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Protection of internally displaced persons affected by armed conflict: Concept and challenges

30-09-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 843, by Marguerite Contat Hickel

Marguerite Contat Hickel
is a diplomatic advisor and member of the International Organizations Division of the ICRC. She has previously had various field assignments for the ICRC. 


The 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees provides us with an opportunity to share a few thoughts on the concept of protection of internally displaced persons, the political factors underlying the problem of displacement and its humanitarian implications.
In recent years, we have seen the focus of attention of the international community, States, United Nations agencies and international governmental or non-governmental organizations turn to a new dimension of population displacement — displacement within a country as a result of non-international conflict. The early 1990s and the end of the Cold War brought a proliferation of a new kind of internal conflict, and with them a sharp increase in the number of people displaced within their own countries. The terms “conflict based on identities”, “ethnic conflict”, or “religious conflict” are now used in an attempt to characterize the nature of these new confrontations. In States of great strategic importance but with a weakened central authority, the political or re ligious causes of conflicts are in fact often obscured or manipulated to serve infinitely more profitable economic interests. Control of natural resources has, often with foreign support, become more than ever an objective for parties to conflict.
In such circumstances, the value of a “civilian” — someone who does not participate directly in the conflict — is measured in terms of the potential gain that person represents. Previously the collateral victims of military operations, civilians are now the preferred policy instruments of belligerents: when they are not simply the direct targets of attacks, populations are taken hostage, forcibly recruited, made to do forced labour, or even deported to achieve a demographic, political or ethnic balance. The displacement of millions of people as a result of conflicts, which has become an inescapable fact of the post-Cold War period, was something to which the international community could not remain indifferent. Initially raised by certain NGOs (particularly the Commission of Churches on International Affairs and the Quakers), taken up by the mechanisms and agencies of the United Nations system and further highlighted by think-tank discussions and pressure from donor countries, the problems of internally displaced persons have gradually found a place on the agenda of multilateral diplomacy, finally reaching the United Nations Security Council, where diplomats address political and humanitarian aspects in parallel.
The issue of “internally displaced persons” (or “IDPs”) is now recognized as a phenomenon and has become part, as one of the elements of humanitarian affairs, of the field of international politics.