Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Human Rights at Home

When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the Gulf Coast of the United States, leaving half a million people uprooted and homeless, most Americans and their government didn't know what to call the survivors, much less know what standards to apply to them. Initially government officials and the news media called them refugees -- a term that the survivors rightfully rejected. After all, they were not foreigners fleeing to this country from persecution abroad. They were citizens of the United States fleeing to other parts of their own country.

The term that describes people who are forcibly uprooted within their own countries by conflict and natural disaster is internally displaced persons (IDPs). It is the term the United Nations uses, and it is the term the United States government uses at the United Nations. Indeed, unbeknownst to most Americans, the United States government regularly uses the term IDP internationally. Since the 1990s, the US has voted at the United Nations for resolutions on internally displaced persons. When I was a member of US delegations to the UN Commission on Human Rights and other international fora, I spoke out on behalf of our government in support of better treatment for IDPs worldwide. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2004 issued a policy on internally displaced persons to guide its aid programs.1 In 2005, at the very time the people of Louisiana were being battered and uprooted by Katrina, the US government was voting for the World Summit Document at the United Nations, which explicitly committed member states, including the United States, to promote protection for internally displaced persons.2

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1US Agency for International Development, USAID Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy, PD-ACA-558, Washington, DC, August 2004.
2United Nations, World Summit Outcome Document, 2005, para. 132.