Kampala Convention is First of its Kind for Displaced People


The world’s first comprehensive, continental treaty that addresses the multiple causes of internal displacement took effect on December 6th, in Africa. The treaty, named the Kampala Convention, was first adopted by the African Union in October 2009 in Kampala, Uganda.

15 countries are now bound by the convention, and 37 of the 53 countries in the AU have signed it, saying they will commit to the rights and well-being of internally displaced people as well as to other aspects of the convention.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, based in Geneva, Switzerland announced that Africa was the first to show leadership in creating a treaty that directly focuses on the plight of IDPs.  The treaty is comprehensive in that it addresses the multiple factors associated with displacement of people from their homes, including causes, effects, responses and prevention of displacement. 

Sebastian Albuja is head of the Africa department of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDMC.  He explained the significance of the treaty being developed in Africa.

“This is very important because first of all, Africa is the continent in the world with the highest number of people who are internally displaced.  That’s around 10-million people who are displaced in their country, and that’s only because of conflict and violence.  In addition to that, if you tally people who are displaced by building projects, or by natural disasters, the figure would be a lot higher.  So it’s really important because of the scope of the issue of the problem.  And, also because it’s an African solution to African problems.  It is African leaders who have pioneered this convention and have drafted it and negotiated it, so it’s important that Africa leads the way in adopting this binding legal instrument.”      

Albuja added this comprehensive framework is innovative because it will not only address the needs of people, but will also hold states responsible for making sure the rights of IDPs are protected, saying “it’s a historic convention because it’s the first of its kind, in that it sets specific obligations that governments must implement to help and protect people displaced within their own country.” 

There are many examples across Africa where humanitarian aid has been impeded by instability and violence.  Workers are simply not able to access those in need.  Albuja said the Kampala Convention will also address this challenge.

“The convention itself will not be able to stop armed groups directly.  But what it does, it sets these obligations for governments primarily, beyond humanitarian agencies, be it international or civil society agencies.  It sets the obligations on governments to do so, and what’s important that is the convention has a broad scope, so it covers different types and causes of internal displacement.” 

He added that “throughout Africa, millions are forced to flee from a really toxic mix of events.  They include wars, they include violence.  But also they include natural disasters, floods and droughts, and so on.  So it’s particularly important that the convention has this broad scope, and that’s what makes it an innovative instrument throughout the continent.”      

The treaty will also address the issue of what happens to people once it is safe for them to return to their place of origin.  This situation creates challenges in a number of ways, because in many cases, for economic reasons, people may decide to stay where they are, or move on to another location, or they could decide to return home.

“So what’s important is that regardless of the geographic location, where they are, they actually have access to assistance and to social protection systems, for example, so they can have employment, so their children can go to school, etc., so that they can have access to all the different basic necessities of life regardless of where they actually choose to stay,” explained Albuja, who also acknowledged that the convention needs to be taken as something real, as opposed to something that looks good on paper.

“It’s very important to acknowledge that the convention is more of a beginning than an end.  It certainly has been a long process of negotiating the convention.  It’s been roughly three years.  But, it’s really a beginning.  What this means is that it sets these new standards that governments must implement. It’s really important for governments to carry on these obligations that the convention specifies.” 

The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, also hails the historic breakthrough.  Bruno Geddo is the UNHCR representative for Somalia.

“Somalia was the first country which signed the convention back in October 2009.  They ratified it in March 2011, and now that there is at long last a legitimate government, UNHCR is going to work with the authorities to translate these commitments under the Kampala Convention into an appropriate national IDP policy,” explained Geddo.  

While the treaty is a historic achievement for Africa, Albuja said the hope is that it will encourage other world leaders to follow suit.  The convention itself will not change the plight of internally displaced people.  Rather, it will take those countries legally bound by the treaty to ensure that people are protected.

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