This marks the 10th year since the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were presented to the United Nations. Over the past decade, these 30 principles distilled from existing international human rights law have become the internationally accepted standard on how to treat people uprooted from their homes by man-made or natural disasters. They are embraced by most of the world's nations, including the United States.

The principles were developed by the special representative for the U.N. Secretary General and the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, which has worked to raise awareness about the Guiding Principles and the needs of internally displaced persons. To that end, Brookings collaborated with the Institute for Southern Studies on our report released earlier this year, Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: A Global Human Rights Perspective on a National Disaster (pdf). Our study examined how closely U.S. officials abided by the Guiding Principles in the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast disaster, documenting instances in which the principles were ignored in the hope that similar problems could be avoided in the future.

More than three years since Katrina, internal displacement remains a significant problem for the United States. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents uprooted by the 2005 disaster still remain scattered across the country, and the recent hurricanes that devastated the region have displaced tens of thousands of others. As climate disruption intensifies due to greenhouse gas pollution, millions of people along the U.S. Gulf Coast and elsewhere will face a greater risk of flooding due to more intense tropical storms and rising sea levels.

In a recent background paper on climate change and displacement, Walter Kälin, representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons and co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project, observes that climatic disaster raises issues under human rights law. If areas become uninhabitable because of submerged coastal zones, for example, population movements within a country amount to forced displacement -- and the Guiding Principles apply.

Given the rising seas and disappearing land along the Gulf Coast, now would be a good time for government officials to bone up on their obligations under these important human rights standards. For more on the Principles' 10th anniversary, click here.

(A group of rescued people await evacuation from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in this FEMA photo by Win Henderson.)