Statement on Migration and Internal Displacement

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

September 25, 2000

First, allow me to express my appreciation to the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and to the Chair in Office, the Government of Austria, for organizing this meeting to focus attention on internal displacement in the OSCE region. As the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons earlier observed, internal displacement has emerged over the past decade as one of the more pressing human rights, humanitarian and political and security issues facing the global community. In the OSCE region alone, there are an estimated 4 to 5 million persons forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries in at least 10 different states. Substantial numbers are in need of assistance, protection and reintegration and development support.

In my remarks today, I would like to recommend that the OSCE better integrate the issue of internal displacement into its programs and activities. Of course we must recognize that it is the OSCE participating states that have the primary responsibility for the security, human rights and well-being of their internally displaced populations. However, some governments do not have the capacity to provide the needed protection and assistance, necessitating outside attention. Other governments may need to be reminded of their responsibilities toward their internally displaced populations, particularly when these populations are of ethnic groups difficult from that of the government or majority in the country. Regional attention is also made necessary by the fact that situations of conflict and displacement rarely remain confined within borders. They spill over into neighboring countries in one form or another and can upset regional stability.

To its credit, the OSCE has begun to take some steps with regard to the problem of internal displacement in its region. Its conflict prevention machinery, for example, seeks to defuse the tensions that can produce mass displacement. Its missions to different countries have made recommendations about internally displaced persons and its field staff have engaged in monitoring the safety and human rights of internally displaced persons, especially during returns. Through its election monitoring and technical assistance programs, it also has been able to promote some attention to internally displaced populations. I would note too that in 1999 for the first time, an OSCE document, the Charter for European Security, agreed to in Istanbul, refers specifically to internally displaced persons. Participating states reject policies of ethnic cleansing or mass expulsion and commit themselves to facilitating the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons in dignity and safety and their reintegration without discrimination in their places of origin.

While all these steps are to be encouraged and commended, they are largely ad hoc and in some cases minimal to the situation. There is need for more systematic attention to the problem of internal displacement in the OSCE region. There is need for a more systematic approach.

Indeed, it is timely for the OSCE to consider defining internal displacement as a human dimension issue of direct concern to the organization. It could then review situations of internal displacement in the region, review national legislation on the question, review national practices toward internally displaced populations and dialogue with governments with a view to promoting greater respect for the human rights of the internally displaced.

The framework for a more systematic approach could easily be the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These Principles constitute a comprehensive normative framework for the internally displaced. They bring together into one compact document all the international legal provisions relevant to the internally displaced. They have been widely acknowledged as useful guidelines by United Nations bodies and are being widely disseminated by United Nations agencies. International organizations, regional bodies in different parts of the world, non-governmental groups and also governments have been finding the Principles of value in the following ways – as a yardstick for monitoring and evaluating situations, as a source of advice in drafting laws and constitutions, as a basis for dialogue on the subject, as a tool for training staff, as a means of raising visibility to the plight of internally displaced persons. Unanimously adopted resolutions of both the UN Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly have specifically encouraged regional organizations to disseminate and apply the Principles.

The Principles correspond with the OSCE’s structure and purposes since they cover all phases of displacement – prevention, protection during displacement and protection during return and reintegration. Using them as a framework for an OSCE approach could translate into the following OSCE activities:

1) preventive strategies that regularly give early warning to mass displacement so that it can be more effectively dealt with, combined with efforts to try to defuse the tensions that cause displacement;

2) monitoring or reviewing new as well as protracted situations of internal displacement, using the Guiding Principles as the yardstick for measuring conditions;

3) greater OSCE advocacy with governments through diplomatic dialogue about situations of internal displacement;

4) OSCE technical assistance programs to governments to help strengthen and develop constitutions, laws, and national institutions that promote the rights of internally displaced persons and equitable treatment for them;

5) during election monitoring, ensuring that internally displaced persons are able to freely exercise their right to vote and do not face discrimination or neglect with regard to political participation;

6) the greater engagement of OSCE field staff with monitoring situations of displacement and providing protection, when appropriate, especially during returns when there are often acute protection and property issues.

Accomplishing such integration will require a good deal of brainstorming. I would propose a week long seminar on how best to integrate internal displacement into the OSCE’s work. Training will also be needed of OSCE staff, of relevant government personnel, and of international organizations and NGOs. It should be noted in this regard that the OSCE recently co-sponsored a workshop in the South Caucasus on internal displacement and the Guiding Principles, in which the Governments of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia participated. The training of field staff in particular will benefit from use of the new Handbook on Applying the Guiding Principles, published by the UN. In addition, training modules in the Guiding Principles are being developed by the UN.

To conclude, most important for integrating internal displacement in the OSCE process will be a commitment from participating states to recognize the issue as a priority one. The organization’s ability to develop a strong and influential voice on the issue could help encourage participating states to fulfill their commitments to displaced populations and to avoid policies that directly and deliberately lead to mass displacement. When the OSCE Implementation Meeting takes place in October there should be discussion of the OSCE’s role in situations of internal displacement Then when the Ministerial Council meets in November, it hopefully will act to integrate internal displacement in the activities of the OSCE and use the Guiding Principles as a framework for doing so. The scale and severity of this human rights and humanitarian problem in the OSCE region make it imperative that more systematic attention be given to the millions of internally displaced persons in Europe in need of support.