Skip to content
Assessing the impact of the Principles: an unfinished task

The late Sérgio Vieira de Mello identified four ways the Guiding Principles might benefit IDPs: raising awareness of their needs; mobilising support within the humanitarian community; helping field staff find solutions; and assisting governments to provide for IDPs’ security and well-being.

Data from comparative surveys of IDPs before and after the launch of the Principles in 1998 or on public, humanitarian and state awareness of internal displacement issues do not exist. This article measures impact by assessing how governments have adopted laws and policies to promote IDP rights, the rising profile of IDPs on the international humanitarian agenda and the way some IDPs and civil society groups are using the Principles as an advocacy tool.

From the beginning, the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internal Displacement (RSG) emphasised the importance of incorporating the Principles into national laws and policies. Presently, around 20 governments have passed laws or developed policies relating to IDPs, although they do not always follow the text of the Principles. In only three cases – Azerbaijan, Colombia and Georgia – do these pre-date the Principles. Additionally, there have been several attempts to develop regional instruments which incorporate the Principles.

It appears that the Principles, with advocacy and support by the RSGs, have had an impact on national legal standards to protect and assist IDPs. While there are often shortcomings in implementation, governments increasingly see them as a useful framework for addressing issues of internal displacement.

Changing international discourse

Issues around internal displacement have steadily been incorporated into the international policy agenda. A growing body of UN resolutions and documents reference the Principles. These range from reports on the protection of children affected by armed conflict[1] to reports of the Secretary-General on the implementation of the UN Millennium Declaration[2], to the Report of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.[3] The Principles have become the accepted international standards for IDPs.

As FMR’s recent issue on humanitarian reform explained, the identified gap in response to IDPs was the driving force behind the reform of the humanitarian system which culminated in the launch of the cluster approach in December 2005.[4] Discussions about IDPs have dominated much of the humanitarian reform agenda from the need for better preparation and selection of Humanitarian Coordinators to financing. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly organising seminars, providing training and incorporating the Principles into their own responses to humanitarian crises.

There is some evidence that the Principles are having an impact beyond that of humanitarian response. A review of 43 peace agreements signed between 1990 and 2008 found that while only ten of the 18 peace agreements signed before 1998 mentioned internal displacement, all but one of the post-1998 agreements have included a reference to IDPs.

Where there are active civil societies and somewhat receptive governments, the Principles can have a significant impact. When people are aware of their specific rights, they are able to exercise them and successfully advocate on their behalf. As reported in a recent publication by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement[5], IDPs in Colombia who belong to NGOs and IDP organisations are aware of the Principles and promote their wider dissemination. They have found them useful as a basis for requests made to the authorities and to secure constitutional guarantees of IDP rights. Colombia’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, has based several decisions on the Principles. IDPs in Sri Lanka have used the Principles to advocate for greater food rations, more timely deliveries of food, clean water and more personal security. In Georgia a group of IDPs appealed to the Supreme Court to challenge discriminatory electoral laws. When the court ruled against them they worked with NGOs on joint advocacy, persuading the government to bring laws into line with relevant provisions in the Principles. US human rights groups have used the Principles to draw attention to the shortcomings of the government’s response to the needs of those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

However, lack of awareness of the Principles is still an issue in many contexts, mitigating their effectiveness as an advocacy tool for IDPs themselves, national NGOs and international agencies. As Roberta Cohen says: "Knowledge and dissemination of the Principles, however, is not sufficiently widespread. Of the 528 IDPs interviewed in South Asia [for this project], the interviewers found that international principles, norms, and laws do not reach most IDPs; only one third had knowledge of the Principles.[6] In Bangladesh, 97% of the IDPs interviewed had no knowledge of the Principles. In Nepal, 25% had heard of the Principles through newspaper reports, radio and TV. In Juba, southern Sudan, there was no knowledge of the Principles although when IDPs were asked what human rights meant to them, they spoke of access to food, water, health and protection".[7]

While it is difficult to assess the direct impact of the Principles on IDPs, it is fairly certain that they have encouraged governments to adopt laws and policies on internal displacement, have been used by some IDPs as a tool to advocate for their rights and have provided a legal framework for UN agencies and human rights organisations to promote the human rights of IDPs. What is much less certain is the extent to which the Principles have prevented arbitrary displacement of persons or have contributed to the ability of IDPs to find sustainable solutions to their displacement. The challenge for the coming decade is to ensure that IDPs are aware of their basic human rights and that they see the Principles as a useful tool in promoting the exercise of these rights.


Elizabeth Ferris ( is the co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement.

[5] Roberta Cohen, Listening to the Voices of the Displaced: Lessons Learned, Washington, DC: Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 2008.

[6] ‘Voices of the Internally Displaced in South Asia’, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, 2006, p14, 24.

[7] Daniel L Deng, ‘Voices of the Displaced – Sudan Project’ (unpublished), p50.


This site is registered on as a development site. Switch to a production site key to remove this banner.