The Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

October 26, 2009

Chairperson, Excellencies, distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have come to New York from Kampala where I attended last week’s African Union Special Summit of Heads of State and Government on refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons in Africa. There, I witnessed the historic moment of the adoption of the AU Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. The importance of this Convention cannot be underestimated. Building on the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement it is the first legally binding IDP-specific treaty covering an entire continent. The Convention is a tremendous achievement and a beacon of hope for the almost 12 million people in Africa internally displaced by conflict and the many more internally displaced by natural disasters, and hopefully serves as a model for other regions, too.  

I commend the African Union for its leadership in developing this Convention. I urge all African states to ratify it and implement its provisions, and I call on the international community to seize this momentum and to lend all support needed to its implementation. 

Mr. Chairperson, 

Reflecting on my mandate’s activities over the past 12 months, I would first like to highlight three topics: climate change and natural disasters, internal displacement and peace processes and the search for durable solutions for internally displaced persons. 

Climate Change and Internal Displacement

Climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of climate related disasters, both sudden-onset disasters like flooding and hurricanes and slow-onset disasters such as desertification. The negative impact of these disasters can be mitigated by adopting disaster risk reduction measures. Yet, it is expected that the number of persons displaced by climate related disasters will increase. Most of these people will remain within their own country; hence they will be internally displaced persons to whom the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement apply. It is therefore crucial to enhance capacities of governments and humanitarian actors to provide protection and assistance to these persons. I strongly call on states to ensure that the adaptation and risk management regime of the new UNFCCC framework agreement covers forced displacement. 

Internal Displacement and Peace Processes

Finding durable solutions for internally displaced persons is an essential element of a successful peace process. The way the issue is addressed in peace agreements often predetermines how internal displacement is dealt with in the aftermath of conflicts. Many peace agreements reflect the issue of internal displacement insufficiently or haphazardly. Therefore, over the past 18 months and in close cooperation with the Mediation Support Unit of the Department for Political Affairs of the UN and humanitarian, human rights and mediation experts, I developed a guide on internal displacement and peace processes for mediators. This guide provides advice on how to consult with internally displaced persons and engage them in the different phases of a peace process even if they do not sit at the negotiation table and on what kind of key displacement-specific issues should be addressed in the text of a peace agreement. It will be published later this year.[1] 

I deepened my engagement with the Peacebuilding Commission through a country-based engagement on Central African Republic. I am pleased to see that the country specific strategic framework reflects many of the recommendations that I submitted on the basis of a working visit to this country last February. I plan to remain engaged with the Peacebuilding Commission in the course of the coming year. 

I call on all actors presently involved in peace and peacebuilding processes to adequately address the specific needs of IDPs in the aftermath of armed conflicts. 

Durable Solutions for IDPs

In the many missions I carried out over the past five years, I noticed that finding durable solutions for IDPs is always a tremendous challenge. It is a multi-faceted, long, complex and often expensive process, which requires the coordination and cooperation of a variety of actors from among national and local authorities, and the humanitarian and the development communities. With policy guidance such as that provided by the Framework for Durable Solutions—a document developed by my office and the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement a few years ago and presently being revised in close cooperation with relevant stakeholders[2]—we know what should be done, but we must improve on the ground. Too often the coordination between humanitarian and development actors is insufficient, the funding for early recovery activities is lacking or IDPs are simply not a priority in recovery, reconstruction and development plans resulting in gaps jeopardizing the sustainability of returns or local integration of the displaced when the humanitarian actors phase out and the development partners are not yet able to show tangible progress in restoring infrastructure, services and livelihoods. Based on my observations in many countries, I have come to the conclusion that the practical problems in this area are a consequence of systemic failures in bringing humanitarian and development actors together to work hand in hand at an early stage of recovery. In addition to differences in approaches and cultures, these failures can to a large extent be attributed to a lack of flexible funding mechanisms for early recovery and reconstruction in spite of some recent steps in the right direction, including the creation of the peace-building fund.  

Country Situations  

Mr. Chairperson, 

The second pillar of my mandate is the engagement in a constructive dialogue with governments. I am grateful that with a few exceptions the countries that I approached during this reporting period were open to engage with my mandate. 

Allow me to provide you with an update on important developments since the completion of my written report to the General Assembly:  

I carried out a mission to Somalia from 14 – 21 October. Lack of humanitarian access, security risks for humanitarian workers, and the sharp decline in donor contributions exacerbate this long-standing humanitarian crisis, and international attention to the plight of IDPs is largely insufficient. I was shocked by the degree of violence the civilian population and in particular internally displaced persons in South and Central Somalia suffer. Serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law are committed in an environment of impunity. Such acts are a major cause of the displacement of 1.5 million persons, the majority of whom are women and children. They remain highly vulnerable and exposed to serious human rights violations, in particular sexual violence, during flight and in IDP settlements. Many of the displaced try to reach safety in Puntland or Somaliland, where the high number of internally displaced persons puts enormous strain on the limited existing resources and basic services available. Reception capacities for new internally displaced persons must be strengthened and basic services expanded to reduce the burden on host communities. Further robust development interventions are needed to transform humanitarian action into sustainable livelihoods and investing into education and job opportunities for the youth is a must in an environment where recruitment by radical forces is often the only opportunity offered to them. Present efforts by the authorities, humanitarian, development and human rights actors are largely insufficient to bring urgently needed change. I urgently call on the international community to strengthen these efforts and to reaffirm its commitment to Somalia. 

I was twice in Sri Lanka over the past six months; in April, shortly before the end of hostilities, and again in September at a time the security situation had vastly improved, although over 250,000 internally displaced were still held in closed camps. Restoration of their freedom of movement has become a matter of urgency, and immediate and substantial progress in this regard is an imperative for Sri Lanka to comply with its commitments under international law. I discussed a three-pronged strategy for decongesting the camps with the government, which is based on returns of IDPs to their homes, release of IDPs to host families and transfer of IDPs to small open welfare centers in the region of return as a transitional solution until return is possible. I urged the Government to pursue these options in parallel with highest priority, to speed up the screening procedures, and to immediately release those not deemed to pose a security threat. Since my visit, this process has started. I acknowledge the progress made so far in demining and reconstructing returnee areas and releasing and returning a good number of displaced people to Jaffna and Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa as well as to Vavuniya and Killinochi. I underline that this return needs to happen according to international standards. At the same time, I continue to reiterate that the ultimate goal is the restoration of freedom of movement and finding durable solutions for all IDPs. 

During my visit to Georgia of last autumn, I reiterated that there should be no discrimination between different persons internally displaced in Georgia’s different waves of displacement. The approximately 220,000 individuals who have been displaced over the long-term in Georgia should be able to avail themselves of the same possibilities to improve their living conditions as are enjoyed by those more recently displaced. I welcome that in the meantime the government has adopted an action plan to improve the housing situation of the long-term displaced and started to implement it. I am also grateful that a solution was found allowing me to visit the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia region next week. 

I remain engaged on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In March 2010, six other special procedures and I will report to the Human Rights Council on progress the DRC made in implementing a series of recommendations we previously made on how to tangibly improve the situation on the ground. Despite encouraging returns of 110,000 persons in North Kivu Province over the last two months, I remain concerned about the overall deterioration of the humanitarian situation due to the continued attacks on civilian populations carried out by LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) militias and the impact of the military operations against the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda) armed group and the FDLR’s reprisals against the civilian population triggering new displacements.  

My working visits to Uganda and Serbia had a special focus on durable solutions. In Uganda, I was impressed to see that the majority of the formerly 1.8 million internally displaced persons have returned to their villages and I expressed my appreciation to the Government for its continued efforts. Sustaining returns remains a challenge that must be addressed by quick impact recovery and development activities, which requires stronger action by development agencies and support of donors. Despite the huge progress made thus far, the fate of a considerable number of particularly vulnerable individuals left behind in camps or living in transit sites as well as a general lack of synchronicity between the phasing out of humanitarian assistance and the increase of development activities in returnee areas continue to be a source of concern. 

Many of the 200,000 persons internally displaced from and within Kosovo (I am using the term in accordance with the U.N. position of strict neutrality on the status question) have not yet found a durable solution. I note with appreciation that all relevant authorities in Pristina expressed their commitment to facilitate returns of displaced persons, regardless of their ethnicity. However, due to entrenched patterns of discrimination in every sector of life and also a lack of support, in particular at the municipal level, there have only been a few sustainable returns. At the same time, I wish to reemphasize that the right for a dignified life and the right to return are not mutually exclusive. In this respect, I would like to commend the increased efforts of the Government of Serbia to improve the living conditions of internally displaced persons who have not returned.  

Mr. Chairperson, 

This is my last report which I present personally in my capacity as Representative of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly. Over the past five years, I have seen encouraging trends.  The UN Guiding Principles are now firmly rooted as the relevant framework for the protection of internally displaced persons, legislation and policies have been developed at national and regional level and the cluster approach has led to an improved humanitarian response. Overall, states and humanitarian and developmental actors are better prepared and equipped today to address the plight of the more than 50 million persons displaced within their countries. This is badly needed as the effects of climate change will lead to new displacement. At the same time, it is worrying to see that armed conflict are conducted with utter disregard for the civilian populations in several parts of the world, the humanitarian space is shrinking in many countries, and many displacement situations that were protracted when I assumed this mandate remain unchanged. 

A new mandate-holder will be named next summer and I trust that he or she will also benefit from the particular strengths that currently characterize my mandate. As a Representative of the Secretary-General, I enjoy excellent access to Governments and other important stakeholders, I receive remarkable support of the relevant entities of the United Nations and from donors, and my participation as a standing invitee to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee is key to reach out to the wider humanitarian community.  

Thank you.

[1] The guide will be published by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement and the United States Institute for Peace.

[2] The revised Framework is expected to be published as an addendum to my next report to the Human Rights Council, tentatively scheduled for its 13th session (March 2010).