Blog post by Raphael Gorgeu, a senior aid policy expert currently serving as Deputy Director of Operations and Head of Operational Analysis, Positioning and Advocacy at Médecins Sans Frontières in Geneva.


On 14 and 15 December 2021, the next High-Level Officials Meeting on displacement will take place in Geneva. This gathering, held every 2 years, is one of the main follow-up initiatives that aim to take stock of progress and strengthen a momentum on the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) initiated by the New York Declaration in September 2016. This event, led by UNHCR, brings together Member States, Intergovernmental organizations, NGOs (international and local), the private sector and refugees, as a continuation of the last Global Refugee Forum in 2019.  


Such a moment is an opportunity to reflect on the dynamics of change at play behind such an initiative – and more broadly behind the overall GCR process. By mobilizing social sciences, and more specifically the model of “Norm life cycle” developed by Martha Finnemore and Kathryin Sikkink, this article proposes an original reading of the forces at work towards behavioural changes within the attempt to establish this new paradigm of response to displacement crises.  


The Global Compact on Refugees or the ambition to establish a new norm for the Member States and International Community


The increasing number of displaced people worldwide has led the international community to rethink its approach to displacement and migration. It is in this spirit that the New York Declaration, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) came to life between 2016 and 2018, under the auspices of the UN Member States, UNHCR and IOM.  


The GCR’s core objectives are to ease pressure on host countries, to enhance refugees and displaced people’s self-reliance and inclusion, to expand access to third-country solutions, to support conditions in countries of origin for a safe and dignified return and to protect displaced people’s rights.  


This new approach is intended to reverse the way in which the international community responds to displacement, aligned with the “nexus concept” that has emerged from the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, promoting stronger complementarity between humanitarian, development and peace efforts and a “whole-of-society approach”.  


However, the non-binding nature of such instruments, along with the challenges of today’s multilateralism and geopolitical realities, make the implementation of commitments particularly difficult. Recent examples, such as the situation at the borders between Poland and Belarus, or the announcement of the closure of Dadaab camp in Kenya in 2022, show the extent to which progress towards this new paradigm remains a struggle.  


To face this reality, the overall strategy (in particular that of UNHCR) has been to create a momentum within the Member States community that would encourage and promote collective behaviour towards this new paradigm promoted through the GCR.  


Such a strategy can be read as an attempt to establish a new “social and behavioural norm” in the Member States and international community with regards to their approach to displacement crisis; a model that Martha Finnemore and Kathryin Sikkink articulated in 1998 in their article “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change”, known as “The Norm life cycle”.  


The concept of norm


This concept of norm in International Relations finds its origin in constructivist theories where states are considered as social agents (Wendt, 1999), rather than rational actors only guided by logics of efficiency and rational choice as apprehended by neo-realist and neo-liberal currents.  


A norm should be understood as a principle or model of conduct specific to a social group or a society. In International Relations, a norm is commonly defined as “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). Thus, applied to a State, its identity and its affiliation to a social group would encourage a State to behave in a manner perceived, as much by itself as by the group to which it belongs, as adapted.  


Actors are primarily guided by what James March and Johan Oslon call a logic of appropriation: “they behave according to what they consider legitimate prevailing within social structures, in which they are embedded” (March, Oslon, 1989, Battistella, 2009).  


An illustration of this concept of norm can be found in the increased number of States which have been subscribing to the promotion of (or appearing promoting) Human Rights since the mid-1900s, because considered as a suitable behaviour for the social group that constitutes the State community. Not behaving in this way is being perceived as a “deviant” State (Risse, Ropp, Skikking, 1999).  


Another example is the involvement of States in international emergency aid. This is indeed considered as a behaviour adapted by the social group that the States constitutes. This behaviour reflects a principle of solidarity anchored in the very identity of the State actor, and that each State is invited to respect (Katzenstein 1996, Finnemore, 2003).  


This new paradigm as promoted through the GCR aims to become the norm – the adapted, natural, appropriated, non-questionable behaviour – within the States and international community for response to displacement crisis. Therefore, understanding further how a norm emerges, develops, and turns into a “regular behaviour” within a social group, could help show how change takes place, and where we are in the construction of this new norm to displacement situations.  


The “Norm life cycle” or how to trigger behavioural changes


In their model of “Norm life cycle” in International Relations Martha Finnemore and Kathryin Sikkink propose three stages for thinking about the emergence and the development of a norm, as summarized here.  


The first one relates to the emergence of a norm. It corresponds to the period during which a new norm is carried by some actors (mainly Non-State actors), called norm entrepreneurs, seeking to convince the greatest number of States to adhere to it. These norm entrepreneurs are essential for the emergence of a norm because they draw attention to an alternative way of approaching an issue and try to convince States of the need for behavioural change by using concepts and cognitive frameworks that echo their perception of reality.  


For example, with regards to the norm related to women’s suffrage, many associations, such as the International Women’s Suffrage Association (IWSA), fought for this issue to be taken into account by lawmakers at the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. Until 1930, the adoption of women’s suffrage by the first States was done mainly through the pressure from civil society organizations.  


When a “sufficient number” of States endorse this new norm, a tipping point is reached, in the sense that the adhesion of the other States goes much faster, characteristic of the second stage of this model, the norm cascade. This tipping point marks the moment when this new behaviour is considered suitable for a given group of States. A process of socialization then encourages the adherence of other States to this norm; in a way, a “social pressure” inviting them to respect this norm in development playing on logics of Legitimacy (strengthening their status on the international stage), Conformity (to a social group) and Esteem (building a positive image vis-à-vis others and itself).  


Although some empirical studies seem to show that this “sufficient” number is usually one-third, it is more relevant to reflect, not on the number of States adhering to a new norm during the first stage, but more on the type(s) of States adhering to it – called “critical States”. These critical States are “those without which the achievement of the substantive norm goal is compromised”.  


For example, in the case of the norm on the non-production and non-use of landmines, the adhesion of a non-landmine-producing countries would not have a significant impact on the development of this norm. Conversely, the adhesion of a producer state (such as France or the United States) would give much more importance to it.  


While these critical States are essential to this process, unanimity is not required within this group. The example of the United States in the context of the Ottawa Treaty is the best illustration of this, where their withdrawal from the treaty did not prevent this norm (related to landmines) from continuing to develop. These critical States also play the role of leading States in the sense that they themselves become voluntarily active in promoting a norm, seeking to convince and influence others.  


Finally, for a norm to be truly anchored in the long term, it needs to be internalized within each state, thus marking the third phase of this cycle called internalization. It is then considered as a behaviour, “taken for granted”, embedded in the very identity of each state.  


The internalization of a norm could go through multiple forms: endorsement of laws, anchoring in political strategies, reshaping of the internal structure of a State, operational plans and procedures, etc.  


The deeper the internalization of a norm is, the greater its stability will be and its impacts on an actor’s or a social group’s behaviours.  


This approach may at first appear deterministic: States would only be subject to this social pressure, without really choosing to adhere to new developing norms. However, this model is not opposed to the notions of strategic and rational choices. A certain rationality is not absent in the development of a norm, not even in the process of socialization.  


States also engage in a social strategy, in order to consider what behaviour they think is best suited to a given situation. It is then more for them to ask themselves “What kind of situation is this? and What I’m supposed to do now? rather than How do I get what I want?”. The balance of power and the logics of interest exist, and rational choices too, but the transformation of a reality precisely impact the way in which a State perceives its identity and its interests, and thus reviews its behaviour.  


Finally, this process of socialization only encourages States to adhere to a norm and does not impose it on them. Indeed, a space of choice remains for a State to adhere to a norm or not. The best illustration here is the one of deviant states: if there are deviant states, it is because that they can choose not to adhere to a norm.  


The reasons behind these deviant behaviours are manifold, but an important one refers to potential “conflicts of norms and principles” with which a State may be confronted: “Actors may face varied and conflicting rules and norms all making claims for different courses of action. Indeed, most significant political choices are difficult precisely because they involve two or more conflicting claims for action on a decision maker. Actors must choose which rules or norms to follow and which obligations to meet at the expense of others in a given situation.”  


The Global Compact on Refugees or the struggles towards the establishment of a new social norm and behavioural change in response to displacement


In the case of the GCR, attempts to establish a new norm, new behaviours and approach to displacement crisis within the States and the international community have been numerous, and can easily echo part of the elements highlighted in the “Norm life cycle” model. We could for instance spot the following:

  1. The key role of UNHCR and civil society organizations as norm entrepreneurs in promoting a new approach to displacement leading to the New York Declaration, the GCR and other texts such as the Nairobi declaration;
  2. The involvement of key financial and development institutions, such as the World Bank, and large private companies, which can promote the economic and financial benefits of such an approach;
  3. Exposure of countries considered exemplary in the approach to displacement (e.g. Uganda, Costa Rica, Zambia, Columbia, etc.);
  4. Space given to influential Member States (e.g. Germany) and International or Regional Organizations (such as IGAD) that can champion such paradigm;
  5. Encouraging Member States’ self-commitments in open forums;
  6. etc.


Specific dynamics in East Africa have hopes to trigger such behavioural change. Countries such as Uganda and regional or international organizations such as IGAD and the World Bank are championing the GCR in the region and try to encourage others such as Kenya (where progress has been made in Kakuma camp) or Tanzania (where the situation appears more difficult) to follow similar paths. New developments in Columbia also create optimism for this paradigm to further expend.  


However, two main elements act as major obstacles in further developing this new social norm worldwide:

  1. The lack of credibility (and willingness) of influential and critical States with regards to their own approach to displacement: Most European Member States, the US, Russia, China, some BRIC countries barely implement such approaches in their own countries, which impacts their legitimacy in the eyes of others and limits the traction needed to trigger collective behavioural change.
  2. The struggle to counter Member States’ respective security and political agendas, in a global aggressive and protectionist environment against refugees and migrants. While a clear connection with development gains has been made, a coherent narrative to tackle security and political concerns of Member States is still missing. Displaced people are often used as a “card” to be played as part of a broader political game. This makes situations like in Dadaab camp in Kenya or in Europe (to refer to the examples mentioned at the beginning of the article) extremely difficult to be resolved.


In the end, even if some progress can be noted, they are so far limited. The road towards the establishment of a new norm with regards to displacement appears still long and paved with obstacles. And unfortunately, while the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a “human and societal crisis” the way towards this new approach seems even further away, as some Member States have taken the opportunity of public health measures to further restrict refugees and migrants’ rights.  


The first stage of the emergence of this norm could be considered as “completed” following a collective effort of many actors that must be recognized.  


But we’ve barely reached the beginning of the second one (the norm cascade through a socialization process), with this “tipping point” that should help speed up this process. The mobilization of critical States is essential to make a breakthrough in the deployment of this new paradigm.  


And with regards to internalization, only very few countries have so far translated this new approach into practical legal texts, binding policy documents or multi-years plans.  


As mentioned by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees before the UN Security Council on 18 June 2020:

These trends somehow show how, when leadership fails, when multilateralism – which you represent – doesn’t live up to its promise, the consequences are felt not in the global capitals of our world; not in the homes of the powerful and of the rich. They are felt in the peripheries of nations, in border communities, among the urban poor, in the lives of those that have no power. 


Hopefully, with the help of social sciences, a better reading of the dynamics at play in the context of the GCR could help move forward the implementation of this new paradigm to displacement crisis.    



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s 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.