Protecting the rights of people on the move

By Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary GeneralLast year, 100 displaced people, including many children, died from cold or illness in camps in Kabul – right in the capital of Afghanistan where the international community has a relatively secure presence. Likewise, boats of Rohingyas were found floundering off the coast in South East Asia. And 200,000 people fled Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states in Sudan where fighting continues, in spite of the promised peace that was supposed to come with South Sudan’s independence. All of these situations illustrate how the world’s refugees and displaced people are being failed by global inaction on human rights.As we publish Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world’s human rights, we are highlighting how the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for those on the move or uprooted from their homes by violence and persecution. After two years of relentless fighting, more than 1.5 million people have now fled Syria in search of a safe haven. More than 42 million people worldwide have now been forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution, according to the United Nations: the highest number since the mid-1990s. Around 15 million of these are refugees who fled their country because of abuses or conflict. They cannot return home and are forced to live in limbo, often in unsafe refugee camps. Another 27 million ‘internally displaced people’ are forced from their homes by conflict within their homelands but have not crossed an international border.These statistics do not begin to portray the unimaginable suffering and misery involved. They only show the scale of the global crisis we are facing. So why, in the face of such clear statistics, is international action to address the rights emergencies that create refugees or stop them returning home so lacking or lacklustre?A key problem is that repressive governments get away with blocking concerted political action – including by the UN Security Council – on human rights abuses by using the outdated and unacceptable excuse that rights are ‘internal affairs’. This dangerous doctrine often fragments consensus and torpedoes chances of effective international responses, even in the face of appalling bloodshed and brutality.Syria potently illustrates this. Despite the military and security forces indiscriminately attacking, detaining, torturing and killing civilians, and armed groups carrying out summary killings and torture on a smaller scale, China and Russia in particular have defended failure to protect civilians as respect for sovereignty. Despite evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes, the Security Council has yet to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.Clearly, solving the global refugee crisis means ending the abuses and persecution that force people to abandon their homes. The UN Security Council in particular must insist that human rights are a universal concern, and enhance global stability by consistently standing up to abusive governments.People who cross national borders in search of safety, often do so without adequate protection. With governments prioritizing the reinforcement of borders over saving lives, the institution of asylum is being eroded, especially in developed countries. Uprooted people are facing rising levels of intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination.The biggest challenge in ensuring protection and safety for uprooted people is to address prevalent attitudes towards these perennial scapegoats, so often blamed by politicians and others for all manner of problems. This needs to be accompanied by increased accountability over their treatment, and improved national laws and policies to protect them. There is also an awful irony that it is often far harder for refugees to cross borders than it is for the guns and weapons that caused them to flee. The UN’s recent adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty, following 20 years of public pressure, offers some hope. But this treaty must be rigorously enforced to halt shipments of weapons that may be used to commit atrocities. With many refugees unable to return home, often due to the protracted nature of modern conflicts, long-lasting and durable solutions are needed too.Resettlement is one such solution that provides refugees with immediate protection, but the total number of global resettlement places offered stands at some 80,000 per year. Shockingly, only 5,000 of these places are offered in the relatively affluent EU countries. This falls far short of the 170,000 people that the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimate needed resettlement in 2012 alone. This means that an increasingly disproportionate responsibility is placed on developing countries, who today host four-fifths of the world’s refugees. Developed nations should share this responsibility by increasing their resettlement places. Refugees and displaced people are amongst the world’s most vulnerable people and their protection falls to all of us. Regardless of whether they have crossed a border or not, they are all global citizens and they deserve help and protection.Sixty-five years after the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights following the horrors of World War Two, it is important to remember that human rights protection must be applied to all human beings – whether at home or not.