Internal Displacement and the Role of Parliamentarians in Times of Crises

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

April 9, 2009

Chairperson, Esteemed Members of Parliament, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sometimes the memories of the people I met when visiting countries affected by internal displacement haunt me: The image of the very, very young woman who came up to me five days ago in a camp for internally displaced persons is very fresh in my mind: She had narrowly escaped the conflict zone after her husband was killed, and now she was all alone, desperately seeking help for the 20 day old baby she could no longer feed herself after all the stress. I recall the mother of six who was living in a corroded transport container for the displaced that was located immediately next to the municipal garbage dump and who showed me the hole through which a rat had entered and bitten her baby the night before. I can vividly picture the family we found hiding in fear in the jungle, living under a big tree with virtually nothing except the one cooking pot they managed to salvage after the army had burnt down their village. I’m still moved by the sobbing of the girl who had worked so hard in school because she understood perfectly well that education would be the only way out of poverty and misery and now had lost any prospect to continue with her studies. I would rather prefer to forget the haunting stories of the displaced women whose husbands had been disappeared while in displacement, or who had been raped in and around camps.

Internal displacement is among the most serious but largely forgotten humanitarian crises in today’s world, and I am indeed very grateful to have the honor and privilege to address you today on this occasion, the 120th Assembly Meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is being held under the general theme of Parliaments: Building Peace, Democracy and Development in Times of Crisis.

Indeed, one of the tragic and yet regular consequences of the absence of peace is forced displacement: All too often, civilian populations become the target of armed forces and insurgents who drive them away from their lands in order to punish them for supporting the other party to the conflict or to commit ethnic cleansing. Even more often, civilians must simply to flee the dangers of warfare. Displacement also occurs as a consequence of a lack of democracy, systematic human rights violations, and state sponsored violence that force people out of their homes. Natural and man-made disasters are another huge cause of displacement. Finally, where people have to move to make place for development projects such as dams, highways, or the upgrading of certain parts of a city and are not properly relocated, they, too become victims of forced displacement.

Today, most of those who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes for these and similar reasons remain within their own country. Because they do not cross international borders, they are internally displaced persons, not refugees.

Their numbers are huge and still growing. Compare the 26 million persons displaced within more than 50 countries by armed conflict, violence and human rights violations with the 16 million refugees world-wide; add an estimated 40 – 50 million displaced by natural disasters in the developing and developed world and other non-conflict related causes including large-scale development projects, and you end up with almost one percent of the world’s population being displaced. This is why UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently stressed that “Displacement remains arguably the most significant humanitarian challenge we face.”

National parliaments and their members play a key role in addressing this challenge. National parliaments in donor countries should help to secure the much needed funds for emergency assistance and return programs. In countries affected by internal displacement parliaments should contribute to recognizing and protecting the rights of internally displaced persons by highlighting their situation, by incorporating these rights into domestic law through appropriate legislation, by calling the executive branch of government to account if it is not taking the necessary actions, and by lobbying for and approving the necessary budget allocations. Even parliaments in countries without armed conflict should take such steps: Every country can suddenly and unexpectedly be faced with displacement caused by natural or man-made disasters and climate change increases today the likelihood of such disasters.

Active involvement of parliamentarians is required for a variety of reasons:

What distinguishes internally displaced persons from refugees is the fact that as persons who remain within their own country, they are entitled to the same rights as the rest of the population. This means that the primary responsibility to protect and assist internally displaced persons as citizens of the country concerned lays with the authorities of that country. These authorities include the legislative branch. The international community has only a subsidiary, supportive role to play.

This national responsibility includes the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of the displaced. These rights have been codified in the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a document that, although legally non-binding, is based on and reflects binding international human rights and humanitarian law. It was recognized by the heads of State and government assembled in New York in September 2005 for the World Summit as an “important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons.” As former Secretary General Kofi Annan has stressed, this calls for promoting the adoption of the Principles through national legislation and thus to incorporate them at the domestic level. Some 15 countries, including most recently Iraq, have already adopted polices or legislation specifically addressing internal displacement based on the Guiding Principles, and others are in the process of doing so. At the regional level, several regional organizations including the Organization of American States and the Council of Europe have made the same recommendation to their member States. Africa has moved one step further. For instance, the Great Lakes Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, agreed to by 11 members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, makes it a legal obligation for States parties to incorporate the Guiding Principles into their domestic law, and the present draft of the envisaged African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa lists as one of the core obligations of States parties the duty to enact or amend relevant domestic legislation in conformity with their obligations under international law. Thus, more than a decade after they were drafted, the Guiding Principles enjoy now solid standing around the world.

Legislation on the rights of internally displaced persons and the corresponding obligations of relevant authorities is needed, as regular laws most often do not sufficiently address the specific vulnerabilities and specific needs the displaced have due to their being displaced. Forced displacement is not just a passing event in people’s lives. It is a devastating transformation. It means that from one day to the next families lose their homes and livelihoods and are forced to leave behind all they had cherished. As a result, communities break apart under the stress of displacement, resulting in marginalization, abject poverty, exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence, and loss of community culture and tradition. Family members are all too often separated or exposed to malnutrition and disease. Children suffer from lack of access to education and a higher risk of child labor, sexual exploitation or recruitment into armed groups. In short: internal displacement shatters lives and communities. Unlike the non-displaced populations, internally displaced persons have lost their homes and livelihoods, are in need of shelter, are facing the problem of how to regain the property left behind and often taken over by others, and they have to find long-term and durable solutions for their being displaced through return, settlement elsewhere in the country, or local integration at the place of refuge.

One important yet often underestimated cause for many of the difficulties encountered by internally displaced persons is the fact that general legislation does not take into account their specific needs and vulnerabilities. This often creates insurmountable obstacles for the displaced to enjoy the rights guaranteed to them as citizens in their own countries. In some countries I visited, displaced children could not enjoy their right to education simply because they had not the documents necessary to be admitted to schools in the location where they found refuge. Of course, when one must flee because one’s village is attacked, obtaining the necessary official documents is not a priority. Similarly, in many countries, internally displaced persons cannot participate in elections because there are no provisions for absentee voting. In one country, IDPs were neglected because the main responsibility for taking care of them was the districts’, but the money the district authorities received was earmarked for development, not humanitarian aid, and at the end of the year it was returned to the capital unspent as the conflict made development work largely impossible.

Incorporation of the international obligations and norms, such as the Guiding Principles, into domestic law and policy is not an easy task. General references to the Principles or even their literal reproduction or replication in national laws and policies are not sufficient to make them operational at the field level and meaningful to those who need them the most, the displaced themselves.

For these reasons, it is important to bring relevant domestic laws and policies in line with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in practical manner. To this end, my mandate, together with the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, has developed a Manual for Law and Policymakers that identifies obstacles and lists the key principles that should be enshrined in domestic legal and policy frameworks to make the Guiding Principles work. This project benefited from experts from all over the world, and it is a particular pleasure for me to be able to bring this resource to your attention today.

Designed as a practical tool, the central aim of the Manual is to provide guidance on how to shape laws and policies addressing the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced persons in a way that ensures full protection of their rights in accordance with the Guiding Principles.

The Manual provides best practices and offers advice to those who are charged with researching, drafting, and commenting on laws and policies that address internal displacement. This includes parliamentarians, national policymakers and civil society organizations as well as officials in ministries responsible for dealing with the protection and assistance needs of the displaced.

The Manual addresses all phases of displacement triggered by armed conflict and situations of violence as well as displacement triggered by natural disasters and the effects of climate change. In addition, the Manual examines a variety of issues and fundamental rights and freedoms related to displacement, including: humanitarian assistance; movement rights; family life; access to food, water and sanitation; access to shelter and housing; property and possessions; electoral rights; education; and health.

I hope that this Manual and other resources made available through my mandate and the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement will be widely used and prove to be of direct and concrete assistance in drafting laws and policies that will mitigate the effects on the lives of internally displaced persons worldwide and help to achieve solutions that allow them to rebuild their lives.

Let me conclude. The challenges remain huge but we should indeed be proud of the improvements seen in both national and international responses to internal displacement in the 10 years since the adoption of the Guiding Principles. This progress has been achieved thanks to the relentless efforts of many actors–including parliamentarians such as yourselves, other national authorities, civil society organizations, international organizations, and often the internally displaced themselves.

Today, I am very encouraged by the commitment shown by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to the cause of better protecting internally displaced persons as evidenced by this invitation to address you. I am convinced that this is the beginning of a fruitful cooperation between you and my mandate both at the international as well as the national level. I remain at your disposal to support you in your efforts, as members of Parliament, to do the utmost that internally displaced persons can be sure their rights do not remain elusive become a reality.

Thank you.