The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: Standing and Application

Marianne Makar
Marianne Makar Senior Research Assistant

September 30, 2002

Good afternoon. I am going to talk briefly today about the current standing of the Guiding Principles and how the Principles are being used, particularly by Governments in Africa.

What is the current international standing of the Guiding Principles? As noted earlier, the Principles are not a legally binding treaty, but they are based on provisions of international law which are binding, and they have come to acquire over the past few years a good deal of international standing and moral authority. Intergovernmental organizations, most notably the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, have acknowledged the Principles and now in their resolutions call upon the Representative of the Secretary-General to use them in his dialogues with governments, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, and calls upon UN agencies, regional bodies and NGOs to disseminate and apply them. This year’s Commission resolution, adopted by consensus in April 2002 including States in the West African region, referred to the Guiding Principles “as an important tool for dealing with situations of internal displacement” and “expressed its appreciation for the dissemination and promotion of the Guiding Principles at regional and other seminars.” The most recent General Assembly resolution of 2001 also called for the dissemination and application of the Principles.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has called upon the Security Council to encourage states to observe the Guiding Principles in situations of mass displacement. And the Security Council has begun to cite the Principles in its resolutions and Presidential statements. A resolution on Burundi, for example, cited the Guiding Principles. Further, it should be noted that all the main international humanitarian, human rights and development organizations and NGO umbrella groups comprising the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee have endorsed the Principles and taken the decision to disseminate and apply them in the field. That includes the International Organization for Migration, the UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Program, UNDP and others.

In addition, the Programme of Action adopted in September 2001 at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa encourages the bodies, agencies and relevant programmes of the UN system and States to promote and to make use of the Guiding Principles.

Regional organizations have been using the Principles as well. Indeed, UN resolutions have specifically called upon regional organizations, together with the Representative of the Secretary-General, to promote the Guiding Principles, particularly through the convening of regional seminars such as this one. In Africa, the African Union, for example, has taken note of the Guiding Principles “with interest and appreciation” and has co-sponsored a seminar on their use in Africa. As earlier mentioned, in April 2000, ECOWAS ministers adopted a declaration at the Conference on War-Affected Children in West Africa which welcomed the Guiding Principles and called for their application by ECOWAS member States. My colleague will elaborate upon the use by regional organizations of the Guiding Principles later in this session.

Most encouraging is that governments are increasingly using the Principles as guidelines in dealing with situations of internal displacement. As was noted earlier, national governments bear primary responsibility for addressing the protection and assistance needs of their internally displaced populations. The Guiding Principles, by providing clear information on the rights of internally displaced persons as well as the limits of those rights, help States faced with internally displaced persons to address such situations in a way which is consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law. This can be achieved in several ways. States can pledge to directly apply international human rights and humanitarian law on the domestic level and use, for that purpose, the Guiding Principles as an expression of that law. They can also decide to use the Guiding Principles as a yardstick for measuring conditions in their own countries. Finally, the Principles may serve as a source of inspiration for domestic legislation on internally displaced persons.

In recent years, several governments have begun to base policy and law upon the provisions of the Principles. In Africa, as I will discuss in more detail later, the Guiding Principles have been incorporated into law in Angola. In Burundi, a government consultation process is based on the Principles. And in Uganda, a policy on internal displacement is being developed. Outside of Africa, it will be of interest to you to know that governments in Asia, Europe and the Americas, in particular Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Georgia, Armenia and Colombia, have also been using the Principles as a basis for policy toward internally displaced persons. Moreover, the Constitutional Court of Colombia has cited the Guiding Principles in two leading decisions on internally displaced persons, thus creating judicial precedent. Recent UN General Assembly and Commission on Human Rights resolutions have drawn attention to the growing number of governments that are making use of the Guiding Principles.

I would now like to elaborate in greater detail on the use of the Guiding Principles by African governments. There are, in fact, a number of countries in Africa where the Guiding Principles are being used to develop domestic policies and laws on internal displacement in ways that may prove instructive for the West African region.

In Angola, the Principles have been incorporated into national law as a decree on minimum standards which must be met for the resettlement of internally displaced persons. With the end of the civil war in Angola, large numbers of internally displaced persons are returning home, making these Norms on Resettlement particularly important. The Norms state that the Guiding Principles establish general principles governing the treatment of internally displaced persons. They emphasize the voluntary nature of return or resettlement. They speak of the importance of consulting both internally displaced persons and host communities when determining return or resettlement sites. They specify that it is the responsibility of the State for insuring a safe and dignified return for internally displaced persons.

The Guiding Principles are also at the center of a national protection strategy for internally displaced persons in Angola. Under this program, Government, police and military personnel receive training on the Principles and formulate local plans for their implementation. Implementation of the plans is then monitored by joint Government-UN teams at both the provincial and national levels. Although compliance with the Norms is not yet universal, at the end of 2001 the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the implementation of provincial protection plans conformed with the Norms on Resettlement and the Guiding Principles approximately 70% of the time. To support these efforts, the UN country team has also established a system for collecting information and monitoring the conditions of internally displaced persons using a questionnaire based on the Guiding Principles.

Similarly, in Burundi, the Principles provide the framework for a joint Government-UN protection strategy for internally displaced persons. The Framework for Consultation on the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, which was established in February 2001, calls for the implementation of the Guiding Principles. It consists of two main bodies: the Committee on the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons and the Follow-Up Technical Group. Overall, the Framework aims to enhance cooperation between the Government, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations in addressing internal displacement issues, particularly prevention, access and protection. Earlier this year, the two bodies worked together to successfully facilitate access to displaced persons in a highly insecure area of the country. In addition, the Follow-Up Technical Group has organized informational meetings with local government officials to inform and sensitize them on human rights issues and the Guiding Principles.

In Uganda, the government is working with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to finalize a national policy on internally displaced persons. The policy, which focuses on issues of return and resettlement, is based on the Guiding Principles. It is envisaged that this policy will be launched at a national seminar later this year. And in the Sudan, where civil war has ravaged the country for decades, government officials recently requested and received training on the Guiding Principles. So, too, did the Sudan People?s Liberation Movement, one of the main non-state actors in the country. It is of interest, too, that the government of Sudan plans to hold a seminar to discuss elements of a national policy on internal displacement.

Civil society in a number of African countries is also finding the Guiding Principles an important tool to bring about improved treatment for internally displaced persons. Local organizations use them to monitor, assess and advocate for the needs of the displaced. In Angola, for example, UN and local organizations are disseminating the Guiding Principles and the Handbook for applying them – which you have in your packet of materials on internal displacement – by means of a series of posters and comic strips in order to inform internally displaced persons of their rights.

In Somalia, the Somali Family Care Network has translated the Principles into Somali for use by internally displaced persons in the country. They are organizing an outreach campaign to disseminate the Principles widely among the displaced and to local authorities in an effort to increase awareness of the right of internally displaced persons.

In Sierra Leone, the Norwegian Refugee Council held a training workshop on the Guiding Principles for government officials, civil society and displaced persons. During the workshop, the participants identified the need for an audio version of the Principles. In response to their recommendation, the Norwegian Refugee Council sponsored the production of a simplified recording of the Principles for radio transmission in the country. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, local groups are disseminating the Guiding Principles in French.

As these examples show, the Guiding Principles are being used in a variety of ways by governments and civil society: as a tool for gathering information, as a checklist for assessing conditions, as a basis for current policy, as a guide for the development of new legislation, and as a source of information on the responsibilities of the State toward internally displaced persons.

It is our hope that the ECOWAS governments will find the Guiding Principles and this overview of their application useful in the development of their own policies and programs for internally displaced persons. It is an important time for addressing internal displacement in the West African region.