An institutional history of internal displacement


Internal displacement was placed on the international agenda and recognized as an important issue of global concern in the early 1990s. At this point, internal displacement was a subject with neither clear definitions nor a normative framework that could guide states and international humanitarian actors.

The issue has since come a long way.

While there is more work to be done to get internal displacement fully recognized as a development concern, progress has been made.

The key milestone in the institutional history of internal displacement was the creation of the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement. Since then, a number of further important developments have allowed the issue some visibility in regional and international policy discussions. Agreement on The Kampala Convention and a range of protocols and seminal reports have advanced the understanding of the scale and nature of internal displacement across the globe.

Key documents linked to internal displacement:

Addressing Internal Displacement: A framework for national responsibility

This document was developed in 2005 by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement as guide in designing an effective national response and developing the steps needed to address problems of internal displacement. It sets out benchmarks for government action, specifies that the national authorities’ response should target all causes of internal displacement and all groups of IDPs without discriminating between them, and address all needs, during all phases of displacement and in all affected areas. All relevant sections and levels of government – central and local – should be involved. Governments should also make efforts to ensure that assistance and protection are provided to IDPs in areas under the control of non-state armed groups, and for cooperating with international actors where national capacity is insufficient.

The Great Lakes IDP Protocol

The Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, adopted by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in 2006 as one of ten protocols to its Pact on Security, Stability and Development, was the first legally binding instrument incorporating the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into international law. The pact and protocols entered into force in 2008 as a commitment of the ICGLR’s 11 member states. Other protocols also extend the quality of human rights protection available to IDPs in the region. The Protocol on the Property Rights of Returning Persons specifically relates to IDP protections, while the Protocol on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity and the Protocol on the Prevention and Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children have the potential to help address some of the root causes of flight, foster human security and create conditions for return.

The IDP protocol obliges member states of the ICGLR to enact national legislation, developed in consultation with IDPs themselves, to incorporate the Guiding Principles and provide a legal framework for their implementation (Art. 6.3, 6.5). It addresses some specific concerns from the experience of internal displacement in the Great Lakes Region, such as protection measures for pastoralists, host communities and families of mixed ethnic identity, and provides for a regional mechanism to monitor IDP protection. In one respect, however, the wording of the protocol could undermine existing obligations of states in the region under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Art. 4.1(g) offers a narrower guarantee of freedom of movement and choice of residence for IDPs – “within designated areas of location” – than the Guiding Principles and these earlier instruments.

In 2008, IDMC and the International Refugee Rights Initiative published guide for civil society to using the Great Lakes Pact to promote IDP rights.

IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons

The framework was published in 2010 on the basis of feedback on a draft version piloted from 2007. The Framework identifies three possible settlement options through which durable solutions to internal displacement may be achieved: the IDPs’ sustainable return to their home or place of habitual residence, integration in the location they were displaced to, or settlement elsewhere in the country, and stresses that these must be voluntary and informed and must take place in safety and in dignity. It sets out eight criteria for determining the extent to which a durable solution is achieved, as well as principles that should guide the process and how it should be organised.

IDMC was a member of the group that contributed to developing the 2010 Framework, and has since consistently used it to define what a durable solution is and how it can be achieved.

The Kampala Convention

Upon coming into force on 6 December 2012, the Kampala Convention made history as the world’s first regional instrument that legally binds governments to provide protection for the rights and well-being of those forced to flee inside their home countries due to conflict, violence, natural disasters, and human rights abuses.

The Kampala Convention in brief:

  • Reaffirms that national authorities have the primary responsibility to provide assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs) and create the conditions necessary to achieve durable solutions to displacement
  • Comprehensively addresses different causes of internal displacement: armed conflict, generalised violence, human-caused or natural disasters, and development projects, such dams or land acquisition for large-scale agriculture
  • Recognises the critical role that civil society organisations and host communities play in assisting IDPs and obliges governments to assess the needs and vulnerabilities of IDPs and host communities in order to address the effects of internal displacement
  • Facilitates the adoption of national legislation on IDPs’ protection and assistance, and policies that aim to address displacement issues
  • As of May 2017, 40 of the African Union’s 54 member states had signed the convention and 25 had ratified.