Enhancing UN Dialogue on Internal Displacement

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are persons who have been forced or obliged to leave their places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, violence, human rights violations or natural or human-made disasters, but who have not crossed an international border. IDPs often have similar wants, fears, and needs as refugees. However, unlike refugees, IDPs do not have legal status under international law, there is no specific international (as opposed to regional) treaty that grants them protection, and there is no formal state-based forum at the global level specifically dedicated to internal displacement. Compared to refugees, IDPs have received significantly less international attention despite the fact that IDPs outnumber refugees by about 2:1, with over 41.3 million people internally displaced by conflict and violence, and many millions of others by disasters, at the start of 2020.


This post thus explores the potential of three existing UN fora as sites to generate inter-state dialogue on internal displacement: The UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies, the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


Because internal displacement is often framed as a human rights issue, UN human rights treaty monitoring bodies have often addressed internal displacement. However, human rights treaty body procedures are generally not fora for inter-State discussion, but instead bilateral dialogues between human rights treaty bodies and individual States. Thus, by design, their capacity for inter-State dialogue is limited.


In contrast, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review can more accurately be characterised as a truly global mechanism for inter-State dialogue. It is intended to be ‘a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialogue’ between Member States, ‘with the full involvement of the country concerned and with consideration given to its capacity-building needs’. However, internal displacement is scarcely addressed, even in respect to those States with the highest IDP populations. Moreover, internal displacement is often narrowly conceptualised, with an almost universal absence of references to disaster-induced displacement. Finally, internal displacement is often susceptible to political tensions, which when combined with the UPR’s very public arena, can inhibit constructive peer-to-peer discussion and limit scrutiny of State practices.


Finally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Executive Committee (EXCOM) also has potential to general inter-state dialogue on internal displacement. IDPs are similar to refugees in many ways. As such, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) finds itself involved in both IDP and refugee response. One way to feed into UNHCR’s policy vis-à-vis IDPs is through EXCOM, which is composed of States. However, EXCOM’s capacity to systematically address issues relating to internal displacement is restricted by the limits of UNHCR’s operational mandate with respect to IDPs. Specifically, its mandate is focused principally on the refugee response and its IDP efforts thus mainly relate to conflict-induced displacement. In addition, its IDP activities must be carried out as part of the cluster system of IDP response, which involves many other UN agencies and NGOs.


In conclusion, there are clearly benefits to raising IDP issues through existing UN fora, such as bringing IDP issues to the attention of an international audience. However, there are also serious in-built limitations to these fora as platforms to promote inter-State dialogue on internal displacement. For example, internal displacement is scarcely discussed at the UPR, even in respect to States with the highest IDP populations. Refugee fora, such as those associated with the GRF and EXCOM, only discuss IDP issues insofar as they relate to refugee issues. The absence of references to internal displacement in the UPR, as well as the lack of any formal IDP forum, seemingly indicates a lack of priority and political will at the global level. This might ultimately make it unlikely that a dedicated global IDP forum will be established. However, it is precisely for this reason that one is more important and more urgent than ever. We are now witnessing the highest number of IDPs on record and the creation of a formal IDP-specific forum would firmly, and finally, put IDP protection issues and related State practice on the international agenda. States have much to share and to learn from one another. Although every displacement crisis is unique, most are driven by natural disaster, climate change, conflict, development and/or one or more of these factors. While every IDP’s story will differ, many will face similar protection needs, such as shelter, food, water, sanitation and healthcare. It makes sense that there should be a designated global State-to-State IDP forum to share practices, both good and bad, and to establish inter-State cooperation in responding to displacement.


It is evident from the uptake by States in the GP20 and Displacement Dialogues that there is an appetite for dialogue, but that this is dependent on getting the design and the process of any such forum right. Moreover, the fact that 57 States supported the establishment of a UN High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement offers some hope that momentum is slowly gathering behind IDP-specific initiatives. Now is the time for action. Harnessing this interest and nurturing this momentum to establish a dedicated global forum would firmly, and finally, put internal displacement on the international agenda.


Dr Bríd Ní Ghráinne is a Lecturer in Law, Maynooth University, a Senior Researcher, Masaryk University, and a Non-Resident Fellow, Institute of International Relations Prague. Dr Ben Hudson is a Lecturer at the University of Exeter