Global Policy Forum

Displacement: Governments Falling Short on R2P, Says New Study


Most discussion on the concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P) focuses on whether the “international community” should intervene to protect civilians under threat in any country. However, the 1st tenet of R2P, that governments have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, is less often discussed. This IRIN article examines the case of internally displaced people (IDPs), and how some states are failing to prevent displacement. But extending the scope of R2P to IDPs is problematic: does this mean that the “international community” should intervene in countries where governments are failing to protect the population against displacement? 

20 January 2012

The governments of 15 countries most affected by internal displacement have failed to adequately protect internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in many cases have themselves been perpetrators of violence or abuses that led to the displacements, according to a Brookings-London School of Economics study. 

“The key finding in this study is that the governments do not quite meet the benchmarks,” for adequate protection of IDPs, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs Chaloka Beyani told IRIN. 

Yet, much more could be done, said Elizabeth Ferris, one of the authors of the study of 15 countries which account for 72 percent of the world’s 27.5 million people internally displaced by armed conflict, ethnic strife and other forms of violence. 

“If you take IDPs seriously here are a lot of things you can do to make their lives better that won’t cost you a lot of money. It’s all about being determined and having political will,” she said on the sidelines of a meeting in Geneva where she presented the study entitled From Responsibility to Response: Assessing National Approaches to Internal Displacement. 

While the study does not rank the performance of the governments, Ferris said Colombia, Georgia, Kenya and Uganda clearly were heading in the right direction, while the Central African Republic, Myanmar and Yemen would get the worst marks. The other countries looked at in the study were: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Turkey. 

Nearly half the countries surveyed have adopted some preventive measures on paper, “but all 15 have fallen short of actually preventing displacement in practice,” the report says. “Moreover, many national authorities themselves have been the perpetrators of violence or human rights abuses that have led to displacements, and many states foster a culture of impunity for alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.” 

Under international law, states bear the primary responsibility to protect persons within their borders and must provide special protection for IDPs because of their particularly vulnerable condition. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide an advocacy and monitoring framework for the assistance and protection needs of IDPs. 

The October 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa (also known as the Kampala Convention) aims, among other things, to “promote and strengthen regional and national measures to prevent or mitigate, prohibit and eliminate root causes of internal displacement as well as provide for durable solutions”. 

“Ultimately only the state can provide lasting protection for IDPs,” the study says. 

“The state’s exercise of its national responsibility for IDPs, therefore, must be the basis for an effective response to internal displacement. It is not a matter of navigating around the principle of national responsibility but of being guided by that principle and consciously gearing all efforts to achieve an effective response.” 

While “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is often discussed in terms of the role of the international community, the report says R2P emphasizes “first and foremost” the responsibility of governments to protect the populations within their borders. 

“If national governments satisfy their responsibility to protect IDPs then R2P is being met at the national level. This study brings the linkage of R2P and IDPs to the fore,” said Beyani, who is also co-director of the Brookings-LSE project on internal displacement. 

Lack of capacity, political will 

“While there is broad consensus on the principle of national responsibility, governments may lack the capacity to address internal displacement, or the political will to respond effectively; and in many cases deliberately trigger internal displacement or at least condone the actions that cause it,” the study says. 

“In Sudan, government forces, militia and rebel groups have committed egregious human rights violations, including against those already displaced, and have mounted attacks that have resulted in massive displacement.” 

A government’s public acknowledgement of a displacement is a key first step in protecting and assisting IDPs, but is not always forthcoming, the report says, citing the case of Myanmar, where “the government does not acknowledge the existence of conflict-induced displacement”. 

In Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the governments “have been reluctant at certain points to highlight the fact that their military operations had displaced large numbers of people or that they had been unable to prevent other armed actors from displacing large numbers of people.” 

Collecting detailed data on displacements can play a key role in getting governments to act, said Kate Haiff, who heads the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

“In many situations, governments will not acknowledge displacement is taking place. With core data, with evidence you can open doors. It’s about getting evidence that we have displacement - these are the numbers and these are the issues people are faced with.” 


The study recommends that governments make the issue of IDPs a political priority, designate an institutional focal point to provide assistance to IDPs, amend or adopt relevant legislation, devote sufficient funds, support the work of national human rights institutions engaging in IDP issues, ask for international assistance where necessary, and search for durable solutions with the participation of IDPs. 

Of the 27.5 million IDPs uprooted by conflict and violence in more than 50 countries as of the end of 2010, 11.1 million were in Africa - including 4.5-5.2 million in Sudan, and 5.4 million in the Americas - mostly in Colombia. In South and Southeast Asia there were more than 3.5 million, in the Middle East, 3.9 million and in Europe and Central Asia 2.5 million. Millions more have been displaced by natural disasters of development projects. 


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