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  • Displacement and Human Rights: Reflections on UN Practice
  • Maria Stavropoulou (bio)

I. Introduction

Until about twenty years ago, refugees and displaced persons were discussed as separate issues on the international plane. 1 Refugee issues rarely appeared in human rights deliberations of the UN political or expert bodies, 2 although the human rights violations that caused the refugees to flee their countries sometimes did. 3 Forced displacement as such, however, [End Page 515] was not debated as a human rights problem, and expert bodies rarely explored the linkages between causes, symptoms, and solutions. 4 Additionally, issues surrounding forced movements of persons, in particular those occurring inside a country, rarely surfaced during these talks. 5

Times have changed. Starting in the 1980s signs began to appear that this artificial, even though politically convenient, dichotomy between refugee flows and human rights was gradually being abandoned for more holistic approaches. This process was further consolidated in the 1990s.

Two main areas exist where this development has become evident. The first is in the institutional approaches employed by both the UN human rights and humanitarian agencies (especially the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)), as well as human rights and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), while the second is in the substantive issues taken up and analyzed by these groups, such as the human rights of refugees, or the problem of internal displacement. This article discusses the current state of the debate, traces the developments that have led to it, and suggests further areas where the linkages between forced displacement and human rights have yet to be explored. 6

II. Areas of Interaction Between Displacement and Human Rights

There are two conceptual areas where human rights and refugee issues converge: the first includes human rights violations as causes of displacement and displacement as a human rights violation, while the second is comprised of violations of the human rights of refugees and internally displaced persons. Thus far commentators have tended to deal with either one or the other of these two areas. 7

In addition, two areas of work, one “theoretical” and one “institutional,” [End Page 516] combine human rights and refugee issues: the first seeks to interpret refugee law in the broader context of human rights law, 8 and the second focuses on monitoring the implementation of refugee law by the international human rights supervisory mechanisms.

Despite these recent trends of convergence, or perhaps because of them, gaps as well as overlaps exist on the conceptual, standard-setting, and institutional levels, making comprehensiveness in the area elusive, as further analyzed in the third section of this article.

A. Confusion in the Terminology

One of the afflictions of the recent focus on the issue of displacement is the confused terminology utilized by the United Nations and commentators. For instance, “forced evictions,” “population transfers,” “mass exoduses,” and “internal displacement” are all used as if they mean different things, and constitute different subject matters of study, although they all refer to the same phenomenon (namely, removal from one’s home and/or land against one’s will).

So, for instance, “forced evictions” is defined as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or lands which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.” 9 A UN publication, albeit recognizing that “the practice of forced evictions shares many characteristics with related phenomena such as population transfer, internal displacement of persons, forced removals during or as a result of armed conflict, ‘ethnic cleansing,’ mass exodus, refugee movements, etc.,” 10 comments that “several key factors distinguish forced evictions from other forms or patterns of displacement.” 11 These “key factors” include

specific decisions, legislation or policies of State or failure of States to intervene to halt forced evictions by third parties; [End Page 517]

an element of “force” or coercion, often expressed by eviction orders; 12

the planning, formulation and announcement of evictions, prior to being carried out; and

the fact that they can affect both individuals and groups. 13

Another UN report defines “population transfers” as “the movement of people as a consequence of political and/or economic processes in which the...

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