The United Nations and the Return of Internally Displaced Persons: Lessons Learned

Presentation Notes
Prepared by the

Public International Law & Policy Group

The United Nations and the Return of Internally Displaced Persons: Lessons Learned

Statement of Purpose  

      The purpose of this presentation is to survey recent United Nations action designed to promote the return of internally displaced persons and lessons learned from these instances, with a particular focus on identifying mechanisms that facilitate returns.  Introduction  

      The United Nations (UN) has helped facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in many post-conflict situtations, including Bosnia, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and East Timor.  These instances reveal trends in IDP return.  UN practice also can be instructive to governments of states with IDP populations because it demonstrates the use of different mechanisms that governments might employ to facilitate effective IDP return.    

      A stable security and political environment is an important factor in facilitating IDP return.  UN or other international involvement can help create stability for returns.  IDP return processes often experience success when an organization like the UN also coordinates organizations involved in return efforts.  The success of returns increases if return efforts focus on sustainability and reintegration.  Not accounting for the needs of vulnerable groups can hinder return efforts.  Finally, IDP solutions are ideally long-term and adaptable.  International disengagement can disrupt the sustainability of returns.   

      The UN has employed a variety of mechanisms to facilitate IDP return.  Generally, the UN works to establish security and stability and coordinate return efforts.  The UN has also developed mechanisms aimed at addressing specific issues common to IDP situations — namely to help IDPs decide whether to return to their homes, to address property disputes, to facilitate IDP voting, and to provide needed social services.  These practices can serve as models for governments or other actors working to facilitate IDP returns.   


Providing Security

      A stable political and security environment is an important requisite to successful and sustainable IDP return.  In each of the instances examined, the UN provided or worked with a military force to help establish security and stability.  The success of the return process was linked to the success of these forces. The UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (UNMIBH) security provisions facilitated IDP returns, but other UN missions have mixed experiences reestablishing stability necessary for returns.   

      Under Bosnia’s Dayton Peace Agreement, the UNMIBH coordinated with NATO-led forces that provided ground security for the mission.1  UNMIBH controlled return efforts.2  The UN High Representative in Bosnia also had authority to dismiss Bosnian officials who failed to enforce the peace agreement.  Together, these two factors created a relatively secure, stable environment that encouraged returns.  Between 1995 and 2000, the number of IDPs dropped from over one million to 518,000.3  However, some minority returnees in Bosnia face hostility, diminishing return rates.  Approximately 180,000 IDPs remain.4      

      The UN Security Council resolution establishing the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) tasked NATO forces in Kosovo with “facilitat[ing] the safe return” of IDPs and refugees.5  NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) quelled violence in Kosovo, but it could not alleviate underlying political tensions that limited the success of the return process.  Minority returnees have faced localized violence, and many remain away from their homes to avoid ethnic hostilities.6  Kosovo provides an example of political uncertainty hindering successful IDP returns, despite strong international coordination and involvement in return efforts.   

      Despite UN efforts, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) lacks a final political or security solution.  Although the UN employs a peacekeeping force, conflict is ongoing, and attacks against returnees continue.7  Return efforts have experienced some success, but return rates remain low.  This instance underscores how a lack of security can profoundly impact IDP returns.    

      The preliminary UN Assistance Mission in East Timor’s (UNAMET) mandate included ensuring “safe return” of IDPs.8  After East Timor gained independence, sparking new violence, the UN Security Council established the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), which temporarily administered the new state.  By the end of 2003, UNTAET’s IDP initiatives succeeded in bringing most IDPs home.  After UNTAET’s mandate expired, only a small UN presence remained, however.  In 2006, new violence erupted, displacing 150,000 persons, prompting the creation the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) to stabilize the situation and facilitate IDP return.9  UN involvement in East Timor shows the importance of maintaining security, even after IDPs return.   

Coordinating Return Efforts

      IDP return efforts typically involve many organizations, including UN organizations, state governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  In the instances examined, the UN — often the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — played a coordinating role in return efforts.  It also often also led the return planning process.  Pinpointing a single contact to coordinate the work of various organizations in IDP return can help the process operate smoothly.

      In Bosnia, UNCHR coordinated international, regional and domestic organizations to develop a comprehensive return plan.10  The resulting plan included several mechanisms to facilitate return.  When return efforts stalled, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) partnered with UNHCR and the governments of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia to remove remaining barriers to return.11  Bosnia’s return process was largely successful, showing the role coordination can play in creating sustainable IDP solutions.   

      Similarly, UNHCR supervised return efforts in Kosovo.12  It created a committee with representatives from UNMIK, KFOR, the OSCE and the Serbian National Council to develop a coordinated plan for IDP return.13  As in Bosnia, the plan was far-reaching, focused on sustainability of return, and included many of the mechanisms discussed later in this memo.  Although not uniformly successful for political reasons, Kosovo’s IDP return process was well-coordinated.

      In the DRC, the UN uses a cluster approach to organize actors in IDP return.  This approach identifies one organization to serve as a single point of contact for each humanitarian issue.14  UNHCR leads the Protection Cluster, which is responsible for IDP and refugee protection, coordinating humanitarian assistance providers, security forces and legal aid.  UNHCR is also part of the Shelter and Non-Food Items Cluster, which provides goods and services to returnees.15  Although circumstances in the DRC hinder returns, successes are partly due to the coordinated return effort.   

      Under UNMIT, UNCHR provided shelter, necessities and public education to IDPs in East Timor.  Due to funding constraints, UNCHR ended its mission early,16 however, leaving two-thirds of East Timor’s IDPs displaced.17  This instance demonstrates the danger of a coordinated effort that is not long-term.

Mechanisms to Help IDPs Determine Whether to Return Home

      The UN employs mechanisms to help IDPs decide whether they wish to return to their home communities.  Kosovo presents a comprehensive example of such mechanisms’ use.  Kosovo’s coordinated IDP plan created area-specific working groups to promote returns to particular locations.  Later, organizations involved in return efforts held trips to help IDPs determine whether they wished to return, including UNHCR-led “go-and-see-visits” for IDPs to visit their homes in Kosovo and UNMIK- and KFOR-led “go-and-inform” trips to appraise IDPs in Serbia and Montenegro of the conditions in their communities.18   

      The UN has also facilitated programs allowing IDPs who do not wish to return to their communities to resettle elsewhere.  Such programs exist in Bosnia as well as in East Timor, where UNHCR worked with the East Timorese and Indonesian governments to develop a comprehensive strategy to help IDPs settle outside East Timor.19   

Property Claims Mechanisms

      When IDPs return home, addressing property disputes is essential.  Adequately resolving these disputes is also crucial to achieving sustainable returns.  UN missions coordinating IDP returns may assist or develop mechanisms that address disputed property claims.  Bosnia and Kosovo both had developed property claims mechanisms.  Bosnia presents an example of a successful mechanism, whereas the Kosovo mechanism displayed less successful results.

      The Dayton Agreement created a Bosnian national property claims commission.20  This commission, consisting of six national and three international representatives, had the authority to make final, binding decisions on property disputes.21  The UNCHR, UNMIBH, the Office of the High Representative and the OSCE worked with the commission to implement its decisions.22  With this assistance, the commission resolved ninety-three percent of disputes before it, helping dramatically increase returns, particularly among minority groups.23  This experience shows that cooperation between domestic and international organizations can facilitate sustainable IDP property solutions.  

      In Kosovo, UNMIK established two organizations to deal with property disputes.  One organization researches IDP property claims, and a second makes final decisions on the disputes.24  This mechanism has resolved 29,000 claims.  Kosovo’s uncertain political status complicates the resolution of additional claims,25 demonstrating that the success of a property claims mechanism depends not only on international support, but also on stability in the state or region.     

Facilitating IDP Voting

      Helping IDPs vote in their home communities contributes to successful and sustainable returns.  Mechanisms to facilitate IDP voting are complex and demand significant planning, and thus this memo does not describe them in detail.  The instances examined provide several lessons, however.  First, a neutral, expert body, such as the UN or another international organization, can successfully promote IDP registration.  Second, security can have a profound effect on these mechanisms’ success.  Third, the context in which IDPs exist demands flexible mechanisms.

      The Dayton Agreement noted that an IDP’s exercising his or her right to vote would confirm his or her intention to return to his or her home community.26 Therefore, the OSCE, a UN partner organization in the Bosnian return process, identified IDPs by home municipality to supply them with appropriate ballots.27   

      In Kosovo, UNMIK tasked the International Organization for Migration with registering IDP voters in Serbia and Montenegro.  Although registration was successful, lingering ethnic tensions made many Serbian IDPs reluctant to vote in Kosovo elections.28    

      Security also affected IDP voting in the DRC.  Despite strong efforts to register IDP voters, the UNHCR-led Protection Cluster could not prevent IDP disenfranchisement during the 2006 national elections.  Armed groups took advantage of insecurity to attack IDPs, who either surrendered their voter registration cards or lost the cards as they fled.29   

      Finally, in East Timor, UNAMET’s mandate included organizing the state’s independence referendum, including registering 60,000 IDPs.  UNAMET instituted a voter validation system under which an affidavit from local community leaders was satisfactory to identify an IDP as an eligible voter. 30


Mechanisms to Provide Social Services and Conduct Education Campaigns

      A final, important role that the UN often plays in IDP return is providing social services or conducting public education campaigns for returning IDPs.  These types of programs aim to facilitate sustainable returns, and thus vary greatly depending on context and IDP needs.  The strongest social service mechanisms also address the needs of vulnerable groups.   

      In Bosnia, UNHCR supplied alternative housing and called on a network of NGOs to provide legal advice and community services to IDPs and returnees.31  Vulnerable groups in Bosnia, such as the elderly and victims of trauma have been less likely to return,32 possibly because service mechanisms do not adequately address their needs.  In the DRC, the Shelter and Non-Food Items Cluster provides necessities to returnees and conducts public education on pertinent issues such as farming, land mines, AIDS and sexual violence.  In East Timor, Under UNTAET, UNCHR provided shelter to returnees and worked with other UN agencies to create a local reconciliation-focused approach to promote returns.33  More recently, under UNMIT, UNCHR provided necessities, shelter and training in dispute resolution and economic self-reliance for youth gangs.34   


      The successes and failures of UN-coordinated IDP return efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, the DRC and East Timor provide lessons for governments of states that seek to facilitate IDP return.  While these instances of UN practice demonstrate successes, they also exhibit problems common to IDP return.    

      IDP return is most successful in stable environments.  Instability or insecurity can seriously hinder returns.  Involvement of international organizations such as the UN in planning return efforts can increase efforts’ success.  Organizations like the UN can also play a valuable role in coordinating the numerous actors involved in IDP return.  Disengagement of major actors, however, can roll-back successes and hamper the sustainability of IDP returns.   

      UN practice reveals a variety of specific mechanism that actors may employ to facilitate successful IDP returns, such as mechanisms aimed at resolving property disputes or helping IDPs determine whether to return.  Overall, IDP solutions are most effective when they are long-term, comprehensive and flexible, and focus on creating sustainable returns.


      About the Public International Law & Policy Group

The Public International Law & Policy Group, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is a non-profit organization, which operates as a global pro bono law firm providing free legal assistance to states and governments involved in peace negotiations, drafting post-conflict constitutions, and prosecuting war criminals.  To facilitate the utilization of this legal assistance, PILPG also provides policy formulation advice and training on matters related to conflict resolution.

PILPG’s four primary practice areas are:

    * Peacebuilding
    * War Crimes
    * Post-Conflict Political Development
    * Public International Law

To provide pro bono legal advice and policy formulation expertise, PILPG draws on the volunteer services of over sixty former legal advisors and former Foreign Service officers from the US Department of State and other foreign ministries.  PILPG also draws on pro bono assistance from major international law firms including Baker & McKenzie; Covington & Burling; Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt and Mosle; DLA Piper; Sullivan & Cromwell; Steptoe & Johnson; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; WilmerHale; Vinson & Elkins; and graduate international affairs and law students at American University and Case Western Reserve Schools of Law.  Annually, PILPG is able to provide over $2 million worth of pro bono international legal services.

Frequently, PILPG sends members in-country to facilitate the provision of legal assistance and its members often serve on the delegations of its clients during peace negotiations.  To facilitate this assistance, PILPG is based in Washington, D.C. and has points of contact in New York City, Boston, Seattle, Cleveland, London, Paris, Rome, The Hague, Stockholm, Belfast, Krakow, Budapest, Zurich, Tbilisi, Kabul, and Nairobi.

PILPG was founded in London in 1995 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1996, where it operated under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for two years.  PILPG currently maintains an association with American University in Washington, D.C., and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  In July 1999, the United Nations granted official Non-Governmental Organizations status to PILPG.

In January 2005, a half dozen of PILPG’s pro bono clients nominated PILPG for the Nobel Peace Prize for “significantly contributing to the promotion of peace throughout the globe by providing crucial pro bono legal assistance to states and non-state entities involved in peace negotiations and in bringing war criminals to justice.” 

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