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Protection of internally displaced persons: soft law as a norm-generating mechanism


Internal displacement is increasingly perceived as an international problem. This has led to suggestions that international norms have begun to govern state behaviour towards their own displaced populations. I argue that this change occurred through the innovative use of soft law, in particular the guiding principles on internal displacement, by a consortia of norm entrepreneurs including NGOs and a UN Office, that of the Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons. As soft law, these principles lack the usual markers which suggest an emerging norm. Instead, the article argues that alternative methods – including the international recognition of the principles and their adoption in domestic legislation – has triggered a change in state behaviour. This is demonstrated by examining two cases of forcible return of IDPs – the closure of the Kibeho Camp in Rwanda in 1995, before the principles were created, and the closure of the Znamenskoye camp in Ingushetia, Russia in 2002, after their creation. Both situations are similar in that the norm appears to have been rejected – forced repatriation did occur. In the Russian case, however, government statements, along with widespread international condemnation of the closures, suggest rhetorical instantiation of a norm of non forcible return for IDPs.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
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