Strengthening the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

October 16, 2008

Today, an estimated 26 million people have been forced out of their homes and displaced within their countries as a result of armed conflict or widespread violence. Millions more are displaced by natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Still others have lost their homes because they had to make way for dams, airports, highways and other development projects and live in misery because they were not properly compensated for their loss or relocated to an area which would have allowed them to resume normal lives.

Forced displacement is not just a passing event in people’s lives. It is a devastating transformation. It means that from one day to the next families lose their homes and livelihoods and are forced to leave behind all they had cherished. As a result, communities break apart under the stress of displacement, resulting in marginalization, abject poverty, exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence, and loss of community culture and tradition. Family members are all too often separated or exposed to malnutrition and disease. Children suffer from lack of access to education and a higher risk of child labor, sexual exploitation or recruitment into armed groups. In short: internal displacement shatters lives. Not surprisingly it is easier to displace communities than to rebuild them.

Individuals and communities displaced within their own country share the experience of dislocation with refugees who have fled to another country. Both refugees and internally displaced persons face urgent protection needs and human rights violations, but unlike refugees who can invoke the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and similar international instruments, internally displaced persons do not have a their own human rights convention. It is true that as citizens or residents they can invoke all the rights available to the population of their given State. However, displaced persons have very specific needs not shared by the rest of the State’s population. They need to be able to find a location and shelter where they are safe; to access humanitarian assistance and livelihoods away from home; and to be able to seek restitution of the property they left behind. Finally, at the appropriate time, a solution to their displacement needs to be found: either return to their homes, integration into the community in which they are displaced, or settlement in another part of the country, allowing them to resume normal lives. Internally displaced persons need to know they have a right to protection, shelter, access to humanitarian assistance, and eventually to a solution to their displacement.

Today we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. It is a short document that lists the specific rights of internally displaced persons as they are inherent in and can be derived from international human rights and humanitarian law. When the then Representative of the UN Secretary General, Dr. Francis Deng, submitted these Principles to the then UN Human Rights Commission in 1998, a crucial step was taken: for the first time it was explicitly recognized that internally displaced persons have needs and rights. A consensus emerged as to what these exactly were. While some governments were reluctant to accept the document initially, the Guiding Principles have gained solid standing since the 2005 World Summit when heads of state gathered in New York and solemnly recognized the Guiding Principles as “an important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons”.

What have these Guiding Principles achieved?

They empower displaced persons all over the world. It is always a moving moment for me when displaced women or men — whether housed in a camp, hiding somewhere in a rural area, or living in the poorest part of a city — tell me how they saw a glimpse of hope when they learned that they have rights and how they invoke these rights in their struggles with the authorities that neglect, overlook or even oppress them.

They help governments tackle the burden that internal displacement inevitably imposes on States. In many countries faced with internal displacement, the Guiding Principles have inspired laws and policies. Government officials have been trained on the rights of the displaced and the corresponding duties of the authorities. They also provide a framework for governments to take the necessary measures for disaster risk reduction and mitigation, in order to prevent disaster-induced displacement that could be avoided.

They provide guidance for international humanitarian agencies and civil society in the countries concerned to shape their actions in favor of internally displaced persons both during the emergency but also during reconstruction.

Finally they have inspired provisions in various peace agreements addressing the need to allow displaced persons to resume normal lives back home or elsewhere in the country as essential part of peace-building.

In short, the Guiding Principles have become the point of reference for everyone dealing with internal displacement. In that sense, they have achieved a lot. At the same time, internally displaced persons continue to languish in dire situations all over the world and all too often their rights are violated. Much remains to be done. More internally displaced persons must know about their rights and have access to legal procedures to claim them. Governments must take their primary responsibility to protect and assist such persons much more seriously. They have to adapt their laws and policies to the requirements of the Guiding Principles and provide the necessary resources to strengthen the capacities of their institutions to fully implement these laws. Regional organizations must take a lead role in monitoring and implementing the Principles in their region, and the United Nations and other humanitarian actors have to continue to use them systematically as benchmarks for the provision of emergency assistance and protection to displaced populations. Donors have to continue and even increase their support for humanitarian action on behalf of internally displaced persons and, in particular, provide the means for protection activities. Finally, the UN Security Council should call for and monitor the implementation of the Guiding Principles by all actors in situations of armed conflict.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are more relevant today than ever. They provide hope for millions of people uprooted by forces beyond their control. Internally displaced persons have basic human rights which must be respected by all – by government authorities at all levels, by insurgents and other non-state actors, by humanitarian agencies, and by civil society.