Protection Aspects of UNHCR Activities on Behalf of Internally Displaced Persons
International Protection (SCIP), 17 August 1994
Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme
Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection
17. August 1994
1. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has frequently been called upon to address the needs of persons who have been forced to flee their homes for the same reasons as refugees, but who have not left their own countries and are therefore not considered "refugees" under the UNHCR Statute (General Assembly res. 428 (v)) or under relevant international or regional instruments. In the past, and still to a large extent today, UNHCR's involvement with the internally displaced has often been in the context of the voluntary repatriation of refugees, where return movements and rehabilitation and reintegration programmes have included both returning refugees and displaced persons in circumstances where it was neither reasonable nor feasible to treat the two categories differently. Thus, for example, in 1972 the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), in the context of the voluntary repatriation of refugees to southern Sudan, called upon the High Commissioner, as well as other agencies and organizations, to extend rehabilitation measures both to refugees returning from abroad and to "persons displaced within the country."1 UNHCR's activities in Tajikistan are a current example of a programme serving both repatriating refugees and persons who had been displaced within their own country.
2. In other cases, UNHCR activities in countries of asylum on behalf of refugees from neighbouring countries also include people displaced in their own country who are victims of the same regional conflict. This was the case in Indo-China from the 1950s through 1975, as it is in Croatia today. Frequently returnees, refugees and internally displaced populations are present together in the same region, and a growing number of UNHCR operations have encompassed all three categories, together with local residents who have not left their homes, often as part of comprehensive regional schemes aiming both to solve refugee problems and to address the causes of forced displacement. Finally, at times the Office has been asked, on the basis of its humanitarian expertise, to undertake activities on behalf of persons displaced within their own country in certain situations which involve neither refugees nor returnees, and sometimes little or no prospect of flight across national boundaries. Typically these cases have involved the de facto division of a country along a cease-fire line, which placed persons who had been forcibly displaced across that line in a situation very similar to that of refugees.
3. The importance of addressing the problems of the internally displaced has become increasingly apparent in the light of UNHCR's focus on the prevention and solution of refugee problems. To the extent that refugee flows and internal displacement have the same causes, it makes little sense to deal only with the trans-frontier aspects of coerced population movements, either in responding to immediate humanitarian needs or in seeking solutions. From the vantage point of UNHCR, as the international agency responsible for refugees, it is clearly preferable, where possible, to obviate the need for people to leave their country – and thus to become refugees – in order to find safety and to obtain vital humanitarian assistance. For the international community as a whole, there are clear advantages in adopting a global approach to situations of coerced displacement, actual or potential. The measures necessary to solve a refugee problem through voluntary repatriation are the same as those required to relieve the plight of the internally displaced and of those at risk of displacement; and preventing internal displacement by removing the factors that force people to flee their homes will also remove the immediate cause of refugee flows.
4. By recognizing that the problems of the internally displaced and of refugees are manifestations of the same phenomenon of coerced displacement, UNHCR has increasingly considered activities on behalf of the internally displaced to be indispensable components of an overall strategy of prevention and solutions. In Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Horn and Central Africa, Liberia, Mozambique, and Central America, to cite some current examples of UNHCR involvement with the internally displaced, the link between internal and external displacement is obvious and the need to address the internal situation in order to satisfactorily resolve the external refugee problem seems equally clear.
5. UNHCR's increased attention to the needs of internally displaced persons in the context of the Office's prevention- and solution-oriented strategy has coincided with a growing awareness on the part of the international community of the dimensions and the gravity of internal displacement, of the plight of the victims, of the implications for international peace and security and of the consequent need for a more effective international response to this humanitarian problem. This heightened awareness and concern has led to the appointment, at the request of the Commission on Human Rights, of a Representative of the Secretary-General for the Internally Displaced, as well as to the convening by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs of a Task Force on the Internally Displaced within the framework of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. It has also led to numerous initiatives by Governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations and academic and research institution, as well as concerned individuals, to explore methods and promote measures to ensure that individuals and communities receive effective protection against forcible displacement and that those who are nonetheless forced to flee their homes obtain the requisite protection, assistance and solutions.
6. Among such initiatives the conclusion of the UNHCR Executive Committee adopted at its forty-fourth Session should be mentioned which:
Requests the High Commissioner, in pursuance of the need for the international community to explore methods and means to address better within the United Nations system the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced persons, to promote further consultations on this priority issue with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and with other appropriate international organizations and bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to report on the results of these discussions to the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection and, as appropriate, the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters. (A/AC.96/821, para 19(t)).
This request was repeated by the United Nations General Assembly in the annual resolution on the work of UNHCR adopted at its forty-eighth in which it
Recognize[d]the need for the international community to explore methods and means better to address within the United Nations system the protection and assistance needs of internally displaced persons, and call[ed] upon the High Commissioner to engage actively in further consultations on this priority issue with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and with other appropriate international organizations and bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. (General Assembly res. 48/116).
7. These various initiatives have also resulted in a number of detailed studies of the phenomenon of coerced displacement, including, on the part of the United Nations, a Report on Refugees, Displaced Persons and Returnees submitted to the Economic and Social Council at its second regular session of 1991 (E/1991/109/Add.1); the analytical report of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons submitted to the Commission on Human Rights at its forty-eighth session (E/CN.4/1992/23); the comprehensive study prepared by Francis Deng, Representative of the Secretary-General, on the human rights issues related to internally displaced persons, pursuant to resolution 1992/73 of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1993/35), submitted to the Commission at its forty-ninth session; and a further report by the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons submitted to the fiftieth session of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1994/44).
II. ISSUES ARISING OUT OF UNHCR'S INVOLVEMENT WITH INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
8. The present note will not attempt to duplicate these thorough analyses of the problems faced by internally displaced persons and possible methods of meeting their needs, but will briefly review certain issues arising in connection with UNHCR's activities in this field, in the hope of providing a useful basis for a discussion of the subject by the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection. These issues are:
(a) UNHCR's competence (or mandate) with respect to the internally displaced;
(b) the criteria for UNHCR involvement;
(c) the legal norms applicable with respect to the persons displaced or at risk of displacement within their own country;
(d) the nature and content of UNHCR's involvement;
(e) the complementary roles of other international organizations.
A. To what extent, and under what conditions, does the High Commissioner have a mandate to undertake activities on behalf of persons displaced within their own country?
9. Although it remains correct to say that the basic mandate of the High Commissioner under the Statute of the Office (General Assembly res. 428 (v)) does not include any general competence for persons displaced within their own country, the effect of various General Assembly resolutions has been to confer upon UNHCR a selective and limited mandate to undertake humanitarian assistance and protection activities on behalf of the displaced, provided certain specific conditions are met. Already in 1972, following the ECOSOC resolutions mentioned in paragraph 1, the General Assembly, having considered reports on the Office's activities, reaffirmed those resolutions, commended UNHCR's work on behalf of "refugees and other displaced persons" in the Sudan, (General Assembly res. 2958 (XXVII)), and another resolution requested the High Commissioner "to continue to participate, at the invitation of the Secretary-General, in those humanitarian activities of the United Nations for which his Office has particular experience and expertise" (General Assembly res. 2956 (XXVII)). This resolution has provided the formal legal basis for numerous special operations undertaken by UNHCR at the request of the Secretary-General, most of them including activities for the internally displaced.
10. The most recent General Assembly resolutions concerning UNHCR have been far more precise and explicit concerning the High Commissioner's activities on behalf of the internally displaced, including the criteria for and conditions attached to such activities. At its forty-eighth session, the General Assembly:
Encourage[d] the High Commissioner, on the basis of her broad humanitarian experience and expertise, to continue to explore and to undertake protection and assistance activities aimed at preventing conditions that give rise to refugee outflows, bearing in mind fundamental protection principles, in close coordination with the Governments concerned, and within an inter-agency, intergovernmental and non-governmental framework, as appropriate;
Reaffirm[ed] its support for the High Commissioner's efforts, on the basis of specific requests from the Secretary-General or the competent principal organs of the United Nations and with the consent of the concerned State, and taking into account the complementarities of the mandates and expertise of other relevant organizations, to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to persons displaced within their own country in situations calling for the Office's particular expertise, especially where such efforts could contribute to the prevention or solution of refugee problems." (General Assembly res. 48/116).
11. It should be noted that while the resolution lists a number of factors to be taken into account, it sets out two mandatory requirements for UNHCR action in favour of the internally displaced: a specific request from the Secretary-General or a competent principal organ of the United Nations i.e. the (General Assembly, the Security Council or ECOSOC), and the consent of the concerned State. While no explicit definition is offered of the displaced persons in question, the resolution refers to UNHCR activities on behalf of "persons displaced within their own country in situations calling for the Office's particular expertise." Since UNHCR's "particular expertise" lies in providing international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees and seeking solutions to refugee problems, the use of the term corresponds with UNHCR's operational definition of the internally displaced who are of potential concern to the Office as those in a refugee-like situation, i.e. persons fleeing persecution, armed conflict or civil strife, rather than victims of physical disasters, such as earthquakes, floods or nuclear power-plant explosions. Persons displaced for the latter reasons may well require humanitarian assistance from the international community, but their situation does not normally require UNHCR's "particular expertise".
B. In which situations is it appropriate for UNHCR to undertake activities on behalf of the internally displaced?
12. The High Commissioner's limited mandate to undertake activities on behalf of the internally displaced is both conditional and, in principle, discretionary. In addition to the requirements mentioned by the General Assembly, the Executive Committee has called for due regard to be paid to the availability of sufficient resources (A/AC.96/821, para. 19 (s)), which must be understood to include not only funds but also institutional capacity and the possibility of deploying sufficient qualified staff. The Executive Committee has also reiterated that "UNHCR's activities in the field of prevention must be complementary to its international protection responsibilities and consistent with the principles of international human rights and humanitarian law and that the institution of asylum must not in any way be undermined" (A/AC.96/821, para. 19(u)).
13. Assuming that there is a need for humanitarian action and that the basic requirements of General Assembly resolution 48/116 are or can be satisfied, it is then necessary to determine the appropriateness of UNHCR's involvement in any specific situation, considering the various factors mentioned by the General Assembly and the Executive Committee. Consideration must be given, for example, to the presence, availability, and operational capacity as well as the mandates of other relevant organizations; whether the situation in fact calls for UNHCR's particular expertise; the likely impact of the proposed activities on the Office's mandatory responsibility for the international protection of refugees and on the availability of asylum; and how such activities might contribute to "the prevention or solution of refugee problems."
14. Together with the requirements and considerations set out in the relevant General Assembly resolutions and Executive Committee conclusions, which are reflected in the factors mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there are certain preconditions that UNHCR considers essential for its involvement. These are:
(a) UNHCR's involvement must not in any way detract from the possibility to seek and to obtain asylum;
(b) UNHCR must have full and unhindered access to the affected population;
(c) adequate provision must be made for the security of staff of UNHCR and its operating partners and for acceptable operating conditions; and
(d) UNHCR's involvement should have the consent of all concerned parties and enjoy the support of the international community.
15. Given the magnitude of problems of displacement worldwide, it would clearly be impossible for UNHCR to assume responsibility for the internally displaced in every situation where its involvement is sought. Since UNHCR continues to be presented with requests for assistance by States faced with acute problems of internal displacement, it has been necessary for the Office to re-examine and refine its operational criteria for involvement in such situations, based on the requirements contained in General Assembly resolutions, the guidance provided in Executive Committee conclusions and the basic conditions listed above. As was indicated in last year's Note on International Protection (A/AC.96/815, para. 46), UNHCR considers that it should give favourable consideration to assuming primary responsibility for international action on behalf of the internally displaced in situations where there is a direct link with UNHCR's activities under its basic mandate to protect refugees and to seek solutions to refugee problems. Such situations include those where:
(a) internally displaced populations are present in or returning to the same areas as repatriating refugees, or areas to which refugees are expected to return;
(b) refugees and displaced persons in similar circumstances are present and in need of humanitarian assistance and/or protection in the same area of a country of asylum;
(c) the same causes have produced both internal displacement and refugee flows and there are operational or humanitarian advantages in addressing the problems within a single operation, including for example a "cross-border" component; or
(d) there is a potential for cross-border movement, and the provision of humanitarian assistance and/or protection to internally displaced persons may enable them to remain in safety in their own country.
16. There are other situations where there is no direct link between action to relieve the plight of the internally displaced and the solution or prevention of refugee problems, but where there are strong humanitarian arguments in support of UNHCR involvement, owing for example to an established presence in the region, particular expertise, or the need to respond immediately to a life-threatening emergency. In such situations, UNHCR would of course consider involvement, but where there is no clear link to the Office's refugee mandate UNHCR activities should to the extent possible be supplementary to the humanitarian efforts of other international organizations.
17. It should be emphasized that the application of the foregoing criteria cannot be automatic. Even in situations which appear to meet all applicable guidelines, requests for UNHCR involvement on behalf of the internally displaced must be carefully assessed with regard to all the factors mentioned, including the Office's capacity at any given time to respond effectively in a particular situation while continuing to meet urgent needs for humanitarian assistance and protection elsewhere.
C. What legal norms are applicable for the protection of persons forcibly displaced or at risk of being displaced within their own country?
18. Except where they are the result of natural disasters, situations of internal displacement involve either the inability or the unwillingness of the national authorities to ensure effective protection, in particular the right of individuals and even whole communities to remain in safety in their homes. The safety and even the survival of the displaced is often threatened by armed conflicts, as well as violations of fundamental rights. The internally displaced, or people at risk of displacement, thus often require not only humanitarian assistance but also protection, including both protection against (further) displacement and protection of their human rights while they are displaced and following their return home.
19. Since they remain within their own country, the internally displaced cannot benefit from the protection accorded to refugees in international law. They are in principle entitled to the protection of their own national laws. They also benefit from the provisions of international human rights law and, when they are in situations of armed conflict, of international humanitarian law. Many of these principles are recognized as binding on all States and de facto authorities as mandatory norms or elements of customary international law as well as, where applicable, as treaty obligations. When UNHCR is called upon to extend humanitarian assistance and protection to the internally displaced, it can and does therefore invoke these internationally recognized norms. The Office also relies, where possible, on the enforcement by the authorities of the relevant national laws. An additional legal basis for protection is often provided by specific formal undertakings made by the authorities concerned, for example as elements of peace settlements, repatriation agreements, Memoranda of Understanding or ad hoc agreements with UNHCR or with other United Nations bodies or international organizations.
20. An ongoing debate has featured in discussions in international fora concerning the protection needs of the internally displaced, as to whether the existing provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law provide a satisfactory basis for promoting such protection, or whether there are gaps which must be filled for this purpose. One argument is that existing legal norms, particularly those contained in international humanitarian law are, whatever their shortcomings, both adequate in theory and the best that can be achieved in the present international context. The main problem, it is argued, is not an inadequacy of existing legal principles but failure of Governments, de facto authorities and other parties to conflicts to comply with, or to enforce, those principles.
21. It must be acknowledged that there are potential gaps in the protection provided by both international human rights and international humanitarian law with respect to the internally displaced and persons at risk of displacement. Most provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are subject to derogation in declared public emergencies. Although the fundamental rights to life and to freedom from torture cannot be derogated, the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and the right to freedom of movement and residence can be derogated. The latter right is moreover generally subject to restrictions "provided by law" on grounds of "public order". The protections of humanitarian law are limited to "armed conflicts" involving organized armed groups "under responsible command" but not to other situations of internal disturbances and tensions2 Where applicable, the prohibition of forced movement of civilians in Protocol II 3 also provides for an exception if "imperative military reasons so demand". However, although this exception in theory reduces protection against forced displacement, it would undoubtedly be impossible to obtain any practical protection whatsoever without such concessions to the reality of armed conflict.
22. It is certainly possible to conceive of improvements in the international legal regime applicable with respect to the problem of forced displacement, particularly in situations that do not qualify as "armed conflicts". Among the issues that could usefully be addressed in normative terms are the prohibition of forcible displacement, ensuring humanitarian access to those in need of protection and assistance, whether they are in conflict or in non-conflict areas, and measures to ensure the safety of the workers and staff of humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian law contains provisions that would merit extension to cover other situations, for example, the provisions of Protocol II prohibiting displacement of the civilian population and prescribing basic humanitarian standards if it occurs4, prohibiting the starvation of civilians as a method of combat 5, providing for the care and protection of children and for other fundamental guarantees6, and providing that humanitarian relief actions "shall be undertaken", with the consent of the Contracting Party concerned, for civilian populations suffering undue hardship.7 In addition, refugee law, beginning with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, has developed specific standards for the treatment of persons who have been displaced, in this case across international frontiers. Some of the principles of refugee law could be adapted by way of analogy, invoking the corresponding principles of human rights law, to promote the protection of the internally displaced. The principle of non-refoulement, for example, is more explicit and focused than the human right to liberty of movement and freedom of residence as formulated in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
23. The absence of a single body of principles and norms specifically for the protection of the internally displaced, equivalent to international refugee law, has also been mentioned as a deficiency in the present legal situation. It should be noted, however, that refugees have been granted a particular status because they are foreigners who do not enjoy the protection of any Government. Internally displaced persons, as nationals within their own country, require above all respect for and enforcement by the authorities of their rights as full citizens, including the right to liberty of movement and freedom of residence, whether in the place from which they were displaced or elsewhere. A specific legal status different from their fellow citizens would perhaps not be to their advantage. On the other hand, codification of legal protections against displacement as well as of remedies and protections for persons who have suffered displacement, including the right if they so wished to return to their homes, could be of value. UNHCR therefore considers that the proposal made by the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons for the compilation of existing rules and norms, the drafting of a code of conduct comprising guiding principles to govern the treatment of internally displaced persons, and the possible preparation of an international declaration (E/CN.4/1993/35, para. 284), should be pursued. The Office is prepared to contribute to such an exercise.
24. While the further development of international legal norms against forcible displacement and for the protection of the displaced, building on the protection already provided by international human rights and humanitarian law, would be most welcome, it must be recognized that the most serious problems with respect to the protection of persons who are either displaced or threatened with displacement in their own country result not from an absence or deficiency of legal norms but from the failure of the parties concerned to respect and to enforce those norms, and, even more fundamentally, from the failure of warring parties, and of the international community as a whole, to achieve a peaceful resolution of the murderous conflicts that are the major cause of forced displacement. Any effective legal system must include both norms of conduct and some mechanism to ensure their observance or enforcement. The existing international mechanisms for ensuring observance of human rights principles and of humanitarian law are clearly not fully adequate to the task.
25. Humanitarian assistance and protection for the internally displaced, like international protection for refugees, require the cooperation of the States directly concerned. As for refugees, international presence and humanitarian access are indispensable. Wherever the consent and cooperation of the relevant authorities have been forthcoming, the absence of any single legal instrument specifically addressing the problems of the displaced and the theoretical gaps in the legal protections available have not prevented humanitarian access and action. Where the consent of the parties is not given, legal provisions by themselves cannot secure effective access. While international legal norms have strong persuasive power and moral authority, and national laws and signed agreements are valuable practical protection tools, humanitarian access and protection depend in practice on the ability and political will of the international community to persuade States to accept and to discharge their responsibility for the welfare and safety of all the people within their territory, whether they be refugees, returnees, the displaced, or people who have never left home.
26. It should be noted that, in practice, meeting the protection needs of the internally displaced and those at risk of displacement and promoting solutions is not only, and often not even primarily, a question of legal norms and remedies. In many situations in which UNHCR is involved on behalf of the internally displaced, returnees and refugees, practical protection is provided first of all by and through the local community, through a complex social network including family, clan, village or tribe. The role of state institutions, including legal institutions, is often secondary. In these and other situations, protection and solutions for the displaced, as well as for refugees, require the reconciliation of different groups within the society. Promoting respect for human rights in such circumstances is a task that must be accomplished primarily at the "grass roots" level, through the restoration of links among people in their own communities. In some programmes in favour of the internally displaced, UNHCR field staff have played such a grass roots protection role by helping to mediate disputes and dispel distrust at the level of returnee communities.
D. The content of UNHCR's activities on behalf of internally displaced persons
27. The nature of UNHCR's involvement in any specific situation will be determined by the character of the displacement, the need for protection and assistance and the solutions envisaged. The particular activities undertaken by UNHCR and other agencies on behalf of the internally displaced will depend on their immediate situation and needs, the factors that generated displacement, the relations of the displaced persons with their Government and/or with de facto local authorities both in their place of origin and in the areas to which they have been displaced, the immediate and long term prospects for specific solutions, as well as on agreements and understandings reached between UNHCR and the Government. A critical variable is the degree to which the conflict or human rights violations that caused the displacement continue, or have been wholly or partially resolved. In promoting and planning solutions, it is necessary to consider, above all, the wishes of the displaced themselves. The nature of UNHCR's protection and assistance activities on behalf of refugees or returnees in the same area is also a key factor in deciding the specific content of UNHCR activities in favour of internally displaced person.
28. With regard to the specific protection aspects of UNHCR's activities, it is to be noted that protection and solutions are at the core of UNHCR's mandate, and displacement together with the need for protection provide the basis and rationale for UNHCR's competence for refugees. When UNHCR is called upon to assume responsibility for the internally displaced on the basis of its particular expertise, its activities must be consistent with its basic mandate for protection and solutions. While the provision of humanitarian assistance is normally a major component of UNHCR programmes for the internally displaced, these also include, wherever necessary and feasible, protection activities aimed at enhancing their safety and ensure respect for the human rights of the persons concerned.
29. UNHCR's involvement in favour of internally displaced persons covers a wide range of situations and activities. Since armed conflict and systematic human rights abuses are major causes of displacement, UNHCR's activities on behalf of the displaced and persons threatened with displacement increasingly involves presence in areas affected by serious tension, outbreaks of violence or civil war. In line with the need to promote and facilitate solutions, numerous UNHCR humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation programmes have helped internally displaced persons to return to their home areas, often alongside repatriating refugees. The specifically protection-related tasks that UNHCR staff have recently been called upon to perform in various situations include monitoring, at the request of the Governments concerned, the treatment of members of threatened minority (or majority) groups, reporting violations of fundamental rights, and intervening with the relevant authorities to request protective action, as well as investigation and prosecution of specific cases of abuse; assistance and de facto protection to displaced persons in temporary relief centres; promoting tracing and family reunion of unaccompanied children; and assisting Governments to provide personal documentation. In circumstances of armed conflict and/or massive violations of human rights, UNHCR activities have involved assisting the safe passage of civilians through front lines; facilitating, in acute life-threatening situations, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organised evacuation of civilians; intervening with local authorities to prevent the involuntary return of the internally displaced to areas of danger; facilitating genuine freedom of movement, including the possibility for persons in danger to seek asylum; and promoting the right of the internally displaced to return – or not to return – voluntarily to their homes. Elsewhere, as mentioned above, UNHCR has participated in mediation and reconciliation efforts between returning displaced persons and local residents. The Office has also participated in negotiating, been a party to, and/or taken part in ensuring compliance with repatriation agreements involving internally displaced persons as well as refugees.
30. UNHCR's work with the internally displaced has also included participation in comprehensive peace settlements, as in El Salvador and Cambodia, where the return of refugees was linked with monitoring the human rights situation affecting returnees, the displaced and those who had never moved, as well as relief, rehabilitation and development assistance. In these and similar cases, UNHCR has worked closely with human rights monitoring teams set up by the United Nations or by regional bodies, as well as with development organizations and peacekeeping forces.
31. As shelter, food, health care and other necessities are essential to the safety and survival of the displaced, ensuring access to them may be considered another form of protection. Ensuring humanitarian access and the delivery of vital relief supplies in areas of conflict to the displaced and to besieged local populations, through the international humanitarian presence that this entails, may also in certain circumstances have a deterrent effect in averting some abuses. By drawing the attention of the international community to the plight of the victims of conflict, it can also help to stimulate political efforts to resolve those conflicts. Recent events make it abundantly clear, however, that humanitarian action and presence cannot by themselves end conflicts, prevent human rights abuses, or provide effective protection where the authorities concerned are unwilling or unable to do so.
E. Interagency cooperation in activities on behalf of internally displaced persons
32. In virtually all situations where UNHCR is involved with the internally displaced, the Office works closely with other United Nations, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and agencies, often as part of comprehensive multisectoral programmes. As with assistance programmes for refugees, humanitarian assistance and other programmes benefiting the internally displaced involve many different arrangements for interagency cooperation and coordination. However, whereas UNHCR has been designated by the United Nations and is recognized by the international community generally as the international agency responsible for ensuring that the needs of refugees for protection and assistance are met, no single agency has a similar role with respect to persons displaced within their own country. Within the United Nations family, the various operational humanitarian agencies have mandates and expertise in specific sectors – for example food and logistics for WFP, health for WHO, and water and maternal and child health for UNICEF – or for particular categories of people – such as women and children for UNICEF – that cover some of the needs or include some of the displaced. (The mandates of the agencies mentioned are of course more extensive than these examples.) In the field of human rights, the Centre for Human Rights, special rapporteurs and human rights monitoring teams established by the United Nations and regional organizations for specific operations have played a major role in the protection of the internally displaced in certain regions. The international response to situations producing forced displacement also includes United Nations political and peacekeeping operations, often with human rights elements. Among non-United Nations agencies, the ICRC has special competence for the provision of humanitarian relief and the protection of civilians in situations of armed conflict and for promoting observance of international humanitarian law, responsibilities which are highly relevant to persons displaced or at risk of displacement as a result of war. The mandate of the Intergovernmental Organization for Migration also includes activities on behalf of internally displaced persons. Numerous local and international non-governmental organizations are active on behalf of the displaced.
33. Since no one agency has a global mandate for the displaced, arriving at an appropriate division of labour among the organizations concerned is clearly of considerable importance for meeting their needs for humanitarian assistance, protection and solutions. The roles of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee chaired by the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs are of course central to the coordination of humanitarian assistance and the appropriate allocation of responsibilities among United Nations and other international agencies in complex emergencies, which include many situations of forced displacement. UNHCR plays an active part in the Inter-Agency Task Force on Internally Displaced Persons of the Standing Committee Working Group, which is currently seeking to formulate recommendations for mechanisms and practical measures to ensure effective and coordinated interagency responses to the needs of the internally displaced. Because the needs of internally displaced persons include protection as well as humanitarian assistance, it is essential that agencies with competence in the field of human rights are an integral part of any international effort to meet those needs. The participation of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights issues related to internally displaced persons in the Working Group is most useful in this regard.
34. With respect to the appropriate apportionment of responsibilities for the internally displaced as between UNHCR and other international organizations, it has been noted that the High Commissioner's involvement is subject to certain conditions and criteria, including the recommendation that there be a link with the protection or solution of refugee problems and the requirement that adequate resources be available. The conditions and criteria applicable to UNHCR are not exclusive however; there frequently are situations where the mandates of other organizations could overlap with UNHCR's, and it must be decided which agency will assume the lead role.
35. When there is a predominant refugee element, as when the internally displaced are mixed with large numbers of refugees or returnees for whom UNHCR has a mandatory responsibility, it is natural for UNHCR to assume responsibility also for the displaced. Thus when large numbers of refugees are going back to a particular area which will also receive large numbers of displaced returning, UNHCR has often been requested by the Secretary-General to assume the lead role. In situations where there are few refugees or returnees, but where activities on behalf of the displaced could contribute to the prevention of a refugee situation by relieving their plight in their own country, UNHCR involvement will depend, besides the availability of resources, upon the readiness and capacity of other agencies to meet the need. In situations of armed conflict which include a strong link to refugee problems, such as actual or potential cross-border movements, UNHCR will have to reach agreement with ICRC on the most effective way to share the task of assisting and protecting the internally displaced. Despite the potential for overlap, however, the magnitude of humanitarian tasks in conflict areas is such that regular consultation and coordination between UNHCR and ICRC result in complementary action and fruitful collaboration. It should be noted that ICRC and UNHCR are the only international organizations to combine humanitarian assistance and protection mandates. When neither is present, the protection needs of the internally displaced may be addressed by associating international or regional human rights organizations in a comprehensive programme with humanitarian assistance agencies.
36. Where the allocation of responsibility among agencies is unclear and cannot be resolved through discussion and coordination among those already present in situ, inter-agency missions to the area, under the auspices of DHA, can be an effective way of deciding on an appropriate assignment of tasks.
37. Like refugees, the internally displaced need protection, assistance, and a solution to their plight. It is appropriate for UNHCR, with the consent of the parties concerned, and provided adequate resources are available, to take part in the efforts of the international community on behalf of the displaced, in order both to meet their compelling humanitarian needs and to contribute to the prevention and solution of refugee problems.
38. In its action on behalf of the displaced, UNHCR can invoke the principles of international human rights law and of humanitarian law, as well as the relevant provisions of national law and of specific agreements with Governments and other parties concerned. While proposals for improvements in the legal protection currently available for the internally displaced and persons at risk of displacement are worthy of further exploration, the most serious problems of the displaced result from failure to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflicts that cause displacement and the failure of the parties directly concerned to observe the provisions of existing human rights and humanitarian law, and thus to safeguard the right of individuals and communities to remain in safety in their homes.
39. The restoration of peace and the protection of human rights, which are the only ways to provide truly effective protection to the internally displaced, are ultimately the responsibility of Governments. It is important to recognize that the forms of protection and humanitarian assistance that can be provided by UNHCR, with the consent of the national authorities, to persons within their own country must serve primarily to promote or reinforce national protection, which must be provided by those authorities. UNHCR and other international organizations can play a supportive role but they cannot substitute for Governments in the protection of their own citizens.
1 ECOSOC resolution 1705(LIII) (27 July 1972). See also resolution 1655(LII) (1 June 1972).
2 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), art. 1.
3 Ibid., art. 17.
5 Ibid., art. 14.
6 Ibid., art. 4.
7 Ibid., art. 18 (2).