Realizing National Responsibility for Internally Displaced Persons

December 9, 2004

It is well recognized that because internally displaced persons remain within their country, they should, in accordance with established principles of international law, enjoy the protection and assistance of their own governments. Indeed, governments regularly insist that they have the primary responsibility for ensuring the security and welfare of their uprooted populations. Too often, however, they prove unable or unwilling to do so. Far greater effort therefore is needed by the international community to hold governments accountable and assist them in fulfilling their responsibilities towards IDPs. But what, concretely, does national responsibility towards IDPs mean? How can it be measured? Promoted? Supported?

An exploration of these questions by our Project suggests that there do exist definite benchmarks of national responsibility. Focusing today on IDP protection, and thus on the “responsibility to protect” that the Government of Canada has been so influential in advancing, allow me to outline some of the essential elements.

  • To begin with, prevention is key. States have a responsibility, elaborated in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, to provide populations on their territory with protection against arbitrary displacement. Preventive strategies, including cultivating an environment of respect for human rights and developing early-warning and rapid response mechanisms to protect populations under threat, are critical.
  • When internal displacement occurs, a state’s recognition of the problem and of its responsibility to address it provides the very basis for a national response. There are cases where a government has categorized IDPs as “migrants”, presumably to deflect attention from the involuntary nature of their movement and to avoid its responsibilities towards them. A Government’s acknowledgement and use of the Guiding Principles would be an important indicator of national responsibility. It also would be a means of raising national awareness about the problem and promoting solidarity with the displaced, which is so important for their protection.
  • Training government officials, including the military and police, on the rights of IDPs is key to ensuring that national actors are aware of their responsibilities towards the displaced. It is part of building national capacity, and accountability, to effectively discharge these responsibilities.

  • As the Guiding Principles underscore, IDPs have a right to request and to receive assistance and protection without risk of punishment or harm. An environment must exist where IDPs and IDP leaders can safely advocate for their rights. Governments must take every possible measure to protect IDPs as well as those seeking to help them. Moreover, public information campaigns should be launched to sensitize government authorities as well as the public about the needs and rights of IDPs and the humanitarian nature of the work of those assisting and advocating on their behalf.
  • A national response needs to be inclusive, covering all groups of internally displaced without discrimination. Internal displacement is a phenomenon that disproportionately affects minority ethnic groups and indigenous populations. Once displaced, these already marginalized groups often face further discrimination in accessing protection and assistance. Governments have a responsibility to protect such groups and should actively counter the stigmas IDPs often suffer, which heighten their vulnerability.
  • Collecting data, disaggregated by gender and age, on the numbers, locations and conditions of IDPs is essential to designing effective programs for them. In one country I visited with the RSG, the Government welcomed dialogue on the issue of IDPs but could not tell us with any certainty the number of IDPs in the country or even where they were located. Without knowing who and where IDPs are and what are their particular needs, how can their plight possibly be addressed? Data collection and registration processes, of course, must in no way put at risk the security of the displaced.

  • Developing national legislation protecting the rights of IDPs is a particularly important indicator of national responsibility. Such legislation should be comprehensive, covering all causes and phases of displacement, and be in line with international standards. In all regions of the world, there are Governments, for instance Angola, Georgia and Peru, that have adopted or reformed national laws on the basis of the Guiding Principles. Of course, national responsibility must entail not only adopting such national legislation but also implementing it. The example of Colombia, which since 1997 has had a very comprehensive national law on internal displacement, underscores this point dramatically.
  • A national policy or plan of action on internal displacement can be a valuable instrument for reinforcing and furthering implementation of national legislation protecting the rights of IDPs. It should, for instance, spell out the responsibilities of different government departments for responding to internal displacement as well as identify a mechanism for coordination among them. The Government of Uganda, for instance, has worked with local and international partners to develop a national policy on internal displacement. National policies on internal displacement also should be developed in close consultation with civil society and IDP communities – an interesting example of such a process has been underway this year in Nigeria. Once completed, the policy must be widely disseminated, especially to IDP communities, in their own language and in a format they can easily understand.
  • Designating a national institutional focal point on internal displacement is another ingredient we’ve found to be critical to the carrying out of national responsibility for IDPs as well to facilitating coordination within the Government and with local and international partners. A number of different institutional options exist. Whatever the option selected, it is tremendously important that the institutional entity tasked with responsibility for IDPs have a mandate for both assistance and protection. Of course, this body must also have the political authority as well as adequate resources to carry out its mandate, and its staff must be trained on issues of internal displacement.

  • National human rights institutions, as the Protection Survey highlights, can also play a very valuable role in reinforcing national responsibility for protecting IDPs, for instance by investigating individual IDP complaints and in monitoring and reporting on a government’s implementation of national law and policy. Their work on IDPs merits encouragement and support.
  • Too often IDPs don’t have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ensuring that they do is another key indicator of national responsibility. The views of IDPs, of course including IDP women and children, should be systematically sought out, and taken into account, not only in the design of relief and protection programs, but also in peace processes and other efforts to resolve situations of internal displacement. In addition, studies by our Project reveal that special attention is needed to ensure that the right of IDPs to vote is safeguarded.
  • National responsibility for internal displacement must extend to ensuring that IDPs have access to a durable solution to their plight. Governments have a duty to establish conditions of safety and dignity enabling IDPs to return to their place of origin or, if they choose, to resettle elsewhere. Under no circumstances should IDPs be encouraged or compelled to return or resettle to areas where their physical security cannot be assured. Where possible, international monitors should accompany returns in order to verify that the process is voluntary and that conditions of safety exist.

  • It should be underscored that IDPs also have the right to choose whether to return or resettle and should be provided with reintegration assistance in either event. Further, the authorities have a responsibility to assist IDPs with property restitution or compensation. International and regional organizations have valuable technical assistance to contribute on this issue.
  • When Governments lack adequate capacity to protect and assist their internally displaced populations, they should, as an exercise of responsible sovereignty, invite, and give safe and unimpeded access to, international agencies seeking to help ensure the protection and assistance of IDPs. Enabling the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs to visit and dialogue with national authorities and civil society would also be important in this regard.
  • International and regional organizations in turn should stand ready to provide support, including technical cooperation, capacity-building and assistance with resource mobilization, to governments that demonstrate a readiness to fulfill their national responsibilities towards IDPs. They can also play a role in reaching internally displaced populations located outside of areas of the Government’s control and in reinforcing the responsibilities of non-state actors.

Of course, and as the Protection Survey rightly recognizes, “helping to strengthen national capacity to deal with situations of mass displacement is especially effective where the state is willing but not able to discharge its protection responsibilities.”

In situations where the political will for addressing the problem is inadequate at the national level, however, the engagement of the international community is just as, if not more, important, for reinforcing national responsibility and holding Governments accountable, for instance by advocating the rights of IDPs with Governments and monitoring and reporting on the implementation of national law and policy as well as international obligations and recommendations.

Indeed, it was precisely the challenge of how to encourage the effective fulfillment of national responsibility in the absence of sufficient political will that led participants (including Governments, NGOs, the UN, regional organizations and IDP communities) at a recent seminar on internal displacement in the Americas to agree that it would be valuable to spell out the key elements of what national responsibility should entail. The seminar accordingly embraced the benchmarks I’ve outlined today in a framework for action for the Americas, which tailors these benchmarks to the challenges of internal displacement in the Americas and also sets out how regional and international organizations can reinforce and support the realization of national responsibility.

These benchmarks also are being promoted by inter-governmental organizations such as the Commonwealth, have been discussed in the OSCE and have been incorporated into training materials for government officials by the International Organization for Migration. Our Project has been encouraged to publish these benchmarks in a generic Framework for National Responsibility. The Framework is intended to serve as both a guide for Governments in responding to internal displacement and as a tool to assist the UN, international agencies and NGOs, civil society and IDP communities, in monitoring and seeking to promote and support the effective fulfillment of national responsibility towards the internally displaced. It is to be hoped that this Framework will make a useful contribution to ensuring that the familiar refrain that “protecting and assisting IDPs is first and foremost the responsibility of their Governments” becomes much more of a concrete reality.