Internally displaced persons and international humanitarian law

20 March 2018

Internally displaced people are those who have been forced or obliged to leave their homes behind, notably for reasons related to armed conflict or other violence, and who remain within the borders of their country. There is no universal, legally binding instrument equivalent to the 1951 Refugee Convention that specifically addresses their plight. Nonetheless, internally displaced people are protected by international human rights law and domestic law and, in situations of armed conflict, by international humanitarian law (IHL).

Additionally, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide useful guidance on displacement-specific aspects. They have broad support from the international community, and many States have incorporated them into domestic law. Many of the rules contained in the Guiding Principles are part and parcel of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. For example, the principles make clear that States have a duty to provide displaced people with lasting return, resettlement and reintegration solutions, and that displaced people must be involved in planning and managing measures that concern them.

Under IHL, people are protected from and during displacement as civilians, provided they do not take a direct part in hostilities.

IHL plays an important part in preventing displacement in the first place. It prohibits the displacement of people except if it is necessary for imperative military reasons or the protection of the civilians themselves. A widespread or systematic policy of displacement of civilians without such justification constitutes a crime against humanity. There are many other rules of IHL, notably those governing the conduct of hostilities, that are crucial to protect the civilian population and whose violations often triggers displacement.

The Internally Displaced Persons and International Humanitarian Laws Factsheet, produced by the ICRC’s Advisory Service on IHL, provides further guidance on these topics.