Internally displaced "lack universal rights"

The future home of this Afghan girl is uncertain Keystone

The number of internally displaced persons around the world continues to rise, but the international community does little to stem the flow.

This content was published on April 5, 2010 minutes

Switzerland’s Walter Kälin, the United Nations special envoy for the human rights of the displaced, tells what can be done to lessen their suffering and, in a best case scenario, reintegrate them back into society.

Kälin, a professor of law at Bern University, is also a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, and was one of the architects of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. The number of people displaced in their own countries continues to grow worldwide. Why?

Walter Kälin: It’s believed the number of people displaced due to conflict and violence has stabilised at around 26 million for the past ten years. These people are found in Africa – 11 million -, Asia, the Middle East, in the Americas and even in Europe. The latter mainly because of the wars in the Balkans and the southern Caucasus region.

On the other hand, the number of displaced due to natural disasters is clearly rising. Two million Haitians were displaced following the earthquake in January.

The increase is mainly due to catastrophes in relation to climate change. It’s estimated that last year alone 36 million had to flee their homes. In comparison, the number of refugees, including Palestinians, amounted to 16 million. Do the displaced receive sufficient protection?

W.K.: No. Universal rights are too weak. There is no convention to protect people displaced in their own countries like there is for refugees.

That doesn’t mean that internally displaced people have no protection at all, since they can invoke human rights. And member states have recognised an important UN document outlining the guiding principles on internal displacement.

At the regional level, the acceptance of an African convention on displaced people is encouraging. The number of countries adopting laws on the internally displaced is growing. But it’s not enough. There is still a lot to do. Do you feel you have achieved your goals after two three-year mandates as UN representative?

W.K.: Partially. One of my goals was to strengthen the legal framework. At the beginning of my first mandate several governments opposed the guiding principles, which were, however, eventually approved.

I am also pleased to see that, following my missions, several countries expanded their own strategies or implemented better laws. But other countries did nothing. Their lack of will or capacity is one of my main concerns.

When you look at the situation on the ground, I’ve had some success. But there are extremely troubling situations, where the displaced continue to suffer without any hope of assistance. Can you be more precise?

W.K.: Nepal for example. I visited the country during my first mission in 2005. The conflicting parties in the meantime have signed a peace accord. I contacted both sides and proposed ways to include in the agreement the integration of displaced persons. That was done and a large number were able to return to their homes.

During my first visit to the Central African Republic people were still hiding in the forests, and the army was burning villages to the ground. Thanks to concerted efforts - not only due to my visit - the violations stopped. The army leaders were pulled back from the affected regions, and humanitarian organisations moved in. The situation is still not back to normal but it has improved visibly.

In Georgia, at the start of my work, many people were placed in overcrowded, unhygienic collective centres. Since then the government has - at my recommendation - accepted an action plan. Today, these people are in the process of being provided with apartments and houses, and attempts are being made to integrate them into the economy.

On the other hand, the Democratic Republic of Congo remains a black spot. In the east of the country, the situation displaced persons find themselves in has not improved. The violence is continuing. Serious human rights violations carried out against the civilian population explains why so many have fled.

In Somalia, where I was on a mission last November, the conflict and displacements are ongoing. It’s become more difficult in the past year to provide humanitarian aid, and the situation for civilians, including the displaced, is dramatic. Under these conditions, we don’t know what to do. In general, does the representative of the UN Secretary-General have the means and the room for manoeuvre to take the action required?

W.K.: The means are limited. It’s a voluntary, part-time position supported by the UN for a few missions. But when you take the dimension of the problem into account, it’s not enough.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to establish close ties with partners such as the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the UN Refugee Agency. These organisations have often been able to implement my recommendations on the ground. Cooperating with them has made my job a lot easier.

I can only visit countries at the invitation of governments. I’ve been well received in the countries I’ve been to, and haven’t encountered any real difficulties. Sometimes the discussions are difficult but that’s to be expected.

The displaced are often in countries suffering from armed conflict, which means there are security issues. I’ve not always been able to go to the places affected, which complicates my work. What are the challenges ahead?

W.K.: I first hope that my successor can enter a dialogue with the affected countries as well as with other UN agencies, especially humanitarian organisations. If unsuccessful on this front, his actions will be limited.

For the displaced, there must be a stronger legal framework on protection. But that’s not enough. Without the political will there can be no results. Certain countries are not willing to tackle the problem of the internally displaced.

Often, in situations where there is armed conflict, the governments involved have been weakened. So even when there is the political will to act, there is no capacity. Governments in these situations must be supported. That is an enormous challenge.

And thirdly, the response of the international community must be improved. Even when many UN agencies and non-governmental organisations perform admirable work it’s far from sufficient.

Around two-thirds of the people displaced by conflict remain so for ten, 15, 20 years, because there is no development strategy to follow on from the [initial] emergency relief efforts.

A durable solution would be to reintegrate the displaced in the areas they were driven from or other regions where they could be integrated. But frankly, the existing mechanisms, the funding system and the organisations involved are too weak.

Pierre-François Besson, (Translated from French by Dale Bechtel)

UN representative

In 1992, the UN Secretary-General, at the request of the Commission on Human Rights, appointed his first Representative on internally displaced persons.

In 2004, the Commission called upon the Secretary-General to create a new mechanism to bring a further focus on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Accordingly, in September 2004, the Secretary-General appointed Walter Kälin as his new Representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

The Representative’s mandate is serviced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and receives support from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Brookings Institution-Bern University Project on Internal Displacement, an independent research and advocacy project, which supports the work of the Representative, and which he co-directs.

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Walter Kälin

Walter Kälin is a professor of constitutional and international law at the Faculty of Law at Bern University.

Kälin has been involved with issues of IDPs for over a decade, having served as chair of the committee of legal experts that developed the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and having authored numerous books on the subject, including the Annotations to the Guiding Principles (American Society of International Law, Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, 2000).

Kälin is also a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (since 2003).

From 1991-1992, Kälin served as the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Kuwait under Iraqi Occupation.

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