Report on the prevention of arbitrary displacement in situations of armed conflict and generalized violence

16 July 2021
Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons
To the GA at its 76th session, October 2021


The number of people living in internal displacement because of armed conflict and violence reached 48 million globally at the end of 2020.1 This is the highest number ever recorded and reflects the evolving nature of conflicts, which have become more complex, asymmetric and fragmented, often involving multiple States and non-State actors. Climate change, digitization and new technologies have also added new layers to the complexity of conflicts. At the same time, figures indicate that homicides not connected to armed conflicts have killed significantly more than all armed conflicts combined, and in some countries gangs and organized crime have driven homicide rates.2 While in many contexts gangs and criminal groups have committed violence against the population which has forced people to flee their homes in search of safety, displacement in situations of generalized violence often remains unacknowledged. In some cases, conflict dynamics can also be mixed with situations of generalized violence. The complexity of factors underlying these trends has also made it harder to enhance compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights and increased the risk of violations. Political solutions have become more elusive and displacement increasingly prevalent and protracted. Situations of conflict and violence can also be compounded by disasters as drivers of displacement and, since 2020, by the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching effects.

These concerning trends and the growing pressure on humanitarian aid have made it clear that more has to be done to prevent crises and address the root causes and triggers of displacement. Preventing arbitrary displacement in line with international standards is the primary responsibility of States and protects the population from the harms associated with displacement. Preventing arbitrary displacement is also in the interest of States, as it can be less costly and easier than responding to displacement once it has occurred. It is important to note, however, that preventing arbitrary displacement is not about preventing human mobility or hindering people from seeking safety. Displacement can have an important protective nature, and liberty of movement and freedom to choose one’s residence are rights protected under international human rights law.

The international community has been devoting increasing attention to the prevention of crises and their consequences, recognizing the interlinkages between peace, security, sustainable development and human rights, as reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and reports of the UN Secretary-General.3 In his call to action for human rights in 2020, the Secretary-General recalled that prevention was a top priority across United Nations organizations and that there was “no better guarantee for prevention than for Member States to meet their human rights responsibilities”.4 Prevention was one of the pillars of the multi-stakeholder 2018-2020 Plan of Action for Advancing Prevention, Protection and Solutions for Internally Displaced People and is an area that is addressed by the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Internal Displacement in its report to the Secretary General.

In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons addresses the prevention of arbitrary displacement in situations of armed conflict and generalized violence. She analyses the international legal standards on the prohibition of and obligation to prevent arbitrary displacement and their relevance to the response to internal displacement across the displacement cycle. The Special Rapporteur discusses the importance of well-designed and well-implemented laws, policies, programmes and durable solutions processes that are grounded in human rights for the effective prevention of arbitrary displacement.


In preparation for the present report, the Special Rapporteur benefited from consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, the Global Protection Cluster and field protection clusters, and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs of the Secretariat. The Special Rapporteur would like to express her gratitude to all stakeholders that participated in consultations for sharing their views. She would also like to thank Oxford Pro Bono Publico for the comparative research on national laws and policies conducted to inform this report and Windesheim Honours College for their specialized theoretical research.

1. Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021.  

2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Study on Homicide 2019 (Vienna, 2019).  

3. Security Council resolution 2282 (2016) and General Assembly resolution 70/262, A/72/707-S/2018/43,  A/70/709.

4. United Nations, António Guterres, “The highest aspiration: a call to action for human rights”.