Human Rights and Internal Displacement — RSG Statement to the Human Rights Council

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

March 12, 2009

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentleman,

Since I have addressed this Council in June of last year, we commemorated at an international conference in Oslo the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which have become the normative point of reference for all actors dealing with internal displacement. It is now key to incorporate this framework into regional and national policies and legislation.

I am particularly encouraged by the fact that the African region has been leading the way in shaping binding international treaties that incorporate the Guiding Principles. In June of last year, the Great Lakes Protocol on Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons entered into force – the first multilateral treaty of its kind worldwide. Eight African states of the Great Lakes region assumed a binding obligation to implement the Guiding Principles at the regional and national levels.[1] More recently, the African Union negotiated the text of a Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. I strongly hope that a Convention based on the Guiding Principles will be adopted in the next months. This will be a tremendous step for the millions of displaced on the African continent and constitute an important example of leadership on human rights.

While these achievements are notable, the dire situation on the ground does not allow us to celebrate. As this dialogue is unfolding, more than 26 million people in over 50 countries continue to be internally displaced, away from their homes, as a result of armed conflict or other violence. Many millions more are internally displaced due to natural disasters.

There are some situations where forced and arbitrary displacement results from deliberate Government policy and increasingly also the action of ruthless non-state armed groups. I urge the Council to address such situations as a priority concern. Yet, more often than not, and in particular in situations of natural disasters, violations of the human rights of internally displaced persons are the result of systemic failure, negligence, oversight or indifference. This does not make the human consequences for internally displaced persons any less serious, but it gives us hope that major improvements can be achieved with the necessary political will and through international cooperation.

I would like to emphasize three basic points in this regard.

Firstly, we must remain open to consider all aspects of internal displacement and their human rights implications. No region is safe from natural disasters causing large scale displacement and disasters are likely to increase in terms of frequency and magnitude due to climate change. In 2008, I carried out a series of working visits to countries particularly affected by disasters to study the links between disaster prevention and response and the human rights of internally displaced persons. I would like to thank the authorities of Honduras, Madagascar, Mozambique and the United States of America for their good cooperation in this regard.

Several findings are worth highlighting. Displacement caused by disasters is not “inevitable“. Much can be done by states and humanitarian actors to prevent or mitigate the effects of natural disasters, limit displacement and improve the protection of the affected population. Preparing for disasters and putting in place measures to mitigate their impact on the population are not options. They are human rights obligations which emerge from the responsibility of sovereign States to protect the rights of all persons living within their territory or jurisdiction.

Natural disasters do not affect everybody in the same way. Experience shows that some groups tend to suffer the most: women and children, especially if they are heads of households, older persons, persons with disabilities, persons who are seriously ill or injured, and the poor and other socially marginalized groups. In the aftermath of natural disasters pre-existing patterns of discrimination are exacerbated, putting already marginalized groups at further risk of human rights abuses. It is important to adopt a human rights-based approach to disaster contingency planning, one that takes into account special protection needs and anticipates vulnerabilities to human rights violations in the post-disaster phase.

I have also looked at the role of conflict-displaced persons in peace processes. When it comes to conflict-induced displacement, there is an increasing understanding that finding durable solutions for those internally displaced is inextricably linked to the achievement of lasting peace. Experience shows that four issues must be resolved to enable internally displaced persons to restart a normal life:

  • Return must be voluntarily and based upon an informed decision, without coercion of any kind.
  • The safety of returnees or relocated persons must be ensured.
  • Property must be returned to the displaced and their houses reconstructed or, to the extent that this is not possible, compensation paid.
  • An environment that can sustain return or local integration must be created, one in which internally displaced persons can access basic services, livelihoods and income-generating activities and participate in public affairs free of discrimination.

Specific commitments regarding these four conditions should be integrated into peace agreements following consultation with displaced persons as part of the peace process as well as into peace-building strategies. I developed with the Mediation Support Unit of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs and other actors a guide for mediators, which is meant to help mediators ensure that the rights, interests and concerns of IDPs are integrated into the peace process. The Mediator’s Guide will be published this summer. I also undertook a follow-up visit to my previous mission to Central African Republic in order to provide input to the peace-building strategy currently developed for this country by the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission.

Secondly, we must be willing to learn from one another. No state or institution dealing with internal displacement has a perfect policy in place, but many have developed good practices that can be shared and adapted to the specificities of other country situations. At the end of last year, my mandate and the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement published a Manual for Law and Policymakers on Protecting Internally Displaced Persons that is based on experience drawn from state practice and was developed in close consultation with governments.[2] The Manual will form the basis for a series of training activities for Government officials that my mandate will organize during the course of the year in different continents.

Internal displacement is a complex phenomenon that is dealt with by a variety of actors: national governments, but also the United Nations system and the humanitarian system at large. I am glad to report that through my participation in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee at all levels and through close cooperation with OCHA, UNHCR and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre based on memoranda of understanding, I am in a position to effectively fulfil the mainstreaming function that I am mandated with by the Council. This function is crucial in strengthening the international response to internal displacement.

Thirdly, we must remain prepared to engage in an open and constructive dialogue, especially with regard to the most difficult issues. The Council asked me to seek dialogue with governments, international and non-governmental organisations and also encourage governments to respond favourably to my requests for country visits. I am glad to report that over the last 12 months Georgia and Chad have invited me to carry out official visits.

In October 2008, shortly after the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia conflict, I carried out my mission to Georgia building on a previous visit in 2005. As a result of the hostilities, some 133,000 persons were displaced within Georgia. The Government, with the support of humanitarian organisations and the international community, promptly responded to this crisis and a large majority of internally displaced persons have managed to return. Their main needs are safety, the reestablishment of law and order and the resumption of economic activities. However, I am very concerned that tens of thousands remain displaced and will probably not return to their homes in the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia and adjacent areas unless solutions to the underlying conflict can be found.

The biggest challenge remains the integration of the approximately 220,000 internally displaced persons who have been living in protracted displacement for more than one and a half decades. I welcome the Georgian Government’s policy shift away from considering local reintegration and return as mutually exclusive. The rights of those who suffered years of protracted internal displacement should be protected with the same vigour as the rights of the “new” generation of internally displaced persons. The need to adopt and implement a revised action plan in line with the requirements of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement is urgent.

I have taken note of the efforts to find durable housing solutions for these internally displaced persons, including the rehabilitation and privatization of collective centers. It is important that shelter solutions are understood as one essential – but not the only – component of broader integration efforts. The privatization process must be conducted in a fair and transparent manner, respect minimum international housing standards and allow potential beneficiaries to make informed decisions.

I deplore the fact the humanitarian access to the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and Abkhazia has become a question of political differences between the relevant parties. I am deeply concerned at provisions in the Georgian Law on the Occupied Territories that may restrict access to all areas by humanitarian actors. In this connection, I deeply regret that I am not in a position to report on the human rights situation of internally displaced persons in the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. The current policies of the parties to the conflict on access to the region have so far prevented me from visiting the area. As indicated previously, I intend to conduct this part of the mission as soon as possible. I hope that the question of humanitarian access can be resolved through the Geneva discussions co-chaired by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or through other channels.

Last month, I visited Chad. My preliminary conclusions and recommendations are available today as a conference room document. More than 160,000 Chadians who fled their homes and villages are still displaced in the east of the country. They have been displaced by cross-border attacks originating from Darfur; confrontations between the national armed forces and rebel groups; intercommunity tensions; and increasingly also banditry. Armed groups continue to recruit internally displaced children. Displaced women and girls suffer gender-based violence and most of the cases remain undocumented. The Chadian state authorities have to assume their responsibility to protect the population and must not leave this responsibility to the limited United Nations peacekeeping presence in eastern Chad.

While conditions are not yet conducive to sustainable returns, some displaced spontaneously decided to exercise their right to return despite the precarious security conditions and the lack of access to basic services in their original localities. It is urgent that a state presence is introduced in areas of return to assure their physical protection. The Government needs to set up an effective law enforcement and judicial system that pursues perpetrators of crimes against IDPs and changes the climate of violence and impunity. Furthermore, the Chadian authorities, with the support of the international community, need to develop a strategic framework for early recovery and to increase activities aimed at economic reintegration, creation of basic services and intercommunity reconciliation. Durable solutions for internally displaced persons are an essential component for any real peace process in Chad.

I also had the opportunity to directly engage with the authorities of several other countries through a number of working visits, including visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Timor-Leste and Sri Lanka to follow up on previous missions.

Regarding Sri Lanka, I wish to express my appreciation for the opportunity to have conducted a constructive dialogue with the Government on finding durable solutions for those internally displaced persons in situations of protracted displacement. I hope that durable solutions can also be found for those presently displaced by the conflict in northern Sri Lanka. In this context, I wish to make an urgent appeal to the parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka to do their utmost to prevent more civilian casualties and to allow for the safe evacuation of those trapped in the conflict zone. I am gravely concerned by reports that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are preventing civilians from fleeing the conflict zone and may be holding civilians as human shields. I urge the Sri Lankan Government, with support of the international community, to provide all internally displaced persons escaping hostilities with all necessary protection and assistance. Internally displaced persons, as citizens, retain their right to freedom of movement and must not be confined to camps. While security screenings may be conducted upon arrival, they should be concluded promptly and individuals retained only in accord with judicial process and on the basis of individualized suspicion. Recalling our long-standing, constructive relationship, I continue to offer any assistance I may provide as the Government of Sri Lanka begins to move forward with recovery and to plan for the prompt facilitation of return and other durable solutions for these new IDPs.

In the remainder of 2009, I plan to carry out further country visits. Recently, I have asked the Philippines to extend an invitation for an official visit in June 2009 that would, if accepted, focus also on the human rights of persons displaced by natural disasters.

In addition, I have reiterated my request to carry out a visit to Sudan, including the Darfur region. While I have seen the Government’s efforts to formulate a national policy on internally displaced persons as a step in the right direction, I am very concerned about the situation of 4.7 million people affected by the conflict in the Darfur region, including 2.7 million internally displaced persons. The Government’s recent decision to expel thirteen major international humanitarian organisations will cause a severe gap in assistance: According to first estimates, more than one million people could lose their access to food aid, health care and safe drinking water. As a consequence of the Government’s action, the rights of large numbers of internally displaced persons to life, food, water and the highest attainable standard of health may be gravely affected. We could see a humanitarian catastrophe in the region. I would like to recall that governments have an obligation not to arbitrarily withhold consent to the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The situation of an estimated 1.3 million internally displaced persons in Somalia remains one of the worst in the world and many Somalis find themselves in a life-threatening situation due to lack of water, food and medical assistance. Tragically, it is also one of the world’s most neglected situations. I intend to visit as soon as security conditions permit, and I urge the Council and the international community in general to increase their attention to this critical situation.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have ratified the Pact on Stability, Security and Development in the Great Lakes Region and its Protocols. Angola, Sudan and Zambia have signed, but not yet ratified the Pact and its Protocols.

[2] Interested Governments can obtain copies through OHCHR: [email protected]. The full text of the Manual is also available online at: