Africa’s displaced people: out of the shadows

African Union convention breaks new ground, but challenges await
From Africa Renewal: 
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Civilians in Southern Sudan displaced by fightingCivilians in Southern Sudan displaced by fighting: There are nearly 12 million internally displaced people in Africa, but with less support and legal protection than refugees who cross borders.
Photograph: UN Photo / Tim McKulka

It was a departure they never had time to prepare for. Seeking to escape death — sometimes amidst fighting between the Senegalese army and rebels in the southern region of Casamance — thousands fled their homes and abandoned livestock and property. Over the past two decades many have resettled in successive waves in Ziguinchor, a major city in Casamance.

Since then returning home has been an elusive dream. “We want to, but we fear we might get killed,” Gabriel Tandar, an elder who fled after his village was attacked in 1991, told a Radio France Internationale reporter in December. Up to now their lives have gotten no better, he complained. “We have no jobs, nothing to do and we rely on others for our basic needs. We cannot even go out there to look for firewood. We are afraid.”

Mr. Tandar and thousands of others forced out of their homes while remaining in their countries are known as internally displaced persons (IDPs). They are the forgotten victims of a protracted low-intensity conflict. Fear, loss, need and a dispiriting feeling of being in exile in their own land have been their lot for nearly two decades.

But these people are hardly the only ones living through such an ordeal. Across Africa nearly 12 million persons (almost half the world’s IDP population) share the same plight, according to estimates by the United Nations and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the leading independent body on the issue, which works closely with the UN.*

There are fundamental differences between IDPs, whose displacement takes place within the borders of their country, and refugees, who seek shelter in another country. Africa is home to around 3 million refugees protected under international laws by the 1951 UN Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Under the Geneva Convention the international community is obliged to protect and assist refugees, including with shelter, food and medical help. The UN has a central institution dedicated to carrying out that comprehensive mandate, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Unlike refugees, IDPs do not enjoy the same support, be it legal or institutional. Instead a highly influential but not-legally-binding set of principles (known as the guiding principles) serves as the main international instrument for their protection. Although these principles specify the standards (largely similar to those for refugees) for the best response to the needs of displaced people, no institution is required to implement them. The primary responsibility for the protection of IDPs falls to their own government.

African Union doctor examines a patientNew African Union convention aims to improve the delivery of medical care and other assistance to Africa’s internally displaced people.
Photograph: UN Photo / Arpan Munier

However, many states lack the capacity or resources, and sometimes the political will, to assist IDPs adequately. As IDPs struggle with difficult living conditions, they are often inefficiently supported by an array of agencies and actors. Some remain unassisted for extended periods and are marginalized and vulnerable to human rights violations.

Their suffering is precisely what drove 17 African countries to sign the African Union (AU) Convention on IDPs — also known as the Kampala Convention, after the capital of Uganda where the treaty was signed on 23 October 2009. If ratified, the convention will fill this void in international humanitarian law for Africa’s IDPs.

The Kampala Convention is an “historic agreement aimed at protecting and assisting our brothers and sisters, the internally displaced,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda told the press on signature day.

‘A beacon of hope’

By agreeing to the first legally binding continental treaty on IDPs, African leaders have taken a bold step in dealing with what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once described as “one of the great tragedies of our time.”

Potentially, the document has far-reaching political implications. Governments that sign it agree to shoulder primary responsibility for preventing forced displacement, among other things by threatening prosecution of those responsible, including non-state actors such as insurgent and rebel groups, private military contractors and multinational corporations. It also obliges governments to assist IDPs and facilitate their resettlement after they have been forced to move.

Under the convention, both governments and armed groups are required to protect and assist IDPs without any discrimination in areas under their effective control, to assist local communities that host IDPs and to facilitate humanitarian organizations’ access to the displaced and delivery of relief supplies.

Additionally, the treaty obliges governments to provide compensation for the harm suffered by persons as a result of their displacement. It calls for cooperation among governments, international organizations, humanitarian agencies and civil society organizations to protect IDPs.

According to Julia Joiner, the AU commissioner for political affairs, “This instrument clearly demonstrates that African leaders are conscious of the difficulties that displaced persons experience and are poised to do as much as possible to put an end to their suffering.”

Walter Kälin, the UN Secretary-General’s representative on IDPs, likened the Kampala Convention to “a beacon of hope for 12 million Africans.” In an interview with Africa Renewal, Mr. Kälin underlines the fact that compared to the UN-supported guiding principles on IDPs, the AU treaty clarifies the responsibilities of governments and other actors. Mr. Kälin notes, however, that “we still have a long way to go until it has an impact on the ground.”

‘Tragic crisis’

As a result of protracted conflicts, massive human rights violations and natural disasters, internal displacement has reached daunting proportions in Africa. “Between 1969 and 1994 … the number of internally displaced persons soared, to between 10 million and 15 million,” writes Francis Deng, the first representative of the UN Secretary-General on IDPs, in a widely praised book co-authored with Roberta Cohen, a former scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.** Such an alarming increase, the authors add, prompted the Organization of African Unity, which was superseded by the African Union in 2002, to affirm in 1994 that internal displacement is “one of the most tragic humanitarian and human rights crises in Africa today.”

Since the mid-1990s the many wars in the Great Lakes region (Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda), West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire) and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia) have forced millions of people to flee their homes, pushing some abroad but also displacing many within their own borders.

In recent years, as the number of conflicts have declined, more IDPs have returned home. In Uganda, more than half of the 1.8 million IDPs recorded in 2005 had gone home by December 2009. In Burundi the number went from 800,000 in 1999 to 100,000 at the end of 2009. According to the IDMC, the number of IDPs currently recorded in Africa is the lowest in a decade.

Yet over the past two years, three out of five of the world’s largest internal displacement situations have still been in Africa. With 4.9 million displaced, Sudan has the largest reported IDP population, victims of the conflict in the Darfur region and the instability in Southern Sudan. An estimated 2 million people are IDPs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and some 1.3 million have been forced to flee their homes in Somalia. In total, 19 African countries confront problems of forced displacement resulting from conflict, generalized violence and human rights abuses.

“Internally displaced communities in African countries faced myriad risks, due to immediate threats to their safety in some cases, and long-term neglect in others,” notes the IDMC report. Rape and sexual violence against women and girls, and the forced recruitment of children into armed groups, are particularly insidious and widespread, adds the centre.

Both the international community and African governments have generally been slow in devising solutions. Until the end of the Cold War, action in favour of IDPs was very limited. In 1992 the UN Secretary-General appointed Mr. Deng, a former Sudanese foreign minister, as his first representative on IDPs. As the only senior  UN official solely devoted to IDPs, he was instrumental in developing and publicizing legal mechanisms for their protection, including the guiding principles.

African responses to the needs of IDPs have come a long way, from an initial reluctance to a progressively stronger stand in recent years. In 2006, 11 Great Lakes countries adopted a protocol on IDPs, the first binding multilateral pact in the world focused on internal displacement. Before the Kampala Convention, some countries had set up or were in the process of setting up legal frameworks for IDPs’ protection.

The Kampala Convention resulted from a complex three-year drafting process that involved national governments, non-governmental organizations and experts, including some from UN agencies and departments. To date, it represents the single most ambitious initiative for dealing with IDPs.

Challenges ahead

Even before the ink dried on the AU convention, many were already pointing to the numerous challenges it will face. First is the challenge of ratification. To come into force, the convention needs to be formally endorsed by 15 countries. Katinka Ridderbos of IDMC suggested to Africa Renewal that “it is unlikely that we will see all the 53 African countries ratifying the convention.”

However, Ms. Ridderbos asserts, enough governments will likely ratify the document to make it binding. The 11 signatories to the Great Lakes protocol are expected to adopt the AU convention. The 15 members of the Southern African Development Community are also said to be committed to it. But as of early March 2010 only Uganda, the host country, had ratified the treaty.

Another issue will be effective implementation. The UN’s Mr. Kälin, whose work involves assisting national authorities around the world to protect IDPs, foresees that “the lack of capacity and financial as well as human resources” will be a practical hurdle.

In most countries the needs of IDPs are not matched by the resources allocated for assisting them. “Africa cannot do it alone,” says Ms. Joiner of the AU. “That is why we are calling for partnerships.”

To make the convention matter for the millions of African IDPs, political commitment by African leaders will be the most important ingredient. “An absence of sufficient political will to adhere to the commitments” would be disastrous, says Mr. Kälin. In some situations, assisting IDPs has been difficult because national authorities have refused to recognize their existence. Invoking their right as sovereign states, they have been reluctant to let in any foreign actors.

Too often, governments or rebel groups have not accepted responsibility for displaced people. They often deny having forced them out of their homes and reject calls to take care of them. In some cases, population displacement has even been part of a military strategy, and civilians have been used as human shields.

Under the former Organization of African Unity, African states were reluctant to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, even in the face of massive killings and displacements, elevating the principle of national sovereignty to “absurd proportions,” regrets Salim Ahmed Salim, a former OAU secretary-general.

But there has been progress since then. Mr. Kälin believes that while the Kampala Convention recognizes the sovereignty of states, it “understands this concept not as the right of governments to do nothing in situations of internal displacement, but rather as responsibility to assist and protect their IDPs — a responsibility that flows from the fact that they, and nobody else, have the power to do so.”

Now that the treaty exists, African governments have a duty to ensure that “the convention becomes a binding instrument,” says Jean Ping, the AU Commission president. “At this point it is an achievement, but not an end in itself.”

* Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2008, April 2009.

** Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng, Masses in Flight: the Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, Washington: The Brookings Institute, 1998.