Blog post written by Suzanna Nelson-Pollard. Suzanna is an alumna of the Refugee Law Initiative’s MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies and was recently employed at the Norwegian Refugee Council in their humanitarian policy team in Geneva, working on the Global Compact. She is currently in Puerto Rico and can be found writing here.


UNHCR has released its ‘zero-draft’ for the Global Compact on Refugees, ahead of the formal consultations happening over the next six months. While it provides a list of good practices to improve refugee protection, its proposals for improving responsibility sharing are hardly the groundbreaking system change that was the initial intention for the Compact. The draft lacks a ‘responsibility-sharing mechanism’, and as a result, the outcome of the process is unlikely to drastically increase access to durable solutions for refugees and displaced people. As several major international NGOs commented in their recent joint statementthe zero draft does not present a practical blueprint that would deliver on this commitment through a concrete mechanism for international solidarity’.


As the Global Compact process enters the consultation phase, the window of opportunity for proposing ‘blueprints’ for greater responsibility sharing is closing. Over the past year, many refugee protection advocates have pointed to the decades of failed attempts to secure global responsibility sharing for refugees, and have remained stuck between the idea that a voluntary agreement will do little to change the current system and that states will never agree to a binding agreement. Yet this paralysis should not stop us from devising a middle ground option, and for proposing a blueprint, however imperfect, up for debate.


In order to sketch and define a middle ground option, I believe that we should look to other policy sectors and international agreements for inspiration, in particular those that have dealt with the challenges of gathering international support for responsibility sharing. Through my MA dissertation research at the Refugee Law Initiative, I studied the process leading up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, in order to understand the key success factors behind the international agreement on climate change and what this can tell us for securing support for responsibility sharing for refugees. The research provided some valuable lessons for reflection as the draft of the Compact is refined. Of particular interest at this stage were the efforts taken by climate advocates to secure an agreement that went beyond a voluntary declaration.


Lessons from securing more than a voluntary climate agreement


In 2015, over twenty years of international negotiations resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement: an accord in which states agreed to take collective action to combat climate change. In addition to a global momentum created by a wide range of civil society actors, the structure of the Paris Agreement was key to its adoption. After the experience of securing only low-levels of state adherence to the legally binding Kyoto Protocol, and the collapse of the COP negotiations in Copenhagen, negotiators pursued a different approach for the Paris Agreement. The result was a hybrid architecture of mechanisms: with voluntary bottom-up national pledges (known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ or NDCs) to promote wide state participation, combined with top-down accountability mechanisms (including rules to scale up action, ensure transparency, and follow up). A global stock take will take place every five years to assess the collective progress towards achieving the Agreement.


My research found that civil society organisations were instrumental in influencing the structure of the Paris Agreement. In particular, dedicated efforts to consult with a wide range of stakeholders on the details of the agreement enabled them to generate consensus and buy-in before the official negotiations started. Forums were created to design and propose templates for the Agreement, and many NGOs released documents before the COP outlining what they considered the success factors to be. Many of the key demands of civil society were actually achieved in the final agreement. In particular, while the text defined a long term global goal (maximum 2 degrees warming), providing a clear direction of travel, it also included a reference to the more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees. Details related to accountability and ambition mechanisms proposed by NGOs were included. Finally, through tracking, critiquing and encouraging the ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ pledged by states, NGOs were able to monitor the process and prepare states for the negotiations. The result was an agreement that was widely supported by states, businesses and civil society alike.


The Agreement still relies on political will, and its implementation remains in question, especially after the United States of America submitted its formal notice of withdrawal last year. Nevertheless, arriving at the Agreement was a huge diplomatic achievement and display of political engagement. While at this stage, it is too early to evaluate whether the mechanism is ‘effective’, most environmental NGOs and academics concur that the mix of voluntary pledges with legally binding accountability mechanisms provides a more sustainable and accountable structure than a purely bottom-up agreement.



A middle ground between a voluntary and a binding Compact


So what does the experience of achieving the Paris Agreement teach us for securing a strong Global Compact on Refugees? First of all, while many believe we won’t get a binding agreement on refugee responsibility sharing, we can still push for an agreement with a structure that goes beyond a voluntary declaration. Yet to achieve this, we must go beyond calling for a blueprint, and start proposing drafts of what this should look like.


To sketch out an agreement that goes beyond the current draft of the Compact, some of the key elements of the Paris Agreement can also be of use. Firstly, the overall goal is the key starting point to define. With climate change, the target of 2 degrees was established through scientific and policy consensus as the critical limit for climate policy. To reinforce the importance of this limit, civil society, in particular indigenous groups and environmental NGOs, pushed for the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees to remain in the text of the agreement and drive ambition. Refugee protection organisations could envisage a similar aspirational target. A preliminary idea for this target could be: ‘no lives in limbo’ as the ultimate goal, with durable solutions guaranteed for all refugees within three months. This would involve ensuring that all emergency structures such as camps were used for registration, first aid and temporary shelter only. Refugees would then move on through resettlement, humanitarian visas or local integration, but with full access to the rights enshrined in the Refugee Convention. To reach such a target, states would have to significantly increase their offers of international protection, close existing refugee camps, grant access to rights and services for existing refugees, and put into place the structures necessary for receiving future flows of displaced people. This target is merely an example for discussion; in its current rudimentary form, it could lead to direct and indirect detrimental consequences (such as encouraging the increased closing of borders or forced and premature returns to countries of origin, given the incentive to reduce global numbers of refugees). Yet while this high-ambition target is very far from the current system and reality, such a vision could provide a direction of travel and simple clear messaging on the tangible intentions of a Global Compact, in the same way that setting a 2-degree limit is a more concrete target than merely ‘slowing global warming’.


A second key element of the Paris Agreement structure which could serve as a model for the Compact is the system of ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’. In the Paris Agreement, states proposed their own voluntary national plans to contribute to the overall goal, and civil society played an important role in guiding, preparing and monitoring these plans. For the Global Compact, the national contributions plans could include the following measures: resettlement places, humanitarian visas, and other forms of alternative pathways; local integration through ensuring access to rights and opportunities for self-reliance; and contributions to local integration and voluntary return programmes through long-term flexible funding (beyond existing contributions to UNHCR and other funding pledges). These national plans would enable states to commit to contributing to the overall goal but would nevertheless leave enough flexibility for each state to pledge based on its capabilities and strengths. For the silent majority of states currently neither acting as a major donor, host state nor resettlement state, guaranteeing open doors and access to rights could already significantly improve the destination options for refugees.


To counter the voluntary aspect of these national action plans, civil society could push for a variety of top-down accountability tools to be part of the Global Compact. These could include a global stock taking place every five years, with a legal obligation to ratchet up and strengthen commitments at each round. The additionality and implementation of commitments could be tracked and then compared to the overall goal of providing durable solutions for all refugees. To generate peer pressure before each global stock take, advocates and academics could work together to release a high impact ‘reality check’ study, mirroring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports which are released every four years and drive new bursts of media attention and action on climate change.


Achieving this type of agreement would be by no means straight-forward, especially with public opinion in certain states acting as a major obstacle to ambitious action plans. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Plan, one of the major elements of the Global Compact on Refugees, has already led to a similar model of voluntary national plans being undertaken on a regional level (through the IGAD Nairobi Declaration and the Central American Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework). The flexibility of a national contribution plan structure could incorporate these existing regional mechanisms and prompt greater support from additional states.


The analogy between climate change collaboration and efforts to ensure greater responsibility sharing for refugees is not without fault, and what has worked in one field does not serve as a template for what would work in the other. Yet the steps taken by civil society ahead of the Paris Agreement warrant consideration for actors looking to generate increased support for responsibility sharing for refugees. Some of these lessons can be adapted to the realities of the refugee regime, and some of the tactics used by civil society in climate action can serve as a model. In particular, despite little political will for a legally binding Compact with fixed quotas on refugee responsibility sharing, refugee protection advocates can still aspire to an agreement with checks and balances as climate advocates did for the Paris Agreement. The coming months may be the last time for a while that states will convene to discuss responsibility sharing for refugees; now is the time to demand more from the Global Compact.



Photograph: ©Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

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