Seventeen countries signed the African Union convention on internally displaced persons (IDPs) after years of preparation culminated in a week of meetings in the Ugandan capital but a lot more hard work remains before it becomes effective, according to observers. Partnerships urged
"The most important step now is implementation," Julia Dolly Joiner, AU commissioner for political affairs, said. "We need to move from intentions to actions."
For the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, it is crucial that implementation is carried out "in a timely fashion and in a manner that makes a real difference to the lives of persons affected by internal displacement in the region, including host communities.
"The first step forward should involve a process of national dialogue and civic education aimed at securing the Convention's ratification and implementation by the State parties," according to a statement by the project, which monitors displacement issues worldwide to promote best practice among governments and other actors.
Fifteen countries must ratify the convention before it enters into effect.
Organizers of the 19-23 October meetings insisted that the fact that only 17 signed did not represent a lack of political will and commitment on the part of the African states.
"We debated together and we agreed but when it comes to signing, the person has to have been given the authority by his government to sign," one AU official told IRIN. "Only 17 had such authorization."
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who chaired the summit, praised it as "a very important milestone [that] has gone beyond conflicts to address issues of development.
"We have at least agreed in words, we now have to put our words [into] action," he told a news conference. "The solace for the women in Darfur may not be very immediate, but the fact is that people have come together to discuss the matter."
The IDP convention obliges states to:
Prohibit and prevent arbitrary population displacements, respect the principles of humanity and human dignity, as well as aspects of international humanitarian law concerning the protection of IDPs;
Ensure assistance to IDPs, incorporate obligations under the convention into domestic law and designate a body to coordinate IDP protection and assistance;
Devise early warning systems on potential displacement and establish disaster risk reduction strategies, protect communities and respect individual rights on protection against arbitrary displacement;
Respect the mandates of the AU and UN, and the roles of international humanitarian organizations; and
Take necessary action to effectively organize humanitarian relief and guarantee security; respect, protect and not attack humanitarian personnel or resources, and ensure armed groups conform with their obligations.
It prohibits armed groups from:
Carrying out arbitrary displacement, hampering the provision of protection and assistance to IDPs and restricting the movement of IDPs;
Forcibly recruiting, kidnapping or engaging in sexual slavery and trafficking; or
Attacking humanitarian personnel or resources.
It obliges the AU:
To intervene in respect of grave circumstances such as war crimes and crimes against humanity;
To respect the right of members to request such an intervention and support efforts to support IDPs; and
Strengthen capacity and coordinate the mobilization of resources for protection and assistance to IDPs.
Joiner called for international support. "Africa cannot do it alone; that is why we are calling for partnerships," she told IRIN. "We are optimistic that countries will be faithful to their commitments under the convention.”
The AU will now try to get more signatures, and lobby 15 countries to ratify the convention so it can become a binding document. Observers, however, say much more work needs to be done to generate political will, given that most presidents stayed away from the summit.
The convention addresses the root causes of displacement in Africa, where at least 11 million people are displaced by conflict and climate change-related natural disasters, among other reasons.
According to the Brookings-Bern Project, three of the world's top five countries with the largest populations of conflict-induced IDPs are in Africa.
These include Sudan, with an estimated 4.9 million IDPs, the Democratic Republic of Congo, with at least one million, and Somalia, where the UN estimates 1.5 million are displaced. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced in Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Overall, citizens in at least 20 African states are experiencing internal displacement.
The convention aims to promote regional and national measures to prevent, mitigate, prohibit and eliminate the root causes of internal displacement as well as provide durable solutions.
"People who flee persecution or conflict and cross into another country are categorized as refugees and, as such, benefit from a long-standing and well-oiled international legal protection system, including the 1951 Refugee Convention," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said.
"Until now [IDPs] have been more or less excluded from the system of international legal protection, even though they are often displaced in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, as refugees. At least in Africa, that should no longer be the case."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions