African Leaders Must Follow Through on Kampala Convention

Co-authored by Michel Gabaudan, President of Refugees International, and Kate Halff, Head of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Imagine having to leave your home in a hurry, bringing hardly anything with you. Imagine building a flimsy shelter, out of old rugs, branches, and, if you are lucky, plastic tarps. Imagine having no running water. Imagine not knowing if you will find food for your children tomorrow. Imagine not being able to put them into school. Imagine fearing your daughter will be raped every time she goes to the toilet. Imagine that this is your everyday ordeal for months, years, decades.

This happens to be the daily reality of hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia. Many have had to flee and rebuild a shelter several times in the last two decades. Many children have known nothing else but desolate crowded settlements where people gather, hoping to find some sort of safety through being together.

In more than twenty African countries, 12 million people are having a similar experience, having been forced to flee their homes due to violence and conflict. Of all the people who are displaced within their own country (often referred to as internally displaced persons, or IDPs), more than 40 percent live in Africa. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced by natural or man-made disasters or development projects.

In the face of this grim reality, the African Union (AU) set out to develop the world's first legally-binding regional legal framework to protect the rights of IDPs. On October 23, 2009, after five years of drafting, negotiations and consultations, the AU adopted the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa, also known as the Kampala Convention.

It imposes on states the obligation to protect and assist IDPs and provides standards for the protection of people from arbitrary displacement, the protection of people while they are displaced and durable solutions to their displacement.

The adoption of the Kampala Convention has been described as an historic achievement. It is not the first time that the African Union has set a precedent and shown its commitment to strengthen the protection of displaced people. In 1969, the Organization of African Unity (replaced by the AU in 2002) adopted the first regional refugee convention.

However, to enter into force and become legally binding, the Convention has to be ratified by 15 countries. In the year since it was endorsed in Kampala, a growing number of states have shown their determination to turn the Convention into reality by signing it, but the number of ratifications remains insufficient. It has been signed by 29 of the 53 AU member states, but only ratified by two, Uganda and Sierra Leone. African leaders should follow through on their commitment and remain at the forefront of global efforts to strengthen the protection of IDPs by ratifying the Kampala Convention so that it enters into force at the earliest possible time. The American government and UN agencies should offer AU member states their support for the adoption and implementation of concrete measures to assist them in these efforts.

The Kampala Convention is not only about conflict and wars. It addresses displacement resulting from a wide range of causes, including natural and man-made disasters and development projects, as well as conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations. As such, it is of relevance to all 53 AU member states, whether or not they currently have any displaced populations, and whether or not they are or recently have been affected by war. All of them should, for example, be prepared for displacement caused by natural disasters, and they should take the necessary steps to minimize the impact of such displacement.

The conditions in which 1.6 million displaced people in Somalia live, as well as more than 2 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and nearly 5 million in Sudan, are unbearable. No one should face such conditions. The adoption of the Kampala Convention gave IDPs in Africa a reason to hope that leaders in their countries were committed to improve their situation. It is now up to these leaders to live up to these expectations.