Landmines, Refugees and Kampala Convention on Displaced Persons

Today, June 20th is World Refugee Day and in recognition of the day and the threat that landmines and explosive remnants of war pose for refugees, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor released a new report, “Landmines and Refugees: The Risks and the Responsibilities to Protect and Assist Victims.”

According to the report, “refugees or IDPs [internally displaced persons] that survive explosions, like other persons with disabilities, are among the most vulnerable groups of refugees and IDPs. They are the first who are affected physically, socially, and economically and the last to get assistance.”  Also, because of “new use of landmines in Unity State, near South Sudan’s northern border, returnees have faced a myriad of hazards. In 2011, more than 200 people were killed or injured by landmines/ERW in South Sudan, most in Unity State. Many of those people were on their way back from Sudan.”  The presence of landmines in the disputed Abyei region has prevented the return of thousands of displaced persons.

The report details the difficulty refugee landmine survivors face when trying to access rehabilitation services.  Somali, Sudanese and Sahrawi refugees rely on limited service provision in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Algeria and face inequalities in access to shelter, education and economic activities and live with the additional threat of sexual violence and abuse.  On their return to their home countries, refugees often encounter devastated lands where meeting the basic needs of life are a challenge.

The report reminds states of their obligations to protect refugees under the United Nations Refugee Convention to which most countries are a party.  The Executive Committee of the UN High Commission on Refugees called on states to “protect and assist refugees [with disabilities] and other persons with disabilities against all forms of discrimination and to provide sustainable and appropriate support in addressing all their needs…”  However, the provisions of the Refugee Convention are the minimum standards and in some places, regional conventions and agreements provide for a higher standard of care and response.

In regards to Africa, there is the Kampala Convention (the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa; The Guardian; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), which came into force just six months ago, and is the only treaty that specifically addresses the needs and situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are specifically not covered by the Refugee Convention. In Africa, there are four times as many IDPs as refugees.  Among mine-affected countries, States Parties to the Convention include Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Uganda and Zambia. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Senegal, Somalia and Zimbabwe have signed but not ratified the Kampala Convention which means that they are committed to following the Convention in principle.  Kenya and the Sudans have neither signed nor ratified.

Article 11 of the Kampala Convention provides for the safe return of IDPs, saying, “States Parties shall seek lasting solutions to the problem of displacement by promoting or creating satisfactory conditions for voluntary return, local integration or relocation on a sustainable basis and in circumstances of safety and dignity.”  During a Brookings Institute briefing on the Convention, Chaloka Beyani, one of the drafters of the Convention, confirmed that clearing known minefields would be an obligation of States Parties since the priority of the Convention is the safe return of displaced persons.  Alternatively, in places where land is abundant and if displaced persons are in agreement, relocation to known mine-free areas is acceptable which has been the practice in Angola where the low population density has allowed the country to re-settle the displaced.  In either case, safe return or relocation, the Kampala Convention requires the States to assure the safety of displaced persons from landmines and other ERW.

Michael P. Moore

June 20, 2013