Renewed Effort Needed to Help the Displaced

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

October 30, 2008

Here they were: a dozen or more men and women in ragged clothes who had walked for hours through the jungle to meet me in a dilapidated schoolhouse on the Pacific coast. They spoke about how they fled violence, left behind everything and were struggling to survive.

Then one man added: “Amidst all this suffering, we know one thing for sure: We have rights and they cannot take them from us, even if they violate them. The guiding principles on internal displacement are our rights. They say we have the right to safety, the right to food and to health, and the right to return to our homes and this gives us hope.”

It was a very moving moment. I had been invited in the mid-1990s by my predecessor, Dr Francis Deng, to participate in the elaboration of these guiding principles. At that time, none of us could have imagined that a text written in the language of international law would one day become a source of hope and inspiration to the people we were seeking to help, people whose lives had been shattered when they were forced to flee their homes and leave behind everything they cherished.

Deng realised that unlike refugees who fled their country to find safety abroad, there was no international convention protecting the rights of those displaced in their own country. He also knew that to be displaced does not mean to lose one’s human rights. Thus, he wanted guiding principles that would detail the needs and rights of internally displaced people as they can be derived from existing international human rights and humanitarian law.

Last week, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of these principles at a conference in Oslo. When Deng submitted them to the UN in 1998, a crucial step forward was taken. For the first time, it was recognised that the internally displaced have specific needs and rights. A consensus started to emerge about what these were. Since the 2005 World Summit of heads of state and government in New York, the guiding principles are recognised as an important framework to protect the internally displaced.

They guide and assist governments, international humanitarian agencies and societies to better discharge their responsibilities in protecting and assisting the men, women and children who have been forcibly displaced in their country. On occasions, they have inspired provisions in peace agreements, and last but not least, they empower the displaced.

Despite this success, there is no cause for celebration. Today, an estimated 26 million – more than double the global number of refugees – are displaced in their countries because they were forced out of their homes by armed conflict or violence.

Millions more are displaced by natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Others have lost their homes because they had to make way for development projects and have not been given the opportunity to resume normal lives elsewhere. All over the world, the rights of the internally displaced continue to be violated. We all must renew our efforts to protect and assist these people.

Parties to armed conflicts must respect international humanitarian law to prevent forced displacement and they have to refrain from everything that would restrict humanitarian access. Governments need to show a stronger will to respect and protect the rights of the internally displaced and they can do more to fulfil their commitments. Regional organisations can take a lead in monitoring the rights of the displaced and find solutions for the conflicts that displace people.

The United Nations and other humanitarian groups should be more effective in assisting and protecting displaced populations in conflict situations and disaster relief alike. Donors must increase support for humanitarian action for internally displaced people. The UN Security Council should monitor the respect of the rights of the displaced. For all these actors, the guiding principles provide excellent benchmarks and guidance.

Finally, internally displaced people must know their rights. As a displaced widow and mother said at a training programme in Southern Africa: “If we know about the guiding principles. . . we know our lives can improve.”