The Future of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

December 30, 2006

The creation of the mandate of the Representative of the Secretary General on Internal Displacement in 1992 and the adoption of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998 were crucial steps in the history of human rights protection because they recognised IDPs as a vulnerable group in need of specific human rights protection. The Guiding Principles, in particular, have become the authoritative text on the human rights of IDPS. What is their present standing and how should we see their future?

As a document originally prepared by a team of experts in close consultation with the concerned agencies and organisations and then submitted to the Human Rights Commission[1] but never negotiated by governments, the Guiding Principles are, in strict legal terms, not binding upon states. When the Principles were presented to the then UN Commission on Human Rights, governments were reluctant to do more than simply take note of them. Despite states’ reluctance to endorse them, it was always clear that the Guiding Principles have an authoritative character as they are based upon, and reflect or restate, guarantees contained in international human rights and humanitarian law that respond to the specific needs of IDPs. Thus, they draw their authority not from the process of elaboration but from the fact that their content is solidly grounded in existing international law. In fact, it is possible to cite for almost every principle a multitude of legal provisions which provided the drafters with strong normative guidance.[2] Even where language was used that was not to be found in existing treaty law, no new law in the strict sense of the word was created in most cases but existing norms were restated in more specific language.

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[1] For the drafting history of the Guiding Principles see e.g., Roberta Cohen, ‘The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: An Innovation in International Standard Setting’, Global Governance 10 (2004), 459–480, at 460–465; Simon Bagshaw, Developing a Normative Framework for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, New York 2005; and Thomas G. Weiss/David A. Korn, Internal Displacement – Conceptualization and its consequences, London and New York 2006, at 55–70.

[2] See Walter Kälin, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Annotations, Washington D.C. 2000, highlighting in detail the legal basis for each of the Principles.