Sharing Responsibility for a World in Crisis

by | Jan 10, 2017

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About Colin Harvey

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast.


Colin Harvey ‘Sharing Responsibility for a World in Crisis’ (OxHRH Blog, 10 January 2017) <> [Date of Access]

The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants met in New York on 19 September 2016. There were heightened expectations leading into this event, at a time when there is a global refugee crisis, and when human migration is less the exception and more the norm. Many suggest that the existing systems are broken, and there were hopes that the Summit would offer effective responses and practical pathways to address large-scale movements of refugees and migrants now and in the future. The day after this Summit the US President hosted a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, with the aim, among other things, of securing concrete commitments in terms of funding and resettlement.

The gatherings attracted a welcome measure of political focus just when a globally coherent and rights-based response to managing the realities of human mobility (in all its forms) is desperately needed.  The necessity for action is plain in the ever-spreading retreat behind the abrasive rhetoric of sovereignty, and emergent political cultures that are determined to undermine the concept and the practice of human rights.

Agreeing to Defer

The main outcome of the UN Summit was the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The document reaffirms many of the basics with respect to existing international law, with a recognition of the shared responsibilities involved in addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. The Declaration connects the debate to existing discussions, including on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The document contains a set of commitments to refugees and migrants and charts a path towards two new Global Compacts in 2018; one on refugees, and the other on safe, orderly and regular migration. An inter-governmental process will lead to the Global Compact on migration in 2018, guided by the principles set down in this Declaration. The Global Compact on refugees will be taken forward by UNHCR, again based on the commitments undertaken in the Declaration.

In terms of advancing a comprehensive refugee response, the Declaration sets out a framework dealing with: reception and admission; support for immediate and ongoing needs; support for host countries and communities; and durable solutions. UNHCR is invited to evaluate progress over the next two years, and work towards the Global Compact in 2018. The Global Compact on migration is framed by a range of listed elements that might be included, and is to be progressed via inter-governmental negotiations, with two co-facilitators to lead the consultations with states (these co-facilitators have since been appointed) with the modalities to be finalised by 31 January 2017. The Declaration gives a role to the UN Secretary-General through periodic reporting to the UN General Assembly on progress, as well as on UN engagement with international financial institutions and the private sector. As is well known, the new UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; he is well placed to assist in advancing this agenda.

Miracles and Missed Opportunities

The reactions to the Summit and the Declaration were mixed. Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR suggests that the outcome is a ‘minor miracle’, and he regards the Declaration as a significant achievement in difficult circumstances. Others are not convinced. James Hathaway talks of failure and a missed opportunity, with Amnesty International echoing this view and suggesting ‘abject failure’. Alexander Betts is also critical, but does see a ‘glimmer of hope’ in the ongoing inter-governmental processes, as well as the meetings and discussions that happened ‘at the margins of the summits’.

It is clear that many of the commitments in the Declaration are simply narrative reflections of existing international legal obligations and well-established principles. Given the urgency of the challenges facing refugees and migrants this can be viewed as either an unproductive rehash of established norms or the helpful confirmation that states are still engaged with many of the basics. At this time of global withdrawal and retreat even vague and aspirational statements might be viewed as significant, and UNHCR and some others are attempting to make that case. The principal difficulty lies not necessarily in the fine words (although what is not said is also revealing) but the fact that these ‘commitments’ are not tied to specific actions that would make a difference now. It must be assumed that these will come with the Global Compacts to follow; we will see.

So, sentiments about establishing an equitable system of responsibility-sharing must be read in the light of things that are there in the Declaration, and those elements that appear not to have made it into the final document. What will change in the next two years to encourage states to assume tangible responsibilities and endorse meaningful comprehensive responses, particularly to refugee movements? This is one part of a larger problem. The ongoing failure to share responsibility for a world in crisis signals a pervasive challenge to the concept and the practice of human rights. It is in this troubling global environment that the attempts to mend these broken systems must go on.

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