By Jared Kleinman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
KAMPALA, Uganda—17 African countries have adopted and signed the first ever convention on the protection and assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) during the AU Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and IDP’s in Africa that concluded over the weekend in Kampala, Uganda. The African Union Convention was signed by five AU Heads of State, five Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers as well as by Foreign Affairs Ministers and other Heads of Delegations who attended the historic event.
The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa is a comprehensive document that will, if ratified, fill a void in international humanitarian law, say experts. Whereas the rights of people who flee across national boundaries are protected under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and a similar instrument introduced 18 years later by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), there has been no international legislation catering specifically for people displaced within their own country (IDPs).
IDPs vastly outnumber refugees in Africa. In just 10 of the 18 countries in east and central Africa, there are more than 10 million IDPs, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with Sudan (four million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2.12 million) and Somalia (1.55 million) heading the list.
This latest instrument, also known as the Kampala Convention because it was signed in the Ugandan capital, “obliges governments to recognize that IDPs have specific vulnerabilities and must be supported”, said Walter Kaelin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. “It covers all causes of displacement, is forceful in terms of responsibility and goes beyond addressing the roles of states to those of others like the AU and non-state actors.” “I truly welcome the adoption of the African Union Convention of the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa”, said Kaelin. “This is tremendous achievement and a beacon of hope for the over 12 million people in Africa displaced by conflict and the many more who are internally displaced by natural disasters or other causes.”
“The crucial challenge now is the same one facing international humanitarian law in general – ensuring that once the convention is signed and ratified by as many states as possible, it is actually implemented and respected,” ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said. “States must now take concrete steps to implement the convention into their own national legislation and regulation systems, and develop plans of action to address issues of displacement.
“There is some question regarding the extent to which non-state actors and armed groups called upon by the convention to protect IDPs can be bound by its provisions. Nevertheless, the convention, which has benefited from the input of international experts, is considered to be generally consistent with international standards such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.”
AU officials in Kampala were cautiously upbeat, urging member states to remain engaged. “It is the responsibility of member states that the convention becomes a binding instrument,” Jean Ping, AU Commission President, said. “At this point, it is an achievement, but not an end in itself.”
“It is one thing to have a good convention and another to implement it,” Dismas Nkunda of the New York-based International Refugee Rights Initiative told IRIN.
In 2007, the AU adopted the African Charter on democracy, elections and governance, but it has so far been ratified by only two member states. Until African countries learn to respect the law, participants said, the continent would “remain at rock bottom” in its attempts to address the problems of the displaced.
For more information, please see:
All Africa – IDP Convention Fills a Void in Humanitarian Law – 27 October 2009
The New Times – AU Commits to Protect IDPs – 27 October 2009
United Nations Human Rights Council – AU Convention on Internally Displaced: “A beacon of hope for 12 million Africans,” say UN Representative – 26 October 2009
The East African – Hometruths for EA Summit on IDPs, Refugees – 26 October 2009