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A global first: a Convention for the displaced

On 23 October, at a Special Summit in Uganda the 17 countries of the African Union signed off on the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention). In doing so, the Heads of States of the African Union have set a global precedent, reaching agreement on a treaty which seeks to prevent the displacement of populations inside countries and safeguard the rights of those who have been internally displaced. 

A UNHCR repatriation convoy leaves a camp in eastern Ethiopia, for North-west Somalia, where most of the returnees will settle - © UNHCR Photo/B. HegerMore than eleven million internally displaced people (IDPs) live in Africa, constituting almost half of the world’s IDP population. Until now there has been no legally binding agreement aimed at protecting the rights of displaced people or covering the prevention of all situations that lead to massive population shifts, be they natural or man-made disasters.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has welcomed the agreement saying, “It is very good to see Africa taking a leadership role in creating the first legally binding instrument to protect and assist internally displaced persons across the continent.”

“People who flee persecution or conflict and cross into another country are categorized as refugees and, as such, benefit from a long-standing and well-oiled international legal protection system, including the 1951 Refugee Convention,” said Pillay. “But, until now, internally displaced people have been more or less excluded from the system of international legal protection, even though they are often displaced in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, as refugees. At least in Africa, that should no longer be the case.”

The Convention refers to the suffering and vulnerability of IDPs and expresses the determination of the State Parties to put an end to “the phenomenon of internal displacement by eradicating the root causes, especially persistent and recurrent conflicts as well as addressing displacement caused by natural disasters.” The Convention requires States which ratify the Convention to take responsibility for their IDPs without discrimination of any kind, and to ensure that individuals responsible for causing arbitrary displacement are held accountable via applicable domestic and international law. 

The Convention prohibits arbitrary displacement of populations on the basis of policies of racial discrimination, displacement used as a method of war or as a collective punishment. Where States do not have sufficient resources to provide the necessary protection and assistance required by IDP populations then they must seek the assistance of international organizations and humanitarian agencies. States must also maintain updated registries of all internally displaced persons within their jurisdictions.

In adopting the Convention, the African Union agreed upon the establishment of a Conference of States Parties to monitor and review the implementation of the Convention.

This Convention is the first in the world to give legal protection to the millions of people displaced within their own countries by conflict and natural disasters. There are internationally binding conventions for the treatment of refugees – those forced to flee their countries and seek refuge in other nations – but there has not been similar protection offered to IDPs.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative of the Secretary -General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Mr. Walter Kaelin, were involved in the lengthy and complex drafting process for the Convention as part of an inter-agency UN effort led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In recent years, the UN human rights office - primarily through its regional office in Addis Ababa - has been working in partnership with the African Union Commission through the “10-year Capacity-Building Programme” on a number of human rights issues. 

“I welcome the close cooperation between my office and the African Union on human rights issues, and look forward to supporting individual states in implementing the new IDP Convention,” Pillay said. “I truly hope that the adoption of this historic Convention on the continent will inspire other regions and the international community in general, so that the lives of IDPs will be significantly improved, not just in Africa but elsewhere in the world as well.”

6 November 2009