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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Roundtable Discussion on United Nations Human Rights Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, Nyon, Switzerland, 5 February 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Roundtable Discussion on United Nations Human Rights Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, Nyon, Switzerland, 5 February 1993

5 February 1993

It is a pleasure and a privilege for me to address this distinguished gathering on the protection of the internally displaced. The scale and scope of the problem, the human suffering which underlies it, as well as its impact on international peace and security rightly makes it an issue of great international concern. I commend the Government of Norway, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Refugee Policy Group for taking the initiative to organise the Roundtable.

As the world gropes for a new political and economic equilibrium, as historic hatreds are unleashed, as old power structures crumble and new ones are yet to form, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, as demographic pressures grow, the phenomenon of displacement has taken on frightening proportions, as much within borders as across them. Cross-border movements fall outside the scope of our discussion today, but even looking at intra-national movements, distinctions and categorisations of displacement are not easy because of the complex mix of causes. However, within this massive group there are those who are essentially victims of human rights violations, often but not exclusively in the context of conflict, political violence and insecurity and who lack the protection of their national government. Their estimated numbers vary greatly, from 15 million to 30 million. It is on the protection of this category of the internally displaced that I will concentrate my remarks today.

There are clear parallels between refugees and the displaced. Both groups lack protection of their governments. Root causes of both types of movements are the same, and hence solutions for one are often inter-linked with the other. Indeed, sometimes refugees have returned home to war-devastated countries only to find themselves displaced, as in Ethiopia or Afghanistan. Elsewhere, refugees and the internally displaced have equally fled famine, insecurity and even total anarchy, as in Somalia. In Mozambique a long drawn-out civil war, intensified by drought, famine and environmental decline has produced 4 million internally displaced in addition to 1.5 million refugees in the neighbouring countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe. Ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia has displaced more than 3 million people. The violent dispute of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has also resulted in substantial internal displacement and refugee flows, as has the conflict in Tajikistan in central Asia.

Yet, the fact that one group crosses a border and another does not or cannot, makes a significant difference to their situation under international law and to the United Nations' response to their plight. For refugees, there is international protection under the mandate of UNHCR, and a specific body of law to address their needs. The needs of the internally displaced, on the other hand, remain to be addressed largely within the general provisions of human rights and humanitarian law, and through ad hoc operational measures and mechanisms.

The similarity of the plight of the internally displaced to that of refugees has increasingly led UNHCR to extend its humanitarian expertise to instances of internal displacement. It has happened frequently in the context of refugee repatriation programmes, as in northern Iraq and the Horn of Africa, where returning refugees were intermixed with internally displaced persons re-establishing themselves in the towns or villages they had fled. In central America, UNHCR has participated in a comprehensive regional arrangement to find solutions for refugees as well as the internal displaced. In recent years, UNHCR has also sought to address the problem of internal displacement as part of its strategy to prevent refugee flows, as in northern Sri Lanka, and former Yugoslavia. In such cases we have acted at the request of the Secretary General.

Conscious of the link between refugee flows and internal displacement and of their close relationship to human rights, and based on our operational experience, I would like to share with you some thoughts on a protection strategy for internally displaced persons.

Let me begin by emphasising a basic premise: Displacement or uprootedness is a transitory condition;lack of national protection is an aberration of the normal in which the State accepts the responsibility for its own citizens. The objective must be return to the status ante. As much in the case of the internally displaced as that of refugees, therefore, the concept of protection must be broadened to include also the notion of prevention and solution. While it is important to focus on the state of displacement and the humanitarian needs which arise from it, we must not lose sight of the roots of the problem, nor the need to seek a durable solution for it. Thus a comprehensive strategy of prevention, protection and solutions must be developed, keeping as its focus the plight of the people.

Such a strategy must take account of the full range of factors which compel people to leave their homes: political, social, economic and environmental. It must also recognise that the problem of displacement can itself be a source of instability and a threat to international peace. Protecting the internally displaced thus requires a comprehensive and integrated approach, encompassing peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-building as well as humanitarian action and protection of human rights. It calls for a broad partnership of actors: governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental.

In such a comprehensive approach, there is an important role for the U.N. human rights machinery. It is clear that strengthening respect for human rights is the best form of protection because it prevents displacement, and can create the conditions for a durable solution after people have been displaced. The challenge is to translate such a preventive and solution-oriented strategy into practical measures. How do we control the abuse of State power? How do we get States to eliminate violations of human rights in their territory and cooperate internationally to reduce "push factors", to meet humanitarian needs as well as to create conditions conducive to return which is the ultimate solution to the problem of displacement? As many of you present today are also participating in the Human Rights Commission, let me mention some of the measures to which I drew the attention of the Commission at its last session, including the development of early warning mechanisms, international human rights monitoring, advisory services and national or regional structure for the protection of minority rights. Furthermore, the link between human rights and development must be fully recognised. More thought should also be given as to how the tools available to the Human Rights Commission, such as special representatives, rapporteur and working groups, can be strengthened to improve their effectiveness in ensuring better respect of human rights by States.

Prevention and solution through greater respect of human rights must be paralleled by a humanitarian response which meets the protection and assistance needs of the people once they have been displaced. In this context two issues need consideration: firstly, legal standards and secondly, institutional and practical mechanisms.

What are the applicable legal standards available to protect the rights of the internally displaced? Although refugee law provides an extensive framework of protection for refugees, it is not directly applicable to internally displaced persons. Nevertheless, the possibility of applying some of its principles by analogy should be explored. Let me stress, however, that any attempt to develop protection standards for the internally displaced should take care not to undermine the existing obligations of refugee law, particularly that of asylum and non-refoulement.

Unlike refugee law, humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, contains provisions for the protection of civilians in internal armed conflicts, which are of great value to the internally displaced. These provisions do not, however, apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, and isolated and sporadic acts of violence, which often cause people to flee.

Thus, it is left to human rights law to provide the necessary protection to internally displaced persons. Yet many of the human rights are subject to derogation during a period of public emergency, exactly at a time when the need for protecting the displaced is the greatest. This is a lacuna which needs to be addressed.

Furthermore, current human rights standards do not directly address some of the specific protection needs of the internally displaced. Let me give one example:A key part of UNHCR's protection function in former Yugoslavia is to prevent or at least limit "ethnic cleansing", the forcible displacement of people for ethnic reasons. Standards on the right to remain as well as the right to return could benefit from further elaboration. I hope to say more on this subject when I address the Human Rights Commission later this month.

Another area which would benefit from clearer standards is the right of the internally displaced to humanitarian assistance and protection. We all know how often food has been used as a weapon of war. Horrendous reports of rape and sexual abuse in Bosnia-Herzegovina remind us of the particular vulnerability of women and children displaced by war. Is it not time for the international human rights machinery to recognise a right to humanitarian assistance and protection? It may be useful to develop further the guidelines provided in General Assembly Resolution 46/182 from the perspective of the human rights of the internally displaced.

The issue of humanitarian access is important not only in relation to legal standards but also in the development of institutional means to protect human rights. This leads me to the second aspect of the protection of the internally displaced. Protection of human rights of an individual within his national territory is premised on State responsibility. It is a responsibility which devolves on the country of origin by virtue of fundamental State obligations to safeguard and protect its citizens. However, in a situation of internal displacement, the State may be the persecutor itself or may be unwilling to protect or even unable to do so, for instance if it has lost territorial control during an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the assumption of national sovereignty traditionally leaves no international jurisdiction for protection, unlike that of UNHCR in the case of refugees. However, the growing recognition of legitimate international concern on human rights matters is slowly creating more space for international bodies to play a role in monitoring the protection of the internally displaced than was previously considered possible.

Various mechanisms are being used or considered, including that of international presence. UNHCR's Open Relief Centres in northern Sri Lanka have become havens of safety, accepted and respected by both warring parties although they have no legal status as such. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 600 UNHCR staff help, not only to distribute relief to many of the displaced and besieged, but also to monitor their protection situation. In northern Iraq, until last summer UNHCR deployed some 180 staff. Their presence was augmented by hundreds of NGOs, underlining the key role of NGOs in the protection of the internally displaced. In an innovative move, the UN deployed 500 guards, as a confidence-building measure to enhance security.

Human rights monitoring in the context of UN peace plans is also of significance to the protection of the internally displaced. In El Salvador, under Security Council Resolution 693, UN observer missions (ONUSAL) were deployed to verify the undertakings made by the government and the FMLN to respect human rights. The responsibilities of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia also include a human rights component which benefits the displaced, returning refugees and the local population.

The experience of these various operations indicates that, in order to be effective, monitoring must include some mechanism for more direct action to protect human rights. The lessons learnt from these operations should be used to develop a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the internally displaced within the U.N. human rights machinery. The experience gained through the appointment of the Special Rapporteur on former Yugoslavia is worthy of evaluation. Although the worsening situation there remains a matter of deep concern, nevertheless the efforts to address the human rights and humanitarian problems within a broader framework of a political process is an interesting one. New approaches should be explored to ensure effective international presence that bring together human rights observers, humanitarian organisations and peace-keeping forces.

The establishment of safety zones have also been considered as an alternative method for providing protection to internally displaced persons. As you know, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 787, the Secretary-General in consultation with UNHCR and other UN agencies is studying the appropriateness of this concept for Yugoslavia. From the humanitarian point of view, the safety zone concept raises many concerns. Who would benefit from a safety zone? How could the safety of such persons be ensured? If military force is used, how would the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action be preserved? What would be the risk of attracting even more displacement? There are equally many questions from the point of view of human rights, including the impact on the right to seek asylum and freedom of movement.

So far, protection mechanisms for the internally displaced are being based on the consent of the State concerned. However, obtaining consent can sometimes be problematic. When does the duty of a State to respect the right to humanitarian assistance become an obligation incumbent on the international community to enforce it, leading to military intervention? There is a growing inclination on the part of the Security Council to base its action on the humanitarian domain (and on concerns of human rights as in the context of northern Iraq). In Somalia, following the total breakdown of government and starvation of the people, the Security Council authorised enforcement action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to create a secure environment for humanitarian relief action.

The Somalia case demonstrates that protection of the internally displaced is constrained, not only by state sovereignty but also by the corollary decline or destruction of state power. As countries break up into republics and republics into territories ruled by warlords, who bears responsibility for the protection of people? This issue goes much wider than the internally displaced, but they are undoubtedly one of the first victims of the lacuna in the law, which will only widen as statehood degenerates in many parts of the world.

It is important to recall that international protection of refugees and the mandate of UNHCR is based on the cooperation of States. Such cooperation is even more important in the context of the internally displaced. The development of standards and mechanisms for the effective protection of the internally displaced must, in the final analysis, emphasise the importance of States' accepting responsibility for their citizens, as it must the interest, solidarity and collective responsibility of the international community in ensuring that humanitarian needs are met and human rights respected.

In conclusion, let me reiterate the importance of approaching the issue of the internal displaced broadly, taking full account of the diverse and complex root causes of displacement. It is only through a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the problem that we can hope to develop a comprehensive response to this enormous and difficult problem. This Roundtable provides an important opportunity to further that thinking. I wish you a fruitful debate.