The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: An Innovation in International Standard Setting

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

October 1, 2004

In the last decade of the twentieth century, an explosion of civil wars brought a pressing new problem onto the international agenda—the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs), people forced from their homes by conflict, communal violence, or egregious human rights violations who remain uprooted and at risk within the borders of their own countries. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees did not apply to them, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had no automatic mandate to assist them, because unlike refugees they did not flee across borders. Rather, they remained inside their own countries under the jurisdiction of their own governments, the very governments that may have caused their displacement in the first place and that were often unwilling or unable to provide for their wellbeing and security.

It was not until the 1990s that the absence of an international system for IDPs began to be noticed and more traditional notions of sovereignty questioned. One of the more vivid examples of this change in attitude was a new set of international standards to protect persons forcibly uprooted in their own countries—the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. 1 Introduced into the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998, they set forth the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments and the international community toward these populations. While acknowledging that primary responsibility rests with national authorities, the Guiding Principles recast sovereignty as a form of national responsibility toward one’s vulnerable populations with a role provided for the international community when governments did not have the capacity or willingness to protect their uprooted populations.