Issue 73: Conference on the 1951 Convention on Refugees

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convened a conference last week of signatories to the 1951 Convention on Refugees.  The resulting Declaration recognized the continued relevance of the Convention and renewed the commitment of the signatories to implement the Convention in full.  Held just seven days after the contentious and counterproductive meeting on the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UNHCR conference offers a positive example of the affirmation of international law.

Analysis: The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1948 Fourth Geneva Convention are cornerstones of international refugee and humanitarian law.  Both conventions were reactions to the horrors of the Second World War, and are still relevant today in light of the numerous armed conflicts worldwide. The Refugee Convention defines who has refugee status, and delineates the rights and obligations of refugees within and to the state providing asylum. The Fourth Geneva Convention recalls the protections that civilians enjoy in times of war, and regulates the use of force against uniformed and non-uniformed combatants.  A comparison of the two recent conferences on these conventions demonstrates the harmful effects of the politicization of international law.

Both of these conferences represented the first reconvening of signatories in fifty years. The UNHCR conference was part of a year-long Agenda for the Global Consultations on Refugee Protection.  This campaign by High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers sought to create a forum for the discussion of pressing refugee issues, such as the distinction between refugees and economic migrants and the risk of terrorists posing as refugees.  These questions about the optimal balance between national security and humanitarian interests concern all states.  In contrast to the UNHCR meeting with its universal themes, the Fourth Geneva Convention conference was requested by the Arab League and targeted Israel specifically.  The lack of neutrality or impartiality demeaned the Convention itself.

The levels of participation at the two conferences reflected the international community’s distaste for the politicization of international law.  The UNHCR conference gathered nearly 90% of the signatories to the Refugee Convention, while only 60% of the signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention attended that meeting.  The level of representation demonstrated an even greater contrast.  Seventy ministers attended the UNHCR meeting.  The Jordanian Foreign Minister was the sole minister to attend the Fourth Geneva Convention conference.

A comparison of the conference results also reveals the harm caused by the abuse of international conventions. In the run-up to the UNHCR conference, three countries – Belarus, Moldova and Saint Kitts and Nevis – acceded to the Refugee Convention, strengthening it.  Before the Fourth Geneva Convention meeting, three signatories publicly boycotted it, further weakening the legitimacy of its Declaration.

The UNHCR conference revitalized an important international convention and focused the efforts of the international community towards a common goal of universal humane treatment of refugees.  States which have an interest in effective international legal regimes and good multilateral governance should work together to promote such constructive conferences and to prevent harmful politicized meetings.

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