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Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Interview: Dr. Francis M. Deng, advocate for the uprooted

Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Interview: Dr. Francis M. Deng, advocate for the uprooted
Refugees (103, I - 1996)

1 March 1996
Dr. Francis M. Deng, the U.N. Secretary-General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, says it is easy to be "overwhelmed into despair" by the magnitude of the problems of the internally displaced, but stresses that the international community must try to do everything possible to ease their plight.

Dr. Francis M. Deng was appointed in 1992 as Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. In this interview with Refugees, Dr. Deng talks about his work and the plight of the world's estimated 30 million internally displaced people.

QUESTION: When and why was your position established?

ANSWER: My appointment was in response to the mounting crisis of internal displacement worldwide.

The rapid escalation of internal conflicts, civil wars and ethnic strife at the end of the Cold War resulted in a marked increase in the number of persons displaced within the borders of their own countries.

By 1992, the year of my appointment, the total number of internally displaced persons had climbed to about 24 million, surpassing that of refugees.

No one organization had responsibility for the internally displaced and substantial numbers were not receiving adequate protection or assistance.

Many were deprived of food and health services, caught up in internal strife, and subjected to severe human rights abuse.

Some of the highest mortality rates ever recorded during humanitarian emergencies involved situations of internal displacement.

Because of the magnitude of the crisis, the inadequacy of the response system, and the urgent need for international remedies, a number of concerned non-governmental organizations and governments urged the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to take action.

The U.N. Secretary-General, in response to the Commission's request, asked me to serve as his Representative on Internally Displaced Persons.

What activities do you undertake under your mandate?

One area that has become vitally important to my mandate is making on-site visits to countries with serious problems of internal displacement in order to explore first-hand the conditions in which internally displaced persons live. Since my appointment in 1992, I have paid visits to ten countries, have established dialogues with the governments concerned, and have consulted with agencies and organizations involved with the displaced and with the displaced themselves. After each visit a report is prepared, with recommendations for governments and the international community for improving the conditions of the internally displaced. My initial visits were to the former Yugoslavia, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Sudan and El Salvador, in that order. My most recent visits have been to Sri Lanka, Burundi, Rwanda, Colombia and Peru, and I will be visiting Tajikistan shortly.

Another important element of the mandate is the development of a legal framework to enhance protection for the internally displaced. Specifically, I have been asked to study the extent to which internally displaced persons are adequately covered by international human rights and humanitarian law - and refugee law by analogy - and to propose remedies for increased legal protection.

I have also been requested to analyze current institutional arrangements for the internally displaced at the international, regional and non-governmental levels and to recommend how existing arrangements could more effectively address the protection, assistance and development needs of the internally displaced.

Focusing attention on the needs of internally displaced women and children is another aspect of the mandate and the development of strategies for their better protection.

Have you had the support and resources required to do your job?

The mandate of the Representative encompasses a broad range of human rights and humanitarian activities which go well beyond the scope and resources of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, its originating body, or the Center for Human Rights, which services it. To date, the Center has been able to provide only very limited staff support and resources toward the activities of the mandate. As a result, I have had to turn to concerned governments, NGOs, academic institutions, independent experts and foundations for assistance and support. The U.N. General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights have encouraged my developing ties with organizations and groups outside the U.N. system because of the enormous needs of internally displaced populations and the far-reaching objectives of the mandate. I am currently working on developing means of enhancing the capacity of the mandate to be more effective in pursuing its objectives.

What are the disparities in treatment of refugees versus IDPs?

I have found considerable discrepancy in the ways in which refugees and internally displaced persons are perceived and treated by the international community, even when they face similar problems and sometimes in virtually the same circumstances. In Burundi, for example, the level of international involvement with refugees from Rwanda was far higher than with those who were internally displaced. In camps that I visited in September 1994, many of the internally displaced did not have adequate shelter even though the rainy season was approaching.

Dysentery and lack of clean water, pumps, tents, blankets, medicines and general health care were some of the more serious problems. The refugee camps visited by comparison had huts covered with plastic sheeting as well as water, cooking materials, and health services. When I brought this case to the attention of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee in New York, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees responded quite positively and undertook to look into the matter. But there are other countries where there are sharp disparities as well. In Sudan, the internally displaced live under conditions of one of the worst civil wars in Africa, while refugees from other countries have available to them a well-developed international system of protection and assistance.

What are the constraints in dealing with IDPs?

Overwhelmingly, the internally displaced live under adverse conditions of a hostile domestic environment, where their access to protection and assistance is constrained by national sovereignty. In many countries they are ignored or at worst perceived as the "enemy," either by their association with an identifiable insurgent group, or more generally with an ethnic, cultural or social group perceived as inferior, "threatening" or simply "other." The result is that many internally displaced persons fall into a vacuum of responsibility within the state. In my dialogues with governments, I have repeatedly emphasized that national sovereignty carries with it certain responsibilities toward those within its jurisdiction. If governments are unable to discharge their responsibilities to provide adequate protection and assistance, they are expected to invite, or at least accept, international cooperation to supplement their own efforts. On the other hand, where governments or controlling authorities are unwilling to live up to their responsibilities and are not receptive to international assistance, the international community should be assertive in filling the vacuum of responsibility for those in need.

In Sudan, for example, where the world's largest number of internally displaced persons can be found, there are problems of access to both the millions of internally displaced in the south, under the control of rebel movements, and the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced in the north under government control. Every effort should be made by the international community to try to reach those in need on all sides of the conflict. International and regional efforts at conflict resolution are also essential because in the end this is the most effective way to find solutions for displacement.

Should UNHCR's mandate be further expanded to include IDPs?

Within the U.N. system, UNHCR is no doubt the institution best equipped legally and operationally to deal with the internally displaced. However, as the High Commissioner has repeatedly pointed out, the magnitude of the problem far exceeds the capacity and resources of UNHCR or any other single agency. The needs of internally displaced persons, totalling about 30 million people, span the entire range of U.N. agencies - from emergency assistance to human rights protection to development aid. Since there already exist many resources and capacities in these areas, collaborative arrangements should be strengthened among the different relief, development and human rights organizations that already play a role with the displaced. Should these collaborative arrangements, however, fail to achieve effective coordination and provide adequate protection and assistance, then the creation of a new U.N. agency exclusively responsible for the internally displaced or the enlargement of the mandate of UNHCR should be considered.

What are your main accomplishments to date in your role as Representative?

Because I am but a single individual with limited institutional support and no operational authority, my role is essentially that of a catalyst and advocate, helping to raise international awareness to the plight of the internally displaced and to the need for governments, international organizations and NGOs to find solutions. In some cases, visits to countries have produced tangible results for the internally displaced. The mere fact of a visit generally serves to attract the attention not only of the government but also of other elements of the society, which generates a discourse that stimulates internal activities to deal with the problem.

Progress has also taken place in the institutional area. U.N. agencies, regional organizations and NGOs have increasingly expanded their activities with regard to the internally displaced, and structurally, institutions are now in place which have begun to function as coordinating organs and which promise to bring coherence into the international system for better addressing assistance, protection and development for the internally displaced.

In the area of legal protection, a Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms applicable to the internally displaced has been completed by a team of highly accredited institutions and experts with whom I have worked closely for several years. The compilation is currently before the Commission on Human Rights. It analyzes existing law, identifies areas in which human rights and humanitarian law fail to provide sufficient protection and proposes remedies.

What still needs to be done?

In addition to the compilation of norms mentioned above, a specific set of legal standards tailored to the needs of the internally displaced must be developed. Although there is extensive coverage in existing international law for the internally displaced, there is no one instrument that details those provisions and there are gaps in the law that need to be addressed. A body of legal principles is needed to restate and clarify existing law and address the shortcomings in the law. This will assist international agencies and NGOs in the field to provide protection for the internally displaced and also raise the level of international awareness of the problem.

Greater attention also needs to be paid to increasing the physical security of the internally displaced. More visible international presence in camps or in areas where internally displaced persons congregrate can prove essential to increasing protection for the displaced and to restoring confidence for return. The U.N. human rights system needs to be strengthened to shoulder more of this responsibility, but humanitarian agencies and regional bodies should also assume a more pronounced protection role.

Overall, institutional arrangements will need to be improved to ensure that protection and assistance are more adequately provided by the international community, whose uneven presence in countries with problems of internal displacement has resulted in the needs of internally displaced persons being met to varying degrees in some countries, but largely neglected or not addressed at all in others.

An information centre needs to be established to ensure more systematic monitoring of internal displacement on a worldwide basis. There are at least 35 to 40 countries with serious problems of internal displacement whose conditions have to be examined so that informed policy decisions can be made.

Special programmes need to be developed for internally displaced women and children. Whereas UNHCR and various NGOs monitor the implementation of protection guidelines with respect to refugee women and children, no comparable monitoring is done of the conditions of the internally displaced. Yet internally displaced women and children are often the most traumatized and vulnerable in situations of internal conflict. Special strategies are needed for single women and women heads of household, and for unaccompanied children, many of whom have undergone systematic human rights abuse during conflict situations. While the tendency in dealing with the displaced has been to focus on emergency assistance, and to a lesser extent protection, it is also essential to look beyond this phase to rehabilitation, reconstruction and longer-term development. Relief and development agencies and the international financial institutions should be encouraged to increase their involvement with uprooted populations whose integration will prove essential to peace and stability in the nation as a whole.

As a final comment, I would note that it would be easy to be overwhelmed into despair by the magnitude of the task ahead; instead, we must all operate on the principle of doing what is possible, despite all the constraints. Toward that end, I plan to continue to work closely with governments, U.N. agencies and the international community to ensure that the basic human needs and rights of the uprooted are not neglected.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)