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

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

April 7, 2004

Mr./Ms. Chairperson
Distinguished Delegates
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In this report, my last to the Commission as Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, I come again with a mixed message. I can say unequivocally that the international community has made remarkable progress in responding to the global challenge of internal displacement. This is a ground for optimism. But we must also be realistic. And realism reveals the other side of the story.

The numbers remain as large as ever. Last year, the number of internally displaced persons remained at 25 million. While some 3 million people were able to return to their areas of origin, for example, in Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia/Herzegovina and parts of Indonesia, an equal number were newly displaced, most of them in Africa, including in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, the Sudan, and Uganda, but also elsewhere, notably Colombia, Myanmar and the Aceh region in Indonesia, all desperately needing protection and assistance. Cleary, there is still work to be done.

Mr./Ms. Chairperson,

Permit me to explain once more the core of the approach I have adopted over the years in discharging my responsibilities under the mandate. From the beginning, I realized that I had to balance sensitivity to the legitimate concerns of Governments about state sovereignty with the needs of the internally displaced for international protection and assistance. This required constructive dialogue based on recognizing that internal displacement is, by definition, a problem that falls under state sovereignty, which must be respected, but that sovereignty should be seen as a positive concept of state responsibility to protect and assist needy citizens and all those under state jurisdiction, if necessary, in collaboration with the international community.

My approach therefore has been to engage Governments and other pertinent actors in constructive dialogue to meet the needs of their displaced populations, welding together human rights and humanitarian concerns, and linking them to the longer-term challenges of addressing the root causes.

Over the years, I have incrementally structured the work of my mandate into six areas or “pillars” of activity pursuant to the resolutions of the Commission and the General Assembly.

The first pillar is advocacy and awareness-raising. I am pleased to note that the level of awareness and concern about internal displacement in policy circles and in the international human rights, humanitarian and development communities has risen considerably. However, more needs to be done to raise awareness among the various publics and to convince governing authorities, and even some within the humanitarian community, that an effective and comprehensive response to internal displacement is urgently needed.

The second pillar has been the development and promotion of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the first and only international document focused on the rights of the internally displaced. I have been most gratified by the level of acceptance and use the Guiding Principles have received at the national, regional and international levels.

The third pillar relates to institutional arrangements. Out of the various options that I suggested initially, collaboration among all the agencies is the one that has been embraced. And, indeed, much has been accomplished through this arrangement. Nevertheless, a number of studies and evaluations conducted in the course of 2003 have identified gaps in the international institutional response to the crisis.

In response to these studies, both states and the humanitarian community have recently reaffirmed their determination to make the “collaborative approach” work more efficiently and effectively. However, to do so will require not only the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator as the focal point, with the strong backing of the Secretary-General, but also the concerted efforts of operational agencies and organizations. It will also require adequate financial support from donor countries and the political backing of all States.

A further area of activity for my mandate has been country missions and dialogue with Governments and other pertinent actors. Over the years, I have undertaken 27 official country missions and a number of additional in-country or regional activities.

In August 2003, I undertook a mission to Uganda that included consultations in Kampala and travel to districts in the North where more than 1.4 million persons are internally displaced. There was clearly an urgent need to enhance the minimum protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced. In particular, the Government needed to ensure the physical protection of the displaced in camps, where they remained exposed to attacks and abductions by rebel forces. Most compelling was the situation of the thousands of so-called “night-commuters”, mostly children, who travelled nightly to sleep in urban centres in order to avoid being abducted.

I was pleased to note the positive initiative by the Government to recognize the problem it faced and its work toward a comprehensive national policy on internal displacement. This policy has been long in the making and I strongly hope that it will be adopted and implemented in the very near future.

In September 2003, I visited the Russian Federation, and undertook field visits to Ingushetia and Chechnya. The mission focused on issues of voluntary return of internally displaced persons as well as adequate humanitarian assistance and protection to returnees in Chechnya. During the mission, I had constructive talks on these issues with the authorities both in Moscow and in the North Caucasus. I was pleased with the positive statements by the Government about the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and affirmations of respect for the right to voluntary return of the displaced, as well as the need to provide adequate alternative housing in Ingushetia and elsewhere for those who do not wish to return. There was also a need to ensure the protection of the returnees in Chechnya and of the human rights and humanitarian workers seeking to assist them.

I would like to thank both the Governments of Uganda and the Russian Federation for the invitations and cooperation they extended to me.

With regard to regional activities, I would like to draw particular attention to the conference my mandate co-sponsored with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development and the OCHA IDP Unit in September 2003, hosted by the Government of the Sudan. The conference resulted in a strong ministerial declaration recognizing the gravity of the displacement situation in the sub-region, the need to cooperate, and the utility of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

Also noteworthy was a conference on internal displacement in the Latin American region hosted by the Government of Mexico in February of this year and co-sponsored by my mandate and the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, which I co-direct. The conference developed a framework for action, intended to provide guidance and assistance to Governments, civil society, and regional as well as international actors in addressing internal displacement in the Americas.

The fifth pillar of the mandate has been support and capacity building for local civil society institutions. Over the years, through the Brookings-SAIS Project, we have collaborated with a number of NGOs, academic institutions, IDP associations, lawyers associations and national human rights institutions, to develop projects that address internal displacement in the local context, including educational materials, courses and lecture series, handbooks for IDPs and their advocates, and analyses of domestic legal frameworks in light of the Guiding Principles.

The final pillar of the mandate has been policy-based research, which we have carried out with the assistance of the dedicated staff of the Brookings-SAIS Project. Issues recently covered by the Project include national responsibility, peacekeeping, IDP protection, the application of the Guiding Principles, and the question of when displacement ends.

Mr./Ms. Chairperson,

Before I conclude, I would like to extend my thanks to the collaborators from all parts of the world who have contributed immeasurably to the work of my mandate over the years. While they are too many to list here individually, I would like to single out the co-director of the Brookings-SAIS Project, Roberta Cohen, whose commitment to this cause predates my appointment and who has been a close collaborator for the years I have carried the mantle of the mandate. I would also like to specially thank the Governments and foundations that have funded the Project without which so much that we have been able to do could not have been done.

Sensitive as this mandate has been, I feel very privileged to have received the support of this Commission, the General Assembly, the Secretary-General, the successive Emergency Relief Coordinators, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other entities and colleagues within the United Nations system, as well as the wider international humanitarian and human rights community.

I should say that I have been greatly touched and also humbled by the trust placed in me by the internally displaced persons I have had the privilege to meet personally over the course of my association with the mandate. I only hope that the efforts of the mandate have made some difference, however modest, in alleviating their suffering.

To conclude, although the crisis of internal displacement remains daunting, the international community appears resolved, and is certainly better equipped, to respond commensurately. With the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement now in place, the collaborative approach agreed upon as the appropriate institutional framework for response, and a sound ground established for sustained dialogues with Governments and other actors, the challenge is to be effective and comprehensive on the ground, where the needs of displaced populations for protection and assistance are real and pressing. What must be avoided is complacency and pessimism.

Thank you