Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

NGOs hope migration agreement will be the universal declaration on human rights of our time

Those working to save the lives of migrants hope the deal will lead to tangible changes

Pro-migrants activists demonstrate next to US border patrol agents against US migration policies near the US-Mexico border fence at Imperial Beach, San Diego. AFP 
Pro-migrants activists demonstrate next to US border patrol agents against US migration policies near the US-Mexico border fence at Imperial Beach, San Diego. AFP 

Few speakers in the course of a two-day intergovernmental conference in Marrakech to mark the approval of a new global pact on migration failed to issue stark warnings about the tidal wave of populism and xenophobia that has swept countries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was approved as the world marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Human Rights Declaration on Monday. It asserts the basic rights of migrants regardless of their geographic location and legal status.

But in doing so, it highlighted a growing global rift that many see as reminiscent of the world’s great wars.

“In this year marking the anniversary of the declaration, the human rights agenda is losing ground while authoritarianism gains ground all over the world,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at a ceremony celebrating the 70 years’ landmark on Monday evening.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the document comes at a time when “some view migrants as convenient scapegoats for political gains.”

Similar to what the Universal Human Rights Declaration did in 1948 following World War Two and the atrocities of the Nazi regime, the Global Compact “reminds us that migrants’ rights must be respected.”

But this is not a reminder all countries wanted to hear.

While the representatives of 164 UN member states gathered in Morocco to reaffirm their commitment to the principles enshrined in the Global Compact, 29 others, including the United States, Switzerland, Australia, Italy and Hungary, did not show up.

Detractors of the Global Compact claimed the document would lead to a loss of national sovereignty in matters of immigration. But the 23 objectives finalised at the UN in July following 18 months of negotiations are no more legally binding than the human rights declaration has been for the past 70 years.

The symbolic significance of the document, however, should not be downplayed. Joanne Liu, International President of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said it constitutes a “defining moment of how we project ourselves in the future collectively.”

“The Global Compact [reiterated] that the rights of a migrant do not stop if he or she has crossed a border,” Ms Liu told The National at the intergovernmental conference in Marrakech.

International President of NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Joanne Liu attends the international conference on Global Compact for Migration on December 11, 2018 in the Moroccan city of Marrakech. The United Nations conference adopted a migration pact in front of leaders and representatives from over 160 countries, despite a string of withdrawals driven by anti-immigrant populism. / AFP / FADEL SENNA
International President of NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Joanne Liu. AFP

For politicians whose moral compasses are driven by national interests, the idea that migrants’ rights transcend borders can be hard to swallow. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose League party championed the motto “let’s help them in their own homes,” accused NGOs of providing a “taxi service” to migrants by rescuing them in the Mediterranean Sea.

In September, Mr Salvini pressured Panama to withdraw the flag granted to a rescue vessel operated by MSF and SOS Mediterranee in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Aquarius, which rescued 80,000 people since 2015, has since been idled in the French port of Marseille. Last week, Switzerland – which did not send representatives to the intergovernmental conference – turned down a requests to register the vessel citing risks to “international cooperation”.

According to Ms Liu, the signal sent by the Global Compact could well be a turning point that could push countries to reconsider their policies. While the non-binding document is unlikely to yield immediate change, she said it has given MSF and other humanitarian organisations a legal “base to stand on.”

“What we need to do now is to stand strong and tall to make sure that this translates into real action,” she said.

Since the Universal Human Rights Declaration was approved in Paris with 48 out of the 58 votes of the then members of the United Nations, it has become the world’s most translated document and inspired grassroots movements demanding civil rights, equality, and the end of racial discrimination.

epa07214582 (FILE) - The SOS Mediterranee NGO rescue vessel MV Aquarius, which was stranded in the Mediterranean with some 141 migrants on board, enters the Grand Harbour in Senglea, Valletta, Malta, 15 August 2018 (reissued 07 December 2018). According to media reports on 07 December 2018, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has been forced to end migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean with the vessel, blaming sustained attacks on search and rescue by European states. EPA/DOMENIC AQUILINA *** Local Caption *** 54648998
The SOS Mediterranee and MSF rescue vessel MV Aquarius enters the Grand Harbour in Valletta, Malta. EPA

The words pronounced by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and chair of the declaration’s drafting committee, echo those pronounced by her modern counterparts at the intergovernmental conference in Marrakesh as the conference drew to a close on Tuesday, leaving the responsibility to each adhering country to go down the path that has been laid before them. "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home” she said in 1948. “Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Updated: December 12, 2018 03:36 PM