A Great Day for Africa! A Great Day for IDPs!

For the past three years, we have followed the progress of the Kampala Convention with great interest and today have reason to celebrate. This convention, formally the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Africa, was launched at a 2009 AU summit in Kampala. Signatures came in generously (37 countries have signed the convention), but word of the 15th ratification required to trigger the convention entering into force, did not come through until Monday, November 12. With Swaziland joining the 14 others, the convention’s obligations will at last be activated on December 6, 2012. This is wonderful news – for IDPs and for Africa! This convention is the first instrument in the world with the legal force to potentially cover an entire region on matters of internal displacement.

While there is a legally-binding refugee convention, dating back to 1951, there has been no equivalent international instrument for IDPs – even though there are at least twice as many IDPs in the world as refugees. Instead, there are the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacementdeveloped by the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on IDPs with the support of Brookings, legal experts and international organizations. The Guiding Principles are gradually becoming accepted as customary international law. But these do not have the force of a formal convention and there is little international appetite for drafting a new global legal instrument.

But, on the regional level, the African Union has done it! This is a historic and precedent-setting achievement, which renews the African continent’s claim to global leadership in addressing forced displacement. Just as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) made history in 1969 by developing a progressive and more comprehensive definition of a “refugee” in the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the African Union has adopted a comprehensive legal instrument dealing with all phases of internal displacement and tackling its root causes through a set of measures ranging from prevention and protection during displacement to durable solutions.

Of course, the convention’s entering into force is not the end of the story. Much remains to be done to translate this legal framework into actions which make a difference in the lives of IDPs. International partners and Brookings colleagues are already working on next steps and there is much more that can and should be said about the Convention itself.   

But for now, congratulations are in order. Congratulations to Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs, co-director of our project on internal displacement, and principal drafter of the AU Convention. Congratulations to the many international organizations – especially UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross – and donor governments which supported the Convention. But most of all, congratulations to the African Union and to its Member States for taking this bold and courageous step!