Better protection for refugees in Africa

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A treaty that African nations hope will lead to the fair and humane treatment of people displaced in their own countries went into force Thursday, more than three years after it was conceived by the African Union.

Fifteen African nations have ratified the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, praised by humanitarian groups as a groundbreaking legal mechanism that binds governments to protect the rights of and to help internally displaced people. Swaziland became the fifteenth country to ratify the treaty last month, pushing it past the threshold necessary for it to have legal force.

The convention is the first treaty of its kind to focus on the protection and assistance of people displaced within their countries. It was conceived in October 2009.

Bruce Mokaya Orina of the International Committee of the Red Cross said the treaty “represents a significant step forward in the protection and assistance of internally displaced people” across Africa.

“As a legal document potentially binding all African countries - a quarter of world’s states - the treaty represents a significant step forward in the protection and assistance of internally displaced people in Africa,” said Orina.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which praised the treaty as “a historic achievement,” puts the number of Africans internally displaced at 9.8 million. Most have fled famine, wars and other brutal conflicts in countries like Congo, Burundi, and Uganda, which until recently had millions of people in its northern territories living in camps because of the brutal insurgency of warlord Joseph Kony. But the problem of internal displacement also exists outside of Africa, in countries wracked by violence such as Mexico, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are almost four times as many internally displaced people as there are refugees in Africa, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. But the internally displaced, unlike refuges, do not have a special status under international law.

Humanitarian organizations hope most of Africa’s 53 states will ratify the treaty as soon as possible and that those that have already done so will pass the relevant laws in their countries to make it work. Some 37 states have signed, but not ratified, the treaty in a sign that they are committed to going all the way, the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement Thursday.

“The reality is that right now people are forced to flee their homes for a whole host of causes, from natural disasters such as floods and droughts, forced evictions because of development projects such as dam building or logging projects, as well as war, conflict and violence,” said Kim Mancini of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council.