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Africa: Shining the spotlight on the displaced

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NAIROBI, 15 October 2009 (IRIN)

  • Forty years after African leaders adopted the 1969 Refugee Convention under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, the continent's leaders are due to endorse a convention on internally displaced people.

The African Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa is the main agenda for the heads of state summit on refugees, returnees and IDPs in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, from 19-23 October.

"It will be the first legally binding international instrument on IDPs with a continental scope, and UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] hopes that it will translate into better lives for African IDPs," the agency's spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva on 8 September.

Advocacy groups, including IDP Action, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and Refugees International, have hailed the convention. However, they noted, the initial draft contained elements that were vague or inconsistent with other international human rights standards.

"There are too many IDPs in Africa and their situation is too precarious for the situation to be allowed to drift any longer," says Jeremy Smith of the advocacy group, IDP Action. "The AU needs to move quickly to adopt its IDPs Convention and then invest sufficient resources and political will to see it effectively implemented."

The AU, in a statement, said it demonstrated Africa's leadership in addressing forced population displacement. Observers, however, say action on issues affecting African IDPs has generally been slow.

Over the years, the AU has developed various initiatives, including deployment of peace support operations, appointment of special envoys and special representatives, and mobilizing international support for post-conflict reconstruction.

In some cases, regional blocks have intervened to prevent, de-escalate and resolve conflicts - including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire; the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in southern Africa; and the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Sudan's north-south conflict.

In addition, various instruments exist that offer protection to the displaced, such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

"Africa has shown the most progress in transforming the [UN] Guiding Principles into binding international instruments," Walter Kälin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the human rights of IDPs, said in a report to the General Assembly.

Half of all IDPs in Africa

Africa hosts at least 11 million of the world's estimated 25 million IDPs. The causes of displacement vary, according to the AU, but are largely homegrown and exacerbated by extreme poverty, underdevelopment and lack of opportunities.

"Since the 1990s, African conflicts have witnessed massive brutality against the civilian population," notes Bahame Tom Nyanduga, member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and IDPs in Africa.

Calling on African states to accept responsibility for addressing human rights abuses faced by IDPs, he notes that armed combatants in Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, northern Uganda, Darfur and eastern DRC violated the Geneva Conventions' protocol on civilian protection with impunity.

Climate change factors

Climate change has also increased the frequency and intensity of natural hazards in Africa, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

A study by the two organizations found that natural disasters displaced 284,000 people in Mozambique in 2007, 150,000 in Benin, 72,805 in Ethiopia and 59,000 in Algeria.

However, forced displacement across the continent 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.

Unable to flee to another country in search of safety, IDPs seek refuge from violence within their own borders, sheltering in makeshift camps, shanty towns or scattered in local communities.

"The number and plight of IDPs in Africa is a scandal," according to IDP Action's Smith. "The African Union has talked the talk - drafting an IDP Convention which lays out the protections IDPs should be accorded - but does not walk the walk."

No global agency

The situation is complicated by the fact that globally there is no agency with a specific mandate to protect and assist IDPs - unlike refugees, who fall under UNHCR.

IDPs in armed conflict have rights as civilians under international humanitarian law. They are also protected - although not expressly referred to therein - by various bodies of law, including, most notably, national law, human rights law and, if they are in a state affected by armed conflict.

"While they are displaced, IDPs are entitled to the same protection from the effects of hostilities and the same relief as the rest of the civilian population," notes the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

However, while they make up almost two-thirds of global populations seeking safety from armed conflict and violence, they have fewer rights than refugees.

Sudan, for example, has the world's largest IDP population, with an estimated 4.5 million people affected, including 2.7 million in Darfur - of whom 317,000 were displaced this year.

"Since they are living within their own countries, IDPs remain under the legal jurisdiction of their national authorities, which may well be involved in the violence that they are fleeing," the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, notes.

Binding hopes

The Kampala summit was recommended by AU ministers meeting in Burkina Faso in May and the AU Executive Council meeting in The Gambia in July 2006.

In 2007, NGOs meeting in Brazzaville urged the AU to "adopt legally binding instruments for the protection of the rights of migrants... the protection of and assistance to [IDPs] in Africa, based on the [UN] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement".

The current draft is heavily informed by these principles, whose contents are mainly derived from existing international legal rules and standards. It is, however, a non-binding, soft law.

According to IDP Action, it "offers the hope of African states being held to binding standards by which they are to prevent displacement, respond to the immediate needs of those displaced and create the conditions for sustainable return and resettlement".

Approved by African ministers in November 2008, the convention will become legally binding once endorsed at the Kampala summit.

"The theme of the special summit," notes Tarsis Kabwegyere, Ugandan Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Refugees, "...fits in well, given the displacement trends on the continent, which have continued without a stop since the days of independence".