Keynote Address by the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

September 25, 2000

Let me begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to the Government of Austria and to the Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE, Her Excellency, Mrs. Benito Ferrero-Waldner. The Government of Austria has been a steadfast supporter of the mandate on internally displaced persons since its inception and this Supplementary Human Dimension meeting on Migration and Internal Displacement represents another significant and welcome initiative in raising the profile of the issue and in seeking effective responses to the considerable challenge posed by internal displacement.
Indeed, internal displacement has come to the fore in recent years as one of the most pressing human rights, humanitarian and political issues facing the international community. Globally, there are an estimated 20-25 million people forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries by armed conflict and systematic violations of human rights. Of these, around 5 million are found within the OSCE region, the largest numbers in Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Georgia, the Russian Federation, and Turkey.
It was in view of the mounting crisis of internal displacement and its global dimension that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights decided in 1992 to request the Secretary-General to appoint a Representative on Internally Displaced Persons. I was honoured to be asked by the Secretary-General to undertake that challenging responsibility.

In the discharge of the mandate, I have conceptualized the role of the Representative as that of a catalyst in the international system and focused my activities on four areas: fostering effective institutional arrangements at the international level for responding to the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced; developing an appropriate normative framework to these same ends; focusing attention on specific situations through country missions, and undertaking further research to broaden and deepen our understanding of the problem in its various dimensions.

With respect to the first area of work, the gaps in the international system relating to the internally displaced have always been obvious: in contrast to refugees, there is no single specialised agency to provide protection and assistance to the internally displaced. There exist a number of remedial options ranging from the creation of a specialised agency for the internally displaced, to the designation of an existing agency to assume full responsibility for them, to a collaborative arrangement that would utilise existing capacities and enhance the effectiveness of the international system. Regarding the first option, it is clear that there is no political will in the international community to create a new agency for the internally displaced. The argument that one single agency should be charged with responsibility for the internally displaced is an idea that resurfaces periodically, as it did again earlier this year. And yet, a broad consensus has emerged that the problem is too big for one agency and thus requires the collaborative capacities of the international system.

There is, however, a need to strengthen the collaborative approach in order to overcome the challenging problems of co-ordination and the gaps in response, especially in the realm of protection, that frequently arise under the present arrangement. The reform agenda of the Secretary-General drew special attention to the gaps in the international system in responding to the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced and gave the Emergency Relief Co-ordinator (ERC) the responsibility of seeing to it that these needs are adequately addressed.

Working in close collaboration with the ERC and within the framework of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the main international human rights, humanitarian and development agencies have adopted a policy paper on the protection of internally displaced persons, which sets out a number of strategic areas of activity for ensuring protection. Recently, a coordinator has been appointed to lead an inter-agency network which will examine a number of country situations of internal displacement with a view to ensuring an effective response to the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced persons and an appropriate coordination mechanism.

Parallel to the process of supporting greater collaboration at the international level, the mandate also is in the process of furthering co-operation with regional organizations. The importance of regional approaches to the problem of internal displacement should be underscored. Responsibility for preventing and responding to internal displacement crises cannot rest on the United Nations alone. Regional organizations have an important role to play in these respects and indeed, many are beginning, to varying degrees, to devote attention to issues of conflict prevention and mass displacement.

In the case of the OSCE, its evolution from an East-West discussion forum into an operational institution that seeks to prevent, manage, and resolve conflicts within States has provided the Organization with significant scope through which to seek to address existing crises of internal displacement and prevent future crises from occurring. The means at the Organization’s disposal include its activities of human rights promotion, protection and monitoring, efforts of capacity-building, democratisation and electoral assistance, and its role in assisting in the search for sustainable political solutions to on-going and protracted conflicts. The development of the Organization’s work in these areas is most encouraging. Even more encouraging, however, is the interest on the part of the OSCE and its participating States, as demonstrated by the convening of this meeting, to devote more focused attention to seeking ways to enhance their response to internal displacement, including by exploring and elaborating ways in which OSCE institutions, field operations and participating States could play a role in the practical application of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The Guiding Principles are the culmination of several years work towards the development of a comprehensive normative framework for the internally displaced. Beginning in 1994, and at the request of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, a team of international legal experts working under my direction first studied the extent to which international law provides adequate protection for internally displaced persons. In a two-part Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms, they found that while existing law covers many aspects of relevance to the situation of internally displaced persons, there nonetheless exist significant gaps and grey areas where the law fails to provide sufficient protection. They recommended the development of guiding principles to bring together into one compact document all the legal provisions relevant to the internally displaced and to address the gaps and grey areas. The Commission welcomed the Compilation and, on that basis, requested my mandate to develop an appropriate normative framework for the internally displaced. The Guiding Principles were prepared in response to that request.

The Guiding Principles were developed over a period of years and finalised at an expert consultation hosted by the Government of Austria in January 1998, the second meeting hosted by Austria in the process of developing the normative framework. The process was a broad-based one which brought together legal experts from all different parts of the world and included representatives of international organizations, regional intergovernmental bodies, including the OSCE, non-governmental organizations at the international and national level, and research and academic institutions.

The Guiding Principles restate the existing norms of human rights and humanitarian law as well as analogous refugee law that are relevant to the internally displaced. Although not a binding instrument, they reflect and are based on existing international law. They set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments, insurgent groups and other actors toward these populations in all phases of displacement, providing protection against arbitrary displacement, protection and assistance during displacement and during return or resettlement and reintegration. Their aim is to provide practical guidance to all those with a role to play in addressing the plight of the internally displaced.

Since their presentation to the Commission on Human Rights in 1998, the Guiding Principles have been widely acknowledged by UN bodies. The UN Secretary-General has cited the Guiding Principles as a major achievement in the humanitarian area and recommended to the Security Council that in cases of massive displacement, it encourage States to follow the legal guidance provided in the Principles. The Council indeed has begun to refer to them in regard to specific situations. The IASC welcomed the Guiding Principles and called upon its members to disseminate them and have their staffs apply them, especially in the field. The General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights have requested that I make use of the Principles in my dialogues with Governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

The General Assembly and the Commission have also encouraged the wide dissemination and application of the Principles by regional organizations. Several regional organizations have indeed begun to disseminate the Principles, to use them as a basis for measuring conditions on the ground, and to sponsor workshops featuring the Principles. In May of this year, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) co-sponsored with the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement and the Norwegian Refugee Council, a regional workshop on internal displacement in the South Caucasus, convened in Tbilisi, Georgia. Attended by representatives of the Governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, international organizations, national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international experts, the workshop used the Guiding Principles as a basis for discussing strategies for addressing situations of internal displacement in the region more effectively. A summary report of the workshop is available at this meeting.

Dissemination of the Principles has also been facilitated through their translation into different languages, including those of several OSCE participating States, in particular Russian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian. At the initiative of the Government of Armenia, the Principles will soon also be available in Armenian.

It is my hope that the OSCE will use the Guiding Principles when it deals with situations of internal displacement, in particular through its field staff who have increasingly become involved with displaced populations. The Principles could also assist OSCE Governments with the drafting of laws and policies on internal displacement.

The most tangible means for assessing conditions on the ground and the effectiveness of the international response to specific situations are through on-site visits to affected countries. The country missions that I undertake offer the opportunity for dialogue with Governments and other concerned actors on ways to improve the conditions of the internally displaced, in particular by bridging the gap between principles of protection and assistance and the actual needs of the internally displaced on the ground. They also help advance our understanding of the regional characteristics of internal displacement and the needed response at various levels.

To date, I have undertaken eighteen country missions. Included among these are visits to a number of OSCE participating States, namely the Russian Federation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and most recently, Georgia and Armenia. I have also been invited to undertake a mission to Turkey next year. In view of on-going concerns over the plight of those internally displaced by the conflict in Chechnya, I have been engaged in dialogue with the Government of the Russian Federation and hope that my request of March of this year to undertake a mission to the North Caucasus region will be responded to positively.

Finally, the mandate has been involved in the preparation of studies on internal displacement, the most significant of which is the comprehensive study composed of two volumes: Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement and The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced, published by the Brookings Institution in 1998. The objective of this study was to probe into such issues as the numbers and distribution of internally displaced persons globally, their needs, how they are being met, what gaps exist in meeting them, and how these gaps can be bridged by the international community, including regional organizations and NGOs. The study contains case-studies of several situations of internal displacement in the OSCE region and makes a number of suggestions for how the OSCE could strengthen its effectiveness in matters relating to internal displacement.

In addition, the mandate is also engaged in research into certain thematic issues. A paper on political participation by internally displaced persons in the OSCE region has been prepared by my office and published by the Brookings Institution Project for distribution at this meeting. It reveals that internally displaced persons are often unable to vote on the same terms as their non-displaced compatriots as a result of practical difficulties posed by situations of displacement or deliberate policy choices by national and local authorities. Effective promotion and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other relevant international standards, including OSCE Human Dimension commitments, both by States and by international actors such as OSCE and ODIHR, is required to address these concerns.

To conclude, I would like to recall one of the findings of the above-mentioned regional workshop on internal displacement in the South Caucasus, notably that the role of regional organizations, as well as international organizations, is critical in several key areas, in particular: advocacy to promote the rights of internally displaced persons, advice to Governments on best practices, and the promotion of political solutions to conflict situations. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide a comprehensive framework for the achievement of these goals. As such, they provide the OSCE and the participating States with a valuable tool with which to meet the challenge posed by internal displacement. I hope this meeting is successful in elaborating more fully the precise means through which the OSCE and participating States can utilize the Principles to their full potential, thereby meeting that challenge in an effective and timely manner.