The concept of non-refoulement, rooted in the French word ‘refouler’ meaning “to drive back,” is a fundamental principle in international refugee and human rights law. As defined by Goodwin-Gill, it obligates states not to return refugees to territories where their lives or freedoms are at risk. This humanitarian principle safeguards refugees from being sent back to environments of persecution and danger.

Non-Refoulement as Customary International Law

Although formal recognition of non-refoulement emerged prominently post-1930, its acceptance as part of customary international law is well-established. Customary international law, per Article 38(1)(b) of the Rome Statute, relies on consistent state practices and a sense of legal obligation (opinio juris). The principle’s relevance predates the 1951 Refugee Convention, illustrated by cases like Nicaragua v. United States of America, which highlighted the necessity of treating state conduct aligned with non-refoulement as affirming the rule.

The North Sea Continental Shelf Cases by the International Court of Justice further emphasized that customary international law norms cannot be unilaterally disregarded by states. The UNHCR has acknowledged non-refoulement’s essential nature, embedding it within international human rights frameworks. Various international treaties, such as the 1969 African Union Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), have incorporated this principle, underscoring its binding nature.

International Instruments Upholding Non-Refoulement

Several key international instruments explicitly endorse non-refoulement. Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention bars the return of refugees to places where they face serious threats based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, with limited exceptions for national security or serious criminal behavior.

Other international provisions supporting this principle include:

  1. Article 7 of the ICCPR, which forbids torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
  2. Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture, preventing return to environments where individuals might face torture.
  3. Article 16 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, prohibiting expulsion leading to enforced disappearance.
  4. Principle 5 of the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions, barring extradition to places where individuals might face such executions.

Non-Refoulement in India’s Context

India’s approach to non-refoulement, despite its non-signatory status to the 1951 Convention, reflects a commitment to humanitarian principles. The Indian judiciary has been instrumental in this regard, interpreting international norms to fill legislative voids. The Supreme Court of India has recognized international conventions as supplementary to domestic law when they align with the Indian Constitution. Many cases in India show the Supreme Court’s willingness to incorporate international human rights principles into Indian jurisprudence, ensuring that domestic law evolves in harmony with global standards.

Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa (1993)

The Supreme Court of India, in this case, reinforced the state’s responsibility to ensure the fundamental rights of individuals, especially in custody. Nilabati Behera’s son died from injuries inflicted while in police custody. The court, applying the principle of “right to life” under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, awarded compensation for the custodial death, recognizing it as a violation of fundamental rights. This case echoed international human rights standards, particularly those in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan (1997)

In this case, the Supreme Court addressed sexual harassment at the workplace. In the absence of domestic legislation, the court drew upon international conventions, specifically the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The court laid down guidelines, known as the Vishakha Guidelines, to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, emphasizing that international conventions and norms are valid as long as they are not inconsistent with fundamental rights.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India (2004)

In this case, the Supreme Court dealt with phone tapping and the right to privacy. The court recognized that international human rights principles, such as those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the ICCPR, can influence domestic law if they do not conflict with statutory provisions. This case underscored the judiciary’s approach to integrating peremptory norms of international law into the Indian legal system to protect civil liberties.

These landmark cases demonstrate the judiciary’s proactive role in enhancing India’s legal framework to reflect both domestic needs and international human rights principles.

Challenges and Future Directions

Despite the judiciary’s proactive stance, the absence of specific legislation on non-refoulement in India leads to inconsistencies and gaps in protection for refugees. The reliance on judicial interpretation and executive discretion underscores the need for a clear legislative framework to provide consistent and comprehensive protection.


Non-refoulement is a crucial principle in international refugee protection, recognized as customary international law and integral to human rights frameworks. India’s judiciary has commendably upheld this principle despite the lack of formal legislation. To ensure robust and consistent protection for refugees, India needs to establish a clear legislative framework that enshrines non-refoulement as a statutory obligation. This would reaffirm India’s commitment to humanitarian principles and ensure the protection of refugees’ rights and dignity within its borders.

Contributed by-

Saachi Minocha

National Law University, Jodhpur (2023-28)

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