International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules that, in times of armed conflict, seeks – for humanitarian reasons – to protect persons who are not, or are no longer, directly participating in hostilities, and to restrict means and methods of warfare. IHL thus establishes minimum standards of humane conduct that must be complied with in any situation of armed conflict. These standards aim, inter alia, to protect civilian populations and their means of survival. IHL violations – such as direct attacks on and all forms of ill-treatment of civilians, destruction of property not required by imperative military necessity, rape or other forms of sexual violence, and unlawful restrictions on access to health care and other essential services – are one of the main causes triggering displacement in today's armed conflicts. As a consequence of being displaced, civilians often struggle to meet essential needs amid exacerbated hardship, and they may face particular threats, such as tensions between them and host communities, settlement in unsafe or unfit locations, and forced return to unsafe areas. Also, the lack of access to official documents, often left behind or lost during flight, is one of the major concerns affecting internally displaced persons and one that can prevent them from gaining access to essential services such as health care and education.
IHL contains important provisions to prevent the displacement of civilians and the suffering it causes from occurring in the first place. It also aims to ensure that, when displacement does take place, internally displaced persons are protected and provided with assistance at all stages of their displacement. Without greater respect for IHL and more vigorous efforts to protect the civilian population during armed conflict, global displacement figures will continue to grow.