Tentative Hope for Internally Displaced Persons in Africa

December 4, 2009

Children in Kalma Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, South Darfur, Sudan.

An internally displaced person is someone forced from their home by natural disaster, extreme poverty or political conflict but do not leave the borders of their homeland. This is the crucial difference between internally displaced persons and refugees; refugees cross a border, leaving their homeland and subject to protections afforded by international treaties. There are more than 25 million internally displaced persons (IDP’s)  in the world, outnumbering refugees by a ratio of two to one. However the vast majority of relief efforts target refugees rather than IDPs and there are no United Nations agencies or international treaties that specifically target this population-until now.

 Africa is home to at least half of the world’s IDP’s. Algeria, Sudan, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) all have at least a million IDP’s each. “[In Africa,] forced displacement … is mostly attributable to the acts or omissions of the state, such as human rights violations, political and socio-economic marginalization, conflicts over natural resources and governance challenges, according to the AU.” In late October, seventeen member nations of the African Union signed the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons. Previously, the only international law document specifically targeted to IDP’s was the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement. As the name suggests, this document only lists suggested principles of behavior to prevent and manage situations of displacement; it is what’s referred to as “soft law” in that it is not binding on State’s behavior. Conventions and treaties, on the other hand, are binding on State’s behavior and can lead to sanctions or adjudication.

The inherent dilemma of assisting IDPs is that they remain within the borders of their homeland and subject to state sovereignty, when it is frequently those same state actors who engaged in the activities triggering the displacement. The result is rhetoric that the sanctity of the State must be preserved at the sacrifice of its citizens and so other state’s cannot intervene without the displacing State’s permission. Confusing? I know. Try living in an IDP camp and not understanding why no one can help.

The hope is that this new international law document will begin to change that mindset. The Convention requires State’s to affirmatively act to prevent displacements, ensure IDP’s receive humanitarian assistance and develop early warning systems to mitigate potential displacement scenarios.  The Convention prohibits armed groups from displacing civilians, interfering with humanitarian assistance to IDP’s or “forcibly recruiting, kidnapping or engaging in sexual slavery and trafficking.” Most importantly, the Convention mandates the African Union to intervene when war crimes and crimes against humanity occur and to mobilize resources to assist IDP populations. This means those who cause mass internal displacements can no longer hide behind the shield of their borders and their citizens; and those who have lost their homes, livelihoods, families and dignity can have hope that someone will come to their assistance with more than just a bag of rice.

Fifteen member nations must ratify the Convention before it takes effect, and Amnesty International urges nations to quickly ratify and implement the objectives of the Convention.