01/2005: Dr. Walter Kälin


Dr. Walter Kälin
Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the
Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons


Current issues and international policy responses related to
internally displaced populations


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: With close to 25 million people uprooted within their own country by conflicts and human rights violations in 52 countries across all continents (including almost 13 million in Africa and 3 million in Europe), the total IDP population today largely exceeds the total refugee population. Despite such trends, international awareness of the particular issues affecting IDPs remains sub-optimal and, unlike refugees, there is no international body of law relating specifically to the protection of internally displaced populations. What are, in your view, the most salient issues relating to IDPs today, how do these differ fundamentally from those pertaining to refugees and what are the key policy and normative instruments enabling direct international interventions to support the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced populations?

Ü Dr. Walter Kälin: Many internally displaced persons, like refugees, are forced to flee their homes because of persecution, armed conflict, systematic violations of human rights or situations of generalised violence. However, they do not cross international borders and, therefore, are excluded from the type of international protection that is available to refugees on the basis of the 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR,s Statute. This does not mean that they are without rights. In fact, as persons who remain within the borders of their own country, all IDPs, including those displaced by natural and human-led disasters or large-scale development projects, are entitled to the same human rights as the rest of the population of that country. Therefore governments carry the primary responsibility for respecting and protecting the rights of IDPs and for providing them with the necessary assistance. Problems arise when governments are either unable or unwilling to discharge such a responsibility. This is when international actors are called upon to address displacement situations and to protect and assist IDPs.

The main problem in this regard is the gap between IDPs needs for protection, assistance and appropriate solutions and what is actually available to them today at the international level. There is no agency with a comprehensive mandate to protect and assist internally displaced persons and, although IDPs enjoy the full range of human rights available to the population of the country concerned, it is not always clear what these rights entail as regards the specific situation of displacement. A recent study of nine country situations undertaken jointly by the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement and the then-IDP Unit (now Interagency IDP-Division) of OCHA concluded that the United Nations approach to IDPs is still largely ad hoc and driven more by personalities and the convictions of individuals on the ground than by an institutional system-wide agenda and that it also suffers from a lack of political and financial support from UN headquarters and UN member states.

Looking at the type of violations internally displaced persons experience, the issue of physical safety and integrity is often in the forefront during the time following immediately displacement and as long as an acute armed conflict continues. Such situations expose IDPs to particular risks of physical harm. In addition to the increased danger of being caught in the crossfire between combatants, or of becoming the target of military attacks while staying in a camp, IDPs are vulnerable to physical attacks by criminals and armed groups seeking to rob them of their scarce resources. Minors face higher risks of military recruitment. In many situations women and girls routinely become victims of systematic rape and other forms of sexual assault and exploitation. Physical safety and integrity are also jeopardised when IDPs are forced to return to unsafe areas. Finally, rights related to food, health and shelter, the protection of which is essential for ensuring survival and the basic necessities of life, are violated where governments or rebels deny access to humanitarian organisations.

Violations of the human rights of IDPs do not only occur during the emergency phase of displacement. Systematic discrimination of IDPs can be found in many countries where displacement has become protracted. In such circumstances, IDPs are not granted proper access to social services or education, or may not be allowed to participate in elections. Levels of poverty and unemployment are often much higher for IDPs than for the rest of the population, either because they are victims of discrimination on the labour market or because their living conditions are so degrading that they cannot obtain and hold a normal job. It is important to emphasise that the abject poverty of IDPs is not just a matter of humanitarian concern but, at least in some cases, it is also an issue of insufficient protection of human rights. Finally, one has to underline that those who suffer most under such conditions are the most vulnerable groups: women, children, the elderly and sick or handicapped persons. Women and girls are often affected by multiple discrimination: they are disadvantaged not only due to their displacement but also because of their gender.

When displacement comes to an end, many IDPs encounter obstacles to their right to freedom of movement and to choose their own residence, particularly if Governments consider return as the only solution for internal displacement. Yet circumstances, such as ongoing insecurity, frozen conflicts, destruction of housing and infrastructure, and the accumulation of years of living in a new location may lead IDPs to prefer other solutions such as local integration, where they can escape the status of displacement and begin a new life.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: As the newly appointed Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, your role entails, inter alia, development of activities in six core areas: awareness raising and advocacy; development and promotion of a normative framework; promotion of effective institutional arrangements; country missions to draw national and global attention to specific IDP situations, including through dialogue with senior Government officials; building the capacity of civil society and national human rights institutions; and policy-oriented research. How would sum up your key short to medium term priorities within each of these core areas of intervention?

Ü Dr. Walter Kälin: In all these areas, I am able to build upon the superb achievements of my predecessor, Dr. Francis Deng, who succeeded in putting the IDP issue firmly on the international agenda. I am also supported by the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement which was established by my predecessor and which will become the Brookings-Bern Project in January 2005.

In the area of awareness raising and advocacy it is important to address violations of the rights of IDPs at the appropriate level. I have already started to issue public statements or to send letters to governments. I also hope to be able to organise a series of what I would like to call IDP Protection Meetings where the government concerned, relevant international organisations, NGOs and donors could come together in order to see how specific protection problems could be addressed and how the situation of internally displaced persons could be improved. Finally, my seat on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee allows me to alert humanitarian and development partners to situations where IDP protection needs are not adequately addressed.

The normative framework for the rights of IDPs is provided by the relevant guarantees as contained in human rights and international humanitarian law. They are restated and embodied in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a document that was submitted by my predecessor to the UN Human Rights Commission in 1998 and which has since gained considerable authority. In order to make these Guidelines operational, I will focus on the domestic level and encourage governments to incorporate the Guiding Principles into domestic laws and policies. For that purpose, and given that the Guidelines are often too general to be readily enforceable, I am planning to develop and promote a handbook for law- and policy-makers to provide them with detailed guidance on how to make the Guiding Principles operational at the domestic level.

Regarding the response of UN institutions to the plight of IDPs, I have been mandated by the UN Human Rights Commission to mainstream the human rights of the internally displaced into all relevant parts of the UN system. On the one hand, I hope that the UN treaty bodies and the Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Commission will focus on IDP issues relevant to their mandates even more than they do already. On the other hand, much work still needs to be done to integrate the human rights of IDPs into the policies of UN agencies working in humanitarian, peace-building and development related areas, or to ensure that they are taken into account in the context of UN peacekeeping and civilian missions.

My first country missions are planned for Nepal, with its emerging displacement crisis, Nigeria, which is an on-going problem situation and where the government is developing its own IDP policy, and the countries on the territory of former Yugoslavia, where the issue of solutions, i.e. return and local integration or resettlement, is currently on the top of the agenda. Should the governments concerned extend an invitation for a mission, then I would be able to look at the three phases of displacement in three different regions of the world during 2005.

Capacity building is not a priority area in my mandate, as others are active in this area. The Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the OCHA Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, in particular, are very involved in the training of UN personnel in the field. Furthermore, capacity building activities currently undertaken by the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) and national human rights institutions in the Asia-Pacific region will continue. There are also plans to provide support to local NGOs in selected countries. I am planning to establish a course on the international law of internal displacement on a senior policy level for Government and military officials and civil society representatives at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy. Finally, it is important to empower the IDPs themselves to defend their rights. In this regard the publication of a guidebook for them on how to make greater use of the international and regional human rights machinery is currently planned.

Policy-oriented research will focus, as already mentioned, on how to translate the Guiding Principles into domestic laws and policies. In addition, benchmarks on what constitutes durable solutions for IDPs will be published by the Brookings Project in the near future. This study was triggered in 2002 by a request of the then-Emergency Relief Coordinator Kenzo Oshima to my predecessor to advise the United Nations humanitarian system on when an internally displaced person should no longer be considered as such.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Based on your long-standing experience of IDP policy, how would you assess the current effectiveness and impact of existing institutional arrangements, particularly as regards inter-agency coordination and synergies among UN organisations such as UNCHR and UNHCR, and EU agencies such as ECHO, related to the development of integrated and sustainable policy/relief responses to IDP phenomena internationally? Similarly, how far are the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement today integrated into the intervention strategy of governments and relevant international organisations and NGOs, and what are the persisting gaps in the existing international institutional framework limiting the scope and effectiveness of international policy responses to IDP phenomena?

Ü Dr. Walter Kälin: The so-called collaborative approach, as adopted by the UN system and recently reaffirmed by its Inter-Agency Standing Committee in a policy document entitled Implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement, has its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand it ensures that all agencies share the responsibility of responding to displacement crises and that it has the potential to draw maximum profit from the multitude of experiences and specialised knowledge of each of the agencies. On the other hand, this approach is bound to fail if none of the agencies effectively takes a leadership role or if such a leadership is contested by others. Finally, in some situations there is a risk that no agency will be willing to accept unpopular tasks or to go to certain areas of the country concerned, thus opening protection and assistance gaps. When it comes to the human rights of IDPs, one must also consider that most UN agencies do not have a specific protection mandate.

The problem is that there are no easy alternatives to the collaborative approach. This is not only due to the large numbers of internally displaced persons but also because of the diversity of situations. It is very difficult to envisage, at least in the short term, that one single agency will take over the primary responsibility for IDPs. The emergency phase of a displacement situation, where the main task is to ensure survival of the displaced, requires expertise that is very different from that relevant to protracted situations where abject poverty and discrimination are plaguing those who have been displaced for a long time. In other words, while a viable alternative to the collaborative approach is needed, it is difficult to find. For the present time, therefore, one should focus on improving the collaborative approach. This could be done, for example, by defining a set of specific benchmarks, parameters and criteria that would indicate which agency should do what in which situation. This would not only help to identify the role of each agency in advance, it could also serve as a kind of default mechanism should there be a lack of consensus among agencies in a given situation.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are gaining more and more momentum. Several States, including Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Peru, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, have included references to the Guiding Principles in their domestic laws or policies, and others may follow. Georgia has revised some of its laws that were in contradiction with the Guiding Principles. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court considered the Guiding Principles to be part of the legal framework applicable to cases of displacement. These are encouraging developments. However, efforts to make the Guiding Principles effective on the domestic level should go beyond general references in legal and policy documents. As mentioned above, one of my priorities will be the development of a handbook that would show law and policy makers how to translate the general principles into specific norms that would provide domestic authorities with detailed guidance.

As concerns international organisations and NGOs, the Guiding Principles are used by many of them. Here too, the challenge is to make them operational by incorporating them into displacement-related policies and by building up the necessary capacity within these organisations. One very complex aspect of mainstreaming the Guiding Principles is to identify their relevance for UN peace-keeping and civilian missions in countries facing internal displacement. Despite the complexity of such missions and their limited and focused mandates, I feel that more could and should be done to integrate the issue of human rights of IDPs into the scope of their activities.