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Law and human dignity

Renewed commitment to multilateralism required to deal with forced human displacement


The scale of contemporary forced human displacement is unprecedented and difficult to comprehend. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has just reported staggering statistics. As of 2016, 65.6 million people are displaced globally. This includes:

  • 40.3 million internally displaced persons;

  • 22.5 million refugees; and

  • 2.8 million people seeking asylum in industrial countries.

The number of people displaced by conflict or persecution has increased by 5.8 million since 2014.

Beyond these categories are those forced to move by environmental factors. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced annually, since 2008, by climate- and weather-related disasters.

These numbers will rise exponentially as the severity of climate change impacts increase. Should the globe reach four degrees mean temperature rise, it has been estimated that land currently home to between 470 and 760 million people could be submerged by rising sea levels.

One hundred years of multilateral responses

Over the past century, the international community has attempted to respond to the circumstances of people forced to migrate within or beyond national borders.

For example, the 1921 establishment of the High Commissioner for Russian Refugees by the League of Nations demonstrated a multilateral concern for people who are forcibly displaced. Since that foundation was set, nine multilateral institutions have been established to tackle displacement.

Unsurprisingly, the League of Nations – a weak precursor to the UN – took a largely passive role in this context. It neither initiated the effort nor actively participated in attending to the problem.

The League of Nations avoided assuming major responsibilities or financial obligations for refugee work and failed to establish a permanent relevant institution. It considered its engagement in this context to be temporary.

Instead, early responses to displacement relied heavily on the efforts of individuals, relief and humanitarian organisations, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross and the first high commissioner, Fridtjof Nansen.

UN initiatives

Although the UN’s very establishment was driven by global humanitarian crisis, it has consistently struggled to generate legal frameworks adequate to meet the growing and complex challenges of forced human displacement.

The success to be attained in curbing displacement depends on the success that is achieved in keeping the multilateral promises of the UN Charter.

More than 70 years after its establishment, the UN still struggles to fully implement its founding purposes and principles. The continued rise of forced displacement points to the increasing difficulty the multilateral forum faces in tackling crisis situations in due time.

Maintaining international peace and security

The maintenance of international peace and security is the prime multilateral promise of the UN Charter. The continued relevance of this function remains undoubted given conflicts and wars remain a reality.

In its 2016 report on the work of the organisation, the secretary-general reminded the international community that:

… the world will not be able to reach the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030 without greater efforts at working on conflict … [and] an unambiguous lesson of the reporting period is that conflict prevention and mediation need to be brought back to the centre of all United Nations engagements.

UN member nations need to devote themselves to a renewal of this central goal, in the knowledge that conflict mitigation and prevention is key to stemming the dramatic escalation in forced human displacement.

Protecting and promoting human rights

Securing respect for human rights is another central multilateral promise of the UN. Through UN channels the international community has established a wide-ranging human rights framework and made undoubted progress in many areas.

However, people who experience forced displacement often fall into protection gaps, whether in refugee law or human rights law. Some of these gaps exist in the legal framework itself, for example in the lack of specialist human rights protection for climate migrants.

Arguably more significant, though, is the incapacity or unwillingness of the international community to prioritise the human rights of those forcibly displaced. Human rights violations continue to drive displacement, and those displaced remain more vulnerable to further human rights abuses when forced from their homes.

Countries must work together to tackle human rights violations as a driver of forced displacement. Through multilateral co-operation, countries can assist in building human capacity to manage conditions that drive displacement.

This would include co-operation to improve socioeconomic conditions for vulnerable people, making them less vulnerable to displacement. Such co-operation must also focus on strategies to protect the rights of displace populations in destination regions.

Facilitating international co-operation

International co-operation is the other multilateral promise of the UN Charter.

As concerns become increasingly global in magnitude, the need for co-operation grows. Yet around the world we are witnessing retreats towards nationalism and the rejection of the notion of the “common good”.

When the UN was established, we did not have the economic strength, the technological infrastructure, or the many regional arrangements we have today. Yet the same problems persist and some – such as displacement–- have undoubtedly reached crisis level.

In this context, we must demand a recommitment to the goal of multilateralism. If countries require inspiration, they may look to the promises they committed to in the UN Charter.

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