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Internal displacement continues to be a human tragedy for the millions who are forced to leave their homes because of armed conflict, climate change or natural disaster. Although many national governments take adequate measures to mitigate the negative effects of displacement, others are more reluctant and do not extend full rights and services to their fellow citizens. Often internally displaced persons (IDPs) find themselves deprived of the right to take part in elections on equal terms with other citizens. In September 2016, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) published a white paper, Internally Displaced Persons and Electoral Participation: A Brief Overview, to promote greater awareness of this often overlooked issue. The white paper contains 17 recommendations in support of the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the main global instrument for protection and promotion of the rights of persons affected by displacement within their country adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1998.

Cover of IFES white paper

On October 18, 2018, IFES took part in two separate international events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Guiding Principles. In Geneva, Switzerland, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre organized an interdisciplinary conference, which explored ways to include IDP needs in national development with a focus on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. IFES International Senior Adviser Hannah Roberts spoke about IDPs’ political participation and presented IFES’ white paper recommendations. Tetyana Durnyeva of IFES’ civil society partner Group of Influence presented a case study on Ukraine.

IFES argues that IDPs’ electoral participation is crucial for reconciliation and preventing marginalization. The political voice of IDPs is crucial for making governments more responsive and accountable, including on the provision of services and solutions for IDPs. Securing IDPs’ electoral rights in their place of origin or current location is key to a durable solution for IDP settlement. “However, realizing such rights in practice is complex and politically sensitive,” said Roberts, “especially given that IDP populations can change constituency electorates and alter election outcomes. IDPs are often seen as predominantly representing the interest of one party, thereby creating an incentive for other parties not to address enfranchisement issues.”

Regrettably, the latter statement reflects the current thinking of the political elite in Ukraine regarding the country’s more than 1.5 million citizens who became IDPs during the armed conflict in the country’s eastern Donbas region and the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation in 2014. Since the conflict began, Ukrainian authorities have not removed the legal and practical barriers that prevent IDPs from exercising their right to vote in local elections and in the majoritarian component of parliamentary elections. “To feel equal in our new communities, we need the ability to exercise our constitutional right to vote and elect our local leaders,” said Durnyeva. “In partnership with IFES Ukraine, Group of Influence will continue its advocacy campaign for the right of IDPs to vote in all kinds of elections. We aim at the adoption of draft law no. 6240.” Draft law no. 6240 envisages that IDPs and mobile segments of society, such as economic migrants and student youth, may register to vote at their current place of residence.

The residency registration or propiska system in Ukraine remains essentially unchanged from Soviet times and constitutes a legal and practical barrier for IDP voting rights. Large segments of the population have a registered residence where they do not physically reside anymore. To register a new address is cumbersome, and IDPs often lack the necessary paperwork that would allow them to apply for a new propiska. Additionally, they risk losing their IDP status and access to humanitarian aid and other benefits if they give up their registration at place of origin.

IFES recently commissioned a national face-to-face survey of IDPs to examine their knowledge of and attitudes toward political and electoral processes. The survey found that most IDPs have settled well in their new communities. However, most Ukrainian IDPs surveyed are unwilling to break connections with their home communities to obtain voting rights for local elections. The ability to be actively involved in a future settlement of the conflict is a strong incentive for some IDPs not to give up their propiska in the occupied territories. IDPs should have a choice that would allow them to exercise voting rights now and after a peaceful settlement of the conflict – at their place of origin or current residence. Their choice should not have consequences for IDP status or access to humanitarian assistance.

The lack of full voting rights of Ukrainian IDPs is now the subject of two cases with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg filed by Ukrainian IDPs who were barred from voting in the 2015 local elections.

IFES was also represented at a roundtable discussion on IDPs held in Amman, Jordan, on October 18 by IFES International Senior Adviser Harald Jepsen and partner organization Civil Network OPORA Analyst Oleksandr Kliuzhev. The event was organized jointly by the Global Protection Cluster and the Carter Center and included participants engaged in humanitarian relief, development work, human rights protection and elections from more than 15 countries.

In his presentation, Jepsen called on election observers to pay more attention to monitoring the participation of IDPs in all aspects of the electoral process. “Most observer organizations have developed comprehensive guidelines for monitoring the participation of marginalized and underrepresented groups in elections such as women, national minorities and persons with disabilities, but there are no comprehensive guidelines for monitoring the electoral participation of IDPs”. Kliuzhev, who co-authored the draft law no. 6240, is himself an IDP from Donetsk. “There is nothing essential preventing Ukraine from removing the last obstacles for granting full political rights to citizens that have been forced to leave the conflict zone. IDPs in Ukraine are well-integrated in their communities. They naturally want to take part in public life and enjoy the right to vote in all elections, including local. We hope the forthcoming ruling by the European Court of Human Rights will prove the Ukrainian courts wrong and compel our lawmakers to give IDPs the opportunity to vote in all elections.”

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (the Congress) of the Council of Europe (CoE) monitored the last 2015 local elections in Ukraine and recommended lawmakers to extend full voting rights to the IDP population ahead of the next 2020 local elections. On November 6, the 35th plenary session of the Congress adopted a report entitled Voting rights at local level as an element of successful long-term integration of migrants and IDPs in Europe’s municipalities, to which IFES provided expert input. Rapporteur Jos Wienen (EPP/CCE, L) noted with regret in his opening remarks that Ukraine has not yet acted on the Congress’ recommendation. An estimated 2.5-3 million Ukrainian citizens are currently disenfranchised because they live far away from their place of official registration.

35th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities | © Klara Beck, Council of Europe

Speaking at the plenary session of the Congress in Strasbourg, Jepsen named the propiska system a double-edged sword for Ukraine’s IDPs. It is currently preventing them from enjoying full voting rights. On the other hand, the propiska is recognized by the de-facto authorities on territories currently not under government control. Thus, it allows IDPs access to the occupied territories and visits to family members on the other side. “However,” said Jepsen, “the root cause of the problem for IDPs in Ukraine is the propiska system, which needs to be dismantled in the long term.” Jepsen stated that since the beginning of the displacement crisis in Ukraine, IFES has been involved in finding solutions for the electoral participation of IDPs. IFES and its civil society partners held broad consultations in the process of elaborating draft law no. 6240. Stakeholders acknowledged that any solution for IDPs needs to be carefully worked out so as not to compromise the overall integrity of the electoral process.

As a recent International Crisis Group report has pointed out, the current policies of Kyiv toward conflict-affected citizens on both sides of the contact line in Donbas, including IDPs, risks alienating them from their own government. At the end of its plenary session the Congress adopted a resolution calling upon Ukraine to grant its IDPs full voting rights. IFES Ukraine continues promoting electoral rights for IDPs in Ukraine with the support of the United States Agency for International Development and UK aid. It is currently developing a voter information campaign for the 2019 presidential election jointly with its civil society partner Group of Influence and preparing for the next survey of IDP attitudes toward elections and participation in electoral and political processes in December 2018.

from International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) website