Report of the 18-19 May 1994 Meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection


1.         The twenty-fourth meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection convened on 18-19 May 1994 under the chairmanship of His Excellency Ambassador J.F. Boddens-Hosang (Netherlands).

2.         In his opening remarks, the Chairman recalled that the forty-fourth session of the Executive Committee had recognized the value of these inter-sessional meetings and had asked that at least one such meeting be convened during the course of the year. Moreover, in its conclusions, it called on the Sub-Committee to consider a number of complex issues, including that of internally displaced persons (A/AC.96/821, para. 19(t)) and comprehensive regional approaches to prevention, protection and solutions (A/AC.96/821, para. 19(n)).

3.         Underlining that the above issues carried implications that went beyond the mandate and capacity of UNHCR, and which made inter-agency collaboration imperative, the Chairman drew attention to the presence of representatives of DHA, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the ICRC. In addressing other important items on the agenda - refugee women and refugee children, and the Committee for Programme and Coordination (CPC) evaluation - the Chairman noted that the Sub-Committee would be considering the report of the informal Working Group on Refugee Women and Refugee Children and would be reviewing the recommendations contained in the In-depth Evaluation of UNHCR's Programme of International Protection of and Assistance to Refugees.

4.         The following agenda (EC/1994/SCP/CRP.1) was adopted without comment:

1.             Adoption of the Agenda

2.             Internally Displaced Persons

3.             Comprehensive Approaches

4.             Report of the Informal Working group on Women and Children

5.             CPC Evaluation

6.             Any other business


5.         The Deputy High Commissioner in his Opening Remarks emphasized the importance of devoting a substantial part of the meeting to the subject of internally displaced persons whose plight was precarious and as compelling as that of refugees. He further stated that the Office, in its efforts to prevent displacement and find solutions, was placing new emphasis on the need to stabilize communities. This emphasis was reflected in the paper on Comprehensive Approaches. He stressed the necessity of cooperation and coordination between agencies and Governments. The problem of the internally displaced could not be isolated from other population movements and both the United Nations and the international community had to come to the aid of these people and explore ways of better addressing their problems.


6.         This agenda item was introduced by the Director of the Division of International Protection who drew attention to document EC/1994/SCP/CRP.2 on Protection Aspects of UNHCR Activities on Behalf of Internally Displaced Persons. He recalled that ECOSOC and the United Nations General Assembly had authorized the High Commissioner to undertake such activities in numerous resolutions dating back to at least 1972. The Executive Committee and the General Assembly had reaffirmed support for the High Commissioner's efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to internally displaced persons in certain situations which call for office's particular expertise, upon request by the Secretary-General or the competent principal organs of the United Nations, and with the consent of the State concerned. The General Assembly had expressed its support for such efforts, especially where they could contribute to the prevention or solution of refugee problems.

7.         In 1993, the Executive Committee had encouraged the High Commissioner, on the basis of her broad humanitarian experience and expertise, to continue to explore and to undertake protection and assistance activities aimed at preventing conditions that give rise to refugee outflows.

8.         The Director of the Division of International Protection reviewed the criteria developed by UNHCR internally, in line with the selective and conditional mandate described above, to determine when it should undertake protection and assistance activities on behalf of the internally displaced - and also people at risk of displacement - in their own countries. He reiterated that the key consideration for the Office was the link to a potential or existing refugee problem as well as the need to ensure the continued right to seek and to enjoy asylum in another country.

9.         The Director considered the legal norms which can be invoked on behalf of internally displaced. The provisions of human rights law and, in situations of armed conflict, humanitarian law cover displaced persons as well as others. Certain provisions are especially relevant to the prevention of displacement, protection during displacement and the free exercise of the right to return home.

10.       He noted that the Conference paper pointed to the usefulness of drawing up specific agreements with all concerned parties regarding the treatment of the displaced as well as the role of UNHCR and/or other organizations; and the possibility of applying certain concepts of refugee law, by analogy, to situations of internal displacement. The proposal by the Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons for the compilation and commentary of existing rules and norms, and a further elaboration of relevant standards (in the form, for instance, of a code of conduct consisting of guiding principles to govern the treatment of internally displaced persons) should be pursued.

11.       The Director suggested that such endeavours should cover, inter alia, three broad areas: the elaboration and extension of existing prohibitions on forcible displacement itself; ensuring humanitarian access to those in need; and measures to ensure the safety of humanitarian personnel.

12.       He added that in UNHCR's experience the main problem consisted not just in a lack of norms, but the failure of the parties concerned to respect and enforce existing norms, including their own national laws. The prevention of internal displacement and solutions for the internally displaced could only be as effective as the political will of States. While UNHCR could provide material assistance, monitor, report human rights violations, intercede, and set in motion a process of tracing and family reunion, protection for the internally displaced of the kind provided to refugees required willingness on the part of the authorities to have them protected.

13.       UNHCR experience indicated that the internally displaced cannot in practice be given protection or assistance in isolation from other vulnerable populations, including returnees, refugees, and the affected local population. Increasingly UNHCR had been active in the midst of, or immediately following, situations of armed conflict, and was consequently cooperating closely with the ICRC.

14.       He reiterated UNHCR's willingness to play its part in the protection and assistance of the internally displaced, in cooperation with other agencies, in the context of an existing refugee problem. Where this link is not present, UNHCR looked to the coordinating mechanisms that are being put in place by the United Nations system under the leadership of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. He welcomed the contribution this meeting would make to building upon and improving these joint efforts.

15.       In concluding his remarks, the Director highlighted the following points:

(a)   He noted the recognition given to the importance of the crisis of internal displacement and underlined the need for supporting the efforts of the Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons in promoting the development of ideas for normative standards based on principles of existing international instruments.

(b)   He emphasized that the internally displaced were part of the overall phenomenon of coerced displacement.

(c)   He reaffirmed the ability of UNHCR to contribute to activities to provide assistance, protection and solutions to the internally displaced where their situation is closely linked with that of refugees, and to continue to develop, with the support of the Executive Committee, ways of cooperating actively with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission, the Representative of the Secretary-General, DHA, other United Nations agencies, ICRC and IOM on their behalf.

(d)   He recalled that relevant General Assembly resolutions and conclusions of the Executive Committee constitute an appropriate and useful framework for UNHCR's activities.

(e)   He emphasized that whenever UNHCR is requested to undertake protection and assistance activities on behalf of the internally displaced, UNHCR and implementing partners should be given full and unhindered access to the affected populations under acceptable and secure operating conditions.

(f)    He underlined the importance of all UNHCR staff being familiar with applicable human rights and humanitarian law.

16.       The Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons concurred on the importance of discussing the internally displaced and expressed appreciation for the emphasis placed on this issue by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The current conditions for UNHCR involvement with the internally displaced provided a good framework, but this mandate remained selective and conditional.

17.       The Representative pointed to this vacuum of responsibility for the internally displaced, who outnumber refugees but have no specialized agency to take care of them. He said that despite the obvious need, the international community was ill-equipped in terms of legal doctrine and operational capacity. His own mandate involved studying the root causes, and the legal and institutional arrangements under which the international community could respond. His conceptual and methodological framework was one which respected considerations of national sovereignty and recognized that while, by and large, Governments did live up to their responsibilities, in case of a lack of will, international involvement was needed. The Human Rights Commission had emphasized the need for country profiles, studies and visits, to identify problem areas. Such visits had the additional value of raising consciousness locally. They required follow-up to be truly effective.

18.       The Representative felt that a High Commissioner for the Internally Displaced was not appropriate at this point. He also pointed out that UNHCR faced limitations in providing a comprehensive response to the phenomenon of internally displaced persons. The only realistic option was that of inter-agency cooperation and the development of international norms and standards for the internally displaced.

19.       The Director-General of the IOM stated that with rising population pressures, disasters and other factors which led to a growing number of internally displaced, ad hoc measures were not sufficient.

20.       He considered the existing body of international law to be sufficient for dealing with internally displaced persons, provided that it is applied in all circumstances. He reiterated IOM's support for the work of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. He concluded that while international frameworks were important, the magnitude of the problem was such that no single agency could assume full responsibility. This decision would have to be linked to the particularities of the situation, and each agency's capacity, with flexibility being essential.

21.       The Director-General drew attention to the growing importance of this issue for IOM, which had a statutory basis for assisting orderly migration and thus a mandate for the displaced, whether external or internal.

22.       The Deputy to the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs agreed that the plight and magnitude of internally displaced was disturbing and required far more systematic efforts in terms of assistance and protection. While the main responsibility lay with Governments, some were unable or unwilling to discharge it, and required assistance to do so.

23.       He added that the Secretary-General had overall responsibility to ensure a response to problems of internal displacement. He said that DHA's role is to allocate responsibilities and coordinate this response. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) had a particular role in a situation where no one agency was perceived as having exclusive responsibility. Each situation of internal displacement took place in a particular context. A Task Force of the IASC on Internally Displaced was currently developing a work plan, including an analysis of the work of the various agencies, the report of which would be made available to member states.

24.       The Director of the Principles and Law Department of the ICRC underlined the need for constant dialogue between international institutions, and for close contact between UNHCR and ICRC both at Headquarters and in the field. He said that prevention was all-important. Manifestations of extreme nationalism, such as ethnic cleansing, often necessitated the involvement of organizations such as UNHCR and ICRC. Agencies with a mandate to promote human rights, refugee law and humanitarian law should intensify their cooperation to promote the bases of protection.

25.       The ICRC Representative said that respect for humanitarian law, in particular, should help to reduce displacement during conflicts. Today's pressing need was not to develop new norms, but to ensure the application of existing international humanitarian law.

26.       He referred to the principles contained in the Turku Declaration of 1990 which should, he said, be supported by the international community. The primary consideration should always be the best interests of the victims. While avoiding displacement was desirable, the international community should not impose as a criterion that people should remain at home, thereby protecting States rather than victims.

27.       In the subsequent discussion, 19 delegations took the floor.

28.       In summing up the debate, the Chairman complemented participants on the rich and wide-ranging discussion that had taken place and UNHCR on the quality of the background document that had been presented. Although, as expected, no definitive answer had been found to the complex issue of the internally displaced, many aspects of the problem had been further elucidated and progress had been made towards a consensus in a number of areas, which, following further refinement, could possibly provide the basis for a conclusion of the Executive Committee at it forty-fifth session.

29.       There had, the Chairman noted, been broad recognition that internally displaced persons are part of a larger problem. On the one hand, it had been stressed that the underlying causes of refugee movements and internal displacement are often the same and thus call for the same range of preventive activities in countries of origin. Moreover, once displacement has occurred, the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons are frequently similar, as are the prerequisites for solutions to their plight.

30.       On the other hand, a number of delegations had pointed out that the problems of the internally displaced are conditioned by the fact that those concerned remain within their countries of origin and, consequently, within the territorial jurisdiction of their Governments. In this regard, some had emphasized the need to respect national sovereignty. Others had stressed the responsibility of States for the welfare of their citizens, highlighting the need to ensure humanitarian access to those in need of protection and assistance when States are either unable or unwilling to exercise that responsibility. It was emphasized by a number of speakers that this concern was not confined to the internally displaced whose problems often cannot be separated from those of other nationals living within their countries of origin, notably victims of conflict.

31.       Frequent mention, the Chairman recalled, had been made of the importance of maintaining the institution of asylum for those who have no option but to flee. The importance of effective action to prevent refugee flows was highlighted by a number of speakers. Nevertheless, while a valid part of a preventive strategy, action on behalf of the internally displaced persons must not be used as a pretext for closing borders and denying asylum to potential refugees.

32.       There was broad support for the policy and criteria elaborated by the High Commissioner for UNHCR involvement with internally displaced persons. That policy, the Chairman stated, had been clearly laid out in the document prepared by UNHCR for the meeting. The great majority of speakers did not see the need for any change in the mandate of UNHCR and many delegations expressed the view that specific requests from the Secretary-General or a principal organ of the United Nations should continue to be a prerequisite for UNHCR involvement in situations of internal displacement. Moreover, some delegations stressed the need to bear in mind the limited resources available to UNHCR and the need to ensure that priority was accorded to programmes to protect and assist refugees.

33.       Virtually all delegations had pointed out that it was impossible for any one existing agency to address the problem of the internally displaced. Nevertheless, there was broad agreement that maximum use should be made of existing mechanisms rather than creating new ones. It was stressed, however, that the problem was too important to be left to ad hoc, uncoordinated responses. There was a strong call for coordinated action among the various humanitarian agencies whose mandates extend to internally displaced persons. Cooperation, it was felt by many delegations, needed reinforcing and structuring without losing the benefits of a flexibility which would allow for allocation of responsibility in accordance with the specific characteristics of any given situation. A number of delegations stressed the importance of the position and work of the Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons, particularly in connection with the identified need for a focal point for the internally displaced within the United Nations system. A large number of speakers also emphasized the key coordinating role of DHA, and, in particular, of the IASC. There was also a strong feeling among a number of delegations that inter-agency aspects of the response to the problem of the internally displaced would benefit from discussion in a broader inter-governmental forum.

34.       While, in general, delegations did not feel that there was any need to develop new laws for the protection of internally displaced persons beyond those already contained in existing Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law and, by extension, Refugee Law, there was consensus on the urgency and importance of reaffirming and disseminating existing laws and norms and of promoting their implementation. In this respect, the efforts of the Representative of the Secretary-General to draw up a Code of Conduct were widely applauded. It was noted that this might ultimately lead to the promulgation of an International Declaration on Internally Displaced Persons.

35.       Finally, the Chairman drew attention to the importance accorded by a number of delegations to the further development of mechanisms for the sharing of information on internally displaced persons in order to facilitate the work of the various agencies and individuals involved.

36.       The Chairman concluded by thanking delegations for their active participation in the debate and by extending a special word of thanks to the guest speakers who had so greatly enriched the discussion.


37        The subject was introduced by the Senior Legal Counsel, Division of International Protection. The Chairman urged members of the Executive Committee, when considering this topic, to concentrate on matters of principle, rather than specific regional issues.

38        The overall response to the discussion paper Comprehensive and Regional Approaches to Refugee Problems (EC/1994/SCP/CRP.3) was positive with many Members of the Executive Committee complimenting UNHCR on its presentation of the issue. A broad discussion ensued.

39        A number of delegations expressed their belief that complex problems of displacement can only be managed effectively through comprehensive and regional approaches which include the basic principles of prevention, protection and solutions. UNHCR was urged to develop such approaches further.

40        While agreeing that comprehensive and regional approaches should be flexible and targeted to specific situations, several delegations also noted that they should not be ad-hoc measures. Delegations agreed that such approaches to refugee problems need to be consistent, and based on recognized principles of asylum and protection as laid down in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and in accordance with other human rights standards.

41        Several delegations stressed that successful comprehensive and regional solutions to refugee problems can only be found if there is sufficient political will among the countries concerned to address critical issues. In this context, delegations recognized that prevention of displacement requires further attention and analysis, and that the international community needs to develop impact assessments so that it can ascertain whether certain measures have a preventive effect on displacement.

42        A number of delegations noted that at the preventive stage, UNHCR can play an important role as a catalyst in terms of identifying humanitarian problems and needs and, in cooperation with other humanitarian agencies, developing policies, thereby creating a 'humanitarian space', which would allow for a de-politicization of humanitarian issues.

43        A number of delegations highlighted the need to find solutions for rejected asylum-seekers and urged UNHCR to further develop means to address the issue of returning them to their country of origin.

44        Some delegations highlighted the need for UNHCR to further develop follow-up mechanisms to comprehensive and regional approaches so as to ensure sustained and durable solutions to refugee problems, and also to develop methods which allow it to choose the appropriate time to phase out such approaches.


45        The Chairman introduced the Report of the Working Group on Refugee Women and Refugee Children (EC/1994/SCP/CRP.5). In his opening remarks, the Chairman informed the delegations that the Working Group had focused on an examination of institutional obstacles hampering the protection of refugee women and refugee children.

46        Most delegations reacted positively to the Report and stressed the importance of the issue.

47        One delegation highlighted the necessity of paying special attention to the issue of women and children, as UNHCR works towards integrating this issue into its overall policy formulation. The importance of the availability of sufficient resources to ensure UNHCR's ability to implement the recommendations contained within the Report was noted. Knowledge of the principles relating to the protection of refugee women and refugee children and the training of staff were highlighted as important factors. Furthermore, the close link between People-Oriented Planning training, recruitment of personnel, staff assessment and staff accountability, and UNHCR's ability to meet the needs of refugees, especially those of women and children, was stressed. The delegation commented that the conclusions of SCIP and SCAF were now moving to a practical level, in concentrating on the actual implementation of earlier adopted policies. Appreciation was also expressed for the efforts and contributions of the Senior Coordinators for Refugee Women and Refugee Children.

48        Another delegation stressed the importance of ensuring that female local staff were engaged and of strengthening involvement of refugee women, as recommended in paragraph 17 of the Report.

49        Concern was expressed by some delegations regarding the resource implications of many of the recommendations and the related ability of UNHCR to implement these Recommendations.

50        The Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection endorsed the recommendations contained in the Report of the Working Group on Refugee Women and Refugee Children, subject to the financial implications to be discussed in the meeting of the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters (SCAF) in September 1994.


51        The Chairman introduced document EC/1994/SCP/CRP.4 entitled Follow-up to the Report of the Secretary-General on the In-depth Evaluation of UNHCR's Programme on International Protection of and Assistance to Refugees: Protection Aspects.

52        In his opening remarks, the Chairman recalled that the Executive Committee at its forty-fourth session requested the Sub-Committee to consider the recommendations of the in-depth evaluation as well as the CPC's comments before its forty-fifth session.

53        He noted that the presence of this item on the Agenda was not so much intended to elicit an extensive debate on individual issues which would be discussed at the appropriate time, but to enable UNHCR to report on the action it has taken on the recommendations and to draw attention to any practical constraints it had encountered in this regard.

54        In introducing the subject, the Senior Special Advisor to the Director of the Division of Operational Support remarked that the CPC had already endorsed these recommendations and that it is UNHCR's responsibility to act on them. This does not exclude closer consideration in the future of issues covered in particular recommendations.

55        The Conference Room Paper dealt with five of the thirty-one recommendations, providing a description of what had been done to date to implement them, and mentioning specific constraints. The Senior Special Advisor underlined the ongoing nature of this exercise, adding that the results of discussions in SCAF have been reported to CPC and to the Central Evaluation Unit in New York.

56        Delegations indicated general agreement with the contents of the paper. In the absence of any further comments, the Chairman brought discussion on this item to an end.


57        There being no further business, the meeting was brought to a close.