Friday, August 1, 2008

Editor's Introduction- August 2008

“Still knocking, as the doors close.” The Economist. June 19, 2008.

An annotation

The plight of refugees remains one of the most pressing and contentious facing the international community today. Despite passage of international legal standards on the treatment and protection of refugees, many of those fleeing harm and persecution are increasingly greeted with hostility and discrimination upon arrival in “safe” foreign lands.

“After a welcome decline between 2001 and 2005, the number of refugees—in the classic sense of people forced to leave their countries because of war or persecution—rose in 2007 for the second straight year.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the increase in refugees is due in large part to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As stated in the 1951 Convention Relating the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, “refugees are those individuals fleeing from their home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or political opinion.” However, this definition does not account for individuals displaced by mounting international problems of natural disaster, economic instability, and food shortage. The UNHCR comments that if statistics on refugees were expanded to include these individuals, the numbers of fugitives would increase drastically. Here, questions arise over the established UNHCR definition of refugees, and the possible need for expansion of international norms.

“Many of the rich countries which might be able to help [refugees] are hardening their hearts, often under electoral pressure.”

With growing numbers of refugees crossing their borders, wealthy and prosperous receiving states are often left with the unpopular task of sheltering and caring for these fugitives. Amid growing public unrest and hostility towards refugees, rights groups call for a shift in the perception and treatment of those fleeing their homelands. However, this raises important questions regarding the responsibility of the state to provide for and protect refugees. Also at issue for rights groups is the fact that in many instances, based on their country of origin, some refugees are detained under harsh conditions or even turned away. Thus, with the livelihoods of millions of fugitives at stake, it is essential for states to re-examine not only the plight of refugees, but more importantly their treatment upon arrival in another country.

These issues and others are considered in this month’s Roundtable.


Who Counts? Refugees and the Politics of Indifference

by Sonia Cardenas

"Challenging the politics of indifference towards refugees further requires exposing narratives of fear and animosity, or hidden assumptions about who counts as a full and equal human being.”

The contemporary plight of refugees, asylum seekers, and other marginalized groups reveals the limits of international human rights norms. Numerous internationally recognized standards and laws exist for the humane treatment of people. Yet despite enormous progress, the reality is that some people are simply deemed to be less fully human than others. Nationalism and racism underlie popular indifference to today’s unwanted refugees. This is the unspoken truth that lies at the heart of the global refugee problem.

Overcoming entrenched indifference towards refugees consequently requires looking beyond state sovereignty. Effective refugee policies must turn to global governance for solutions, challenging narratives of fear and animosity as well as tackling the root problems (political and economic) that displace people from their homes. Compassion toward refugees cannot be assumed or coerced—note recent EU restrictions for asylum-seekers—though it can be constructed politically.

National governments cannot sustain liberal refugee policies indefinitely; they are too captive to short-term political calculations. In democracies, electoral pressures can push leaders to restrict migrant flows, especially during periods of economic downturn or perceived terrorist threats. In non-democracies, governments are often implicated in the conflicts from which people are fleeing; even if they offer safe passage or haven, refugees’ rights still may be compromised.

By definition, the protection of refugees poses an international problem requiring a global solution. Once people cross state borders (or once a government permits internal displacement), other states cannot be trusted to protect refugees. People who have lost the protection of their home countries should not have to depend on the goodwill of strangers. The international community must have reliable and effective mechanisms for protecting them. If this admonition sounds naïve, it is only because state sovereignty trumps human rights.

Challenging the politics of indifference towards refugees further requires exposing narratives of fear and animosity, or hidden assumptions about who counts as a full and equal human being. Here, the media can play a productive role, revealing stories of dispossession and abuse while giving a human face to distant victims. Activists should ask uncomfortable questions about why only certain refugees are worth protecting: for example, would we really close our doors to those most closely resembling us? Advocates must also confront myths about the prohibitive costs of hosting refugees, including purported rises in crime or unemployment. Where public opinion is largely indifferent or hostile to refugees, liberal political discourse should strive to be more substantive than polemical.

Fundamentally, the most effective refugee policy is comprehensive, addressing the root causes of displacement and conflict. This requires proactive inter-agency coordination, incorporating refugee issues alongside diplomatic and economic negotiations. The goal—however elusive—is ultimately to make the political category of refugees obsolete. States must become convinced that refugee problems undermine international security, making it in their interests to stem foreign conflicts. A robust international refugee policy is therefore necessarily attentive to peace building and conflict resolution.

The reluctance of wealthy countries to accept growing numbers of refugees confirms the importance of political will. Who counts as a human being worthy of protection is subject to bigotry, often manipulated by political elites. In contrast, more equitable refugee policies call for global regulatory approaches, explicit challenges to fear-inducing rhetoric, and comprehensive policies targeting the root sources of conflict. Debates over refugee policy understandably focus on sovereign states, but the key to protecting refugees lies with transforming public opinion: replacing the politics of indifference and fear with an informed politics of compassion.

Sonia Cardenas is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Human Rights Program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She is the author of numerous publications, including Conflict and Compliance: State Responses to International Human Rights Pressure (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). She is currently completing two book projects, both for the University of Pennsylvania Press— Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights and a textbook, Terror and Hope: The Politics of Human Rights in Latin America.


Social Contract in a Borderless World

by Daniel J. Graeber

"Given the declining world economy and the global uptick in violence, it is no wonder the issue is in the spotlight. Extending the social contract to outsiders in the name of philanthropy would make Milton Friedman stand up in his grave.”

Addressing the American Political Science Association in 2000, the international relations theorist Robert Keohane of Princeton University noted that effective governance in a globalized world depends more on interstate cooperation and transnational networks than any type of world body. Keohane made the claim that the people and players in a globalized world stand to gain from the system through cooperation across borders and boundaries. Nevertheless, Keohane also observed that the actors may exploit interdependence in that system by transferring blame to others and that, although institutions may be essential, they can also be dangerous. So it is when confronting the issues of forced migration and displacement. While the economic and security issues concerning displaced persons place the matter at the forefront of the global agenda, it is largely a matter for people to settle.

The article in the June 19 edition of The Economist entitled “Still knocking, as the doors close” presents the notion that many of the so-called rich countries are bowing to a widening sense of xenophobia among the European community by closing the doors on displaced persons fleeing conflict zones. The Economist says the “luckless people” in conflict zones in Central Asia and the Middle East are turning to Europe as a place of safety and source for a better future. And why shouldn't they? As Europe moves toward the next phase of geopolitical identity, that of a national federal system rather than a provincial federal system, she should expect to experience the same wave of immigration that eventually defined the multinational demographic of the United States. But at the same time, why should Europe not tackle the issue in the same fashion that the United States is tackling its own immigration problem? At which point does a nation, or supra-nation, extend its social contract to wards of the state that operate outside that contract?

The Economist points to a general rise in the number of displaced persons in the world and blames the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for contributing to that factor. As of December 2007, the number of displaced persons rose from 1.6 million in the previous year to 26 million. “And if you throw the net really wide,” the report says, to include non-conflict issues such as climate change, food shortages and natural disasters, that figure rises to 67 million.

Of these displaced millions, however, The Economist says only a small fraction sought the assistance of the U.N. human rights agency by demanding asylum in another country. It would be curious to compare that fraction with those displaced persons who are aware of such procedures or those who find U.N. procedures expeditious. Migration of a populace tends to move from a situation of deteriorating living conditions to a situation of improved living conditions. Many of the displaced, one could argue, are at or below the middle class demographic and lack any resources to give them the benefit of time. The U.S. Helsinki Commission said in an April 2008 report that the majority of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, for example, fled their homeland with few resources and have depleted whatever income they had while living as refugees. Fleeing conflict or disaster does not allow time for procedure.

The report then goes on to condemn the “returns directive” in the European Union that permits at least six-months of detention for those entering Europe illegally. The directive allows further detention of immigrants beyond the six-month term should they “fail to cooperate” with authorities. At least some of those detained as illegal immigrants, the report says, are asylum seekers and the “returns directive” is perhaps enforced in such a manner that the distinction between the two is blurred. The report then asks if it is therefore permissible for the “other rich countries” to condemn Europe for its treatment of the less fortunate. The answer is an emphatic no.

The displaced Iraqi in Jordan poses the same question facing America concerning the migration from Latin America. Specifically, illegal migration, displaced persons, and asylum seekers may become wards of the host nation, who, sometimes at great cost, use revenue derived from their populace to care for the disadvantaged. The government of Iraq, and the United Nations for that matter, heaped praise upon Jordan for its generosity in hosting refugees, but Jordan cannot maintain that assistance indefinitely. Americans, for their part, face similar issues when confronting their own immigration problem. Given the declining world economy and the global uptick in violence, it is no wonder the issue is in the spotlight. Extending the social contract to outsiders in the name of philanthropy would make Milton Friedman stand up in his grave.

The Economist notes a softening of the public perception extended toward forced migration. It points to policies embraced by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who closed several detention centers in the country and moved to ease the process by which asylum seekers become full citizens. Keohane noted that leaders have a variety of goals, but staying in power is very near the top of their agenda. Europe may address the burdens of migration with its “returns directive,” and American may address the burden with a border fence, but it is not Europe or America who is making those decisions. It is the people who are dealing with their own degree of xenophobia that are calling the shots. The Economist notes that a lack of distinction exists in public opinion between asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. But what really is the difference when the social contract is involved? Institutions such as the UNHCR may provide a means by which displaced persons address their concerns, but for better or worse, it is not the institution’s decision to make.

Daniel J. Graeber has been a contributor to the Foreign Policy Association's Great Decisions series since its inception, writing on war crimes and international law. He has focused considerably on the legal aspects concerning the U.S.-led "war on terror" and various war crimes tribunals. He has lectured on the history of war crimes in the international arena and served as a professor of ethics at Grand Valley State University. He has published works on the history of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the U.S. foreign policy regarding Hamas. He is currently a writer for United Press International covering Iraqi political developments, as well as the oil and energy sector. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Appealing to the Realist Nature of the Problem: An Attempt to Find Common Ground

by Eric K. Leonard

"But [my students] are aware of the complexity of the problem and the need to view all issues, even those of a seemingly liberal, global governance-laden human rights perspective, from all angles. And they begin to realize that the protection of human rights, on a universal scale, may actually be in their national interest."

Whenever I teach my undergraduate course on human rights, I inevitably have one student who argues that state sovereignty trumps all and that states should act in their “national interest” in regards to issues where human rights and sovereignty clash. They usually continue the argument by stipulating that “human rights” are not defensible unless they are universally accepted, meaning contained in a universally ratified document (and they use the term “universal” literally), because all authority resides in the state. Thus, it is always an interesting discussion when we turn to the issue of migration, and more specifically, refugees. As the focal piece for this month’s roundtable, “Still knocking, as the doors close,” points out, the number of refugees continues to climb along with the number of individuals under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while the reaction of many nation-states to these increasing numbers has been to restrict the flow of migrants and tighten restrictions on these population flows. The question that I must always pose to my students is how to deal with this ever deepening issue, and more pointedly, where does responsibility reside in regards to protection?

The obvious argument of my state sovereignty focused student is that responsibility does not exist unless the state in question is a party to some international convention; and even then international law remains so ambiguous and lacking real means of enforcement, most states can simply ignore the “law” if it is not in their national interest. In other words, they take a classic realist approach to the problem. Therefore, despite the fact that there exists a widely accepted legal basis for protection of refugees, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it remains questionable for some whether any state responsibility to protect exists. As a result, the argument in favor of such acts as the European Union’s “returns directive” remains dependent on the notion that state sovereignty continues its preeminence in the global affairs arena.

Adding another layer to this discussion is the distinction that exists between a refugee and a migrant. According to the 1951 Convention, a refugee is defined as any person who holds a:

well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

This differs from a migrant who typically moves in order improve their socioeconomic status. However, does such a distinction matter when examining the human rights violations of individuals? It appears clear to me that although the violations of refugees may be more intense in nature, this does not dissipate the fact that socioeconomic migrants also often lack the basic human rights that are legally codified in international legal statute—such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Thus, I believe that our discussion should extend to both refugees and migrants; however, this also makes the ability to counter the state sovereignty focused student’s argument that much more difficult.

So where does responsibility reside? Do states have a responsibility to accept refugees and migrants whose human rights were being violated by their home state? My realist student would unequivocally argue no—but instead of engaging this student in the typical argument of sovereign rights versus cosmopolitanism, I believe it is more constructive to take a different tact. Yes, I could espouse the argument that the cosmopolitan basis of our humanity leads to a responsibility to protect the world’s refugees and migrants because of the human rights violations perpetrated against them. In fact, I have supported the cosmopolitan perspective and its non-state centric approach in previous roundtable entries as they pertain to such issues as the power of the Human Rights Council and humanitarian intervention. However, the problem with approaching any of the world’s problems within this argumentative framework is that the parties engaging in dialogue tend to talk past one another. If I begin my classroom discussions by espousing a definition of cosmopolitanism and the moral imperative to act, it is guaranteed that all of my realist students will simply shut down. They will find little value in this argument and fail to recognize a need to act on human rights issues such as refugee flows and mass migration. But if we refocus the topic to include a discussion of national interest, now I have their attention.

So how does the responsibility to protect affect the United States’ or any other countries’ national interest? The most obvious impact is financial, but the literature often cites concerns of national security, xenophobia, impact on scarce resources, among others. This is not say that there are no positive influences on host states, but again, such rhetoric often times fails to pierce the ideological positioning of my students. This financial burden provides an alternative rationale for action that is couched in a language that realists can understand. It provides them an impetus to act in situations of conflict and economic degradation. In fact, this was the rationale that ultimately caused President Clinton to act in Haiti during the 1990s. It was not for democratization or the promotion of his “engagement and enlargement” policy that caused a U.S. response to the crisis— it was refugee flows and the impact this had on our national interest. Such an approach tends to invoke an interesting response—my realist students begin to pay attention and the core of their argument, state sovereignty, begins to fade. They may see this issue as a responsibility to their own citizens or to their national interest, but they also understand the need to address the problem at its source. So are they now clamoring for intervention in war torn nations around the world in order to rectify the refugee problem? No. But they are aware of the complexity of the problem and the need to view all issues, even those of a seemingly liberal, global governance-laden human rights perspective, from all angles. And they begin to realize that the protection of human rights, on a universal scale, may actually be in their national interest. As a result, in a small way and in a small classroom setting, I have allowed the cosmopolitan global governance liberals to converse with the sovereignty-based realists—a small act that can hopefully be exported to a larger stage.

Eric K. Leonard is the Henkel Family Endowed Chair in International Affairs and Director of General Education at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA. He has published several articles, case studies and a book on such issues as the International Criminal Court, humanitarian law, theoretical conceptualizations of sovereignty, and global governance. His book is entitled, The Onset of Global Governance: International Relations Theory and the International Criminal Court (Ashgate, 2005).