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Africa Signs Off on Intent to Protect Internally Displaced People

By Peter Heinlein
23 October 2009

An Africa Union summit in Kampala has adopted a landmark convention on the rights of people uprooted from their homes by conflict or natural disasters. But the occasion was tarnished by a lukewarm show of support from member states.

The Kampala Convention on the Rights of Internally Displaced People was signed Friday in an elaborate ceremony at an exclusive resort on the outskirts of Kampala.

Zambia's President Rupiah Banda was one of the first to affix his signature. He called the document a great achievement, after years of hard work.

"I believe I speak for everybody in this assembly when I say that the summit has been a distinct success," he said.

The heads of several international humanitarian organizations witnessed the signing. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres hailed the document, noting that Africa, which has roughly half the world's displaced people, is the first region to agree on rules for protecting them.

"As you know, the secretary-general, Ban ki-moon is very keen on the so-called Responsibility to Protect," he said. "This convention is the responsibility to protect in action. And I would strongly appeal to other parts of the world to adopt similar instruments for the protection of internally displaced."

But amid all the congratulations, diplomats and observers noted with concern that in the end, only five heads of state were on hand for the summit, and only 17 of the 53 AU member states were prepared to sign the final document. They noted that the African Union has in the past approved an important convention, only to see it lie dormant for lack of ratification.

The summit host, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, brushed aside those concerns. He expressed confidence other countries would quickly sign the Kampala IDP convention.

"I don't think there is a deliberate refusal," said Museveni. "Coordinating 53 countries is not easy, because these countries are busy with their internal problems, some of the ratifications need parliamentary approval."

AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Julia Dolly Joiner has experienced the frustration of seeing high-sounding declarations adopted and then forgotten. A document setting out rules for democratic succession was approved almost three years ago, but has been ratified by only three of the 15 countries needed to take effect. Joiner expressed optimism that this time would be different.

"We are very hopeful with the enthusiasm that has been generated around the convention that has just been adopted," she said. "In fact, the launching of the convention and the opening of the convention for signatures attracted 17 signatures this morning, and this is very encouraging as far as we are concerned so we are definitely very hopeful that this convention will enter into force sooner."

The convention sets out for the first time the obligations of both African states and armed rebel groups to prevent displacement and to provide basic rights for those who are uprooted by wars and natural disasters.

But even its staunchest supporters admit it will have little effect. Uganda's President Museveni admitted that a displaced woman in Sudan, which has the largest displaced population in Africa, would get little comfort from knowing a document had been approved in faraway Kampala.

"So when you say what solace would woman in Darfur get from this," he said. "The solace may not be immediate, but the fact that people have got together and put these ideas in a document. I think it's very useful. It may not be immediately apparent to people in Darfur, but in the end it is a contribution towards a solution to their problem."

Other than Mr. Museveni and Zambia's President Banda, the only other African Union member state presidents to sign the IDP convention were Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Mohammed Abdelaziz of the territory of Western Sahara, and Somalia's Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

Somalia, which has been plagued by civil war for nearly two decades, has Africa's third largest IDP population after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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