In Europe and Central Asia today there are some three million people who have been forcibly uprooted from their homes and communities as a result of ethnic conflict and tensions, but who, unlike refugees, remain within their own countries. Safeguarding the security and welfare of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) is the responsibility first and foremost of their own government. IDPs are entitled to the same set of rights as non-displaced nationals, and for all citizens this includes the right to political participation. Around the world, however, internally displaced persons face a number of obstacles to exercising their right to vote. The disenfranchisement of the internally displaced not only infringes their rights, it exacerbates the social, political and economic marginalization that they typically experience. Most significantly, it deprives them of the ability to exercise democratic levers of influence over the decisions affecting their lives and thereby to press national and local authorities to effectively address their plight.
This article examines the extent to which IDPs in the region covered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which extends across Europe, Central Asia and North America, are able to exercise their right to vote. Following a brief overview of the problem of internal displacement in the OSCE region, it lays out the normative framework guaranteeing for IDPs the right to vote. On the basis of an extensive study of elections in the OSCE, various obstacles that IDPs face in exercising their right to vote are then identified, explained, and illustrated by reference to particular country examples. Institutional approaches of the OSCE, which plays a leading role in election observation, to the issue of IDP voting rights are also reviewed. In conclusion, a set of recommendations is put forth for overcoming these obstacles and ensuring that the principle of universal suffrage extends to the internally displaced.1
1This is an electronic version of an article published in Ethnopolitics, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2005). Ethnopolitics is available online at http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk. The “postprint” should not be the publisher’s PDF, HTML, or XML version as this is posted as the definitive, final version of record.