in which the government is engaged with three illegal armed groups: two opposing leftist rebel forces—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—and a right wing paramilitary group, United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Some patterns of displacement in Colombia are typical of those in other countries facing a displacement crisis. Most of the displaced individuals are moving from rural areas to cities, and within and between urban centers. This displacement is having a disproportionate effect on Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities. In addition, about 70% of the displaced individuals are women and children (UNHCR 2009a).

Colombian case demonstrates a direct linkage between civil conflict and displacement of people inside the country. Policies/strategies adopted by security forces, rebels, and paramilitary groups exacerbate the problem of internal displacement, which disproportionately affects the marginalized groups, women and children.

Colombia’s Response and the Guiding Principles

The Colombian government has adopted several strategies to manage its IDP crisis. However, those strategies have failed due to persistent violence and government’s inability to implement them, jeopardizing its commitments toward the GP and IDPs.

First, Colombia wanted to introduce effective legislation to handle the continuing IDP crisis. Early in 2008, in an attempt to improve the living conditions of IDPs, the Colombian government made some significant changes to the country’s IDP policy. The government declared 2008 the Year of the Promotion of the Rights of Displaced People and issued 80,000 new IDP identity cards. In addition, about 2 million hectares of land were set aside for returning IDPs. These changes demonstrated the government’s willingness to address Colombia’s humanitarian crisis, but implementation has lagged behind legislation (Wright et al. 2007).

Second, the government and the judiciary undertook some measures to honor the spirit of GP. For example, the government adopted Colombian Law 387 in 1997 and revised it in 2005 which contain most of the provisions included in the GP, such as right against forcible displacement, right to receive external assistance, right to education, and right against discrimination. In addition, the government issued a dozen decrees to extend the coverage of this law in Colombia since 1997 (Carr 2009, 38–39). However, the government has failed to ensure effective implementation of these laws and principles. Colombian Constitutional Court has consistently ruled in favor of the IDPs and has asked the government to address the continued violation of IDPs’ human rights. However, the government has not taken any effective measures to address the problem (Carr 2009, 40)..

Despite the commitment demonstrated by the Colombian government and its judiciary, why have the strategies adopted by the government failed to meet its commitment toward the IDPS and GPs? A report published by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement (2009) provides some answer. The report lists a number of deficiencies on the part of the Colombian government in managing the IDP crisis. First, the government’s policy of embracing a narrow interpretation of IDPs creates a large group of individuals who are displaced but cannot claim the rights and protection they need. For example, if a person is displaced by insurgents only, he/she can claim an IDP status, whereas individuals displaced by the security forces, paramilitary groups, and government policies such as fumigation are not considered IDPs and are thus denied the rights, protection, and emergency provisions they need (Cohen 2008, 10, 12–13, 17). Second, due to the ongoing nature of violence, the government has failed to provide a sense of security and safety to displaced individuals, their leaders, and organizations advocating their rights. These individuals feel insecure against security forces, paramilitary, and rebels, as they are in many cases threatened, targeted, or killed. For instance, individuals who advocate land titles to marginalized communities, such as Afro-Colombians, even had to flee the country fearing for their lives (12) The authorities fail to take action against individuals involved in such actions (16). Third, the Colombian government has been plagued by its inability to create employment and training opportunities to the IDPs, provide land to Afro-Colombian communities, stop discrimination against children, and offer adequate assistance for returnees (16, 17–19, 21, 30).

The discussion presented above offer a mixed picture of the Colombian government’s ability to manage the IDP crisis in Colombia. Although government has made some commitments to help the IDPs, it has failed to either reduce the IDP population or address many of their concerns mainly due to lack of security and its inability to take stronger and effective measures. Consequently, Colombia’s commitment to uphold the principles outlined in the GP with reference to IDP rights and safety rings hollow.

Civil War and Displacement in Liberia

Unlike Colombia, Liberia has never been colonized. Beginning in 1821, a group of freed American slaves arrived and settled in Liberia, and Liberia is considered to have cultural ideas similar to those of the United States (Bruce 2004). Throughout the Cold War, Liberia was a key U.S. ally in Africa (Peterson 1996, 149).

An understanding of the role of ethnicity is important for the study of the internal armed conflicts and the subsequent internal displacement crisis in Liberia. Although the settlers from the United States were initially welcomed by the indigenous people of Liberia, tensions between the two groups soon arose. Americo-Liberians sought to differentiate themselves from indigenous people by referring to themselves as “civilized” settlers and the indigenous people as “uncivilized.” During the 1940s, Liberian president William V.S. Tubman introduced the Integration and Unification Policy, which was designed to promote the assimilation of Liberian indigenous peoples. Although the new policy encouraged active participation of indigenous people in all aspects of Liberian life, it did not succeed in challenging Americo-Liberian hegemony in economic, political, social, and cultural life (Bruce 2004).

In 1980, a military coup led by Samuel K. Doe overthrew the government and executed then-President William Tolbert and 13 members of the cabinet (Peterson 1996, 149). Doe’s initial plan to include indigenous ethnic groups in the state bureaucracy soon gave way to a regime of repression and corruption. Following Doe’s re-election in 1985, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) carried out massacres of civilians in retaliation for an earlier attempted coup (Bruce 2004). Doe’s reign of terror ended in 1989 with the invasion led by Charles Taylor, who had served as director general of Liberia’s General Services Agency under Doe (Peterson 1996, 153). Liberia subsequently experienced two separate civil conflicts. During the first civil conflict (1989–1996), various factions[1] fought to control different parts of Liberia. The second civil war (1999–2003) was ignited when a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, launched its rebellion against the Taylor regime. A second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, emerged in the south in early 2003 against the existing regime. Under tremendous pressure from the international community, Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in 2003 (Bruce 2004). The violence subsided considerably after the end of the civil war in 2003 and created a favorable environment for IDPs to return home and resettle. The number of IDPs dwindled in subsequent years, and the Liberian government declared the IDP return process complete in 2006. Yet, as Table 2 demonstrates, an indeterminate number of IDPs—probably thousands—remained stranded in and around former camps across the country at the end of 2008.

Table 2.

Number of IDPs in Liberia

Year Number of IDPs
2000 110,686
2001 196,116
2002 304,115
2003 531,616
2004 498,566
2005 237,822
2006 28,000
2007 23,000
2008 Indeterminate

Source: IDMC 2009b; UNHCR 2009.

Liberia’s Response and the Guiding Principles

Although the Liberian government has made major efforts to address its IDP crisis and has succeeded in sending most of the IDPs to their homes and villages following the end of civil conflict in 2003, significant problems remain in its handling of the repatriation and resettlement process. Liberia’s endorsement of the GP in its full form is an encouraging development, but the government’s inability to handle the problems in the resettlement and reintegration process suggests a considerable gap between Liberia’s commitment to and the strategies adopted to implement the necessary measures to resolve the IDP crisis.

The end of civil war in Liberia facilitated the repatriation and resettlement of thousands of IDPs since 2003. The Liberian government, with the support of various international organizations and aid agencies, introduced the Community Resettlement and Reintegration Strategy program in 2004, with the aim of assisting IDPs in the return and resettlement process. The new program indicated that Liberia was moving toward economic recovery, sustainable growth and long-term stability (IDMC 2007, 7) and that IDP camps were officially closed in 2006 and the IDPS returned by mid-2007 (52). However, despite the official declaration that all IDPs had returned home, there was still an indeterminate number of IDPs scattered across the country at the end of 2008 (28). In addition, the lack of basic infrastructure, persistent land related conflicts, and exclusion in the registration process continue to hinder the government’s effort manage the resettlement and reintegration of returned IDPs (52). The resettlement process initiated after the end of civil conflict has been compounded by the presence of numerous underemployed and unemployed ex-combatants, drug trafficking and food insecurity (UN Security Council Report 2009, 3). Although many chose to return to their homes and communities, some IDPs decided to settle in their new communities. Economic and educational opportunities, better access to public services, and intermarriages are all important factors in the decision of these IDPs not to return to their original communities (IDMC 2007, 4–5).

Compared to Colombia, Liberia had a small number of IDPs and was able to help them after the cessation of hostilities in 2003. The end of civil conflict and reduction of violence facilitated repatriation and reintegration of most of the IDPs to their homes and villages. Liberia is one of the four countries in Africa that has fully adopted the GP (Carr 2009, 36). It adopted the GP into national legislation in November 2004 as a means to protect the dignity and rights of IDPs (Brookings-Bern Project 2009). In spite of this commitment and the end of hostilities, combined with the return of the majority of IDPs, several thousand IDPs were left behind in various camps across Liberia (Wright et al. 2007). In 2007, IDPs from seven camps demonstrated in Monrovia, demanding support to return home and claiming that the government and nongovernmental aid agencies had ignored them (Cohen 2008, 3).

UNHCR’s evaluation of its operation in Liberia has found multiple problems plaguing the return process. First, returnees could not feel safe when they went back to their old villages and neighborhoods. They witnessed a pervasive “culture of impunity” and felt that there was not enough “medical, psychological and legal support for victims” (Wright et al. 2007, 8–9). Second, Liberian authorities relied on a limited interpretation of IDPs and considered only those living in camps and registered with the World Food Programme to be legitimate IDPs. Consequently, other IDPs who were residing in urban areas and living with families outside the camp were left out of the repatriation process (9). Third, many IDPs either refused to return or came back to the camps later because of the absence of economic opportunities, basic services, and hospitable environment in their villages (9). Fourth, there was a lack of coordination and defined responsibilities between the UNHCR and the local authorities in monitoring, supervising, protecting, and allocating resources to the IDPs returning home (10). Fourth, there were problems associated with land protection and property rights issues for returned IDPs (17). Fifth, , once most of the IDPs were sent home following the cessation of conflict, the Liberian government did not consider the management of smaller number of IDPs a priority, thereby ignoring the spirit of GPs. Sixth, Liberia received less financial support after the end of civil war to manage the IDPs. For example, the budgetary allocation of UNHCR for 2009-11 in Liberia indicates a gradual decline in its support for capacity building activities such as protection and reintegration IDPs (UNHCR, 2010). Finally, Liberia faced multiple problems faced by many post-conflict nations such as lack of sufficient funds to handle the mulitisectoral needs of IDPs, poor road conditions and dispersed population, limited presence of UN agencies, and the inability of the government to take major responsibilities (UNHCR, 2009c). Consequently, Liberian government failed to honor its commitment to protect the interest of IDPs as stipulated under the provisions of GPs.


Displacement of people within a country due to armed conflict is one of the serious humanitarian issues faced by the global community. Responsibility to protect the IDPs rests on the shoulders of the respective governments. Countries devise their national laws and policies on the basis of international instruments such as the GP to manage the IDP crisis. They often work in collaboration with various international organizations such as UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross to protect the rights of IDPs.

This paper explored and examined the displacement crisis in Colombia and Liberia. These two cases reaffirm the widespread belief that there is a correlation between armed conflict and internal displacement. If a country is able to resolve its armed conflict, it creates a favorable environment for handling the IDP crisis. Conversely, if a country fails to resolve its armed conflict successfully, its ability to handle the IDP crisis is significantly compromised. Continued internal conflict in Colombia prevented the Colombian government from effectively managing the IDP crisis, whereas the cessation of hostilities in Liberia created a favorable environment for Liberians to return to their homes and villages.

The two case studies reveal the existence of a significant gap between the commitment of Colombian and Liberian governments toward the global norms and principles outlined in GP and their ability to implement effective strategies to meet those commitments. Colombia had taken the initiative early and passed a few laws to manage the IDP crisis, even before its adoption of the GP in 1998. In addition, its Constitutional Court cited the GP in its ruling and found the government failing in its obligation to protect the rights of IDPs. Thus Colombia demonstrated its partial commitment to the principles outlined in the GP but failed to implement effective strategies to honor those commitments. Liberia, on the other hand, was fully committed to the GP but failed to implement the necessary measures effectively to meet those commitments. Whereas Colombia struggled mainly to uphold the principle of protecting the rights of IDPs during the displacement phase, Liberia struggled in its attempts to protect the rights of IDPs during the repatriation, resettlement, and reintegration processes. Why did Colombia and Liberia struggle to meet their commitments to GP? Because the GP simply provides a framework and guideline for devising national legislations and policies to handle the displacement crisis and does not offer any suggestions for effective implementation of these norms, individual states are expected to develop their own implementation strategies. The case studies of Colombia and Liberia indicate that although this approach protects the sovereign rights of individual states, it also allows for a major gap between the commitment of individual states and their ability to implement effective strategies to fulfill their obligation to address the concerns of IDPs. It is apparent from the discussion above that both Colombia and Liberia did not have the ability to implement effective strategies to meet their commitment to GPs. Why did they lack the ability to manage the IDP crisis successfully in spite of their good intentions? Although it is not the scope of this paper, we can estimate the relevance of two factors in explaining this phenomenon: lack of resources and political will. Both Colombia and Liberia lacked necessary resources and expertise to manage the crisis. For this reason, they sought the help of international agencies to manage the IDP crisis. Paucity of adequate resources might have inhibited the leadership in both countries from developing the necessary will in managing the IDP crisis. Further research is required to ascertain the linkage between the lack of resources and absence of political will in explaining the inability of poor countries like Colombia and Liberia to manage the IDP crisis.


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[1] The factions included the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor; its breakaway faction the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Prince Yormie Johnson; and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, led by the supporters of former President Doe.

One Response to Commitment and Implementation Gap in Managing the Internal Displacement Crisis: Case Studies of Colombia and Liberia

  1. This paper explores the nexus of armed conflicts and displacement.The liberia experince is revealing and i commend the author for his reearch efforts.

    I would also like to request the possibilty of subscripition of the hard copies of this journal.

    Thank you