Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Christopher H. Smith
Co-Chairman - Helsinki Commission


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Today I am pleased to convene this hearing, bearing witness to the plight of internally displaced persons in the Caucasus Region and Southeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands are displaced in refugee-like situations and for years remain unable to return home. The north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey represent the greatest concentration of IDPs fleeing conflicts anywhere in the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These protracted situations make the prospects for significant numbers of individuals returning home in safety and dignity seem remote.

IDPs often exist in refugee-like situations, fleeing violence en masse and relocating to camps, unable to return. Not having crossed an international border, IDPs are afforded no protection by the UN Refugee Convention despite similar needs as refugees. The country of nationality bears responsibility for the care of IDP populations, which also limits the ability of the international community to respond effectively. As we will learn today, much needs to be done.

In Russia, reports continue to arise of authorities forcing IDPs to return to war-torn Chechnya, despite continuous violence there. The most recent U.S. State Department human rights report stated that approximately 140,000 persons remained internally displaced within Chechnya, with 110,000 more displaced in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Camp closures place thousands in a precarious position, and despite international attention, including a letter initiated last fall by the Helsinki Commission, the Russian Government continues to pressure IDPs to return, as well as limit the ability of NGOs to provide assistance.

More than ten years after fighting began over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a very large IDP population remains. The U.S. Committee on Refugees estimated in 2002 Azerbaijan had roughly 570,000 internally displaced persons, with nearly 250,000 living in refugee-like circumstances. The government appears unwilling to allow integration, keeping many thousands in squalid IDP camps. Effectively, the IDP population has become political hostages to this frozen conflict, as it seems Azerbaijan fears allowing IDPs to resettle elsewhere would signify the surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The vulnerable internally displaced, equaling more than 264,000 persons in the Republic of Georgia, are a result of conflicts over the Georgian autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Due to a series of conflicts throughout the 1990's, hundreds of thousands fled their homes, as the parties signed, broke and reestablished cease-fire agreements. UN-sponsored negotiations have failed to bring the contending parties to agreement in either of these cases. While some experts harbor cautious optimism about South Ossetia, the Abkhazia conflict seems as far as ever from resolution or even substantial progress.

Neighboring Armenia holds 50,000 IDPs fleeing fighting near the border areas with Azerbaijan. There are large numbers of Armenian refugees who fled Azerbaijan, but the focus of today's event is on internally displaced persons--IDPs--escaping an armed conflict. We will therefore not be examining, for example, the situation of people displaced because of the 1987 earthquake in Armenia.

Kurdish IDPs remain in southeastern Turkey, a result of the conflict between government forces and the Kurdish “PKK” terrorist group. Numerical estimates of the displaced range from 400,000 to one million, depending on whether the estimate comes from NGOs, the United Nations or the Turkish Government. With the lifting of the last state of emergency in November 2002, the area continues to normalize; however, there appears to be no corresponding increase in the number of IDPs allowed to return home, despite a series of government programs.

The OSCE has repeatedly addressed the issue of IDPs, but usually in the context of specific country situations. While standard-setting language has been slow in developing, helpful commitments have emerged through the OSCE consensus process. Most recently at the 2002 Porto Ministerial, participating States unanimously adopted the following language, stating “We...encourage additional steps by the countries concerned to facilitate sustainable solutions to their [the IDPs’] plight, including the full exercise of their rights to return home and to repossess their properties throughout the region.”

In closing, we must address this problem now, as thousands and thousands of individuals are displaced and suffering. More must be done to find just, realistic and durable solutions. Considering the gravity of the situation, I am very pleased with today’s panel of experts. The panelists will provide insight and ideas on how U.S., OSCE and UN policy can move and assist governments in finding durable solutions and end the suffering.