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Refugees are human rights violations made visible. Consequently, their precarious situation and the protections afforded to them cannot be understood without recourse to the human rights standards developed within international refugee law (IRL), international humanitarian law (IHL), and international human rights law (IHRL). A common tendency is to equate refugee law and refugee protection with the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of Refugees (from here on in the RC). However, analysis illustrates that the problem of refugees and the solutions to those problems cannot be understood unless viewed through a human rights lens, taking into account the various UN human rights Covenants and treaties. In addition, attention must be drawn to the regional arrangements that provide protection to refugees, such as the African Union, the Inter-American Commission and Court, and the European Court for Human Rights.


The definition of Refugee enshrined in Article 1A of the RC remains the corner stone of IRL and represents the minimum standards according to which states are obliged to accord refugee status and the benefits and rights resulting from therein. That this definition is the cornerstone of IRL is not to say that it is universally accepted as adequate. Regional arrangements developed in Africa and Latin America, namely the Convention Governing Specific Problems of Refugees in Africa (from here on in the OAU Convention) and the Cartagena Declaration (CD), have been developed so as to address perceived gaps in protection. Likewise, instruments of international human rights law have protected the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers in those areas where the RC is weak.

It is necessary to begin with a discussion of the RC, not because it necessarily represents a complete, holistic understanding of what it means to be a refugee in this day and age, but rather because it is the only international legally binding treaty whose focus is solely upon refugees and asylum-seekers. The sheer number of states signatory to it is testament to its importance.

Principal International and Regional Instruments

International and Regional Refugee/IDP Instruments

1951 Convention and 1967 Protcol Relating to the Status of Refugees UNHCR

Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (OAU Refugee Convention) 1969 Africa Union

Cartagena Declaration, 1984

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

International and Regional Human Rights Law

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, INhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights

African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Rules of Procedure

American Convention on Human Rights

European Convention on Human Rights

European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment

American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man

International and Humanitarian Law

1949 Geneva Conventions and 1977 Protocols

Last updated Aug 17, 2011