As UN delegates met in Morocco to adopt a global compact to protect the rights and safety of refugees and migrants (GCM), the Trump administration launched a blistering attack condemning it as a violation of national sovereignty.
“The United States proclaims and reaffirms its belief that decisions about how to secure its borders, and whom to admit for legal residency or to grant citizenship, are among the most important sovereign decisions a State can make, and are not subject to negotiation, or review, in international instruments, or fora”.
The Trump administration, which pulled out of the negotiations last December, “maintains the sovereign right to facilitate or restrict access to our territory, in accordance with our national laws and policies, subject to our existing international obligations.”
“We believe the Compact and the process that led to its adoption, including the New York Declaration, represent an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of States to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws, policies, and interests,” the US said in a “national statement” released on the eve of the conference¸which began in Marrakesh December 10 and concludes December 14.
But despite strong US opposition, more than 180 of the UN’s 193 member states, along with human rights organizations, international relief agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs) , either expressed support for it or are participating in the conference.
In an interview with IPS, Sarnata Reynolds, Oxfam International’s Policy Advisor for Global Displacement & Migration, said the contents of the GCM represent the culmination of two years of hard work, debate, and good faith negotiations among 192 UN member states, civil society and UN agencies, to bring together a blueprint for cooperation on migration that both respects the rights of the women, men and children leaving home, and the ability of states to respond to their economic and political challenges, among others.
Excerpts from the interview:
REYNOLDS: As we move into these last few days before adoption of the GCM, some world leaders and political actors are avoiding domestic grievances by shifting attention to the GCM, and asserting it will undermine sovereignty or worker’s rights, which is just not true.
Regardless of justifications provided so far, governments withdrawing from the GCM have not done so based on the contents of the GCM, which create no new rights and are not legally binding, they have done so based on current domestic politics.
Given this moment of heightened and heated rhetoric, positions of governments now may not remain the same as new administrations take office, and indeed they may temporarily get worse. But they could also get better.
Currently it looks as if 183 out of 193 UN members will adopt the GCM on Monday and Tuesday. A few countries have dropped out, and while that is of course unfortunate, the GCM does not require all UN member states to be functional and effective.
Ultimately, the GCM’s success will be measured by how well states work together to ensure that labor, demographic, family, education and other needs are addressed in a mutually beneficial way that bolsters human rights. It’s not particularly unusual in terms of international agreements, that 10 states will not adopt the GCM at the outset.
For example, the Rome Statute, which brought the International Criminal Court into effect, was adopted without the support of the US, has 139 signatories now, and has had a profound impact on international jurisprudence since it entered into force in 2002, whether states are parties to it or not.
There are 145 parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. No one would question that it has been highly influential and a lifeline to millions of people.
IPS: How effective is the compact if its implementation is only voluntary — particularly in the context of the Refugee Convention (signed and ratified by all UN member states) which is being violated by countries such as the US, Hungary and Poland?
REYNOLDS: It was never the intent for the GCM does to create any new rights or obligations. Indeed, the GCM arose out of commitments made in the New York Declaration (July 2016), https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/declaration. Neither the NY Declaration nor the GCM are legally binding, and this is specifically stated in both documents.
The entire impetus for this process arose because states around the world were struggling with the mobility of so many migrants and refugees, and there was a shared recognition that global coordination and a common governance was necessary.
The GCM is a carefully crafted understanding of what is needed and what can be claimed by right. If applied as written, it would mean that nations are finally tackling the newer migration occurring because of climate change, environmental degradation and increasing disasters.
It would mean that more visas are made available for students, workers and those in need of respite abroad in a way that is mutually beneficial. Going forward, we will be monitoring and participating in national plans of action consistent with the GCM monitoring alongside hundreds of other civil society organizations that have engaged in this process.
No doubt countries are violating the Refugee Convention, but governments do take their obligations to refugees into account when developing migration and protection policies. They are sensitive to the criticism they receive from civil society, and many make efforts to address them, even if partially.
And over and over again, through conflicts and across decades, ordinary people, mayors, families and organizations have taken on the responsibility to welcome and protect refugees.
Almost 70 years after the passage of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, governments generally accept that people fleeing conflict and persecution have the right to seek protection in another country, and countries neighboring those in conflict have protected tens of millions of refugees for protracted periods of time.
Over the past 40 years, millions of women, men, and children from dozens of countries have been resettled elsewhere, and States have contributed billions of dollars in support to refugees and their host countries. So there is hope in the GCM (and GCR) and there is also the reality that states will likely always need to be pushed to live up to their obligations.
IPS: Has the concept of refugees undergone a dramatic change — from political refugees of the cold war era to economic refugees of today?
REYNOLDS: The general concept of refugees has not undergone a dramatic change. The Refugee Convention was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and reflects both the circumstances, social norms, and populations displaced during that period. It had limitations as a result, including that rape and sexual slavery (common weapons of war) were not even considered forms of persecution until the 1990s. It has always been a living document.
Just as in the 1950s, in this decade there are people fleeing home and moving home for a variety of reasons – some for work, others for education, and still others to marry or reunite with family members. This is a constant throughout human history. Another constant is the migration taking place. In the 1970s, about 3% of the world’s populations were migrants.
Since then, in every decade, the number of migrants has remained at 3%, even until today. There is much myth-making around migration, which is positive and negative, ebbs and flows with economies and politics. Currently we’re in negative space.