Op-Ed

Displacement and Human Rights: A Continuing Challenge

Carlos Pascual

Ten years ago the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were presented to the United Nations to address the needs of those displaced within their countries’ borders. This week a ministerial-level meeting in Norway will mark the occasion by reflecting on the successes and the shortcomings of these principles in upholding the rights of the millions of people displaced by conflict and natural disasters. We at Brookings take pride in our leadership role in developing these international standards and in our continuing work to ensure that they are widely implemented to improve the lives of those forced to flee by forces beyond their control.

Since the beginnings of reported history, people have been forced to leave their communities because of conflicts and natural disasters. While for the past 60 years the international community has responded to those crossing national borders because of persecution and conflict by adopting a convention on refugees and creating a UN refugee agency, the fate of those displaced within their countries’ borders was largely ignored. In an effort to address this gap in the international humanitarian response system, the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement took on the task of developing basic standards for the treatment of internally displaced persons (IDPs) by turning to existing international law. This initiative was carried out by Brookings Senior Fellow Francis Deng who also served as Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (1992-2004) and by the Project’s Co-Director, Roberta Cohen. Rather than drafting a new convention – which would likely have taken many years — Deng and Cohen mobilized an international group of legal experts to distil basic human right standards for the internally displaced from existing international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Over the course of four years, they organized meetings, analyzed legal texts, and consulted with policy-makers to come up with 30 basic principles, known as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which were presented to the United Nations in 1998. Since then the Guiding Principles have served as the basic international standard for governments, relief agencies, civil society and for the displaced themselves.

Hardly a day goes by when the headlines of newspapers don’t mention IDPs. Virtually all of today’s major conflicts include stories of displacement, from Sri Lanka to the Central African Republic, from Darfur to Afghanistan. In Iraq, the displacement of whole communities could entrench sectarian divides. The August 2008 conflict in Georgia displaced thousands from their communities – on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been displaced 15 years earlier for essentially the same reasons. Just last month, efforts to combat terrorism in tribal areas of Pakistan led some 350,000 Pakistanis to flee their communities for other parts of their country. Even when conflicts come to an end, as in Southern Sudan or Liberia, displacement often continues. People can’t return home immediately because of landmines, because their property is occupied by others, or because they are simply afraid. Television cameras may have moved on, but the human consequences of conflicts continue. In fact, too often, displacement lasts for decades.

People are also displaced by natural disasters, as evidenced by reports of millions of Indians displaced by massive flooding in the past month. Almost a million people were displaced in Myanmar as a result of Cyclone Nargis in May while the earthquake in Sichuan, China a few days later displaced some 15 million people. In the United States, tens of thousands of Texans were recently displaced by Hurricane Ike while many of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina three years earlier are still dispersed around the country. As the leaders of today’s Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, Elizabeth Ferris and Walter Kälin, have emphasized, a rights-based approach is essential to respond to those displaced by natural disasters as well as to those fleeing conflict.

The Guiding Principles specify that the displaced have a right to humanitarian assistance, to freedom of movement, and to participate in the political life of their country. In practice, these rights are often violated. In light of the fact that climate change is likely to increase both the severity and the frequency of natural disasters, and the way disasters exacerbate violent conflict, it is more important than ever that the Guiding Principles are used to uphold the basic human rights of the displaced. Today’s tragedy in Darfur needs to be relegated to an anomaly, and not become the future norm of the convergence of human-induced and natural tragedies.

The Brookings Institution is committed to quality, to independence, and to having an impact on policies. The high quality of research on internal displacement conducted by the Project has helped to place the issue of internal displacement firmly on the international agenda. The impact of the Project’s work has been far-ranging, as evidenced in the fact that some 15 governments have adopted national laws and policies on internal displacement that build on the Project’s work and that the United Nations has endorsed several policy guidelines developed by the Project.

It isn’t often that a research institution can take credit for the development of international law and we are proud not only of our past initiative to draft the Guiding Principles but of our continuing work to have them translated into concrete policies which will impact the lives of those who have lost almost everything.

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