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Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

The Treaty of Westphalia established the nation-state system. This system has since then ruled the roost when it comes to matters of international politics. But what is the primary objective of a nation-state? “Nation” derived from a Latin term “Natio” means “a people.” This set of people who form the nation can be ethnically homogenous or linguistically homogeneous or homogeneous in some other way. They are glued together by cultural traditions or historical experiences. Whatever the reason behind a set of people forming a nation, once formed, the primary objective of a nation-state is protection of its people. Population is one of the cardinal elements required for the formation of a state. Thus, people or citizens of a nation are of utmost importance. However, protection of all in a nation is utopia. Since the dawn of human civilization conflict among men has been an integral part of mankind’s sorry state of existence. Conflicts (including wars, civil wars, riots, mass carnage and the like) have “displaced” people from their original homes. “Displaced”, the term in this context implies that people, due to conflict like circumstances, have been forced to leave – against their will – their original homes or original ways of existence. It must be borne in mind that apart from conflicts, even natural catastrophes have induced the displacement of people. The term “displaced persons” is an umbrella term covering all those who have been forced to move out from their homes. This term can be broadly divided into “refugees” and “internally displaced persons.” The focus of this assignment is on “internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Who are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

A person who has left his original home on the pretext of actual or perceived danger but has not left the territory of his/ her country is referred to as an “internally displaced person.” An IDP remains within the boundaries of his nation despite being displaced i.e. he continues to enjoy the status of a citizen within the nation.

It must be noted that an IDP is different from a refugee. Often IDPs are referred to as refugees. However, there is a great difference between the two seemingly similar terms. To comprehend this distinction it is crucial to deal with the term “refugee” and understand what exactly it conveys.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention “a refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. Thus, a refugee is one who crosses the national boundary and seeks asylum outside the nation.

The Cartagena Declaration goes a step forward and declares those persons refugees who have “fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights...” Refugees under several international covenants are entitled to legal and international assistance and protection. Once, a person manages to cross an international border he/ she are eligible for protection under international law dealing with safety of refugees. However, if the similar individual fails to cross the national boundary he/ she are not entitled to similar protection from the state or the international community of states or from other international aid organizations. As the term denotes, such people are “internally displaced.” IDPs are known as “internal refugees.”

If one analyses the above mentioned definitions one can easily infer that the first and foremost criteria, to be recognized as a refugee, is crossing of international borders. It is interesting to decipher as to why this border-crossing criteria is imperative in deciding the refugee status of a displaced person? The answer lies in one of the elements of nation state system i.e. state sovereignty. Each nation-state in the international comity of states has a sovereign authority over its population. Sovereignty basically implies supreme control of the state over its internal affairs and full freedom to decide its foreign policy. Those who are internally displaced are yet within the territory of the state or within the jurisdiction of the state. The state has supreme control (sovereignty) over such persons. Thus, international organizations cannot intervene to provide assistance or protect the basic rights of the internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Refugees are the ones who are able to escape state sovereignty and seek international assistance. Historically, the 1951 Refugee Convention tried dealing with “internal refugees.” But several member states including USA and France were opposed to it dealing with the rights of internally displaced. To quote Mrs Roosevelt, “internal refugee situations...were separate problems of a different character, in which no question of protection of the persons concerned was involved.”

It is clear that IDPs are worse off than refugees simply because refugees are within the reach of international agencies such as UN whereas to reach out to an internally displaced person the same international agency will have to override the sovereignty of the nation in which the IDP lives. Such overriding of sovereignty by an international agency is in violation with the international law. International law is guided by the cardinal principles of sovereignty of a state along with respect for its territorial integrity. Thus, there is a contradiction. Whether humanitarian intervention is ground enough to violate a state’s sovereignty? It is important to put this question in the context of protection of IDPs. Of course in other circumstances the UN Security Council provides for humanitarian intervention in a state if the situation demands it. IDPs, therefore find themselves on a sticky wicket. Kofi Annan, the former General Secretary of UN, opines that human rights transcend all claims of human sovereignty.

Refugees and IDPs, despite belonging to the “displaced persons” category are very different from each other. A Cambridge study drives the point home – “However similar their plight may be refugees and IDPs cannot be given the same legal status, because they require protection that is different in nature. Internally displaced persons remain within the jurisdiction of their own state and responsibility to protect and assist them should not be shifted entirely to the international community.”  So the million dollar question is whether international human rights can be ensured within a state internally in the context of IDPs? The rights of IDPs can be guaranteed provided that the Government of the day understands that state sovereignty implies protection of one’s own people within the boundaries of the state. What is even worse if the state is the oppressor or the cause that forces these persons to leave their homes? In such a scenario IDPs are a product of state sponsored genocide or mass carnage.

For instance, since its independence in 1948 Myanmar Government has indulged in suppression of its ethnic minorities. Due to this and other reasons the number of IDPs in Myanmar is about 5, 03,000. The persecution of Burmese Indians five decades ago as well as the current plight of Rohingya Muslims highlights the situation of IDPs in Myanmar. 

To conclude this section it is crucial to look into UNHRC’s stand on IDPs. “Unlike refugees, IDPs have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government – even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.”

For detailed research paper Click: Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

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Written By Kasab Vora

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