16 November 2011

UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk in Vienna

Volker Türk

One of the great things of being an intern is that you are always in the loop about exciting events. In this case, I was over the moon when I read that Volker Türk, incumbent Director of International Protection for UNHCR who used to represent UNHCR in Malaysia before he moved to Geneva, was stopping by in his native Austria to deliver a talk at the local UN Association reflecting on the 60 years of the Geneva Convention. True, the topic is fairly vague and a 'safe' structured stub for kicking off the Q&A after. After all, there is the whole North Africa situation to talk about, the Australia-Malaysia deal* or at least the context of the Geneva Convention in Austrian and/or European law. I was therefore a bit disappointed, if not surprised as anyone who has read a lot on UNHCR's balancing act in global politics can confirm it is in line with UNHCR's typical diplomatic communication policy towards the public (he got a bit criticism from some people in the audience for that). 

Nevertheless, the debate on whether the '51 Convention is still up to date (it was drafted with the Holocaust and Communist defectors in mind) and appropriate for contemporary issues (climate change, internal displacement, statelessness, persecution because of sexual orientation or gender identity) is one that probably should be kept alive even if some scholars argue that revisiting the 1951 Convention would more likely be used as an opportunity to create a stricter migration regime rather than an impetus to adapt the Convention for the 21st century.

The Q&A therefore was quite a lively exchange with some candid questions (the answers to which I must withhold due to the Chatham House Rules) from an audience that clearly encompassed practitioners who work in the field of asylum counselling and campaigning, students, staff from various multilateral organisations and the Austrian Press Agency (APA).

The audience at the UNA in Vienna

For weeks I had marked the date in my diary. I was even more excited to learn that Volker Türk (who by the way is from the state of Upper Austria) was not only going to talk about 'refugees' in the 'conventional' sense but would also be joining a panel on internal displacement at the Diplomatic Academy with no-one less than Walter Kälin himself!!! I must be a real geek if neither of the two names mean anything to you! 

From left to right: Kälin, Tichy-Fisslberger, Türk, Fanizadeh (Vienna Institute of International Dialogue and Cooperation, moderator) and Beyerlin

Since one of my interests in migration is the protection gap in internal displacement, meeting Walter Kälin is like meeting the Stephen Hawking of internal displacement discourse: He is a renowned Swiss legal scholar with a Doctor of Law from the University of Bern and a LL.M from Harvard Law School who has published extensively on human rights and any law regarding displacement. From 2004 to 2010, he has served as Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. In the 'who's who' of internal displacement, he's right up there with Francis Deng (his predecessor) and Roberta Cohen (Deng's No. 2) as well as Catherine Phuong (from the University of Newcastle) and Thomas G. Weiss (from the City University of New York). He also used to consult for the UN in relation to human rights mechanisms in Indonesia in 2000 and in East Timor 2001-2002 AND, most importantly, as its chair he was an integral part of the group of legal experts who drafted the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in Vienna, at the invitation of the Austrian government, in 1998. 
 
Walter Kälin
The talk on Internal Displacement: Nearly 30m IDPS need protection event was co-hosted by UNHCR Austria, the Austrian Ministry of European and International Affairs and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. According to their official figures, UNHCR estimates that there are 27.5m people internally displaced of which they say they protect some 15m. Around 16% of their annual budget is dedicated to assisting internally displaced people. 

Click on the image to enlarge

 
Kälin elaborated on possible legal protection mechanisms for IDPs based on human rights and regional instruments but also believes that a special international convention for IDPs (who are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention) is politically difficult to bring into being. He explained that in addition to the challenges mentioned by the other panellists, it is often hard to actually reach the dispersed IDPs in hiding when they mistake the sound of the approaching four-wheel drives of the UN jeeps for hostile militant groups that sends them running into hiding wherefrom they need to be convinced that there is no danger.

Beyerlin, the third expert on the panel, is another legal scholar with special expertise in (public) international law and environmental law, based at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) who elaborated on 'climate refugees' and those displaced through natural disasters. According to his view, the lack of consensus in defining different kinds of internal displacement in discourse is an impediment to taking effective action for the protection of internally displaced people. 
 
The final member of the panel was Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, head of the legal and consular department at the Ministry of European and International Affairs and national coordinator for the fight against human trafficking, who by now I have seen chair at nearly event there is on forced migration in Austria. Slowly but steadily, I am getting an overview of the people and organisations involved in the Austrian migration context!

*watch his interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on 25 July 2011 on the deal between the governments of Australia and Malaysia here.

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