Rule 132. Displaced persons have a right to voluntary return in safety to their homes or places of habitual residence as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist.
Volume II, Chapter 38, Section D.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. The right to return applies to those who have been displaced, voluntarily or involuntarily, on account of the conflict and not to non-nationals who have been lawfully expelled.
The Fourth Geneva Convention provides that persons who have been evacuated must be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.
The right to voluntary return in general is recognized in some other treaties, such as the Panmunjom Armistice Agreement and the Convention Governing Refugee Problems in Africa.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights recognizes that “everybody has the right … to return to his country”.
According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.
The regional human rights treaties contain a similar rule.
Several military manuals underline that displacement must be limited in time and that displaced persons must be allowed to return to their homes or places of habitual residence.
The right of refugees and displaced persons to return is also supported by numerous official statements, mostly relating to non-international armed conflicts, such as in Abkhazia (Georgia), Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Philippines and Tajikistan, and by other practice.
This right is also recognized in several peace agreements and agreements on refugees and displaced persons, for example, with respect to the conflicts in Abkhazia (Georgia), Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Korea, Liberia, Sudan and Tajikistan.
The UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have on numerous occasions recalled the right of refugees and displaced persons to return freely to their homes in safety.
The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that “displacement shall last no longer than required by the circumstances”.
In addition to the option of returning to their places of origin or of habitual residence, the Guiding Principles also provide for the right of displaced persons to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.
No official contrary practice was found.
The duty of the competent authorities to take measures to facilitate the voluntary and safe return and reintegration of displaced persons is provided for in the Convention Governing Refugee Problems in Africa and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
It is also contained in peace accords and other agreements,
official statements and other practice,
resolutions of the United Nations and other international organizations,
and resolutions and other documents adopted by international conferences.
The UN Security Council and UN General Assembly, in particular, have on numerous occasions called upon parties to both international and non-international armed conflicts to facilitate the voluntary and safe return and reintegration of displaced persons.
The UN Secretary-General and his Special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons have reported on measures taken or to be taken in the context of a number of conflicts to comply with the obligation to facilitate the voluntary and safe return and reintegration of displaced persons.
Examples of measures taken to facilitate the voluntary and safe return and reintegration of displaced persons include: measures to ensure a safe return, in particular mine clearance; provision of assistance to cover basic needs (shelter, food, water and medical care); provision of construction tools, household items and agricultural tools, seeds and fertilizer; and rehabilitation of schools, skills training programmes and education. A number of cases were found where displaced persons (or their representatives) were allowed to visit the areas of return prior to return to assess the situation with respect to safety and material conditions.
Practice also indicates that amnesties are a proper measure to facilitate return as they can guarantee that no criminal proceedings will be brought against returnees for acts such as draft evasion or desertion, while excluding the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity (see Rule 159).
While the prohibition of adverse distinction applies to displaced persons in all circumstances (see Rule 88), there is also specific practice which underlines the importance that returnees not be discriminated against. Hence, all rules of international humanitarian law protecting civilians apply equally to displaced civilians who have returned.
This principle has also been recognized in a number of treaties and other instruments,
national legislation and official statements,
and practice of the United Nations and international conferences,
with respect to the conflicts in Central America, Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Liberia, Mozambique and the former Yugoslavia.