Internally Displaced Persons: Guide to Legal Information Resources on the Web

According to the United Nations, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 1998, Introduction, para. 2).

Because the flight described in the definition is internal, national authorities are responsible for providing protection to people displaced in their own countries. However, over time the humanitarian community has come to recognize that IDPs “are often in need of special protection, not least because the government responsible for protecting them is sometimes unwilling or unable to do so, or may itself be the cause of displacement (Brun 2005, 3).

This recognition has resulted in the development of a legal framework based on human rights and humanitarian law norms to address protection issues, as well as the evolution of a complex network of mechanisms to provide assistance to millions of internally displaced around the world. The aim of this guide is to highlight information resources that can help readers learn more about this issue and its legal aspects.

1. Introductions to the Topic

The following resources provide helpful introductions to the problem of internal displacement and the plight of internally displaced persons:

  • Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in [year]. Geneva: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (formerly Global IDP Project), 2004-. Annual.

2. Legal Instruments


Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons do not have a universal convention to call their own. Instead, a soft alternative in the form of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GP) was developed in 1998, with the aim of restating existing human rights and humanitarian law rather than trying to create new law. The Guiding Principles also sought to clarify grey areas and identify gaps in IDP protection.

To learn more about the legal basis for the Guiding Principles, their growing status as an accepted and authoritative international legal standard, and how they may be applied in practical terms, read:

The Annotations noted above demonstrate how the Guiding Principles “reflect and are consistent with international human rights law and international humanitarian law and to a large extent thus codify and make explicit guarantees protecting internally displaced persons that are inherent in these bodies of law.” Relevant texts of human rights, humanitarian law, and other treaties can be accessed via these collections:

The Guiding Principles are now ten years old. They have been translated into over 35 languages, widely disseminated, and referenced by international, regional and national entities. The anniversary of the Guiding Principles was commemorated with a conference and a special issue of Forced Migration Review that assessed their impact and promoted their incorporation into national frameworks. As their use and application have become more widespread, some legal scholars have speculated about the potential for the Guiding Principles to become customary international law. To help facilitate this process, the Global Database on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement collects and organizes laws, opinions, regional and international instruments, resolutions, secondary sources, and other relevant documents that demonstrate the law and practice relating to internally displaced persons. For more information on these developments and access to the resources mentioned, visit:


In contrast to the international community’s focus on soft law, the African Union (AU) has recently taken definitive steps to adopt the Convention for the Prevention of Internal Displacement and the Protection of and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in

Africa (“IDP Convention”). A draft was approved by African ministers in November 2008, but it will need to be endorsed by African heads of state at a Special AU Summit in order to become a legally-binding instrument. (The summit was originally due to take place in April 2009 but has been re-scheduled for October 2009.) To learn more about these regional developments and for analysis of the draft text, see:

  • Information Note: African Union Addressing the Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa. Addis Ababa: AU, n.d.

Additional “key regional law documents” can be found in the “Resources” section of the GP10 conference web site.

3. National Legislation: Implementing the Guiding Principles

In order for the Guiding Principles to be effective, they must be implemented in the laws and policies of the countries where displacement occurs. To help realize this objective, the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement has compiled several resources designed for use by national authorities, including Addressing Internal Displacement: A Framework For National Responsibility (April 2005) and Protecting Internally Displaced Persons: A Manual for Law and Policymakers (Oct. 2008).

The texts of and information about national laws and policies relating to internal displacement can be located using these resources:

  • Internal Displacement Profiles. Geneva: IDMC (see “National and International Responses” subsection in individual country reports; select from “Country pages” drop-down list or world map).

4. Institutional Arrangements for IDPs

The Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (RSG) is the principal international mechanism with a mandate to advocate for the rights of IDPs, both nationally and internationally. The current RSG, Walter Kaelin, does so by promoting the Guiding Principles, undertaking country visits, hosting seminars and training courses, and engaging with government representatives, non-state actors, and civil society.

More information about the role of the RSG, as well as texts of his reports, can be found on the following sites:

  • Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, “Mandate

An international humanitarian network has been established to provide assistance and protection to IDPs on the ground and in the field, with different organizations serving as lead agencies for different service sectors or “humanitarian clusters.” However, because different agencies have different operational mandates relating to IDPs, three subsets within the IDP category effectively have been defined based on cause of flight: those displaced by conflict, by disasters, and by large-scale development projects.

To better understand some of debates surrounding the IDP concept, begin with:

Conflict & Disaster IDPs

This table summarizes the humanitarian response mechanism in place to assist conflict- versus disaster-displaced persons:

Humanitarian Cluster

Lead Agency






Camp coordination/




Early recovery




UNICEF, Save the Children UK

UNICEF, Save the Children UK

Emergency shelter



Emergency telecom


















*Serves as convenor rather than lead agency; coordinates response with partners.

**Will consult to determine who will assume the protection lead in disaster situations or complex emergencies without major displacement.

For more information about this division of labor for humanitarian response and the effectiveness of the international community’s approach, see:

Development IDPs

Principle 6, 2(c), of the Guiding Principles states that “[t]he prohibition of arbitrary displacement includes displacement in cases of large-scale development projects, which are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests.” Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been forcibly evicted from their homes and livelihoods to make way for dam construction, urban renewal, highways, power plants, mining, and other development projects. The World Bank and other regional development institutions have adopted operational policies on involuntary resettlement that call for avoiding or minimizing population displacement whenever possible, and requiring compensation and assistance for anyone that is displaced. In practice, however, resettled populations tend to become impoverished over time as a result of losing their land, jobs, and homes, among other factors.

As one can see from the table above, no column is included for the development-displaced. Despite their numbers and their dire situations, this population of IDPs tends to be overlooked in part because no international agency is mandated to provide assistance and protection to them. For more information about involuntary resettlement and where it occurs, discussions of the relevant legal framework for addressing development-induced displacement, including the role of the Guiding Principles, and proposals for enhancing the international response to forced evictions, see:

5. Additional IDP Resources

Article and Paper Index, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement

– Provides country and thematic access to in-house publications.

Global Database: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

– In addition to legal texts and instruments, provides access to books and articles on IDPs.

IDP Database, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

– Houses country profiles on conflict-induced internal displacement situations.

Internally Displaced Persons, Refworld

– Provides access to legal, policy and background information documents in Refworld.

Internally Displaced Persons, Policy & Issues Section, ReliefWeb

Resources, GP10: Ten Years of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

– Includes web sites, legal texts, and other IDP-related documents.

Who Is an Internally Displaced Person, UNHCR

– Provides information on UNHCR’s role in protecting and assisting IDPs, access to policy documents, and other resources.

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