IDMC celebrates 15 years of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

“I know I have rights!” said one internally displaced Kenyan girl to me during a field visit in 2010 while frantically waving a booklet at me. In her hands was a Swahili version of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. For me, this moment signified how powerful the Guiding Principles had become. Empowered and outspoken, the Principles had clearly made a huge impact on her life.

An immeasurable impact

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While the concrete impacts that the Guiding Principles have had on the lives of IDPs like my Kenyan friend can hardly be measured, as today we celebrate the 15th anniversary of their birth, they remain a success story that continues to influence and shape the way we address internal displacement worldwide.

The Principles have come a long way since they were conceived; from an instrument initially frowned upon by some governments, to the day were recognised as the international framework on the protection of IDPs at the World Summit of Heads of States in 2005.

guiding principles text boxAt that time, they filled a major gap in the international system to protect IDPs. And while the Principles uphold the primary responsibility of governments for their displaced citizens, they are equally relevant benchmarks for operational agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that the Principles played a significant role in shaping UNHCR’s operational responsibilities towards internally displaced persons.

‘Just’ soft law, based in legally binding treaties

Critics bemoan the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as ‘’just soft law”, not legally binding and thus not enforceable. But how hard is soft law? As Walter Kälin, an international legal expert and the mastermind behind the Guiding Principles, points out, these Principles are in fact largely restating provisions in international law and merely rephrase the relevant legal norms to make them more easily accessible and usable in a displacement context. In a landmark decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2005, the Court declared that the disregard for IDPs’ fundamental rights led to the declaration of an unconstitutional state of affairs. In order to restore their rights, the Court used the Principles to determine the scope of the rights and the obligations of the State to protect them, demonstrating the legal power of the Principles.

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Regional organisations, such as the Conference of the Great Lakes, the Council of Europe, the African Union or the Organisation of American States frequently refer to the Principles and demand their national implementation. Indeed, the content within the Great Lakes IDP Protocol of 2006 and the African Union’s Kampala Convention, the two legally binding instruments on internal displacement in the world, were born directly from the Guiding Principles.

Protecting millions from ‘legal limbo’

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The availability of the small booklet of 30 principles in over 50 languages make the Guiding Principles one of the most accessible protection instruments, which seeks to ensure that the millions of uprooted people around the world do not live in a legal limbo. The Kenyan woman who waved at me with her Swahili copy would not have known about her rights otherwise, were they not all there for her in black and white.

The future of the Guiding Principles lies at the national level, as they need to be domesticated in national laws and policies that address the complexity and specificities of each displacement situation.  In the last six months we have seen incredible steps forward in this respect. Earlier this week, the Philippines passed an IDP Bill through parliament, in December last year the Kampala Convention came into force and on 31st December 2012, the President of Kenya gave legal effect to the Guiding Principles through Kenya’s new IDP Act.

These major breakthroughs would not have happened, hadn’t the Kenyan woman, and millions of others like her, been given a voice.  And that, ultimately, is what the Guiding Principles strives to do.

Nina Schrepfer

Advisor, Natural Disasters

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