Rule 129. The Act of DisplacementNote: This chapter addresses forced displacement of civilians for reasons related to an armed conflict, whether within or outside the bounds of national territory. It thus covers the treatment of both internally displaced persons and persons who have crossed an international border (refugees). The only exception to this is Rule 130, which covers both forcible and non-forcible transfer of populations into occupied territory.
A. Parties to an international armed conflict may not deport or forcibly transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.
B. Parties to a non-international armed conflict may not order the displacement of the civilian population, in whole or in part, for reasons related to the conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.
SummaryState practice establishes these rules as norms of customary international law applicable in international (A) and non-international (B) armed conflicts respectively.
International armed conflictsThe prohibition of the deportation or transfer of civilians goes back to the Lieber Code, which provides that “private citizens are no longer … carried off to distant parts”. Under the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg), “deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory” constitutes a war crime. The prohibition of the transfer or deportation of civilians is set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I, it is a grave breach of these instruments to deport or transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “the deportation or transfer [by the Occupying Power] of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.
Numerous military manuals specify the prohibition of unlawful deportation or transfer of civilians in occupied territory. It is an offence under the legislation of many States to carry out such deportations or transfers. There is case-law relating to the Second World War supporting the prohibition. It is also supported by official statements and by many resolutions adopted by international organizations and international conferences, including condemnations of alleged cases of deportation and transfer.
The Supreme Court of Israel has stated on several occasions, however, that Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention was not meant to apply to the deportation of selected individuals for reasons of public order and security, or that Article 49 did not form part of customary international law and that therefore deportation orders against individual citizens did not contravene the domestic law of Israel.
Non-international armed conflictsThe prohibition of displacing the civilian population in non-international armed conflicts is set forth in Additional Protocol II. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “ordering the displacement of the civilian population for reasons related to the conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand,” constitutes a war crime in non-international armed conflicts. This rule is contained in other instruments pertaining also to non-international armed conflicts. It should also be noted that, under the Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and of the International Criminal Court, deportation or transfer of the civilian population constitutes a crime against humanity.
The rule prohibiting the forcible displacement of the civilian population is also specified in a number of military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts. The legislation of many States makes it an offence to violate this rule. The prohibition is also supported by official statements and reported practice in the context of non-international armed conflicts.
In a resolution on basic principles for the protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts, adopted in 1970, the UN General Assembly affirmed that “civilian populations, or individual members thereof, should not be the object of … forcible transfers”. In a resolution on the protection of women and children in emergency and armed conflict, adopted in 1974, the UN General Assembly declared that “forcible eviction, committed by belligerents in the course of military operations or in occupied territories, shall be considered criminal”. The UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have condemned instances of forced displacement in international armed conflicts but also in non-international armed conflicts, for example, in the context of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi and Sudan.
The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent adopted two resolutions stressing the prohibition of forced displacement of the civilian population. The ICRC has called on parties to both international and non-international armed conflicts to respect this rule.
Evacuation of the civilian populationIn both international and non-international armed conflicts, State practice establishes an exception to the prohibition of displacement in cases where the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons (such as clearing a combat zone) require the evacuation for as long as the conditions warranting it exist. This exception is contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol II. The possibility of evacuation is also provided for in numerous military manuals. It is contained in the legislation of many States.
The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement prohibit the “arbitrary” displacement of persons, which is defined as including displacement in situations of armed conflict, “unless the security of civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand”. The exception of “imperative military reasons” can never cover cases of removal of the civilian population in order to persecute it.
The Fourth Geneva Convention further specifies that evacuations may not involve displacement outside the bounds of the occupied territory “except where for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement”. With respect to non-international armed conflicts, Additional Protocol II specifies that evacuations may never involve displacement outside the national territory.
Prevention of displacementState practice also underlines the duty of parties to a conflict to prevent displacement caused by their own acts, at least those acts which are prohibited in and of themselves (e.g., terrorizing the civilian population or carrying out indiscriminate attacks). As stated in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement:
All authorities and international actors shall respect and ensure respect for their obligations under international law, including human rights and humanitarian law, in all circumstances, so as to prevent and avoid conditions that might lead to displacement of persons.
Ethnic cleansing“Ethnic cleansing” aims to change the demographic composition of a territory. In addition to displacement of the civilian population of a territory, this can be achieved through other acts which are prohibited in and of themselves such as attacks against civilians (see Rule 1), murder (see Rule 89) and rape and other forms of sexual violence (see Rule 93). These acts are prohibited regardless of the nature of the conflict and have been widely condemned.