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Celebrating the Kampala Convention on Internal Displacement as Conflict Escalates in the Central African Republic: A Bittersweet Anniversary

Charles Kezono, 22, sits with his family in front of their tent.

Editor's Note: Watch Megan Bradley, UN Special Rapporteur Chaloka Beyani and Josephine Kibe of Brookings discuss the impact of the Kampala Convention on human rights in Africa and the international community.

December 6th marks a milestone for Africa – the first anniversary of the Kampala Convention, formally known as the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than a third of the world’s internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Kampala Convention is an innovative regional response to the rights and needs of IDPs across Africa, addressing every phase of displacement from prevention to solutions. One of the newest treaties in the world, it was negotiated in 2009 and in 2012 it became binding on all those states that have signed and ratified the agreement.

Over the course of the past year, several more states have signed and ratified the Kampala Convention, and with international support the signatories have started to take steps to implement the agreement. This week is an opportunity to celebrate these important accomplishments, but the anniversary is bittersweet as it comes as the same time as a humanitarian emergency is escalating in one of the signatory states, the Central African Republic (CAR). The strengthened protections for IDPs laid out in the Kampala Convention should inform national, regional and international responses – including through the UN Security Council – to this conflict, and should be at the heart of responses to the displacement crisis it has created.

Since a loose coalition of rebels known as the Seleka overthrew the CAR’s government in March 2013, the already fragile country has descended into chaos. Former President Francois Bozize was ousted and replaced with Seleka leader Michel Djotodia as transitional president. An African Union-led peacekeeping force was deployed to stabilize the situation, but it is increasingly clear that the current arrangements are not working. In early September, some 260,000 people were uprooted within the CAR, mostly in rural areas. In a mere three months, the number displaced has skyrocketed to over 400,000, as the primarily Muslim Seleka has splintered, Christian “self-defense militias” have emerged, and violence has spread into the capital, Bangui. More than 10 percent of the population is now displaced, and half are in critical need of humanitarian assistance. At 48 years, average life expectancy in the CAR is already second-lowest in the world, but as the conflict and the displacement crisis escalate this sad statistic could fall still further as displaced families lack access to shelter and livelihoods, and displaced children are especially susceptible to forced recruitment into armed groups. Humanitarian organizations lack the security and funding needed to respond adequately to these growing needs. To take just one example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that only eight percent of the funds needed for emergency shelter for IDPs in the CAR has been received.

This week, at the same time as the first anniversary of the Kampala Convention is being marked, the UN Security Council is expected to debate the growing catastrophe in the CAR.

This week, at the same time as the first anniversary of the Kampala Convention is being marked, the UN Security Council is expected to debate the growing catastrophe in the CAR. A new Security Council resolution on the CAR should authorize more robust efforts to restore law and order, led by the African Union with French support. But it should also explicitly call for a strengthened response to the displacement crisis, rooted in the Kampala Convention and the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. As Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International has stated, “The Security Council must request that the UN Secretary-General immediately start preparations for the deployment of a robust peacekeeping force, with a mandate to protect civilians, including internally displaced persons.”

Although the CAR is on the brink of collapse, with non-state armed actors controlling much of the territory, the Kampala Convention is nonetheless highly relevant to the immediate and longer-term dynamics of this conflict. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Dr. Chaloka Beyani, has called on the government to “honor the country’s obligations as per the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa (the Kampala Convention), ratified by the Central African Republic in 2010 to ensure that IDPs are protected and supported until they reach durable solutions.” Critically, many of the obligations to protect and assist IDPs that are laid out in the Kampala Convention also apply to the armed groups that now control large swaths of the country. And, the agreement calls for individuals, including members of armed groups, to be held criminally responsible, “in accordance with applicable domestic and international criminal law,” for arbitrarily forcing people from their homes, and for otherwise violating the rights of IDPs. The Convention draws particular attention to “the accountability of non-State actors involved in the exploration and exploitation of economic and natural resources leading to displacement,” a particularly important issue in the CAR where trade in ivory and diamonds is fuelling the violence.

In a country such as the CAR, with its dire humanitarian needs and its long history of turbulent governance, making good on the Kampala Convention’s call for individual criminal responsibility for displacement, and for “just and fair compensation and other forms of reparations, where appropriate” for IDPs may seem like a remote possibility. But as the Security Council addresses the crisis in the CAR, this long-term goal should be kept in mind at the same time as immediate responses to the rights and needs of the country’s IDPs are intensified. What better way could there be to mark the first anniversary of the Kampala Convention than for Security Council members, and other governments across Africa and around the world, to insist on its application in this crisis that has gone under the radar for far too long?

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