Say it with a resolution: The UN marks two decades of work on internal displacement as new challenges emerge

by Rhodri C. Williams

I tend to count being slightly outside the Geneva loop as a net positive, but every once in a while it means that I get ambushed by major developments in my own field. This has been such a time, with the IDMC announcing the UN Human Rights Council’s adoption by consensus of a ‘historical resolution‘ on internal displacement. As much as I would love to deliver the inside dish on fledgling Resolution A/HRC/20/L.14’s existential significance, I must leave the honors to IDMC:

The substantive resolution is, for the first time, independent from the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on IDPs, representing a strengthened commitment from UN Member States to recognise their own role in promoting and protecting the human rights of IDPs.

So, it seems that the joint and several UN Rapporteurs on internal displacement have so successfully mainstreamed human rights-based approaches to the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs) that the UN can promote them on its own. Good news considering the controversy that IDP advocacy efforts have occasionally sparked in the past (see Erin Mooney’s wonderful piece on the early IDP debates). However, I was taken aback to read an observation on the timing of the resolution in its preamble:

Welcoming the twentieth anniversary of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons and the considerable results achieved since its creation,

A few things went through my mind at this point. One (facetiously) was that it was a bit cheeky of the Council to celebrate the mandate’s twentieth birthday by beginning to make it redundant. But the other was genuine disbelief that we have already been witness to two decades of IDP advocacy. Having started law school in 1996, the height of the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 human rights window, I was hardly present at the creation but had at least heard about it in real time.

My first serious exposure to the emerging issue of internal displacement came in a refugee law course at NYU taught by Arthur Helton, who would later tragically die in the 2003 bombing of the Baghdad UN compound. My level of engagement gradually increased, first as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) began to embrace the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement while I was working for it in Bosnia, and then exponentially as I was engaged by the Brookings Institution to draft a door-stopper of a manual on the Principles’ national implementation.

So the IDP advocacy effort has been a motor that has (among many other things) pulled my rather more humble career in its wake, and it is remarkable to think it has been banging away for two decades. I suppose I should have been prepared for this type of thing by other reminders of how long we have been at it (if not always how far we have come), like the recent anniversary of Bosnia’s descent into fratricidal war in the early 1990s. However, as I follow the earnest and confused debates over Syria’s self-immolation and think back to their earnest and confused predecessors regarding Bosnia, 1992 is both impossibly distant and very much present.

So what can we say about the new resolution on internal displacement? First, it is clearly a sign that the concept has taken root across a broad swathe of the UN terrain, from the humanitarian working groups where it has always been well-received to human rights corridors where it once got a chillier welcome. Second, the resolution touches on many key issues of current concern, such as protracted displacement, the needs of IDPs located outside of traditional camps, and the vulnerability of categories of IDPs such as the disabled. The resolution also welcomes the 2010 African Union Kampala Convention and, intriguingly, encourages other regional organizations to follow suit (para. 5).

Third, and perhaps most interesting, the resolution reflects the gradual broadening of the scope of concern around internal displacement. There is a palpable interest in rounding out the response to conflict-driven displacement, which (due to post-Cold War meltdowns like that in Bosnia) was the original concern of advocates. This primarily takes the form of yet another Geneva initiative that had slipped my notice entirely to date, specifically:

…the adoption by the Policy Committee of the Secretary-General of decision No. 2011/10 and its preliminary Framework on Ending Displacement in the Aftermath of Conflict, which establishes priorities and responsibilities to support the delivery of durable solutions for internally displaced persons, and urges relevant United Nations agencies, in cooperation with other stakeholders and in consultation with national authorities and partners, to implement the Framework as a matter of priority. (para. 6)

This sounds like a welcome development in light of the tendency for conflict displacement to slip into protracted status, leaving vast populations of IDPs to stagnate in the distant hope that a peace agreement might someday allow for voluntary durable solutions. On the other hand, it is only two years since the adoption of a (non-conflict specific) Framework on Durable Solutions for IDPs which the Special Rapporteur is also encouraged to promote (para. 2). One imagines the point of standards saturation may be nigh.

Meanwhile, the Resolution confirms that the advocacy center of gravity has now shifted to natural disaster-based displacement. This is an area where Walter Kaelin, the predecessor to the current Special Rapporteur Chaloka Beyani, was quick to inject rights-based standards into disaster response discourses, complementing broader efforts to raise awareness of climate change and promote disaster risk reduction approaches. His efforts resulted in further standards, including both guidelines and a manual on rights-compatible approaches to disaster-induced displacement.

All of which leads me to a concern. Although the Resolution mentions ‘development’ six times, these are all related to the well-established principle that sustaining livelihood activities for IDPs during displacement and promoting their durable solutions are both activities that benefit tremendously from development insights and expertise. Nowhere is the issue of development-based displacement clearly taken up.

Development – and particularly large infrastructure projects and urban renewal – may represent the single most serious cause of displacement worldwide, giving rise to higher overall numbers of IDPs than both conflict and natural disasters put together. Development-induced displacement can be planned and should be mitigated through the application of human rights standards and the guidelines adopted by international financial institutions such as the World Bank. However, as frequently attested to on this blog, such precautions are rarely effective.

Although the Guiding Principles themselves clearly anticipate the need to respond to development-induced displacement, a ‘third wave’ of IDP advocacy, following those targeting armed conflict and natural disasters, has yet to emerge. Meanwhile, my concern is that a new and potentially massive wave of displacement is emerging at the juncture of natural disasters and development, signalling that it may be time to move beyond the traditional paradigms for both categories.

While the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters is clearly related to climate change, for instance, so are rising food prices, the degradation of agricultural land and the new economic and demographic pressures exerted on remaining arable areas. Similarly, while development-induced evictions and displacement related to everything from railway rehabilitation to Eurovision contests remain of concern, similar tactics are increasingly applied to facilitate the takeover of lands and natural resources belonging to communities in order to hand them over to large investors. Do we see a pattern here?

I sincerely hope I am wrong on this, but I suspect we may hear much more about new patterns of internal displacement driven by climate change-related resource conflict as the Human Rights Council grows into its new role as an advocate for the rights of IDPs.


5 responses to “Say it with a resolution: The UN marks two decades of work on internal displacement as new challenges emerge

  1. Great post, Rhodri. True that development-induced displacement should be the easiest to prevent, and where duty bearer’s obligations should be more easily discharged–good planning, consultations and so on should do the trick. I do wonder why it has been left behind. More political, more of a sovereignty issue? Harder for outsiders to tell the Government of Perú (to give an example) not to (or how to) extract its mineral resources? So I wonder if the ‘third wave’ you mention is one that is not meant to happen at the international level and in the corridors of the HR Council (or of IDMC offices;), but nationally, with organized indigenous groups in Perú and Bolivia and elsewhere opposing development projects or demanding meaningful consultation… But I agree that internationals should play some sort of role working around the sovereignty question…
    Hope you are well,

  2. Hi Sebastian, many thanks for the comment. I think that Natalie Bugalski probably put her finger on the issue in a recent guest post where she describes the persistence of a ‘utilitarian view’ of development-induced displacement based on the perception that the ‘attendant harms suffered by those physically and economically displaced is a “sacrifice” some people have to make for the larger good.’ Here’s the link:

    The key point made in many recent postings (guest and otherwise) is that the resistance to such displacement is increasingly based on the idea of a right to land (at least in the case of indigenous peoples, cf: the Endorois case) or at the very least a sound set of reasons why national policies respecting community land rights are a matter of enlightened self-interest. I’ve also argued in a number of post that development standards on involuntary resettlement and human rights standards on evictions are based on the same basic calculus and should be considered as complementary rather than contradictory. See:

    -here on tenure security generally, and as applied to protracted IDPs in Georgia and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon:

    -and here on dealing with displaced squatters in Liberia:

    -and here on evictions affecting IDPs in Iraq:

    So I think that there is increasing normative support for outsiders to rely on in trying to tie these issues more firmly into the IDP discourse, but the success of the earlier two waves of IDP response was also based on smart and tenacious advocacy.

  3. Just stumbled across the abovementioned 2011 “Framework on Ending Displacement in the Aftermath of Conflict” – its on the IDMC website in their thematic tab on ‘durable solutions’. Haven’t had a chance to read it properly yet, but it does appear a bit more concise than the 2010 Framework, despite some fearsomely log-framed annexes. Here’s the link:$file/UN%20framework%20ending%20displacement.pdf

  4. Development-induced displacement is the forcing of communities and individuals out of their homes, often also their homelands, for the purposes of economic development. It is a subset of forced migration. It has been historically associated with the construction of dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation purposes but also appears due to many other activities, such as mining and the creation of military installations, airports, industrial plants, weapon testing grounds, railways, road developments, urbanization, conservation projects, forestry, etc. Development-induced displacement is a social problem affecting multiple levels of human organization, from tribal and village communities to well-developed urban areas.

    According to Bogumil Terminski (2012) at least fifteen million people each year are forced to leave their homes following big development projects (dams, irrigation projects, highways, urbanization, mining, conservation of nature, etc.).[1] Anthony Oliver-Smith (2009) and Michael M. Cernea (2006) are also estimating that current scale of DIDR amounts to 15 million people per year.[2]

    Development-induced displacement or the forced migration in the name of development is affecting more and more people as countries move from developing to developed nations. The people that face such migration are often helpless, suppressed by the power and laws of nations.

    The lack of rehabilitation policies for migrants means that they are often compensated only monetarily – without proper mechanisms for addressing their grievances or political support to improve their livelihoods.

  5. Pingback: That 1990s feeling, or how conflict-related internal displacement never really went away | TerraNullius

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