Q&A: Swiss trumpet blower for the rights of the internally displaced

News Stories, 14 November 2011

© Courtesy of Walter Kälin
Swiss academic, humanitarian and lawyer Walter Kälin.

GENEVA, November 14 (UNHCR) Swiss academic, humanitarian and lawyer Walter Kälin has worked tirelessly over the years to protect the rights of the forcibly displaced. He started his career counselling and representing asylum-seekers as a member of the Swiss section of Amnesty International and reached a pinnacle from 2004-2010, when he served as the UN Special Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. He had earlier led a group of experts in drafting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which have become the authoritative UN document on the rights of people forcibly displaced within their own country. Kälin is currently teaching international and constitutional law at Bern University and also directs a newly created Swiss human rights institute. He has a long history of cooperation with the UN refugee agency and recently attended consultations in Geneva with senior UNHCR staff on protection for internally displaced people, or IDPs. Before chairing a session on laws and policies, he spoke to UNHCR public information officers, Adrian Edwards and Leo Dobbs. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us why you came to Geneva for the meeting

I was invited to share some of my experiences with colleagues from the field on how laws, policies and strategies in countries affected by internal displacement can help to better protect these people. Unlike with refugees, where the international community is very much responsible for protection, some 27 million people displaced by armed conflict, violence, and 30 million-plus displaced on average every year by natural disasters remain within their own countries. So their own governments are mainly responsible for them.

I will talk about cases where internally displaced people suffered because the laws were simply not in place or did not respond to the specific needs of the internally displaced. When I went to Nepal in 2005 [as UN Special Representative], many parents came up to me and said their children couldn't go to school because under Nepali law they needed to have a transfer paper from the headmaster. But if your village is attacked by rebels or the army and you have to run away, you simply don't have time to go to the headmaster to get that paper. In other cases, I've seen internally displaced people who were not able to get back property or belongings they had lost or left behind simply because you need a title deed, something that indigenous or traditional communities don't have. In other countries I saw that internally displaced people did not have access to basic services, could not access a regular labour market, because they lacked ID papers, which they had lost during the course of their flight . . . If the legal framework is not there, or if it is not adapted to the specific needs of IDPs, then the risk that things will go wrong is a very real one.

What are the international obligations that states have?

Unlike with refugees who have crossed into another country, we don't have an international convention for the protection of internally displaced people. We have [instead] the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The good thing about them, although not a binding instrument, is that all governments repeatedly in UN General Assembly resolutions have accepted them and recognized them as an important framework for protection, which basically means that governments have to respect, protect, fulfill all the relevant human rights these people have. This means not displacing them by violence, not attacking them, not blocking access to basic services, but also protecting these people against non-state actors who try to violate their rights. This could be rebels, but it can also be people posing a threat in a camp population. Camps are often very dangerous places for women.

Legally, governments are also in charge of assisting these people during displacement with provision of basic services, health, food, education. And then, very importantly, governments are under an obligation to create conditions that would allow for so-called durable solutions, meaning that people can rebuild their lives either by going back or ending their displacement by integrating where they are.

What about the international community's approach to IDP situations?

First, I think the international community is doing well in terms of providing assistance to IDPs. There are difficult situations such as Somalia, where we don't have access, but overall I think the humanitarian response has improved over the years. Where we see a very big gap is in restoring conditions which allow people to resume a normal life, finding durable solutions. If you are looking at IDP populations, the majority are in displacement for five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, and they are still in limbo. That is the area where we have a lot of neglect.

Secondly, it is important to help governments build up their own capacity to take care of their own IDPs. We are talking of huge numbers and it would be an illusion to think that one agency like UNHCR, or even the UN as a whole, could take over responsibility for all these people.

Instead, there is a multi-agency response, the so-called cluster approach. Tell us more about this

The cluster approach came out of our experiences in Darfur in 2004, where there was a huge displacement situation but the presence of international humanitarian organizations was very weak or totally lacking in many areas. On other occasions, we had the problem of everybody rushing to one place the so-called CNN factor and too many organizations doing the same thing. So what we had was a lack of coordination, a lack of predictability and a lack of accountability when things were not done the way they should have been done. The cluster approach is one element of a response to these problems. The idea is that there are thematic challenges how to provide sufficient food, health, water, sanitation and also protection, camp management, transitional shelter and that no single agency should do everything, but that one designated agency should be in charge of coordinating the joint response in a specific area.

UNHCR is leading three of these thematic clusters camp management and transitional shelter and protection. From my prospective, protection is very important. To be an IDP usually means to be a victim of multiple human rights violations, and simply to look at distribution of humanitarian goods is not enough. These people need protection, they deserve protection, but they may not get it, particularly where the government with the primary responsibility to protect and assist the displaced has caused them to be uprooted. But even then, UNHCR can advocate, help the government to understand, strengthen the capacity of the judiciary, of the police or local NGOs whoever can provide protection. And that's still a very important role.

Some people think UNHCR should stick to its mandates of helping refugees and the stateless

I would strongly disagree. UNHCR has a unique experience in responding to the specific needs of people who have lost their homes, who have had to run away or were forced to flee in short, the displaced. To be displaced does not necessarily mean to be worse off than others, but displacement means to have specific needs. Just imagine your house is attacked, you have to run away. From one day to another, life is changing. You need to find shelter, you need to find security, you might end up in a place where you are discriminated against because you are an IDP and the people there don't want you to come in and compete on the labour market, compete for the meagre resources that are available. You will be faced with the challenge, "How can I find a solution, an end to my displacement? How can I get back my property?" These are needs that are not shared by the non-displaced population, that are displacement-specific. And a refugee agency knows best what the needs of people on the run are. That's why I think UNHCR is best placed to really engage.

Just to say, "Well we have our mandate, we should stick to it," is denying that there is a huge reality of internal displacement out there. This reality is often not seen by the public. That's because IDPs, unlike refugees and asylum-seekers, remain in their own country and thus remain largely invisible to the outside world. But in terms of numbers, they are the big one. They just don't have the global audience.

Wouldn't there be a bigger impact and understanding if we referred to all the forcibly displaced as refugees?

Internally displaced persons is not a reader friendly term, especially if you use the acronym of IDPs, then it's something very abstract. However, in countries affected by internal displacement, the concept is usually every clear, especially among the displaced themselves. To call them refugees would send out the message that they are no longer fully fledged citizens, but more or less foreigners. In 2005, I remember the US and international media describing Americans displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina as refugees. I saw a displaced man being interviewed on TV who was furious. "I am not a refugee. I am an American," he shouted. And he was totally right. The use of the term refugees in such as case carries the message that IDPs don't have don't have the same rights as citizens, even under the best of circumstances. But IDPs who remain within their own countries do not lose their rights just because they have been displaced. That's why we are opposed to the term refugees.

Is the distinction between conflict and natural disaster IDPs a valid one?

In certain regards it is a valid one, in others not. In war situations the risks are different from those in a natural disaster situation. You have very specific protection issues in war situations, such as protecting children against being recruited as soldiers. On the other hand, many protection needs are similar, like violence in camps. An overcrowded camp may become a dangerous place regardless of whether people are displaced by armed conflict or by natural disaster.

The number of those displaced by natural disasters is too big for UNHCR to assume responsibility for all of them, but I agree with [UNHCR chief] António Guterres that there are many situations where it can play a very important role based on its experience.