The Voting Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

April 22, 2005

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, 1

The challenges faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs) in exercising their right to vote are among the points of discussion at this meeting. I welcome the attention being given by the OSCE to this important issue.

There are some 3 million people in 13 countries of the OSCE who have been forced from their homes by armed conflict and violations of human rights and who remain displaced within the borders of their own countries, often for protracted periods. In a number of cases, they have faced difficulties voting in elections and thereby having an influence over the decisions affecting their lives.

The OSCE’s 1990 Copenhagen Document guarantees universal and equal suffrage without discrimination. In addition, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,2 which the OSCE recognized in 2003 as “a useful framework…in dealing with internal displacement,”3 affirm that: “Internally displaced persons, whether or not they are living in camps, shall not be discriminated against as a result of their displacement in the enjoyment of [t]he right to vote and to participate in governmental and public affairs.”

The OSCE has an important role to play in safeguarding this right. Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), through election monitoring and technical assistance programs, has, in a number of cases, devoted attention to IDP voting rights, especially at the field level. Such efforts have also contributed to identifying the need for national legislative reform. Indeed, in some states, governments have worked to bring their electoral laws into line with OSCE commitments to ensure the fair and equal political participation of IDPs — most notably Georgia, which revised its electoral law in 2003. In other places, laws or policies that posed an obstacle to IDP voting have been improved and better regulations put in place. However, many problems still remain.

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1Delivered by Balkees Jarrah of the Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement.

2 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, United Nations doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2.

3 OSCE Ministerial Council, Decision 4/04 “Tolerance and Non-Discrimination”, adopted at Maastricht, 2 December 2003, para. 13.