Friday, December 9, 2016

68th Anniversary of the UDHR

By David Gallup

As the number of refugees, stateless and displaced persons has increased to the highest percentage on record, the world’s failure to deal with this plight has come to the forefront of national and global politics. Besides the 22 million refugees, 41 million internally displaced within their “home” country, and 3 million asylum seekers, more than 10 million people are considered “stateless.” Almost 1 in 100 people in the world are displaced from their homes.

As we consider our universal rights on this 68th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, we should consider how more than 75 million of us do not receive universal respect for our rights.

On September 19th of this year, governments, UN agencies, NGOs, business leaders, and representatives of refugees and migrants met to draft another declaration, one that pertains to large movements of refugees and migrants who face serious human rights violations. This new political statement is called “The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” (UN Resolution A/RES/71/1 and GA/11820).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and national governments have realized that the present framework and international legal protections* for dealing with refugees, stateless and displaced persons cannot handle the strain of massive displacement or resolve its underlying causes.  Yet this new Declaration and a potential “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” that is planned for 2018 will neither alter the current framework nor improve legal protections. The New York Declaration and Compact are just a wish list, not rising to the level of enforceable law.

This new Declaration and the future Compact have three main failures:

1)  Neither the Declaration nor the potential Compact can be considered binding law that national governments would be obliged to follow. “Principles, commitments and understandings among Member States regarding international migration” are not treaties or conventions. Although the New York Declaration suggests some potential “Durable Solutions” to assist refugees, stateless and displaced, these solutions rely on national governments through “international cooperation” to agree and then take action to implement them. Governments that have signed current international laws frequently violate them, discriminating against refugees and stateless persons, or forsaking them such as those stuck in Aleppo, Syria.

2) The Declaration and Compact do not call for a change in the legal definition of refugee to meet the circumstances of displaced people today. The basis for determination of “refugee” status needs to be overhauled.  The definition of refugee needs to be expanded beyond persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion against a government, and social group.  Anyone facing environmental devastation, economic oppression, perpetual war, and structural violence, among other newly-recognized factors of persecution, should be considered as having a legal basis for asylum or refugee status.

3) The Declaration and future Compact refer to the causes of the plight of refugees but do not develop a system that deals with the root causes of displacement and refugee flows. The New York Declaration mentions the term “root cause(s)” six times, such as, “We are determined to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants, including through increased efforts aimed at early prevention of crisis situations based on preventive diplomacy.” It is unlikely that the negotiations among UN member-states in 2017 and the migration conference in 2018 will devise a comprehensive plan and supra-national system to deal with the causes of displacement. National governments generally ignore that it is in their best interest to be concerned about others outside their so-called borders.

We don’t want a compact to which national governments can give lip service but take no action. Even if all the talk about displacement leads to a new convention or compact, until we unite as one human family under one human law, governments will continue to be able to ignore and mistreat others coming to their shores to seek a new life, safety, freedom and peace.

Like the inadequate New York Declaration and Compact, the UNHCR’s “I Belong” campaign cannot effectively deal with “statelessness” -- with the millions of persons who do not have national citizenship despite their birth or parents’ status in a particular country. The UNHCR’s campaign seeks to eliminate statelessness in the next ten years by ensuring that the right to a nationality is respected by all national governments.

The UNHCR assumes that if everyone has a nationality, then everyone’s rights will be respected, and that displaced persons who have a nationality will not suffer discrimination. The concern should not be to make sure that everyone has a nationality; it should be to make sure that everyone’s rights and duties are respected. Everyone should have a valid citizenship status no matter who they are or where they find themselves on planet earth.  Such a status is world citizenship.

For example, if a country finds itself completely under water due to climate change, it will not matter whether a person has that country’s nationality because they will be displaced. Those people will be forced to find another place to live, and it might be difficult to find other countries that will agree to let them in and not discriminate against them. Other countries’ governments may feel no obligation to assist those people without a country. Their nationality will not ensure that their rights and duties are met.  Rights and duties must be linked to the individual, not to a nationality. Only a holistic citizenship can ensure that everyone’s rights and duties are upheld. And that citizenship is world citizenship.

Countries could also renege on their agreement, meaning that an entire group of people could overnight be stripped of their nationality and consequently their citizenship rights.

As world citizens, in one united world, everyone could travel everywhere just as many people are able to do within a country. There are still regulations to follow, such as obtaining a new identification card to show local affiliation, to register to vote, etc. Natural limits by capacity of transportation methods and of local infrastructures, etc. will prevent the floodgates of too many people coming to one place over another.

We want a system to support world citizenship as a valid citizenship, in addition to any other status that one may carry. If “statelessness is inhumane” (according to the UNHCR’s Open Letter to End Statelessness), having a nationality does not make one “humane.” The nation-state still separates humans from one another. World citizenship affirms our link, each one of us, to humanity.

On this 68th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, let’s work toward a world in which everyone’s rights and duties are met, not because of where we are born or who our parents are, but solely because we are human. Let’s each declare that “I Belong” to humanity and the earth as World Citizens.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Conventions on refugees and stateless persons provide a modicum of protections to refugees, displaced and stateless persons, under current international law.

Articles 14 and 15 of the Universal Declaration provide a partial framework to deal with displacement of people and statelessness.  Article 14, Section 1 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Article 15 states, “Everyone has a rights to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

With regard to displacement not caused by governmental treatment (such as environmental degradation), Articles 3 and 13 affirm the rights to secure one’s safety and to find another place to live. Article 3 states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” Article 13 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness provide the treaty law framework for who is considered a refugee or stateless person, establish “a minimum set of rights” for people with these statuses, and attempt to reduce the likelihood that someone would be without a citizenship. Three-quarters of all governments have legally agreed to be bound by the Refugee Convention and Protocol. About one-half have agreed to the Stateless Convention, and only about one-third of all governments have agreed to the Reduction of Statelessness Convention.

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