Skip to main content
On the Record

Statement of Representative at Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

Mr. Chairman of the OSCE Permanent Council,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the invitation to address this important gathering. It is a particular honour for me to make my first public appearance as the Secretary-General’s newly-appointed Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons here at the OSCE, which has had such a crucial role in fostering peace, democratic development and respect for human rights in this region and inspiring similar progress abroad.

Many of you are familiar with my predecessor Dr. Francis Deng, and the great strides he made over the past twelve years in bringing the suffering of internally displaced persons out of the shadows and firmly onto the agenda of the international community. Perhaps his most important achievement was changing the way this problem is conceived, from a supposed dichotomy between expressions of international concern and state sovereignty, to a discussion of the responsibilities that sovereignty entails for states vis-à-vis their own internally displaced populations. Reflecting this approach of “sovereignty as responsibility” are the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which have become the primary framework for discussion of the rights of IDPs around the world.

It is a privilege and a real challenge to succeed someone who has achieved so much for the protection of IDPs and it is my hope to build upon his work during my tenure and ensure a continuity of approach and activity. With this in mind, and turning to our purpose here today, I would like to recall some of the recommendations and observations that Dr. Deng made before this body in the recent past which still resonate today.

At the 2000 Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Migration and Internal Displacement, Dr. Deng stressed the key role the OSCE can play as an advocate for the rights of internally displaced persons, as an advisor to governments on best practices for dealing with IDP issues, and as a mediator in conflict situations. He pointed out the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a comprehensive framework for the achievement of these goals, and remarked that governments and other regional organizations around the world had found them a valuable tool with which to meet the challenge posed by internal displacement. He expressed his hope that the OSCE and its participating states would also be able to bring the rights and norms of the Principles to their full potential in the region.

Last year, Dr. Deng addressed the OSCE on the occasion of an informal briefing on national and international protection in internal displacement. He pointed out that, in some OSCE states, attention to the internally displaced as a distinct category of persons with particular needs was still lacking and he again expressed his hope that the OSCE would take up the Guiding Principles as a framework for action as the United Nations had already done.

His hope was not in vain. In December 2003, the OSCE Ministerial Council issued Decision No. 4/03 on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination which emphasizes that the Guiding Principles are a “useful framework for the work of the OSCE and the endeavors of participating States in dealing with internal displacement”. This is a significant and very welcome statement which also is reflective of the steps the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and several participating States have already made in this direction. The task now is to determine how to fully implement this framework in the OSCE. It is my hope that today’s meeting will make a substantial contribution toward completing this task.

The urgency for progress in this area could not be greater, as internal displacement remains one of the most pressing human rights, humanitarian and political problems facing the OSCE region. While their numbers have decreased, due mainly to large-scale returns in countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, approximately 3 million persons remain internally displaced in this region as a result of armed conflict and systematic violations of human rights. IDPs can be found in 13 OSCE participating states, with the largest concentrations in Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Georgia, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey.

To put these numbers in perspective, the IDP population here in Europe remains higher than the IDP population in the Middle East and on a par with those of Asia and the Americas. In other words, with the exception of Africa, whose peoples bear a truly staggering and disproportionate toll of global displacement, Europeans still suffer as much internal displacement as peoples from every other region of the world.

But numbers alone do not bring us to the heart of the issue, which is the gap between IDPs’ needs for protection, assistance and appropriate solutions and what is actually available to them today. For the remainder of my comments, I would like to focus on what I see as the two most pressing components of that larger issue in the OSCE region: first, the impact of prolonged situations of displacement on the security and well-being of IDPs and, second, the impediments to truly voluntary, safe and dignified solutions to displacement. I will then conclude with some suggestions as to how the OSCE and its participating states might address these issues.

Author

On the first point, I note with concern that situations of internal displacement in the OSCE region are frequently protracted. Most IDPs in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Georgia or Moldova have been displaced for more than a decade, meaning that a second generation born far away from the homes of their parents is growing up in a state of displacement and all the deprivations this entails. Though desperately needed, political solutions to these “frozen” conflicts are difficult to achieve. Return is usually the solution most desired by those affected and by many of their governments, however some IDPs find themselves veritable hostages to this dream. In the meantime, they live in a state of despair and destitution that is not only troubling in humanitarian terms but also raises important human rights questions.

In some OSCE states, serious security problems, usually linked to ethnic tensions, persist, plaguing both those who have fled and those who dare to attempt return. Fortunately, however, in most affected OSCE countries, IDP populations do not face threats to their lives in their places of refuge.

Problems can rather be mainly found in less lethal forms of ethnic discrimination and in the non-implementation or even violation of economic, social and cultural rights. The right to shelter and adequate housing as enshrined in international human rights law and laid down in the Guiding Principles (Principle 18) is not secured in several countries where, 10 or more years after displacement, IDPs still stay in sub-standard shelters, collective centers not providing sufficient space, water, heating or sanitation, tented camps, dilapidated buildings or even railway wagons. These standards are also flouted when, despite safe conditions, IDPs cannot return because no assistance is available to repair or rebuild their houses. More could and must be done to safeguard housing that is adequate for a life in human dignity.

In countries affected by protracted situations of displacement, levels of poverty and unemployment are often much higher for IDPs than the rest of the population, either because they are victims of discrimination on the labor market or because their living conditions are so inhuman that they cannot obtain and hold a normal job. It is important to emphasize that the abject poverty of IDPs is not just a matter of humanitarian concern but, at least in some cases, an issue of insufficient protection of human rights.

Other problems faced by IDPs in these situations are difficulties in accessing educational, health and similar services due to ethnic discrimination or lack of proper documentation or simply because laws or administrative practices are not responsive to the particular needs of IDPs. For similar reasons, IDPs may face problems in exercising their voting rights during displacement.

Finally, one has to underline that those who suffer most under such conditions are the most vulnerable persons: women, children, the elderly and sick or handicapped persons. Women and girls are often affected by multiple discrimination, being disadvantage not only for being displaced but also because of their gender.

Despite these problems, it is encouraging to see that improvements have been achieved in recent years. In several states, national and local governments or non-governmental organizations have collaborated with the international community to implement positive responses to internal displacement. In other places, laws or policies detrimental to the rights of IDPs have been abolished and better regulations put in place.

Still, problems persist. In some cases, authorities or politicians seem to keep IDPs in miserable living conditions so as to encourage their return once the conflict that displaced them is resolved. Experience shows, however, that human beings forced to leave their homes behind for long periods without any prospect for a better life can lose their energy, self-reliance and entrepreneurial spirit and frequently find it very difficult to rebuild their lives even if return becomes possible. For this reason, programs that help to build IDPs’ self-reliance are not only usually welcomed by IDPs themselves but represent sound policy.

This leads me to the second and related issue I wish to raise — the question of what is an appropriate solution to internal displacement. As the Guiding Principles reflect, international humanitarian and human rights law provides that IDPs are entitled to a voluntary, safe and dignified solution to their plight. The prohibition of forcible return applies not only to refugees who have fled abroad, but also to IDPs under well-accepted human rights and humanitarian law. This prohibition of forced return is one of the cornerstones of IDP protection and one of the most basic rights of IDPs.

It is noteworthy that most states in the OSCE honor this obligation. However, there have been serious exceptions where IDPs have been pressured to return in unsafe circumstances, exposing them to risks of death, abduction, ill-treatment or arbitrary detention. This practice must be addressed in the OSCE region as a matter of priority.

Even when grave threats to personal security are not at issue, IDPs are entitled, under human rights, to enjoy freedom of movement and choice of residence. IDPs should thus be permitted to choose between return to their areas of origin or to settle elsewhere in a country and should receive needed assistance in either case. This right has not always been fulfilled in OSCE states.

Where return is possible and desired, IDPs in OSCE participating states still face many problems. The primary of these, in many states, remains physical insecurity in their home areas, usually due to lingering ethnic hostility and unresolved conflict. Other serious obstacles include lack of provision for property restitution and inadequate reconstruction of infrastructure and dwellings.

Without the removal of administrative and legal barriers, implementation of appropriate property laws, and mechanisms promoting access to education and pensions for returning IDPs, attempts at return will not succeed over the long term, even in situations of complete security. Despite certain success in this area, more must be done to safeguard the rights of IDPs in this phase of displacement. I am pleased to see that an entire session of this meeting will be devoted to the issue of return, resettlement and reintegration to address these questions.

How then may we address these challenges? As acknowledged by last year’s ministerial decision, the Guiding Principles are a good place to start. The Guiding Principles identify rights and guarantees relevant to the prevention of displacement, protection and assistance during displacement as well as during return or resettlement and reintegration. Although not a legally binding document, they are a highly authoritative reflection of existing international law on these topics, as recognized by numerous UN and regional organs and by a growing number of states which are using them to develop national laws and policy.

However, the Guiding Principles must be implemented in order to be truly effective. It is not enough to simply enact them verbatim into domestic law or policy. To turn the abstract promises of these principles into reality, it is necessary to create specific institutions and procedures at the national level and to translate the general norms of the Guiding Principles into detailed laws and policies that facilitate their application on the ground. Opening a national dialogue on internal displacement and the use of the Guiding Principles can be valuable first step toward achieving this in many affected states.

At the same time, monitoring of national progress is required by international and regional bodies as well as cooperation between national authorities and organizations like the OSCE. To ensure this, the OSCE as well as humanitarian agencies must have full access to displaced populations in the region.

In this way, the OSCE can do a great deal to close the gap between the promise of the Guiding Principles and the reality on the ground. Among the many regional organizations that have considered such a role, the OSCE is particularly qualified, in light of the explicit commitment of its participating states to human rights principles and their pledges to address internal displacement in a regional context.

The OSCE’s engagement with situations of internal displacement has expanded significantly over the past decade. Its conflict prevention machinery, for example, including its High Commissioner for National Minorities, has worked to avert mass displacement. OSCE missions to different countries have begun to make recommendations about internally displaced populations. Its field staff has engaged in monitoring the safety and human rights of displaced persons, especially during returns. Through its election monitoring and technical assistance programs, the OSCE has also promoted attention to internally displaced populations. However, an even stronger and more systematic focus on IDPs is necessary to find solutions to their problems or at least to improve their situations. A well-coordinated organization-wide effort to identify best practices and common strategies could lead to a more comprehensive and predictable approach.

It is my hope that this meeting will be successful in strengthening the OSCE’s role in monitoring situations of internal displacement and assisting governments to find appropriate solutions that reflect and fulfill the rights of IDPs. The opportunity is before all of us to make strong and practical recommendations to this end, both to the OSCE as an organization and to its participating states. I look forward to the deliberations and to our efforts to transform the full range of IDP rights into reality in the OSCE region.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings