Foreign Affairs:

Internally Displaced Persons Lack Effective Protection

GAO-01-803: Published: Aug 17, 2001. Publicly Released: Aug 17, 2001.

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Harold J. Johnson, Jr
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Internally displaced persons--those forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict and persecution but who remain within their own country--are among the most at-risk, vulnerable populations in the world. Although some protections have been provided to internally displaced persons, international organizations have been unable to fully meet their needs in most locations, partly because of the danger in operating in conflict zones, the presence of personal security risks to aid workers, and the decline in budgetary resources, but also because international organizations have not taken a proactive approach toward protection. Also, international relief workers have not received training on how to incorporate protection considerations and interventions into their assistance activities. In the three countries GAO visited, international organizations do not coordinate their protection actions within the countries in which they operate. Without such coordination, international organizations are unable to share basic information on the location of their protection officers and effective approaches to protection interventions. The U.N. Security Council is one forum in which these matters can be addressed in the context of underlying political and security factors. The U.S. government has no overall policy or lead office to coordinate its efforts for dealing with internally displaced persons. Instead, government activities aimed at this effort are dispersed among different agencies and offices. Some Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development officials believe that providing assistance to the internally displaced in this way is labor and time intensive, lacks accountability, and leads to duplication of activities. Although State is required to provide Congress with an annual report on human rights violations, these reports include only limited information on the treatment of internally displaced persons. Moreover, the country reports do not have a standardized format for providing information on the internally displaced and their human rights conditions which would allow concerned parties to access the information readily. Increased and more systematic reporting that provided some focus on internally displaced persons would identify a significant problem and would provide the U.S. government and international and nongovernmental organizations' officials with country-level data to craft a cohesive program and policy response.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the August 2001 report (Foreign Affairs: Internally Displaced Persons Lack Effective Protection, GAO-01-803), GAO recommended that the Secretary of State work to advance more proactive policies and programs to protect and assist Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In response, the United Nations established the Internally Displaced Division within the Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Assistance to coordinate overall U.N. efforts for displaced populations. The United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee also published a practical handbook implementing the Collaborative Response to Situations of Internal Displacement: Guidance for United Nations Humanitarians and/or Coordinators and Country Teams to guide field staff on displacement issues. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees conducted a detailed review of the agency's efforts to assist and protect displaced persons and, according to State officials, have implemented a more robust response to IDPs. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights increased field staff and had taken a more pro-active response to protect and assist on IDP situations. Finally, ending a bureaucratic stalemate that lasted several years, USAID was designated the lead U.S. agency for IDPs and instituted tri-weekly coordination meetings with State.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the international response to the plight of the internally displaced, the Secretary of State and the Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations should (1) work to advance more proactive policies and programs to protect and assist internally displaced persons and (2) seek with other member states to strengthen international organizations' protection efforts by encouraging them to implement a training program for international organizations and to form country-level protection working groups.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, as shown in the Department of State's 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, State increased the breadth and scope of Internally Displaced Person (IDP) reporting in its annual human rights report. State also improved the reporting format on IDP issues by concentrating the bulk of its findings into one section (2d) of the individual country reports and harmonizing report language.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should include a focus on internal displacement issues in the State's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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