Internally Displaced Persons: Protection amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Mewded Esayas Woldemariam

Photo Credit: ICRC (NC-ND / ICRC / Andrea Minetti)

The novel coronavirus, as Covid-19 is commonly called, was first detected in Wuhan, China and has since expanded into a global pandemic as announced by the WHO on 11 March 2020. Although all are vulnerable to this highly infectious disease which has claimed above 200,000 lives as of 5 May, not all are equally vulnerable.[1] Although they constitute the overwhelming majority of displaced persons, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are especially at risk.[2] Despite often displaced due to armed conflict,[3] they are not supported by the kind of specific institutional[4] and normative framework targeting the protection of refugees.

In the context of international humanitarian law (IHL), the status of “internally displaced person” (IDP) does not exist for humanitarian purposes. This is because IHL seeks to protect all civilians without distinction in situations of armed conflict. Nevertheless, for the purpose of better understanding the subject of this article, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement[5] define IDP as “a person or group of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border”.[6] This definition demonstrates that IDPs can emerge in multiple contexts, including some beyond the scope of IHL. Thus, IDPs can be said to be in the purview of international human rights law and national law (where applicable) as well.[7]

Yet, there is no universal and binding international instrument governing such displaced persons. The UN Guiding Principles, though recognized as an important benchmark with regard to IDPs, was developed by a board of independent experts not representing the individual states, thus failing to qualify as a “soft law” instrument.[8] It is notable however that African Union ratified the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention) in 2009, the first and only existing international hard law on IDPs.[9] The definition of IDP employed in this convention is similar to that of the Guiding Principles, but it is framed in such a way as to make the particular duties of states more evident.[10]

Coming to the IHL regime, although the status of IDP per se is not recognized, the Geneva Conventions do contain rules that protect civilians, and IDPs by extension. Examples include the prohibitions on methods of warfare that involve attacking civilians, forcefully displacing them, destroying their means of living or barring humanitarian aid.[11] The ICRC, mandated with implementing the Geneva Conventions, engages in protection activities whereby it seeks to reduce the occurrence or consequences of displacement by encouraging parties to the conflict to respect IHL and by undertaking tracing and other activities.[12] However, the ICRC is not primarily mandated or concerned with providing physical assistance to displaced persons, including IDPs. This is to say that it only carries out activities such as building camps, providing food, water, healthcare or financial support when other NGOs or associations fail to or cannot do so.[13]

Given the current global pandemic, it is imperative that IDPs receive just such assistance. The burden lies foremost with states[14], but also with organizations such as the UN and relevant NGOs. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID)[15], IDPs totaled 50.8 million as of 31 December 2019.[16] 45.7 million of these were displaced as a result of conflict and violence.[17] Many of the areas where these displacements occurred have economic and health systems that are already struggling with the burden of tackling the pandemic and are overburdened when it comes to providing IDPs with the necessary assistance. As it is, displaced persons living among host communities are often found in informal settlements, surviving on the informal economy and lacking access to proper information regarding the pandemic. Even if they were aware of it, they would find it more difficult to access affordable healthcare.[18] Those living in camps face overcrowded conditions[19], poor sanitation and limited access to clean water.[20] Given the shortcomings of the hygiene standards in these camps, it is unlikely that IDPs will be able to comply with the preventive measures Covid-19 necessitates.[21] It must also be noted that armed conflicts have not ceased, meaning that the phenomenon of displacement is still on the rise at the moment.

Amid this global pandemic, IDPs should not be ignored. The urgency of their situation requires increased awareness and assistance during this critical time. Since the foremost responsibility of protecting these persons lies with states, programs offering financial or health assistance should include IDPs among the beneficiaries. Moreover, it is imperative that parties to armed conflict, whether states or non-state armed groups respect IHL, ceasing conflict if possible.[22] In addition, the international community and relevant NGOs need to provide the necessary resources, whether financial or practical, in providing increased humanitarian aid to IDPs and their host communities.[23] The need for a collective global effort has never been more urgent.




[3] ICRC, Position on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 2 (2006)

[4] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1950, is primarily concerned with displaced persons who cross international boundaries. It is involved in structures built to address the needs of IDPs as well, particularly the “cluster approach”, which divides the labor among different UN organs in accordance with their mandate. However, the success of this approach has been limited. See Adama Dieng, Protecting internally displaced persons: The value of the Kampala Convention as a regional example at 267.

[5] The UN Guiding Principles were adopted in 1998 by the UN Human Rights Commission. It contents attempt to intersect elements IHL, international human rights law and international refugee law. See E. Odhiambo-Abuya, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Examining Overlapping Institutional Mandates of the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner For Refugees at 262.

[6] Para. 2 of the Preamble to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

[7] Supranote 3 at 3

[8] Adama Dieng, Protecting internally displaced persons: The value of the Kampala Convention as a regional example, 99 (1) INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF THE RED CROSS 263, 269 (2017)

[9] Id. at 273

[10] Id. at 275

[11] Supranote 3 at 3

[12] Jakob Kellenberger, The ICRC’s response to internal displacement: strengths, challenges and constraints, 91 (875) INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF THE RED CROSS 475, 486 (2009)

[13] Id. at 477

[14] E. Odhiambo-Abuya, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Examining Overlapping Institutional Mandates of the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, 7 SINGAPORE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW 236, 254 (2003)

[15] The GRID is annually developed by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and is the generally accepted source of statistics in this area.

[16] IDMC, Global Report on Internal Displacement, 2 (2020)

[17] Id. at 11

[18] Supranote 1



[21] Supranote 19

[22] IRC, Covid-19 in Humanitarian Crises: A Double Emergency, 17 (2020)

[23] Id. at 18

Applying The Principle Of Proportionality In Cyber Conflicts

by Yoseph Genene

(Photo Credit: Matt Murphy, Source the Economist)

Even though researchers have not yet come to a consensus on the matter of how conflict became a part of human civilization but theorize that we either carried it with us from “deep in our evolutionary history” or it appeared along with the construct of land settlement and ownership. About 10,000 years ago in eastern Africa, a resource-rich, fertile lagoon known as Nataruk was the setting for humanity’s earliest known violent conflict which resulted in the brutal killing of over two dozen prehistoric men, women, and children. This story was evidenced by black volcanic rock known as obsidian. This igneous rock was used to make weapons like spear tips or arrowheads. Researchers at the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge discovered this event.

After a long history of civilization and enormous discoveries; now, humankind is capable of making bewildering weapons and attacks on each other that our ancestors never believed was possible. It is known that the advancement of technology has contributed to the lion`s share in the discovery and usage of these highly complicated weapons and attacks. One of these conflicts is Cyber Conflict. The special characteristics of cyberspace have led it to be described as a ‘fifth’ domain of warfare, alongside land, sea, air and outer space. As is the case in many areas of the law, technological advances generally outpace the generation of rules on particular social phenomena. International humanitarian law is no exception in this regard. Here we`ll try to see if there any possible way to apply a specific principle of IHL which is the principle of proportionality in cyber conflict briefly. 

Cyber-attacks in cyber conflicts are a specific category of cyber operations, and may be defined as ‘cyber operation[s], whether offensive or defensive, that are reasonably expected to cause injury or death to persons or damage or destruction to objects’. The technical difference between cyber-attacks and cyber operations is that attacks have hostile intent and are destructive in nature, while operations are non-destructive and typically involve activities such as intelligence gathering, surveillance, or other cyber exploitation or intrusion. Cyber-attacks may, therefore, include acquiring control over computer systems, transmitting viruses to destroy or alter data, planting logic bombs, inserting worms to overload networks, or sniffers to monitor or seize data. The common denominator of all cyber-attacks is the use of computer code to disrupt, deny, degrade, manipulate, or destroy adversary computer systems or data.

The potential humanitarian impact of some cyber conflicts on the civilian population is enormous. For instance, power plants might be targets or economic institutions and then like that can be used for both military and civilian purposes. It is therefore important to discuss the rules of IHL that govern such conflicts because one of the main objectives of this body of law is to protect the civilian population from the effects of warfare. According to common article 3 of the Geneva conventions, to apply IHL rules the factual requirement is the existence of armed conflict. In the Nuclear weapons case, the ICJ held that IHL applies to all forms of warfare, regardless of the weapons employed. Also, Marten`s clause is another justification that anything which is not explicitly prohibited by the relevant treaties is therefore permitted, ensuring the applicability of existing norms to new situations or technologies. Cyber operations that occur in the context of armed conflict are therefore subject to humanitarian law.

PoP as codified under Additional Protocol I Article 51(5(b) dictates that an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive concerning the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated is prohibited.

Some degree of collateral damage is allowable unless it is disproportionate to the anticipated military advantage. For instance, if a power plant is a target of a cyber-attack, an assessment must be made as to whether the harm to the civilian population caused by disruption of electrical service is not disproportionate to the military advantage that might ensure from attacking the power plant.

Launching the Addis Ababa University International Humanitarian Law Clinic

It is estimated that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed as many as 50 million people, more than the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War 1. Today, a hundred years later, we are living in the world of future history books, under lockdown from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in just a few months and upended the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every country, rich or poor. Health care systems even in many developed countries struggled to cope and their economies have been shattered.  Even though the virus transcends borders, nationality, race, religion, sex, age, and other identity markers, it is not as some have claimed the “great equalizer” The truth is the toll inflicted by the pandemic is much more acutely felt by some groups of people who are especially vulnerable and have been neglected by individual governments and the international community for a long time.

The pandemic has exposed the frailty of the health care and pandemic response systems of even the richest nations in the world.  The health, economic, and social impact of the pandemic will be many folds worse in countries that have been devastated by wars we have seen from other epidemics.

WHO and governments are advising us to stay home. But when your city is ravaged by conflict and you have been forced to flee your home, staying home is not an option. We are informed to maintain a healthy physical distance from other people to prevent infection by the virus. Yet how can refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and prisoners physically distance themselves in overcrowded camps and detention centers? We are also instructed to wash our hands with clean water for 20 seconds several times a day to protect ourselves from COVID-19. People living in areas of active warfare or refugee/IDP camps often lack access to water they are forced to carry water for miles. 40 % of the world ‘s population lacks adequate hand-washing facilities.

War has devastating consequences for populations affected by it and when accompanied by a pandemic the results will be cataclysmic. Health care facilities are often non-existent or barely functional in conflict zones. In recent armed conflicts, we have witnessed an escalation of violence against health care facilities and personnel exacerbating an already dire situation. Prolonged armed conflicts also erode the trust affected communities have their political leaders, making it difficult for governments to ensure that prevention and containment measures are complied with. We saw this play out in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea during the Ebola epidemic.

Armed conflicts also make it very difficult for humanitarian organizations to provide support to the civilian population to fight the pandemic. Humanitarian organizations are increasingly becoming targets of attacks by warring factions adding a layer of security concern that hamper their efforts to reach communities affected by conflict. Such attacks were part of the reason why Polio, Cholera, and Ebola escalated in Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in rates much higher than in other parts of the world. It is precisely for this reason that on 23 March 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire, calling for a halt to warfare. To date, the Secretary-General’s appeal has had no major impact on the front lines as military campaigns continue and thousands of people are still forced to abandon their homes.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) also known as the Law of Armed Conflict, a branch of public international law, provides crucial safeguards for victims of armed conflicts. Several IHL rules may be particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Under IHL, military medical personnel, units, and transports exclusively assigned to medical purposes must be respected and protected in all circumstances. In occupied territories, the occupying power must also ensure and maintain medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene. Also, IHL provides for the possibility of setting up hospital zones that may be dedicated to addressing the current crisis. IHL expressly prohibits attacking, destroying, removing, or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including drinking water installations and supplies. Moreover, in the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare civilian objects, including water supply networks and installations.  Under IHL, impartial humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have the right to offer their services. Once relief schemes have been agreed to by the parties concerned, the parties to the armed conflict and third States shall allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of the humanitarian relief subject to their right of control. Parties to armed conflicts have the obligation to collect and care for the wounded and sick, to respect and protect medical facilities and personnel, to meet basic needs of the population under a group’s control (including by allowing and facilitating humanitarian relief), to provide humane conditions of detention for all persons deprived of liberty, to provide for the basic needs of displaced persons, to allow access to education, and to respect the rules on the use of the emblem when marking medical or quarantine facilities.

However, seeking to raise awareness of these rules and ensure parties to conflicts abide by their obligations during active hostility or when a pandemic such as COVID-19 occurs is close to impossible. It’s very difficult to teach and implement IHL rules during war.

To alleviate the consequences of war at times like this, ICRC, recognized globally as “guardian of IHL”, disseminates information about IHL to authorities, armed forces, non-state armed groups, and the general public, and engages all relevant actors to enhance its implementation. One of the approaches used is the teaching of IHL in universities. In Ethiopia, the ICRC has worked to ensure that IHL is a compulsory course at all law schools. The ICRC also organizes the annual National IHL Moot Court Competition by collaborating with these universities.

Classroom lectures, however, are not enough. In addition to lectures given to students, a forum accessible beyond self-study is imperative. Such a forum will also create a platform for debate and discussion as well as awareness-raising to the university community and beyond. 

Discussions held between the ICRC and the Addis Ababa University Law School about how to provide a more practical IHL education, have led to the establishment of the first IHL Clinic in Ethiopia.

The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic is developed with the primary objective of providing students with the opportunity to take the theoretical lessons they learn in their classrooms and apply them to real-life situations. It will also enable students to develop and apply their skills in legal research, critical thinking, legal analysis, and problem-solving. Besides, the IHL Clinic will enable students to work pro bono on specific projects involving International Humanitarian Law that would allow them to gain valuable practical experience in the field of IHL.

Through the IHL Clinic, academicians and students will collaborate to conduct researches on topics within the variety of legal issues that are currently a challenge to the field such as the scope of application of IHL to specific situations, the legality of certain weapons and methods of warfare and the relationship of IHL to other branches of Public International Law.

The IHL Clinic will also give the chance for the inclusion of an African, particularly Ethiopian, literature to the study conducted on IHL globally. 

The IHL Clinic will also be a platform for the practical teaching and learning of IHL. Students will take an active role in the IHL Clinic through Role-Playing and other activities to learn how IHL matters are dealt with on the ground. Students will take the roles of Commanding Officers, Rebel group leaders, and ICRC Personnel, among others to gain firsthand lessons on how IHL is implemented.

To further its goal, the Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic is planning to publish an annual student journal for student researches. It also has a website where essays by students will be posted regularly. The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic also plans to organize Internal IHL Moot Courts and have a small library. The Clinic will also host radio programs on a variety of IHL subjects.

The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic will work to ensure that all stakeholders learn and understand IHL rules. Knowledge of the rules and the consequences of the infringement will go a long way towards improving the implementation of IHL.

None of our activities would have been possible without the support of the ICRC delegation to Ethiopia and the Law School of Addis Ababa University. The members and administration of the Addis Ababa University International Clinic would like to express its gratitude for all their support.