Press Conference by Representative of Secretary-General on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

27 October 2009

Press Conference by Representative of Secretary-General on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

27 October 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Representative of Secretary-General


on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Walter Kälin, the Secretary-General’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, hailed the recently adopted African Union Convention to protect displaced persons on the continent as the first binding treaty addressing the rights of “a huge number of people who need protection”.

He said the African Union Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, endorsed by a special summit of the African Union Heads of State in Kampala, Uganda last Friday, was historic because until now there hasn't been a binding treaty on the subject.  Mr. Kälin, who attended the summit, said that African Union treaty spoke not only for the protection of displaced persons in Africa, but drew attention to the roughly 26 million people who had been internally displaced as a result of conflict and some 36 million displaced as a result of natural disasters last year alone.

The African Union Convention acknowledged the responsibility of States to protect and assist internally displaced persons in a comprehensive way, covering everyone who had to leave or flee their homes involuntarily without crossing any internationally recognized borders.  He said the treaty covered all causes and all phases of displacement, relating to prevention, protection during displacement and reintegration afterwards.

Flowing from existing human rights guarantees, the instrument did not set out the list of rights of displaced people, but it addressed the obligations of Governments in a comprehensive way, as well as the role of the African Union and the international humanitarian actors.  The main challenge now was implementation, he added, appealing to the international community to support African countries in that regard.

Turning to his recent visit to Somalia, Mr. Kälin said he had been shocked by the degree of violence there, and for the country’s 1.5 million internally displaced persons, the situation was particularly bad.  Recently, many people had been forced to flee their homes, mainly from the Mogadishu/Kismayo area and areas affected by the drought.  Those people had experienced numerous dangers during their trek and then found themselves in makeshift camps, which were situated in the areas already overburdened by earlier arrivals.

Against the background of huge protection and humanitarian needs, donor contributions had lagged considerably since last year.  He tended to agree with representatives of local Somali authorities, who said repeatedly they felt neglected by the international community and were not receiving the attention or assistance others were getting in similar situations.

The issue was not high enough on the international agenda, he continued, stressing that there was also a problem of humanitarian access for security reasons.  The situation was exacerbated by the fact that most United Nations operations were situated in Nairobi, and he felt that at least some of those operations should be moved to Somalia.

The international community needed to do more to address impunity, provide humanitarian assistance and protect internally displaced persons against threats and violence.  More needed to be done to bring water and sanitation to the affected areas, strengthen the health and education systems and provide for people’s livelihoods, he said.  There was also a security dimension to the issue, because such displaced persons could be easily recruited by extremists.  And of course, more support was needed from the donors, because even under current difficult conditions on the ground, United Nations colleagues had told him that they could do much more if they had the means.

Mr. Kälin spoke to the press following the presentation of his annual report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) yesterday, and many of the questions raised touched on the contents of that document, which focused, among other things, on the nexus between climate change and internal displacement.

In that regard, he said the report had quoted a number of 250 million migrants who might be forced to move as a result of climate change by the middle of the century.  In fact the estimates in various reports ranged from 50 million to 1 billion people.  Much would depend on how the climate change scenario evolved, but it was important to be prepared.  For that reason, he was calling on Member States to address the issue of displacement and migration in the context of Copenhagen discussions.

It was not climate change per se, but its effects that were displacing people, he added.  Those included sudden disasters such as flooding, and so-called “slow-onset” disasters, such as groundwater salination, drought, desertification and rising ocean waters.  Those phenomena could lead to conflict, which, in turn, had the potential to displace people.

Regarding the United States’ aid to Somalia, he said that lately, the issue of some of that assistance being diverted to radical elements and militias had come up.  He did not know the details, but relevant discussions were ongoing.  He believed that while there was, indeed, some danger, there was no cause to stop such aid.  Instead, it was important to mitigate that impact.  One approach was to better distinguish between more and less dangerous areas of the country.

“We should not punish the IDPs or civilian population in need of assistance, just because of these problems,” he said.  It was also important to remember that stopping such aid would play into the hands of radical elements.  

Asked to comment on a recent headline that a United Nations envoy was pleased with progress in Sri Lanka, he said that he had never made such a statement.  The headline had come from a local newspaper that had never spoken to him.

As for the present situation in Sri Lanka, during his visit to the country in September, he had sent a clear message to the Government that it was necessary to ensure freedom of movement for internally displaced persons.  He had acknowledged that there were legitimate security concerns, but that did not mean that the whole displaced population had to be kept in camps.  Rather, it was necessary to screen out those who were not causing any security threat, letting those people to stay with host families, return or stay in open humanitarian camps.

He added that it was encouraging that in the past few days, a considerable number of people had left those camps and were being allowed to stay with host families.  At present, information on the exact situation in that regard was being compiled.

To a question about the returns to Kosovo, he said that one still had to see to what extent those willing to return would be able to do so, but those people certainly had the right to return.  The authorities in Pristina did not object to that and had compiled a list of people willing to return, yet a very small number of displaced persons had actually returned to Kosovo.  That was a test case for Kosovo.  In particular, a more positive attitude vis-à-vis returns was needed at the municipal level.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.