The Guiding Principles are 30 standards that outline the protections available to internally displaced people (IDPs). They detail the rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of IDPs from forced displacement to their protection and assistance during displacement up to the achievement of durable solutions.
The need for international standards for the protection of internally displaced persons became apparent in the 1990s when the number of people uprooted within their own countries by armed conflict, ethnic strife and human rights abuses began to soar. The first global IDP estimate compiled in 1982 comprised only 1.2 million people in 11 countries. By 1995, there were an estimated 20 to25 million IDPs in more than 40 countries, almost twice the number of refugees.
Unlike the case of refugees, there is no international universal treaty which applies specifically to IDPs. The Guiding Principles presented by the then Representative of the UN Secretary General on IDPs, M. Francis Deng, to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998, were therefore a milestone in the process of establishing a normative framework for the protection of IDPs.
The Guiding Principle are consistent with and reflect international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as refugee law by analogy. The principles interpret and apply these existing norms to the situation of displaced persons.
Although not a binding legal instrument, the principles have gained considerable authority since their adoption in 1998. The UN General Assembly has recognised them as an important international framework for IDP protection and encouraged all relevant actors to use them when confronted with situations of internal displacement. Regional organisations and states have also deemed the principles a useful tool and some have incorporated them into laws and policies.
The 30 Guiding Principles are structured around the phases of displacement.
They address protection against displacement (principles 5 to 9), protection during displacement (principles 10 to 23), the framework for humanitarian assistance (principles 24 to 27) and protection during return, local integration in the locations where the persons have been displaced and resettlement in another part of the country (principles 28 to 30).
The principles provide guidance to all relevant actors: the UN Special Rapporteur in carrying out his or her mandate; states when faced with the phenomenon of internal displacement; all other authorities (including de facto authorities), groups and persons in their relations with IDPs; and inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations.
The Guiding Principles state that IDPs are entitled to enjoy without discrimination, the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as do other persons in their country. The principles establish that IDPs must not be discriminated against simply because of their displacement, or because of their race, sex, language, religion, social origin or other similar factors.
The principles restate the right not to be arbitrarily displaced and prohibit displacement on ethnic, religious or racial grounds. In this way they fill some important gaps in IDP protection by explicitly stating what is only implicitly covered by international law.
The principles reaffirm that national authorities have the primary responsibility to ensure that IDPs' basic rights to food, water, shelter, dignity and safety are met in addition to facilitating their access to all other rights. They should accept the assistance of the international community where they do not have the capacity to provide assistance and protection to IDPs. IDPs have also the right to seek asylum in another country.
In the return phase, the principles emphasise the importance of voluntary and safe return in dignity, as well as the need to assist the displaced to recover their property and possessions.