Setting Guidelines for the Internally Displaced

By William Dowell,
October 2008

In the last few years, at least  26 million people have been driven from their homes by conflicts.  Another 50 million, have been made homeless by natural disasters, and experts predict that the effects of climate change, population growth and poverty could increase that number to 200 million by 2050.  The plight of internally displaced people (IDPs) has clearly taken  center stage in humanitarian operations.

The first universal guidelines detailing the rights of uprooted populations, known as the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement were created in 1998.  This week, a high level conference in Oslo, Norway on October 16 and 17th will assess their first ten years and evaluate where to go from here. 

In contrast to international humanitarian laws, which have been specifically agreed by participating countries, the 30 articles that constitute the Guiding Principles are “soft law.”  They have no legal standing of their own. Instead they refer to a broad range of already existing international human rights and humanitarian laws.  A key point is that internally displaced people have equal rights and obligations. The fact that a person has been made homeless should not reduce his or her rights as a citizen. The principles also hold that national governments are directly responsible for protecting their own populations, and that when they cannot do this, or choose not to, the international community has an obligation to guarantee the IDPs’ protection.

Walter Kälin, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Human Rights of IDPs,  says that before the Guiding Principles, IDPs were frequently overlooked in humanitarian operations. “They were totally neglected,” Kälin explains. “They were not refugees, and often they were not included in humanitarian programmes. Kälin says that it was eventually realized that the IDPs had special needs requiring specific attention.  “If you are not displaced, you don’t need to find shelter,” he says.  “You don’t have to worry about not speaking the language or how you are going to earn your next day’s living, or getting your property back.” 

The great value of the Guiding Principles has been to set a common set of standards that national governments, UN agencies and international relief organizations can refer to in displacement situations.  “Ten years ago they weren’t seen as something that you would use every day,” says Lea Matheson, IDP advisor for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “Now my operational colleagues use them to guide projects they are developing. For me, they have gone from a legal framework to a very tangible operational document. “  Kate Halff, who heads the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), a project backed by the Norwegian Refugee Council,  says that the center uses the guidelines as a reference for its monitoring of displacement in roughly 50 countries.  “The major achievement is that we have a common set of principles, which are the basis for all actors interacting with displaced persons, and for the displaced persons themselves, who now have a clear articulation of their rights.” 

Acceptance of the Guiding Principles by international forums has enhanced their status as a universal  reference.   The most important development, however, may be the integration of aspects of the Guiding Principles into national law.  “We’ve used the principles at key points to make significant inroads to influence national legislation,” says Ramesh Rajasingham, who heads the Displacement and Protection Support Section  for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.

Walter Kälin points out that one of the strong messages that will be delivered in Oslo is the need to incorporate the principles into domestic law and policies,  but he adds that this can be a tricky proposition when a law protecting IDPs  is contradicted by others already on the books.  “We are pushing the idea that governments have to look carefully at their existing legislation,”  Kälin says.  To facilitate that, a handbook on the legal aspects of the Guiding Principles has been prepared for the Oslo meeting.

Another helpful document is an annotated version of the Guiding Principles prepared by Kälin’s office.  This provides the links between the principles and international law.  “At the end of the day, you need to make the link between ‘soft law’ and ‘hard law,” says Anne Zeidan, who heads the IDP project for the International Committee for the Red Cross. “You can’t just go with the guiding principles. It is important to remember that behind them there is a whole body of human rights and humanitarian law.”

Another major topic for discussion in Oslo, is the growing population displacement resulting from natural disasters and climate change.  “We expect that the number of people displaced by natural disasters will increase exponentially as climate change begins to take hold on disasters,” says OCHA’s Rajasingham. 

The major emphasis, Walter Kälin says, will be on consensus building, and climate change. “What I also hope to see emerge,” says Kälin, ” is a kind of consensus on the displacement effect caused by natural disasters.”