Afghanistan + 7 more

Internally displaced persons : the mandate and role of the ICRC

Originally published
I. Introduction
The increased occurrence of internal displacement in recent years, along with a better knowledge of the severe plight suffered by the millions of people affected, has resulted in a growing concern within the international community. The concern is amply justified: all too often, the internally displaced suffer extreme deprivation, threatening their very possibility of survival, and all too often, they are exposed to severe threats to their physical security, both during flight and while in displacement. Accordingly, the death toll among internally displaced persons has often reached extreme proportions, particularly among physically weaker persons such as children, the elderly or pregnant women. Hardships experienced by those left behind or by host communities compound the problem.

Several initiatives have been taken to address the plight of internally displaced persons more efficiently. In the quest for a more effective response, the international community has concentrated its efforts along two main lines, that of identifying an appropriate normative framework and that of developing effective institutional arrangements. The Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, Mr. Francis Deng, has been catalytic to these initiatives, and more generally, to stimulating a better understanding of the numerous complex issues associated with internal displacement.

As a major humanitarian organization, the ICRC is strongly committed to promoting an improved response to the plight of the internally displaced. To this end, it has actively participated in the analysis of the issues at stake, the elaboration of strategies aimed at improving the operational response, and the formulation of adequate standards.

The purpose of the present paper is to present the nature and degree of ICRC involvement with internally displaced persons, so as to convey when and how the ICRC may be counted upon to respond to their plight.

II. Internally displaced persons of primary concern to the ICRC

The definition most commonly referred to within the international community was developed by the Representative of the Secretary-General, and is provided for in the document entitled "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" (hereinafter: Guiding Principles). The definition is broad, covering inter alia "persons ... who have been forced to flee or to leave their homes ... as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters ...".

In the opinion of the ICRC, this definition is fully suited for the purposes of the "Guiding Principles", insofar as these articulate standards which "reflect and are consistent with international human rights law and international humanitarian law" (quote from the introductory part of the "Guiding Principles"). As such, they simply restate rights which may be relevant for any human being affected by displacement. However, the UN definition does not seem as readily applicable for operational purposes, as it covers a group that is so wide and whose needs are so varied that it exceeds the capacities and expertise of any single organization. Accordingly, several humanitarian organisations depart from this definition when seeking to identify persons falling within the scope of their activities and mandate. Some employ criteria which narrow down the category of persons of concern, for instance by concentrating on those who are victims of persecution. Others seem to go beyond the definition by also including returning refugees or demobilised soldiers.

The ICRC's criteria for involvement is that of being present and active primarily in specific situations. As a neutral intermediary in the event of armed conflict or unrest, the ICRC seeks to bring protection and assistance to the victims of international and non-international armed conflict and internal disturbances and tension. In these situations, it seeks to give priority to those in most urgent need, in accordance with the principle of impartiality. In this respect, the ICRC considers an internally displaced person to be first and foremost a civilian, who as such is protected by international humanitarian law.

Given their precarious situation, internally displaced persons affected by armed conflict - who constitute one of the main categories of the displaced, and who also often are in the most life-threatening situation - would often constitute a primary target group of ICRC activities. They lie at the core of the ICRC's mandate, and represent a considerable part of its caseload. However, other categories of victims, such as besieged populations, elderly or sick persons left behind, may sometimes be in an equally, or even more difficult situation. In such cases, it follows from the principle of impartiality which underlies ICRC's activities that these persons would also be among the main beneficiaries of our activities.

Conversely, there are numerous cases where the internally displaced have reached relative safety in large cities, and where their conditions are comparable to that of other large groups composing the urban poor, such as people who have moved from the rural areas for economic reasons. In such contexts, which are the reality of daily life for tens, if not hundreds of millions of people around the world, it would appear neither legitimate to provide assistance to only one segment of the population, nor would it be effective to provide emergency assistance where the problem is, in fact, rather a challenge of socio-economic development.

In every case, however, where internally displaced persons are exposed to violence related to the conflict or disturbances, the ICRC would consider it as its duty to be actively involved, in accordance with its mandate and capacities, and to the extent that relevant authorities or security conditions allow. In geographic terms, this involvement may well go beyond the zones where active hostilities take place, so that the ICRC addresses protection problems affecting internally displaced persons, as any other civilians, no matter in which part of the country they find themselves. Although figures in the field of displacement for numerous reasons are bound to remain rough estimates, the ICRC considers that of the close to five million persons who were assisted by the institution in the course of 1999, the great majority were internally displaced. For the year 2000, programmes specifically aimed at protecting and assisting internally displaced persons have been developed in thirty-one countries throughout the world.

III. The normative framework

Although internally displaced persons are entitled to the protection provided by international human rights and humanitarian law, it has often been difficult for Governments, humanitarian organisations and the displaced themselves to identify applicable guarantees in specific situations. The "Guiding Principles" were intended to restate general principles of protection in more specific detail, and to address grey areas and gaps in the law, which would give authoritative guidance to all those confronted with internal displacement. The ICRC contributed to the elaboration of the Guiding Principles, and supports their dissemination and use at the operational level. For its part, the ICRC may utilise the Guiding Principles when they address a problem where international humanitarian law only is implicit or not applicable.

At the same time, the ICRC has repeatedly underlined that international humanitarian law, which is legally binding on both state and non-state actors in situations of armed conflict, remains fully adequate to address most problems of internal displacement associated with situations of armed conflict. This is so in spite of the fact that the term "internally displaced persons" does not appear anywhere in the law. Indeed, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols provide extensive protection to the civilian population, both against displacement and to those who have been displaced, by numerous and detailed provisions providing for civilian immunity from military attacks and abuses, as well as for material support for those in need. In addition international humanitarian law contains express prohibitions and limits against forced displacement.

As regards refugee law, the ICRC should like to add its voice to those who warn against drawing excessive parallels with the problems of refugees. If the causes and consequences of displacement may be similar to both internally displaced persons and refugees, and the obstacles to return may be shared, the legal regimes applicable to the respective groups are different. While refugees are victims of persecution and as such are in need of a specific legal regime, the internally displaced are in their own country and accordingly remain fully entitled to the full range of protection provided by international human rights law, humanitarian law and domestic law. There can be no valid basis for assimilating the status of internally displaced persons with aliens, as is often done in the case of refugees.

IV. Parameters for ICRC's activities

Any protection and assistance strategy aimed at effectively addressing the needs of displaced persons must remain flexible, so as to take into account the great diversity of contexts in which displacements occur. Suffice to mention recent crises of a sudden and large-scale nature such as Kosovo or East Timor, which called for an urgent response and strengthened co-ordination between the actors involved; long-standing conflicts, such as those affecting certain regions of Sudan, Angola or Afghanistan, which have left an already fragile population in utter destitution and where the involvement of humanitarian organisations may be limited due to the volatile security situation or denied access; "frozen" conflicts, such as those prevailing in Rwanda, Georgia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, calling for a sustained presence long after the peak of violence; and situations where security risks are such that they prevent expatriate staff from being deployed, such as those prevailing in Somalia or in Northern Caucasus, so that humanitarian activities have to be largely "remote controlled" from abroad, and to be implemented by local employees.

Additional factors having an impact on ICRC's strategy may arise from the conditions prevailing in specific situations. For instance, where the internally displaced are being accommodated in host communities, it will sometimes be necessary to support the whole of the population, for instance by means of food assistance, since any available resources will often have already been shared so that every person affected is in a similar situation. Conversely, where the internally displaced are lodged in camps, they may face specific security threats. Such threats may result from the danger of military attacks, or, within the camps, from abuses committed against vulnerable individuals, such as single women or unaccompanied children.

A. Current challenges

In general terms, ICRC's humanitarian assistance programmes seek to find a balance between cases where the internally displaced are best helped through targeted actions and those where they are assisted through more general efforts aimed at broader segments of the population. Overall, a major consideration underlying ICRC humanitarian assistance programmes is to promote the self-reliance of affected communities. One strategy in reaching this objective is to improve the capacity of host populations to absorb internally displaced persons. In parallel, care is taken to preserve existing coping mechanisms utilised by the victims of displacement, and to avoid aggravating the situation by increasing the disparities between various segments of the population, or preventing corruption or the misappropriation of goods by the parties to the conflict.

Through its work to promote a better implementation of international humanitarian law, the ICRC seeks to preserve conditions which may allow persons to remain in their homes, to protect those who are uprooted, and to promote a return whenever this is appropriate. The high figures of displacement testify to the current difficulties of ensuring an effective implementation of humanitarian law, which seriously affects not only the internally displaced, but the population at large.

In this respect, a serious challenge to the implementation of the law, as well as for humanitarian work in general, relates to the lack of access of humanitarian organisations to the victims. Sometimes, this is due to the deliberate obstruction of parties to the conflict. Another serious problem concerns the lack of security for humanitarian workers. Sometimes, these problems are related, for instance when the population is being displaced or forcibly relocated as part of a military strategy aimed at weakening the support base of the "enemy". Unfortunately, such illegal practices have become all too common. Where humanitarian workers provide assistance to the civilian victims of such strategies, they may in turn be perceived as promoting the goals of one of the parties, and as a result be specifically targeted by the other. Needless to say, without an environment providing minimal conditions of security, without an understanding and acceptance of the role of humanitarian actors by the parties to the conflict, no effective or sustained programme can be envisaged, be it on behalf of internally displaced persons or any other part of the civilian population.

The following can therefore only serve as an indication of the overall strategy adopted by the ICRC, and as an illustration of activities that are currently being carried out in various parts of the world.

B. Protection strategies and modes of action

The ICRC considers that problems resulting from internal displacement are first and foremost the responsibility of national authorities, who bear the main obligation to ensure that the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced persons are being met. Against this background, the ICRC has adopted a strategy based on sustained and in-depth dialogue with all parties to a conflict and/or other actors of violence, whether States or other armed groups, with a view to leading them to fulfil their obligations and ease the plight of the victims under their control. Where a dialogue and confidential intercessions fail to produce the desired result, the ICRC may under certain conditions also call on the support of the international community, whether through quiet diplomacy or through public appeals, in the hope that external involvement can help bring about an improvement of the situation.

Wherever possible, the ICRC seeks to establish a permanent presence on the ground, close to the victims of conflict and violence, so as to follow their situation, to monitor that their rights are being respected and to report its observations to the authorities concerned, in order to prevent or put an end to possible violations of the law.

The ICRC carries out a wide range of activities to promote a better protection of civilians, including, of course the internally displaced. In line with its mandate, the ICRC may remind the parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law, and intercede with arms carriers responsible for violations. Where appropriate the ICRC provides support to the authorities, for example through technical co-operation, training or dissemination activities, so as to enable them to take the necessary measures to prevent violations. It may also endeavour to act as a neutral intermediary between the parties to the conflict, or between the victims and the authorities, to facilitate the conclusion of agreements aimed at resolving humanitarian problems, such as the establishment of protected areas or the evacuation of persons at risk. Wherever return is feasible, the ICRC also seeks to stimulate authorities to take necessary measures to ensure that return can take place in safety and dignity, and that necessary material conditions are in place.

Besides seeking to encourage a better respect for international humanitarian law through its contacts with the various agents of violence, the ICRC also provides a variety of services and material aid aimed at improving the situation of the victims. Among protection activities of particular relevance to internally displaced persons, the ICRC seeks to preserve the family unit or to restore family links where these have been disrupted through activities such as registration, inquiries into the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and search for them, exchanges of Red Cross Messages and the reunion of dispersed families, with particular attention given to vulnerable persons, such as unaccompanied minors, elderly and handicapped persons. Another serious problem which internally displaced persons may sometimes be exposed to is that of land mines, which the ICRC seeks to address through mine awareness programmes, first aid, surgery and orthopaedic services.

C. Assistance activities

Apart from the above-mentioned protection activities that the ICRC currently carries out in different parts of the world, the following programmes may also be highlighted:

In Angola, large parts of the territory are inaccessible to humanitarian organisations. In Huambo, nearly 300.000 displaced and resident persons receive intensive support (food, access to health services, water, seeds and other items of prime necessity). Due to security concerns, humanitarian workers have limited access to major parts of Somalia. Some 200.000 in various regions of that country receive food assistance, or will do so in the following weeks, while a similar number will receive seeds and other basic commodities. Similar problems are prevailing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In regions where the ICRC is present, it provides various forms of assistance to some 200.000 persons, supports some fifteen hospitals and thirty health clinics. In the eastern part of the country, it contributes to providing safe drinking water to some 2.000.000 persons, many of whom are displaced.

With respect to Afghanistan, it should be mentioned that 23.000 families residing in Kabul receive food and basic commodity assistance. They are all headed by widows or handicapped persons, and many have been displaced by the conflict. In addition, more than 150.000 persons have received medical care through programmes in support of hospitals, while some 500.000 have benefited from support in the field of agriculture. In Indonesia, some 50.000 displaced and resident persons are receiving humanitarian assistance in various parts of the archipelago (Kalimantan, Aceh, the Moluccan islands, and West Timor). In East Timor, some 120.000 formerly displaced persons benefit from food assistance and rehabilitation of medical support structures and drinking water systems.

In Colombia, close to 160.000 internally displaced persons receive food support and basic commodities, while another 25.000 have received financial assistance as a means to support their resettlement. Four mobile clinics have been sent into conflict zones, as a means to preserve access to health care for displaced and resident persons living there.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, more than 230.000 persons displaced from Kosovo are receiving food and hygiene items, while some 90.000 destitute inhabitants make use of a popular soup programme. Within Kosovo itself, close to 65.000 vulnerable persons, including many displaced, have received clothing, blankets and mattresses. Additional tens of thousands have an improved access to health and water services as a result of rehabilitation and reparation programmes. In the Russian Federation, more than 200.000 internally displaced from Chechnya have received in the course of the last three months food and basic commodities. Health structures have also received support.

V. Institutional co-operation

The scope and complexity of internal displacement call for a correspondingly multifaceted response, and the active involvement of those who possess necessary expertise and capacity within their field of activity. As one of the major humanitarian actors concerned with the internally displaced, the ICRC therefore remains fully committed to promoting effective institutional co-operation.

At the same time, the ICRC is of the view that in order to carry out its mandate in an effective manner, it needs to preserve the confidence of all the parties involved, without which access to the victims and the safety of its staff may be jeopardised. To this end, the ICRC not only abstains from taking sides in hostilities or from engaging in controversies between the parties involved; equally important, the ICRC insists on its independence from all other actors, so as to be able to act in accordance with humanitarian principles.

In this respect, the ICRC considers it important that its co-operation with other organisations is carried out in a manner which does not put at risk the perception of the ICRC as a neutral, impartial and independent organization, exclusively driven by humanitarian concerns. This risk is perhaps greatest when the same organization simultaneously carries out political, military and humanitarian efforts, but may be present also in other circumstances, for instance when the parties on the ground suspect that the humanitarian action is influenced by political considerations of states.

In order to preserve its independence, the ICRC has abstained from committing the organisation to respond in a predetermined manner, for instance by concluding memoranda of understanding with its major partner organisations. At the same time, it recognises the need for its external interlocutors to have a clear expectation of the involvement of the ICRC towards the internally displaced. To this end, the ICRC has maintained and developed its dialogue with key partners, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

As regards co-operation with United Nations bodies, the ICRC actively participates in the work of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, where it has a status of "standing invitee". It also enjoys a privileged relation with several individual agencies, programmes and funds, with which it maintains a sustained dialogue through day-to-day contacts as well as in a more structured fashion, such as annual high-level meetings at the senior management level.

As regards co-operation with the natural partners of the ICRC, that is national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation, it must be noted that all work on the basis of the same values and fundamental principles. Accordingly, an agreement has been concluded which provides clear and detailed guidance on the organization of international activities of the components of the Movement. This agreement seeks to provide the best possible response to humanitarian needs that may arise in different contexts, by drawing on the specific mandates and comparative advantages of each, and outlining responsibilities for the direction and co-operation of relief operations in different situations.