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Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Interview with Francis M. Deng (UN Special Representative for the internally displaced)

Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Interview with Francis M. Deng (UN Special Representative for the internally displaced)
Refugees (117, 1999)

1 December 1999
A talk with the Secretary-General's Special Representative for the internally displaced.

"The problem is monumental ... affecting all regions of the world."

Francis M. Deng is the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons. Refugees interviewed him on a recent visit to Geneva.

Q. When you entered office in 1992 there were an estimated 24 million internally displaced people. How many are there today?

A. It is probably between 20-25 million, though some estimates are as high as 30 million. What is important is not the precise numbers but the overall trend and while the numbers are not increasing they are not dropping dramatically, either.

Q. What do these figures say about the ability - or inability - of the international community to tackle the problem of the internally displaced?

A. The problem is monumental, global and affects all regions of the world. Also, depending on the parties counting, numbers can be dramatically different. Recently, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) secretariat quoted figures of 20 million IDPs in Africa whereas our estimates are more in the range of 10 million. Is this to highlight the gravity of the situation in Africa, to increase the sympathy of the outside world or is it a simple lack of precision in estimating numbers? Whatever, this remains a severe problem.

Q. Your office has issued a set of "Guiding Principles" covering the treatment of the internally displaced.

A. At the start of my mandate I was asked to look at the existing international legal situation to determine the degree to which these standards provided a basis for protection and assistance. Eventually, it was decided that the issue was not one of making new laws or adopting new standards, it was to restate what exists, thereby facilitating the implementation of existing law. I use the resulting Guiding Principles as a basis for dialogue with governments and other actors. They cover several phases: a preventive phase, that is the right not to be displaced; protection and assistance if people are displaced; longterm solutions, either return or resettlement, and in either case ensuring the protection and integration of the IDPs.

Q. Have you had any practical success?

A. What has surprised us is the extent to which they have become accepted in a practical way. They are not a legally binding instrument, but they have been treated widely as binding customary law or binding instruments, partly because they are based on 'hard' law. They are being used heavily in places like Colombia and also to train peacekeepers en route to East Timor.

Q. Governments, however, can simply ignore guidelines. Look at East Timor and Kosovo.

A. I come from a school of thought that takes law as part of a very broad political power process, a decision-making process. Governments can disregard the principles, but the extent to which they are already gaining ground reflects the need for them. NGOs can tell governments 'You are violating this guiding principle' and that's almost as good as saying 'You are violating this or that convention.' I am not so concerned about the principles being legally binding.

Q. So when an East Timor situation explodes you do not despair?

A. When I started my career in the U.N. you could hardly mention the name of any government violating human rights. Today, we are a long way from where we were and now have a set of standards which the world in general accepts. When governments break the rules, the international community must try to uphold these principles. There is no room for despair because then we won't do anything.

Q. How has UNHCR's IDP role changed from the perspective of your office?

A. When I assumed this position, there was a strong emphasis in UNHCR that IDPs were outside its mandate, they were primarily the responsibility of governments and there should always be a clear distinction between refugees and the internally displaced. Over the years UNHCR has responded affirmatively, if cautiously and measured. There was a time when the idea of designating one existing organization (UNHCR) to take over the IDP mantle seemed plausible, an option I have recommended, but I am resigned to the fact that conventional wisdom believes a collaborative effort of existing organizations is best. That, of course, means better coordination and we know what a problem that has been in the past.

Q. Given the enormity of the task, your office appears to have few real resources.

A. Calling for additional resources year after year is a futile exercise. I am trying to be practical, generating the involvement of many players inside and outside the system - humanitarian agencies, foundations, research agencies, university professors and governments. My own role has to be modest, monitoring and acting as a catalyst.

Q. What has been the single, outstanding success - or failure - of your mandate?

A.When we began, this question of IDPs was forbidden territory, sovereignty was absolute. Now it has become generally accepted that sovereignty is not a concept of barricading yourself against international scrutiny, but a responsibility to respect the rights of a government's citizens. So, we are moving upwards and while the glass is still three-quarters empty, at least it is one quarter full.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)