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«Working Paper No. 60 Separating ex-combatants and refugees in Zongo, DRC: peacekeepers and UNHCR’s “ladder of options” Lisa Yu Queen’s ...»

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Working Paper No. 60

Separating ex-combatants

and refugees in Zongo, DRC:

peacekeepers and UNHCR’s

“ladder of options”

Lisa Yu

Queen’s University

Belfast, Northern Ireland


August 2002

These working papers provide a means for UNHCR staff, consultants, interns and

associates to publish the preliminary results of their research on refugee-related issues.

The papers do not represent the official views of UNHCR. They are also available online under ‘Publications” at www.unhcr.org.

ISSN 1020-7473 Introduction In October and November 2001 a group of Central African Republic soldiers (FACA) and their family members, totaling 1,220 people,1 were separated from a larger group of 25,000 refugees who had fled the Central African Republic (CAR). To prevent infiltration of armed elements into the refugee population, the ex-FACA and their dependents were relocated to a second site prior to encampment. This separation took place in the town of Zongo in northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and was led by the UNHCR with the support of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC). This paper recounts what occurred in Zongo and analyzes whether and to what degree cooperation between UNHCR and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) would be possible in similar situations.

This case study highlights the imperative of preserving the humanitarian nature of refugee camps and explores the legal and operational dilemmas that arise from attempts to do so. It examines whether peacekeepers can or should be used in this type of operation, concluding that while Zongo should be considered a success, the lessons to be gleaned are piecemeal.

Information on the operational aspects of this separation was gathered from internal UNHCR documents and emails, in-person and telephone interviews, and email communications with a number of field and desk personnel from the UNHCR, MONUC and DPKO.

Preserving the humanitarian nature of refugee camps The internal strife characteristic of today’s armed conflicts has brought greater challenges and complications to refugee protection. Not only has the number of displaced people been growing, but the process of identifying bona fide refugees amongst those who are fleeing conflict is increasingly difficult. The phenomenon of “mixed populations”2 has become more common as those escaping conflict are not only civilians, but also persons belonging to regular armed forces, paramilitary or militia groups or dissident armed bands.3 Militarized camps present several obvious problems to the international community; they threaten the physical safety of refugees, compromise the neutrality of aid work, pose a security threat to the host state and surrounding countries, and challenge the institution of asylum.4 While in some cases armed elements are willing to lay down their weapons and be considered for refugee status in the receiving state, others may wish to return to their country of origin to continue their fight. Those bent on returning to war may view refugee camps as a place to gain There is a discrepancy over this figure of how many individuals were relocated to Bokilio. The UNHCR figures claim 2,500 people were moved, while MONUC has said they moved 1,220 people. Attempts to reconcile this difference proved unsuccessful.

That is, the presence of combatants and criminals among a refugee population (Jacobsen 1999: 5).

Because combatant status does not apply to situations of internal armed conflict, for the purposes of this analysis, those belonging to regular armed forces, paramilitary or militia groups as well as members of dissident armed bands will be referred to as ‘armed elements’ (Beyani: 251).

Militarization refers to non-civilian attributes of refugee populated areas, including inflows of weapons, military training and recruitment. It also includes actions of refugees and/or exiles who engage in non-civilian activity outside the refugee camp, yet who depend on assistance from refugees or international organizations.

rest and respite between attacks, or as a recruiting and/or training ground. Additionally, the presence of armed elements close to the border may encourage cross-border reprisals, or make a target of the entire refugee (and surrounding) population.

Although political violence among refugee populations has, according to one analysis, been decreasing since the end of the Cold War the presence of armed elements amongst civilians in need of aid remains a serious problem for the humanitarian community (Lischer: 3). Most recently, the presence of interhamwe and other genocidaires in Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania and the lingering problem of militia intimidation of the refugee population in West Timor have brought greater public attention to the problems of militarized refugee populations.

Insofar as states have a ‘security imperative’ that mandates a guarantee of state security before a country will be willing to grant asylum, preserving the civilian character of refugee camps is essential for the protection of the institution of asylum (Milner: 10). Asylum is meant to be a

peaceful, humanitarian and friendly act. As stated in the World Refugee Survey:

Demilitarization of refugee camps is the absolute sine qua non for real asylum.

The international community cannot tolerate arms or armies in refugee camps.

Armed or criminal elements cannot be allowed to control the distribution of relief supplies. Refugee camps cannot be situated virtually astride the borders of countries from which the refugees originated. The civilian nature of all refugee camps must be restored, and they must be positioned at a proper distance from borders, with physical protection from coercion and legal/political protection from abuse by governments or others.5

Approaches to demilitarizing camps

Some commentators have suggested the logical solution to demilitarize camps is to physically separate armed elements from refugees.6 The complex political and legal issues involved in attempts to demilitarize refugee settlements require a consistent principled response to what are invariably different contexts. While preliminary screening may identify some armed elements, the lack of clear markers on militia members or other irregular forces makes it nearly impossible to differentiate between combatants and bona fide refugees. In cases where combatants can be clearly identified, unless they are willing to give up their arms, unarmed border guards or UNHCR Protection Officers will be ineffective in preventing camp militarization. These practical difficulties, along with the UNHCR’s lack of a mandate to demilitarize camps, indicate that a partnership with those that do have the resources and capacities for such action should be fostered. The former High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata made her concerns on the Cited by Karen Jacobsen (2000) “A Framework for Exploring the Political and Security Context of Refugee Populated Areas” Refugee Survey Quarterly 19 (1).

Physical separation is just one aspect of the multi-facetted approach to preserving the civilian character of asylum and refugee settlements. For an outline of some of the legal dimensions, including a discussion of separation versus exclusion, see the Global Consultations on International Protection, Statement on behalf of NGOs, delivered by Deirdre Clancy, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, http://www.icva.ch/parinac/docs/doc00000346/en/view.

need to develop such partnerships explicit when she called for a graduated ‘ladder of options’ to clarify and conceptualize diverse approaches to refugee security needs.7 In recent years, the UNHCR has endeavored to creatively operationalize this ladder of options.

Such measures include the implementation of a ‘security package’ in western Tanzania and the movement of refugee camps further from the border in Guinea to protect refugees from attacks by Sierra Leonean rebels and Guinean retaliations. While these actions have created a more secure space for the refugees at hand, they have not always dealt directly with the militarization problem in camps.8 Some have argued that the only way to keep unwilling armed combatants out of refugee settlements is with military force (Jacobsen 2000: 8). The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized there might be the need for such a force in his report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts. In this report he recommended, inter alia, that the Security Council “deploy international military observers to monitor the situation in camps for internally displaced persons and refugees when the presence of arms, combatants and armed elements is suspected. If such elements are found and national forces are unable or unwilling to intervene, consider the range of options... [including] deploying regional or international military forces that are prepared to take effective measures to protect civilians. Such measures could include compelling disarmament of the combatants or armed elements.”9

The use of international force

In addition to the Secretary General’s acknowledgement that an international force may be necessary to secure refugee settlements, local and regional authorities may seek assistance in providing refugee security. It is a well-established principle in international law that the host state has primary responsibility for the physical protection of refugees and for maintaining the humanitarian and civilian character of refugee camps and settlements.10 Ideally, those who are bearing arms and who do not qualify for international protection would be disarmed by the host State’s security services using minimal force. Where warranted, state action and capacities must be facilitated and augmented by the international community either via assistance or direct intervention. Such intervention might include deployment of regional or international police and/or military forces. The use of international peacekeepers is one option. Yet, within the The “ladder of options” is described in the document “Security and the Civilian and Humanitarian Character of Refugee Camps and Settlements” EC/49/SC/INF.2.

For example, in the UNHCR’s evaluation of the Tanzania security package, it is noted that the package has generally met with little success in the separation of armed elements and other exiles from the bona fide refugee population.

See also the Secretary General’s report on the protection of humanitarian assistance for refugees in conflict situations (S/1998/833).

For more information on responsibilities for refugee protection, see UN Doc. No.A/AC.96/904, 7 September 1998, “International Solidarity and Burden-Sharing in All its Aspects: National, Regional and International Responsibilities for Refugees.” debate on the use of the military in humanitarian operations the presence of peacekeepers in and around refugee settlements raises serious concerns.11 For humanitarian aid agencies, the presence of armed peacekeepers is anathema to their work’s mandate. Particularly in the context of Chapter VII, or peace enforcement, operations there has been concern that the use of the military for humanitarian activities compromises their impartiality and neutrality, affects their ability to assist victims on all sides of the conflict and can provoke increased violence against humanitarian personnel. In addition to concerns about violating humanitarian principles, another obstacle to deployment is the political reality that national governments are generally reluctant to volunteer forces for coercive action. Clearly there is a need to establish a means of segregating armed elements from civilians while such a separation is still politically and operationally feasible.

The Zongo emergency provided the unique opportunity to engage in such an operation. After a summary and analysis of the separation operation, the feasibility of using peacekeepers in similar situations will be examined.

Refugee/combatant separation in Zongo In May 2001 General Andre Kolingba, former president of the CAR, launched a coup attempt against democratically elected President Ange-Felix Patasse. The gradual economic decline of the country, coupled with the failure of the government to pay military and civil servant salaries, had prompted a series of attempted coups in 1996 and 1997. It is believed that similar grievances, exacerbated by ethnic tensions, were behind the May 2001 attempt. While he was in power, Kolingba had consistently favored people of the Yakoma ethnic group in employment and with public benefits. Those behind the coup attempt appear to be predominantly Yakoma and thus they were targeted for reprisals in the aftermath.12 An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 residents of the CAR capital Bangui fled their homes following the coup attempt and subsequent retaliations against the Yakoma people. Of those who fled, 25,000 made their way across the Oubangui River into the northwestern Equateur Region of the DRC, congregating in Zongo town and the surrounding area.

The situation in Zongo

The refugees and ex-combatants settled amongst the locals, some finding accommodation in public buildings and others in private homes. The local authorities in Equateur Province, the MLC, were the first to notice that members of the CAR armed forces, some of whom were wearing uniforms, were present among the civilians. At the time the MLC believed some 1,000 See Jane Barry with Anna Jeffrys (2002), “A Bridge too Far: Aid Agencies and the Military in Humanitarian Response,” Humanitarian Practice Network Paper No. 37. It is argued that impartial humanitarian assistance responses and peace operation s with their inevitably partial and political mandates must be kept separate.

It should be noted that the coup was put down with the help of Libyan forces and rebels from the Front for the Liberation of Congo (MLC/FLC) fighting the war in the DRC. The MLC/FLC, as the local authority in Zongo, would later facilitate the movement of ex-combatants from Zongo to Bokilio.

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