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UNHCR: expanding its role with IDPs

UNHCR is at a critical point in its 54—year history. Set up to protect refugees, it is now poised to take on a leading role in protecting internally displaced people.

The Emergency Relief Coordinator, the heads of the major relief and development organisations, NGO umbrella groups and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement—which together comprise the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)[1]—on 12 September assigned the major responsibility for the protection of IDPs to UNHCR. The coordination and management of IDP camps and emergency shelter will also become UNHCR’s responsibilities.

The new High Commissioner Antonio Guterres is keen to meet the needs of IDPs[2], while the international community turned to UNHCR because the Collaborative Approach in its current form has not succeeded in effectively addressing IDP protection needs. Just about every UN or independent evaluation has found protection to be the biggest gap in the international institutional response.[3] After visiting Darfur at the end of 2004, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, berated the UN for not adquately protecting IDPs and called for new mechanisms to do so.

UNHCR’s long experience with uprooted populations and its comprehensive mandate, encompassing both protection and assistance, made it the obvious choice for taking the protection lead. Involved with IDPs since the 1970s it played a particularly prominent role in the 1990s in the area of protection, whether in the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Colombia or Sri Lanka. Walter Kälin, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, supported UNHCR’s taking on even more. In FMR 23 he noted that: “…UNHCR is the organisation with the most experience and capacity to protect and assist populations displaced by armed conflict who are in camps or to organise IDP returns… it is difficult to understand why there should not be at least a presumption that the High Commissioner for Refugees should assume responsibility in such situations.”[4]

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[1] www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc

[2] Press Conference of High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Information Service, Geneva, 21 July 2005.

[3] UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis M Deng, UN Doc.E/CN.4/2004/77, 4 March 2004, paras. 24-33.

[4] www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR23/FMR2301.pdf

Author

Roberta Cohen

Former Brookings Expert

Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

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