Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission

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Good afternoon. The issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the 55 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is seriously problematic, so I want to thank Co-Chairman Smith for holding a Helsinki Commission hearing to address this troubling phenomenon. A recent inquiry conducted by the Library of Congress confirmed the magnitude of the problem, documenting roughly 1.5 million IDPs in the Caucasus and southeastern Turkey, along with 900,000 IDPs in the Balkans and 500,000 more in other former Soviet republics. Obviously, the problem of IDPs should be of serious concern to the OSCE as an organization, as well as with all its participating States. Considering the gravity of the situation, with millions unable to return home, we must vigorously encourage host countries to find durable solutions.

Mr. Co-Chairman, the countries of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia can do more to address the need of the internally displaced. While the circumstances causing displacement vary between the five neighboring countries, each can take greater steps to see that, first, their IDP populations are allowed to reside wherever they choose, and second, they seriously endeavor to create circumstances for the return of IDPs in safety and dignity.

I raise Turkey at the outset as it holds the greatest potential for large scale returns in the near future. I am also attaching a more detailed statement on Turkey, outlining my views. Now that the internal conflict with the PKK organization is largely concluded after the capture of its commander in 1999, the time is ripe for the government to give all Kurdish villagers who desire the opportunity to return. Allowing the repopulation of southeastern Turkey will further normalize the area and increase its economic productivity. I am confident, if the government can find the political will to act boldly, this persistent problem can finally find resolution.

Azerbaijan’s IDP population results from the 10-year struggle over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. Considering that internally displaced persons constitute close to 10% of Azerbaijan’s population, the government policy of limiting resettlement of IDPs is surprising. By not allowing many Azeri IDPs to relocate outside of IDP camps, thousands are held hostage as political pawns to the stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijan Government should allow the free movement of IDPs, thereby allowing integration into local communities. This would not signify giving up on Nagorno-Karabakh, but rather an investment in the future of the country’s people. In connection, Armenia hosts a population fo 50,000 IDPs who have fled the sporadic fighting on the Azerbaijan border.

The problem in Georgia is even more complex, as a situation of neither war nor peace exists, with thousands still unable to return home. Three different secessions have confronted the government, with the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia producing significant IDP population flows. The international community has attempted to broker peace agreements to no lasting avail. I urge the Georgian Government to increase its aid to IDPs on its territory, as well as remember their concerns in future negotiations.

Lastly, I raise the situation for Chechen IDPs in Chechnya and other neighboring provinces. The Russian Government appears bent on insisting Chechnya has been normalized, and continues to pressure IDPs from neighboring provinces like Ingushetia to return. Simply, the government must not forcibly return IDPs to an unsafe and insecure area against their will. To do so will only needlessly risk the lives of thousands of innocent Russian citizens.

While governments are directly responsible for IDP populations within their borders, I hope the OSCE will take up the issue of IDPs with renewed vigor. I am pleased the Proto Ministerial addressed IDP issues generally, but we need more standard setting language. The immensely helpful UN Guiding Principles on IDPs, created by one of our panelists today, is not a binding document affording IDPs legal protection. International humanitarian law protects noncombatants generally, which includes IDPs, but specific, obligatory language would make clear the duty of all OSCE States in relation to IDP populations on their territory. It is my hope more standard setting language will emerge from future OSCE Ministerial meetings.

In closing, as the Caucasus region and southeastern Turkey holds the highest number of IDPs fleeing armed conflict, I look forward to learning how the US Congress can play a role in moving affected countries to provide durable solutions.

Thank you.