Africa: UN Independent Expert Salutes Africa for Leading Way With Landmark Convention

Africa has "achieved a milestone and demonstrated its leadership," an independent United Nations human rights expert said today, as the continent marked the entry into force of the world's first convention that protects people displaced within their own countries by violence, natural disasters or large-scale development projects.

"I believe that the significance of the Kampala Convention goes beyond Africa," said the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), Chaloka Beyani, as he used the shorthand name for the instrument, which was adopted in the Ugandan capital in 2009.

Whereas international conventions exist on behalf of people termed refugees after they've been driven across international borders, there had been no binding protections for IDPs.

As such, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, as the instrument is formally called, serves as an "international model," said Mr. Beyani, according to a press release issued by the Geneva-based Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

"Today, Africa has achieved a milestone and demonstrated its leadership in addressing one of the most pressing humanitarian issues in the world," Mr. Beyani said.

"This comprehensive Convention represents the culmination of over two decades of work during which Governments, civil society and the international community have sought to improve the way we address the plight of millions of internally displaced persons across the globe," he added.

While the Convention is applicable and binding only in Africa, IDPs vastly outnumber refugees in the continent. What's more, Africa accounts for 10 million of the 26 million people worldwide who were driven from their homes by conflict or human rights-related violence in 2011, while floods and other natural disasters created "at least a further half million" Mr. Beyani said.

"While precise figures are not yet available, the continent is also impacted by displacement related to slow onset natural disasters, such as desertification and more frequent droughts, associated with the effects of climate change," he added.

According to Mr. Beyani, the Convention provides a "solid legal framework for dealing with many of the complex dynamics of internal displacement in Africa today."

"The Convention is significant in many respects," he said. "It sets out the obligations of the State parties, but also of the African Union, international organizations and members of armed groups, to prevent displacement, protect and assist people once displacement has occurred, and to find lasting solutions to displacement," he explained.

Under the Convention, States have "specific obligations to allocate resources, adopt national policies and strategies, and enact or amend national laws to ensure that displacement is prevented, and that IDPs are protected and supported until they reach a sustainable solution to their displacement," Mr. Beyani said.

He highlighted that the unique "added value" of the Convention lay in the degree to which it is comprehensive, and the "manner in which it addresses many of the key challenges of our times, and indeed, of Africa."

"If implemented well, it can help States and the African Union address both current and potential future internal displacement related not only to conflict, but also natural disasters and other effects of climate change, development, and even mega trends, such as population growth and rapid urbanization," he said.

To date, 37 African countries have signed the instrument. By its terms, it is entering into force exactly one month after the ratification by the 15th State, which was Swaziland.

Mr. Beyani said it was "vital that the international and donor communities now support African states and civil society in raising awareness and building the capacities to implement the Convention."

He also urged any State that has yet sign or ratify the Convention, to do so, saying it "embodies principles of good governance, respect for human rights and preparedness so necessary to prevent and address the human crisis related to situations of internal displacement."

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes. The Council appointed Mr. Beyani in September 2010.

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