Protect or Neglect? Toward a More Effective United Nations Approach to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons

Diane Paul and
Diane Paul Human Rights Watch
Simon Bagshaw
Simon Bagshaw Assistant to the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons

November 23, 2004

Displaced people who are persecuted or neglected — whether in Darfur in the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, the Russian Federation, Afghanistan or elsewhere – turn to the United Nations to provide them with material aid and to protect them from armed attack, arbitrary detention, forced conscription or sexual violence.

To examine how the UN has been providing protection to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and how to make that response more effective, the Brookings Institution-Johns Hopkins Project on Internal Displacement and the Internal Displacement Unit (now Division) of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs dispatched a team into the field in 2003. Composed of Simon Bagshaw and Diane Paul, the team visited nine countries and produced this 102-page study, Protect or Neglect: Toward A More Effective United Nations Approach to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons (November 2004).

The study finds that the UN’s approach to protecting vulnerable populations “is still largely ad hoc and driven more by the personalities and convictions of individuals on the ground than by an institutional, system-wide agenda.” It notes that staff efforts in the field are often undermined by a lack of political and financial support from headquarters and UN member states. It proposes that the United Nations make the protection of civilians and the prevention of displacement “a core part of its mandate,” in particular through:

  • more assertive advocacy on behalf of the displaced by both staff in the field and by senior officials at headquarters, including intensive dialogues with governments, public statements, bringing protection concerns to the attention of the Security Council and a more supportive attitude towards field representatives who may be threatened with expulsion as a result of their advocacy.
  • greater willingness by the donor and diplomatic community to advocate for the rights of the displaced and other populations at risk.
  • the creation in the field of focal points and working groups on protection.
  • greater accountability of UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinators in carrying out their protection responsibilities.
  • the establishment of early warning and response capacities.
  • systematic monitoring and reporting of protection of IDPs and others at risk.
  • greater international presence in the field, especially outside of capital cities.
  • the integration of protection concerns into the programs and plans of UN humanitarian, development, human rights, peacekeeping and political offices.
  • More systematic engagement with non-state actors.
  • a greater role for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in protecting displaced populations.
  • strengthening local and national institutions to deal with displacement, in particular national human rights commissions.
  • developing national laws and policies based on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

In their foreword to the book, Walter Kalin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, and Dennis McNamara, Director of OCHA’s Internal Displacement Division, call upon the United Nations to assume “a leadership role” in advocating for the protection of the displaced. It is only through such concerted efforts that the international community can create “a more effective international system for addressing the protection and assistance needs of one of the world’s most marginalized people.”