Statement by Francis M. Deng, Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons

from UN General Assembly
Published on 05 Nov 1999
54th Session of the General Assembly, New York
Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen

It gives me great honor to address this body on the global crisis of internal displacement which must be of profound concern to us all. Recent developments in East Timor, Kosovo, Colombia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Chechnya (Russian Federation), Afghanistan and Sudan -- to mention but a few of the cases -- dramatize the magnitude and the scope of the crisis. Worse, many more millions of people continue to languish under dreadful conditions of displacement outside the spotlight of the international media and without access to international protection and assistance.

Persons forcibly displaced within their own countries by internal conflict and grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law remain a challenge to which the United Nations is regularly called upon to respond. Indeed for large numbers of internally displaced persons, the United Nations may be their only means of receiving protection and humanitarian assistance.

In my statement last year, I drew attention to certain steps which the international community has been taking in an effort to develop the needed institutional and normative mechanisms to respond to the crisis. The new and developing framework of inter-agency collaboration under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the introduction in 1998 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are among the more positive elements.

In his report to the Security Council on the "Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict," the Secretary-General highlighted the Guiding Principles and the importance of promoting observance of them in situations of internal displacement. They are the first attempt to identify what protection means for the internally displaced. Based on and consistent with human rights and humanitarian law, the Guiding Principles set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligation of governments, insurgent groups and other actors toward these populations. It was with the encouragement and support of the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly that these Principles were developed.

I am pleased to report that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and virtually all its member agencies have expressed support for the Guiding Principles and are disseminating them and making practical use of them in their work in the field. Several of the thematic and country-specific Special Rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights have also begun to use the Principles in their work, as have some of the UN Human Rights Field Presences in different parts of the world.

At the regional level, the Commission on Refugees of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which met in Addis Ababa in June, took note of the Principles "with interest and appreciation." It further called for increased awareness of the Principles in Africa, in particular through seminars, workshops and roundtables. Its decision was highlighted in the report of the OAU Secretary-General to the OAU Council of Ministers at its meeting in Algiers in July.

In the Americas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) and its Rapporteur on internally displaced persons have begun to apply the Principles in their work, recently evidenced in its report on Colombia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has shared the Principles with its members and field staff.

To promote greater international awareness of the Principles and to raise visibility to the plight of internally displaced persons in all parts of the world, my office has been actively organizing regional and national workshops on internal displacement in collaboration with regional organizations, relevant UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In October 1998, together with the OAU and UNHCR, a regional workshop on internal displacement in Africa was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In May 1999, a national workshop was organized in Bogota, Colombia in cooperation with a consortium of Colombian NGOs and the US Committee for Refugees. In November, I plan to go to the Philippines to participate in a workshop on the application of the Principles in that country. And in February of next year, my office will be convening, in cooperation with UNHCR and international and Asian NGOs, a regional seminar in Bangkok, Thailand, on internal displacement in south and southeast Asia. For later in the year 2000, we are planning a seminar with OSCE on internal displacement in the south Caucasus region.

To assist international organizations and NGOs in applying the Principles, a Handbook has been prepared as well as a Manual on Field Practice in Internal Displacement, which provide examples of field-based initiatives that can be taken for internally displaced persons. Both will be published by OCHA shortly. In addition, an annotated version of the Guiding Principles, explaining the legal provisions on which they are based, is to be published this fall by the American Society of International Law and the Brookings Institution. It is my hope and intention that broad knowledge and understanding of these Principles will promote greater observance of their provisions.

Mr. Chairman, in the area of institutional response, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, under the Chairmanship of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, has proved to be an important vehicle through which to promote comprehensive international responses to the protection, assistance and reintegration and development needs of internally displaced persons. Increasingly, situations of internal displacement are being discussed and dealt with in the IASC framework. The country review of responses to internal displacement being undertaken by OCHA's Senior Adviser on IDPs should also assist in ensuring that responses are better coordinated and more comprehensive.

In addition, a policy paper has been developed on the protection of internally displaced persons, emanating from my discussions with the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Soon to be submitted to the IASC heads of agencies, it examines how international organizations and NGOs can promote more effective protection for internally displaced populations. Work is also presently under way under the IASC framework on developing training materials on internal displacement so that field staff may be in a position to respond more effectively to situations of internal displacement.

Another important IASC initiative has been the development of a global information network on internal displacement. The Global IDP Database developed under the leadership of the Norwegian Refugee Council will be an important resource tool providing country specific information on situations of internal displacement around the world.

Mr. Chairman, I have always maintained that our efforts in developing appropriate legal and institutional frameworks on internal displacement can only be meaningful if they are translated into practical measures that provide protection and assistance to the afflicted populations in crisis situations.

Advocating for national and international responses to situations of internal displacement in specific countries continues to be a main focus of my work, mostly through country missions. In May of this year, I visited Colombia, as a follow-up to my visit there in 1994. Since my first visit, the Government has undertaken certain institutional measures intended to enhance its response to the problem. However, it must be emphasized that the situation of internal displacement in Colombia has deteriorated significantly. Displacement now affects over 1 million persons and continues to grow; moreover, most internally displaced persons do not have adequate access to basic protection and assistance. The mission made it clear to me that this humanitarian crisis demands greater attention by the national authorities, and it is my hope that they will take the steps needed to mitigate the emergency in their country. At the same time, greater attention is also needed at the international level through increased presence and programs. I was given the opportunity to relay this message and my other findings to the IASC Working Group which is considering how to strengthen the international humanitarian component and ensure more effective coordination of the humanitarian response in Colombia. My report with its recommendations to the Government and the international community will be submitted to the Commission on Human Rights at its next session.

At the time of my mission, another serious situation of internal displacement was occurring in another part of the world, in Kosovo. Although this situation rose to the top of the international agenda, I must point out that the attention and forceful response it elicted revealed a gap in international protection for internally displaced persons. Far from the cameras that focused on the Kosovar refugees flooding into Albania and Macedonia, there were hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons whose whereabouts and conditions were unknown to the international community and many of whose tragic fate is only now being discovered. The international response in such circumstances needs to be more comprehensive and encompass both sides of the border so as to include those who remain trapped inside.

The Kosovo case also underscores the need for reconciliation in societies wracked by ethnic violence. While most of the refugees by now have been able to return, internal displacement continues, this time of ethnic Serbs and Roma: their protection also must be of international concern.

Further, as the Kosovo crisis has made us aware, the United Nations can not allow national or regional interests to become a basis for a selective response internationally. International resources and attention can not be so concentrated on one geographic area that displaced persons in other areas are left unprotected and unassisted. Indeed, the needs of the internally displaced in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Angola and in Chechnya (both directly within and in Daghestan and Ingushetia) - to mention but a few cases - also merit increased humanitarian attention. And while the primary duty and responsibility to protect and assist internally displaced persons rests with the national authorities, a response is required of the international community when these authorities prove unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility.

I must mention here that the extremely limited resources at the disposal of my mandate are inadequate to the task at hand. They permit me to take only 2 to 3 trips per year. This is a less than satisfactory response to the plight of the 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons in over 40 countries worldwide. If the efforts of the mandate are to be commensurate with the challenge, it must have the capacity to provide a more comprehensive and effective coverage of displacement situations worldwide. The UNHCR staff person to be seconded to my mandate later this month in New York, for which I am most grateful, should help to increase the global coverage of my mandate's monitoring efforts, as will the data base, the IASC country review and the partnerships being forged with regional organizations. In this connection, I would like to express my appreciation to those governments that have provided resources in support of the work of the mandate.

Another difficulty I face is securing access to situations of internal displacement. To be sure, a significant number of Governments facing problems of internal displacement have extended invitations for me to visit and have shown themselves open to international cooperation. Last year, I visited Azerbaijan and I am pleased to have received this year invitations from the Governments of Armenia and Georgia where I plan to visit in the near future. But there are other countries which I have indicated an interest in visiting that have yet to respond. In this connection, it is my hope that the Governments of Angola and Turkey will extend an invitation, and that the Government of Sri Lanka will also invite me to pay a follow-up visit.

Countries, of course, cannot completely shield themselves from international scrutiny. Indeed, it seems to me that refusing access could have the opposite effect, in suggesting that serious gaps exist in the Government's discharge of its responsibilities to the internally displaced and thus only highlighting the need for international attention. The best guarantee for sovereignty is for a Government to live up to its responsibilities toward its citizens and all those under its jurisdiction.

Another practical difficulty my mandate faces is when borders move around people rather than people moving across or within borders. In such situations, internally displaced persons can become refugees overnight while refugees can become internally displaced. Such was the case in the former Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Union, both of which I had the opportunity to visit in the early 199Os. Recently, in East Timor, a similar problem arose. When the referendum held on the region's status triggered violence and mass displacement, over 200,000 East Timorese fled or were forcibly relocated to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of others, whose precise whereabouts and fate are only beginning to become known, were displaced within East Timor. Questions arose about how to define the various displaced populations. But here, the emphasis placed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on contexts rather than categories of displacement could not be more apt. Most important is that action be taken.

On 8 September, I, along with a number of other special mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights, issued a joint urgent appeal to the Government of Indonesia concerning the massive violations of human rights occurring in East Timor. Attention was drawn to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, with specific reference to their provision for protection against arbitrary displacement, protection and assistance during displacement, safe return and resettlement, and access to humanitarian assistance. Though the situation continues to unfold, these concerns remain extremely relevant. We hope to be able to study these concerns further by means of a mission, in accordance with the resolution adopted by the special session of the Commission on Human Rights.

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, there is clearly greater international awareness, attention and concern about situations of internal displacement. Nonetheless, recent developments around the world demonstrate that we have not yet established an effective system of comprehensive response. But rather than be discouraged by this glaring gap, we should build upon the normative framework provided by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the positive international response to these Principles, the inter-agency collaboration that has developed, and the increased international demand for access to the millions who are dispossessed within their own national borders. By building upon these efforts, we can hope to develop a more predictable and comprehensive system for dealing with the world's internally displaced.

I thank you for your attention.