Statement by the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

May 30, 2000

Presented at the conference in Spanish by Gimena Sanchez.

Permit me to express my appreciation to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) for organizing this international seminar on “Displacement: Conflict, Peace and Development.” This initiative and CODHES’ research and statistical work on internal displacement in Colombia have been helping the international community to better comprehend and tackle this difficult problem. Hopefully, these three days will stimulate greater attention to the plight of Colombia’s displaced population and encourage more programs on their behalf. Although I am unable to be present in Bogota to participate in this worthy program, I have asked Ms. Gimena Sanchez, Research Assistant in the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement, which I co-direct, to read this statement on my behalf. Let me say at the outset that I have had the honor of visiting Colombia on two occasions in my capacity as Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, first in 1994 and then on a follow up mission.

The situation of internal displacement in Colombia is among the gravest in the world. There are over a million internally displaced persons in the country with new displacements continuing to occur. The vast majority of the displaced have been uprooted from their homes in the last few years because of the sharp deterioration in the security situation. The problem, however, is a long-standing one, stretching back decades.

Political violence associated with internal armed conflict and characterized by serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law is the primary cause of displacement. However, displacement in Colombia is not merely incidental to the armed conflict but is also a deliberate strategy of war. Armed groups, whether paramilitaries, guerilla groups, or the armed forces/police, attempt to settle their scores by attacking civilians suspected of being associated with the “other” side, and they do so with such severity as to leave those whose physical security is threatened with no choice but to flee. The systematic violations of human rights law and grave breaches of humanitarian law that characterize the conflict are committed by all sides, but in recent years, paramilitary operations have been identified as causing most of the violations and displacement. In such situations, the army has often proved unable or unwilling to provide the needed protection and has also been implicated with the paramilitaries.

One year ago, I undertook a second official visit to Colombia, at the invitation of the Colombian Government. I also participated in a workshop in Bogota on the “Application of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in Colombia”, co-sponsored by the Grupo de Apoyo a Desplazados (GAD), the Brookings Project and the U.S. Committee for Refugees. The purpose of my second visit was to assess developments since my first visit in 1994, especially in light of the serious deterioration in the situation of displacement in Colombia, to evaluate the extent to which the recommendations from my 1994 visit had been implemented and to formulate new recommendations for addressing the current situation.

I would like to reiterate my appreciation for the cooperative approach displayed by President Andres Pastrana and other Government officials during my visit last year, and for the Government’s willingness to open itself to international cooperation for addressing the problem. Indeed, since my first visit the Government has made progress in acknowledging its responsibility for the internally displaced and in creating legal and institutional frameworks to address the problem. The main difficulty is in the implementation of the laws and strategies selected.

Insufficient will or determination on the part of Government officials to put the laws and strategies into practice has led to bureaucratic obstacles, the absence of a unified view between the central Government and local authorities, lack of coordination with the NGO community and a lack of integration at the national level of international efforts to assist the displaced. I would note too that suspicion of the displaced remains deep seated, leading to neglect and to discrimination against them. Overall, there is a tendency to look to the international community for addressing the problem of internal displacement.

As a result of my visit, I made a series of recommendations to the Colombian Government, which are important to reiterate here at a seminar bringing together more than 300 participants seeking to address the problem of displacement in Colombia. It is my hope that these recommendations will assist not only the Government, but the international community as well in developing a comprehensive strategy that would clarify the central role of the State and integrate the supplementary work of other actors, both non-governmental and intergovernmental.

To begin with, there is need for a clear assessment of the national and international response to the problem. It is noteworthy that the Church, local and international NGOs, and some Government authorities have documented the magnitude of the problem. But more is needed. It would also be valuable if there were an analysis of the national and international response to the needs of the internally displaced, examining who is doing what, where and with what impact. This would serve to identify the gaps in the coverage of geographic areas and needs as well as help to avoid duplication. A better understanding of the special needs of internally displaced women and children, who make up the majority of the displaced population, also should be developed.

Second, there is need for the Government to actually implement its programs and laws on internal displacement. In 1995, for example, the National Council for Economic and Social Policy (CONPES), an entity of the executive branch, adopted a “National Programme for Comprehensive Attention to the Population Displaced By Violence”. This program was amended by a second CONPES document in May 1997, which provided for a national system for addressing the problem of internal displacement and set forth a strategy of prevention, assistance, and consolidation of socio-economic stabilization. In July 1997, the two CONPES documents as well as policy initiatives contained in various Government decrees were consolidated in a National Plan for the Internally Displaced, contained in Law 387 which was adopted by Congress. Six months later, detailed proposals for the implementation of Law 387 were set forth in a plan of action issued by Presidential decree. This was then followed by another decree which allocated 40 billion pesos (US$ 30.7 million) for addressing the problem of internal displacement in accordance with Law 387. Various consultative bodies and committees were to come into being to design and implement the policies, including a National Information Network on Internal Displacement and an Observatorio del Desplazamiento Interno por la Violencia—a monitoring mechanism of outside experts on forced displacement who would serve as an analytical body and consultative body, evaluating the Government’s response.

Despite all these well-intentioned plans, however, the national system for response to internal displacement has been very slow to take shape. At the central and local levels institutional responsibilities have not been fully assumed, technical and financial resources have been inadequate to enable institutions to fulfil their responsibilities, and there is a lack of coordination among institutions. Moreover, Law 387 requires “reglamentacion”, that is an elaboration of the modalities of implementation. It is critical that this process be completed. This should include: convening the National Council for Comprehensive Assistance to the Displaced; supporting the establishment of local, regional and departmental committees on internal displacement; ensuring the timely transfer of funds to these committees in an amount commensurate with their responsibilities; operationalizing the National Information Network; and establishing the Observatorio del Desplazamiento Interno por la Violencia.

Third, greater coordination needs to be promoted among the central, regional and local Government authorities. In March 1999, the Red de Solidaridad Social was designated as the national focal point agency for the displaced to ensure enhanced coordination. However, I found that for the Red to function effectively, country-wide coordination will need to be strengthened. The Government’s response has been hampered by excessive centralization at the national level, which does not necessarily correspond to the needs of particular regions. In this regard, the improved functioning of regional, departmental and municipal committees for the displaced would help meet the diverse needs of the internally displaced in different areas of Colombia.

Fourth, the Government should open up spaces for cooperation and dialogue with the NGO community. A Government and NGO partnership would strengthen the Government’s capacity to address the diverse needs of those displaced. Participation of NGOs in the design and analysis of the national response to internal displacement should be strengthened. In addition to establishing the Observatorio, recommended measures include convening the mesa de trabajo mixto (permanent round table between Government representatives and NGOs) so that all relevant NGOs can participate in meetings held between the Government and NGOs. Consideration should also be given to appointing an NGO liaison officer within the Government.

Fifth, a national public awareness campaign on the plight of the internally displaced and their rights should be launched. Throughout my mission, a number of people commented on the generous outpouring of sympathy and support by the Colombian Government and nation as a whole for the victims of the January 1999 earthquake, contrasting this with the suspicion and stigmatization with which persons internally displaced by conflict and human rights violations are viewed. This perception, which leads to discrimination, severely impedes enjoyment by the displaced of their most basic rights to protection, assistance, health care, education and employment. A public awareness campaign could help alter society’s perception of the displaced as a “problem” to what they really are: fellow citizens in need of protection and assistance. It could also foster a solidarity among Colombians and facilitate the work of the Government and other organizations that assist the displaced. An important step in this regard has been taken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Defensoria del Pueblo who reproduced the Guiding Principles in Spanish. Integrating the issue of displacement into the peace process would be another way to raise the profile of the displaced within Colombian society.

The remainder of my recommendations to the Government of Colombia stem from the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which I had the privilege to present to the United Nations in 1998. The Guiding Principles are based on international human rights law and humanitarian law and apply to all phases of displacement: protection from displacement, protection during displacement and protection during return, resettlement and reintegration. It is important that the Guiding Principles be respected not only by the Government of Colombia but by all actors involved in Colombia’s civil war including the guerilla groups and paramilitary organizations.

When it comes to protection against arbitrary displacement the Government’s response has been weakest. In Colombia, unlike other countries in the world, many of the killings and massacres committed by armed actors are pre-announced. This means that preventive measures can and should be taken. Indeed, Article 14 of Law 387 puts forward a number of preventive measures, including a role for the armed forces. Preventive measures could include: a strengthening of the presence of national military, police and civil institutions in high risk areas, provided that the activities of these national institutions are effectively de-linked from those of paramilitary and other armed groups; a strengthening of the presence of non-military personnel in these areas as well, such as from State institutions; and the enhancement of international presence in the field. Clearly, recent events in Magdalena Medio and Putumayo for instance show that preventive steps have not effectively been put into practice. Reports also indicate that the “peace communities” in different regions are not being respected.

Measures to protect the physical security not only of the displaced but also of those working on their behalf are necessary. Threats against the physical security of staff from non-governmental organizations and others advocating on behalf of the internally displaced have become rampant and need to be vigorously countered by the authorities.

For persons already displaced, it is critical that the “certification” process be simplified and streamlined so as not to impede their access to humanitarian assistance. According to Law 387, the Government is supposed to provide three months of emergency humanitarian assistance to the displaced, extendable, exceptionally, for a further three months. But under the existing “certification” process, internally displaced persons must first be certified as displaced before they are entitled to the assistance and other benefits provided for them under law. In practice, few internally displaced persons receive certification because many are afraid to apply for fear of being targeted on this basis or that they may be called upon to provide the names of witnesses to substantiate their claims which they may be unwilling to do for fear of endangering the lives of others. Moreover, many do not have the personal identity documents necessary to be registered, and to obtain them would require return to areas of origin—precisely the areas from which they fled out of fear for their lives. It is essential that the authorities issue to the internally displaced all documents necessary for the enjoyment and exercise of their legal rights without imposing unreasonable conditions.

Furthermore, internally displaced persons generally do not have clear information about their entitlements under national policy and the procedures for accessing these. One way to facilitate access by the displaced would be the publication of a handbook, possibly by an international agency or international or local NGO, to provide the displaced with information on the procedures for obtaining needed food, medicine and shelter. When I visited, there was no such guide for the internally displaced.

Since displacement in Colombia is often protracted, efforts should be made to support the “social and economic consolidation and stabilization” provisions of Law 387. These call for employment and income-generating projects for the internally displaced. In particular, programs supporting self-reliance for the displaced need to be expanded. Education and training are required as well as help in finding jobs, together with measures such as subsidizing child care or public transportation so as to enable displaced men and women to help themselves.

With regard to return, it is of utmost importance that communities contemplating return be provided with clear information on conditions of security and assistance in their home areas. There have been cases where internally displaced persons have been encouraged to return on the basis of assurances made by the authorities that their physical safety would be protected, only to discover, with tragic results, that this was not the case. Serious concerns for the safety of returning displaced communities, for example in the Turbo region persist. Also it must be emphasized that the authorities have the duty and responsibility to assist returned and/or resettled internally displaced persons to recover, to the extent possible, their property or possessions which they left behind or were dispossessed of upon their displacement. The fact that the majority of the internally displaced lack legal title to the land they left behind makes it difficult for them to recover land or be compensated for its loss. An equitable process of land reform and distribution is key to a lasting solution.

In cases where return is not feasible, the Government must actively pursue alternatives to return, such as resettlement. Government efforts to date have focused too little on resettlement. Reintegration assistance, however, could prove important in encouraging resettlement.

Enhanced international presence in areas of potential and actual return or resettlement would allow for objective assessments of the extent to which the requisite conditions of safety and sustainability exist. I welcome in particular UNHCR’s establishment of field offices in Colombia, the presence of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombia, and the increased presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia. There are now also more than a dozen international non-governmental organizations working with the internally displaced in Colombia. It is critical that their safety be assured. I was informed during my visit that coordination among the various international actors has considerably improved but is still insufficient. As a follow-up to the mission, therefore, recommendations for strengthening coordination among international agencies were put forward and the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) is planning to send staff to the field to support UNHCR in its coordination role.

In conclusion, it should be borne in mind that displacement and indeed the conflict generating it are symptoms of deeply rooted national problems in Colombia. As is the case with most countries torn apart by conflict and internal displacement, Colombia is an acutely divided country. The rural poor, the indigenous populations and the Afro-Colombians are the primary victims of a national identity crisis that both contributes to the conflict and impacts on the national response to its consequences. While the Government is called upon to respond to the crisis of internal displacement, it must aim at addressing the root causes to promote justice, security and equality for all its citizens. But since the peace process and the addressing of root causes will take time, the dispossessed of Colombia will continue to look to the international community for protection and assistance. While there is valid concern about the Government’s assigning its responsibility to the international community, it cannot be justification for leaving unprotected and unassisted a people who are largely dispossessed by their own national authorities. The international community must strive to fill that gap. In this connection, I welcome the initiative of international donors to support Colombian Government programs earmarked for the internally displaced, and I encourage donors to increase their contributions for humanitarian assistance to the displaced in Colombia. Above all, I urge that concerted efforts be taken to provide protection against on-going displacement, to guarantee the physical security of the large number of persons already uprooted in Colombia, and to intensify measures to peacefully end the conflict causing this displacement. To this end, I call upon the Colombian Government to exhibit the will and determination to implement the policies and programs it has thus far announced for the internally displaced and to ensure that the peace process includes attention to and resolution of this humanitarian tragedy. I thank you for your kind attention and wish your seminar every success.