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close this bookLaw in Humanitarian Crises Volume I : How Can International Humanitarian Law Be Made Effective in Armed Conflicts? (European Commission Humanitarian Office)
close this folderInternational Humanitarian Law and the Law of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
close this folderIII. The Inadequacy of International Law in Respect of Internally Displaced Persons
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1. Existing Norms of International Law Applying to Internally Displaced Persons
View the document2. The Lacunae of International Law in Respect of Internally Displaced Persons
View the document3. Possible Ways of Improving the Legal Situation of Internally Displaced Persons
View the document4. The Need for Further Consideration of International Action in Favour of Internally Displaced Persons


The indeed frightening extent of the problem of internal displacement does not need to be emphasized. In the last few years alone, such situations of a hitherto (almost) unequalled extent occurred in practically all areas of the world; suffice to mention here, inter alia, the plight of human beings in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, several successor states of the former Soviet Union, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, some Central American states, and, in particular, in many African states like e.g. Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, and most recently, Rwanda. In 1991, it was estimated that more than 24 million people throughout the world were internally displaced as a result of various causes such as forcible movements to inhospitable areas, civil strife and civil war, and gross and systematic ethnic persecutions as part of governmental policies. More recent estimations give the pertinent numbers as 25 Million people; with a view to the most recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, this number might be considerably higher. Notwithstanding this development, the issue of internal displacement is still not directly addressed by any international instrument, which explains, to some extent, the ad hoc - and almost necessarily inadequate - nature of the international community's response to this problem. It has been, however, increasingly recognized that this failure of the international community to appropriately address this issue may result - and indeed results - in a serious threat to the internal stability of states, since those persons who do not receive adequate assistance and protection in their own country will - almost inevitably - seek such assistance and protection (as refugees) in other countries. Such movements might result in a serious economic, political and social destabilization of these countries of refuge and, therefore, is a threat to peace and security in a whole region. Thus, even those cynical enough not to be moved by the unspeakable human suffering connected with internal displacement, should - and indeed did - realize that the international community cannot but - at last - seriously concern itself with this issue and be it only for the "pragmatic" motivation of preventing any spill-over effect from destabilizing whole areas of the world. And indeed, since the early 1990s, the international legal community became, at last, fully aware of the plight of internally displaced persons and the potential repercussions on international peace and stability. This development is not only reflected in the increasing number of scholarly articles dealing with this issue, but also in the nomination of Francis Deng as Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons.

It does not seem necessary to repeat here in detail the results of such previous studies (comprehensively) analysing the circumstances under which internal displacements occur; suffice to mention the analytical report of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons where six causes of such displacement have been identified: armed conflict and internal strife, forced relocation, communal violence, natural disasters, ecological disasters, and the systematic violation of human rights.

In addition to institutional uncertainties and technical problems, the hitherto inadequate reaction of the international community to the problem of internal displacement might also be explained by a legal consideration: m contrast to refugees as victims of external displacement who, by definition, have crossed international borders and whose plight has, thus, become of international concern, internally displaced persons fall, from a strictly legal point of view, within the domestic jurisdiction of the state concerned. From this fact results the argument that international actions in favour of such people constitute a violation of the principle of non-intervention into domestic affairs as enshrined in Art. 2 (7) of the UN Charter as one of the fundamental principles underlying the international (legal) order. Referring, however, to the developments which occurred since World War II with regard to human rights, it seems to be beyond any doubt that such a view is not compatible with the present state of international law: today, human suffering of such an enormous extent as it is almost inevitably connected with internal displacement, in principle, does not constitute a domestic affair; therefore, it seems justified to state that, from the point of view of international law, there are no convincing legal obstacles preventing the international community from dealing with situations of internal displacement, in general, and seeking to attempt to establish specific legal norms that comprehensively deal with internal displacement and, in particular, serve as legal justification for extending assistance and protection to the victims of such situations; this conclusion also applies as regards those cases where the government in place, legally relying on the principle of non-intervention, is unwilling to allow such assistance and protection from being offered.

Finally, there is the problem of definition of the term "internally displaced persons": one of the fundamental problems in legally dealing with internally displaced persons is the fact that there does not yet exist any such generally accepted definition

The UN Secretary-General, in his aforementioned analytical report used this term "to refer to persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers; as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters; and who are within the territory of their own country''

Pertinent replies received by Francis Deng, Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, from governments, international governmental and non-governmental organisations for the purposes of his study, both confirmed this definition and criticized it for different reasons. Several statements stressed that this definition was unnecessarily narrow; aspects mentioned were, inter alia, the quantitative requirement ("in large numbers") and the temporal qualification ("suddenly or unexpectedly',). Others suggested definitions basically viewing internally displaced persons as "internal refugees". Consequently, the working definition used by the Representative of the UN Secretary General has been slightly modified in such a way so as to apply to “persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee their homes or places of habitual residence suddenly or unexpectedly as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border".

This approach, i.e. to also include victims of natural and man-made disasters, has been criticized for not sufficiently taking into account the fundamental differences between such persons and those who are internally displaced as a result of armed conflicts and human rights violations. However, as this paper is concerned only with persons displaced in the context of armed conflicts, it does not seem necessary to embark upon any further discussion as to the precise definition of the term "internally displaced persons": persons who are internally displaced as a result of armed conflicts are covered by any definition of that term.

From the foregoing considerations results the structure of the following section of this paper: it seems appropriate, firstly, to present the existing norms of international law applying to internally displaced persons; secondly, to identify the lacunae of international law in respect of such persons; thirdly, to discuss possible ways of improving the legal situation of such persons; and, fourthly, to address the need for further action in favour of internally displaced persons.