Africa’s displaced people: Forgotten no more

Far too often they are the forgotten ones. But thanks to a groundbreaking treaty signed last October, Africa has vowed to protect its internally displaced people. IT was a departure they never had time to prepare for. Seeking to escape death amidst fighting between the Senegalese army and rebels in the southern Senegalese region of Casamance — thousands fled their homes and abandoned livestock and property.
Africa’s 3 million refugees are protected under international laws by the 1951 UN Geneva Convention and its 1969 African equivalent.
Africa’s 3 million refugees are protected under international laws by the 1951 UN Geneva Convention and its 1969 African equivalent.

Far too often they are the forgotten ones. But thanks to a groundbreaking treaty signed last October, Africa has vowed to protect its internally displaced people.

IT was a departure they never had time to prepare for. Seeking to escape death amidst fighting between the Senegalese army and rebels in the southern Senegalese 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 the area.

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 his village in 1991, told a Radio France Internationale reporter in December. 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.

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), an independent body 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.

Africa’s 3 million refugees are protected under international laws by the 1951 UN Geneva Convention and its 1969 African equivalent. The international community is obliged to protect and assist refugees, including with shelter, food and medical help. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dedicates its work to refugees.

Unlike refugees, IDPs do not enjoy the same support. A highly influential but non-binding set of principles (known as the guiding principles) serves as the main international instrument for their protection. No institution is required to implement them.

The primary responsibility for the protection of IDPs falls to their own government. But many states lack the capacity or resources, and sometimes the political will, to assist IDPs adequately. They are often inefficiently supported by an array of agencies and actors. Some remain unassisted for extended periods.

Their suffering is precisely what drove 17 African countries to sign the African Union (AU) Convention on IDPs — also known as the Kampala Convention, at the capital of Uganda where the treaty was launched 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. Walter Kälin, the UN Secretary-General’s representative on IDPs, likened it to “a beacon of hope for 12 million Africans.”

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.

‘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 former representative of the UN Secretary-General on IDPs. 

Such an alarming increase, he added, 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 continent’s many wars, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia and 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. Yet over the past two years, three of the world’s five  largest internal displacement situations have been in Africa – the Sudan, the DRC and Somalia.

The international community and African governments have generally been slow in devising solutions. African responses to the needs of the IDPs went from an initial reluctance to get involved in what was seen as the internal affairs of other countries to a progressively stronger stand in recent years. In 2006, 11 Central African countries adopted a protocol on IDPs, the first binding multilateral pact in the world focused on internal displacement.

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 endorsed by 15 countries.

Katinka Ridderbos of IDMC suggests that enough governments will likely ratify the document to make it binding. But as of early March 2010 only Uganda had done so.

Another issue will be implementation. The UN’s Mr. Kälin foresees that “the lack of capacity and financial as well as human resources” will be practical hurdles.

To make the convention matter for the millions of African IDPs, political commitment by African leaders will be the most important ingredient. Its absence would be disastrous, says Mr. Kälin.

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.” 

United Nations Africa Renewal

 

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