Voting Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

July 16, 2004

Among the stated aims of this meeting is to identify possible areas for supplementing existing OSCE commitments for democratic elections. One area where greater attention is needed is in ensuring that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are able to fully and freely exercise their right to political participation. At present, many IDPs in the OSCE face difficulties in exercising their right to vote.

There are in the OSCE region some 3 million people who have been forced to flee their homes and communities as a result of armed conflict and serious violations of human rights but who, unlike refugees, remain displaced within their own countries, in many cases for years, even decades. Internal displacement affects 13 countries in the OSCE, from the Balkans to Cyprus, Turkey, the South and North Caucasus and Central Asia.

The internally displaced are entitled to the same rights as non-displaced nationals, including the right to political participation. Indeed, in the Copenhagen Document of 1990, the OSCE guarantees that every person who has the right of suffrage be allowed to exercise this right without distinction of any kind. The principle of universal and equal suffrage applies, of course, to the internally displaced. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,1 the first international standards for IDPs, 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 Ministerial Council, in its decision on tolerance and non-discrimination adopted in Maastricht in December 2003, pledged to ‘take into account the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a useful framework for the work of the OSCE and the endeavors of participating States in dealing with internal displacement.’2 A number of OSCE States already have found the Principles to be a valuable tool, as evidenced by Government initiatives to translate this document into local languages and disseminate it to all relevant officials. Specifically as regards voting rights, the Government of Georgia responded to findings that internally displaced persons were not able to fully exercise their right to vote by pledging in 2001 at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to bring its electoral laws into line with the Guiding Principles, and in fact revised its electoral law accordingly last year.

Notwithstanding the proclaimed rights of IDPs and the efforts of particular governments, ongoing research by the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement reveals that many internally displaced persons in the OSCE region continue to encounter difficulties in exercising their right to vote.3 In particular, they have experienced obstacles such as:

  • discriminatory practices;
  • obsolete and restrictive residence certifications;
  • insecure voting areas;
  • inadequate arrangements for absentee voting;
  • a lack of transportation to polling stations; and
  • acts of intimidation.

All of these restrictions have hampered voting by IDPs in recent elections within the OSCE. For the most part, these problems arise in situations of protracted displacement, in which internally displaced persons may be denied the right to political participation for years on end. At the same time, unlike in emergency situations, there also exists the opportunity in these contexts to take corrective measures. And yet, while in some cases the difficulties that IDPs face in voting are well-documented, in others, an absence of monitoring and reporting on their particular situation has meant that many problems go unreported and unaddressed.

Indeed, while the OSCE/ODIHR Progress Report on Existing Commitments for Democratic Elections in OSCE Participating States touches on a number of important topics relevant to the voting rights of IDPs, such as the need to institute absentee voting mechanisms, it does not specifically address the particular situation of the internally displaced or the range of practical and political difficulties they face in attempting to exercise their right to vote. To be sure, the OSCE has begun to give attention to this important issue, especially at the field level where, in a number of cases, field missions have actively engaged in monitoring and reporting on the voting rights of IDPs. Such efforts, however, have tended to be ad hoc, whereas the principle of universal and equal suffrage requires a comprehensive and systematic approach.

We consider it important for the OSCE in its work on promoting electoral standards to pay greater attention to ensuring that internally displaced persons are able to fully and freely exercise their right to vote. To that end, the Brookings Institution-Johns Hopkins SAIS Project puts forth the following 10 recommendations:

First, the OSCE, both at the policy level and in the field, should devote greater and more systematic attention to the voting rights of IDPs. Particular priority should be given to mainstreaming IDP voting rights into the work of election observation missions and to ensuring that there is systematic monitoring and reporting on the extent to which IDPs are in fact able to vote.

Second, OSCE election monitors deployed to countries with internal displacement must be sensitized to the particular challenges IDPs often face in exercising their voting rights and should receive training on best practices for addressing these problems. In the course of their duties, election monitors must be granted full and safe access to all polling stations.

Third, OSCE participating States must take all necessary measures to ensure that internally displaced persons are able to fully and freely exercise their right to vote. Where national electoral legislation has the effect of restricting IDPs’ voting rights, legislative reform must be undertaken to bring electoral laws into line with international human rights standards and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

Fourth, in countries with internal displacement, national and local authorities with responsibilities for the administration of elections should be sensitized to the particular challenges that internally displaced persons often face and receive guidance on how best to address these challenges. Capacity-building support and technical assistance from ODIHR could be valuable in this regard.

Fifth, voter registration processes must reach and systematically register internally displaced voters. Weaknesses in registration systems have been shown to directly and disproportionately impact upon the ability of IDPs to participate in elections. Special measures will be required to address problems such as the loss or destruction of personal identity documents. In addition, the propiska system of residency certification, though officially abolished, continues to impose practical obstacles to internally displaced persons’ participation in elections in a number of countries, and must be addressed.

Sixth, special polling arrangements such as absentee voting facilities and transportation will need to be put in place to enable internally displaced persons to cast their ballot in their places of permanent residence, should they so choose. If, on the other hand, IDPs prefer to cast their ballots in the districts where they temporarily reside, they must be permitted to do so, and without any penalty such as loss of benefits or forfeit of their right to return. It must be emphasized that participation by IDPs in elections in their places of temporary place of residence in no way abrogates their right to return.

Seventh, wherever they vote, internally displaced persons, and indeed all electors, must be able to cast their ballots in a secure environment. Adequate measures must be in place to ensure safety at polling sites. Under no circumstances should displaced voters be required to return to or traverse unsafe areas to exercise their right to vote.

Eighth, IDPs should be given a say in the design of any special electoral procedures created to address their particular situation and should receive clear and accurate information about the procedures to enable them to exercise their right to vote. They must also have equal access to campaign information.

Ninth, civil society can play a valuable role in promoting awareness among IDPs of their voting rights as well as in monitoring and reporting on the extent to which they are able to exercise these rights. Efforts by civil society organizations on behalf of IDPs should be encouraged and supported.

Tenth, the OSCE, at its forthcoming supplementary human dimension meeting on internally displaced persons, should devote attention to the issue of voting rights.

In conclusion, the principle of universal and equal suffrage entails that all citizens, displaced or not, are able to fully and freely exercise their right to vote. Ensuring the enfranchisement of internally displaced persons is not only required by international standards, it is important to giving the displaced, who so often are marginalized, a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and thereby enhancing the legitimacy of the electoral process overall.


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

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

3. In September 2000, our Project published a study entitled Internally Displaced Persons and Political Participation: The OSCE Region, which assessed the voting rights of IDPs in four OSCE countries and was distributed at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Migration and Internal Displacement in 2000. This study is currently being updated and its scope expanded to cover all thirteen countries with internal displacement in the OSCE. It will be published in autumn 2004.