Global Compact on Migration: Erosion of sovereignty, panacea, or mere futile endeavor?

The International Migrants Day on December 18, 2018 is being observed in the wake of the endorsement of the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakesh, Morocco. Defying a fierce criticism from the United States and some other countries, 164 UN member states have adopted the Compact– containing 23 objectives and 187 actions– at the Marrakesh summit on December 11, 2018. Over 20 countries including the United States, Australia and some EU member states have vocally denounced the Compact while 30 other countries did not attend the summit.

The Compact, which is framed as “a cooperative framework”, is the first-ever global attempt to foster collective international cooperation to better address the complex issues facing the world’s 258 million migrants. The global politics and public opinions at large are vertically split over the Compact’s content, preceding and following its final adoption. The critics see the Compact as an infringement on state sovereignty while others tend to embrace a highly optimistic view of the Compact and consider it as a landmark achievement and the beginning of a new era in international migration governance. Then yet another discourse is skeptic and downplays the Compact as a futile endeavor and a run-of-the-mill document that is highly inspirational but lacking in its implementability. Legally non-binding though the Compact is, while the major challenges confronted by the world’s migrants result largely from instruments and structures embedded in the states’ national socio-political paradigms, the Compact still carries enormous normative significance, particularly for migrant-sending countries such as Nepal.

The critics opposing the Compact argue that it infringes upon national sovereignty and fear that it could lead to an influx of migrants into their countries, dilute their countries’ character, import crime and poverty, reduce wages and take jobs from tax-paying citizens. Some critics have gone so far as to call it a ‘dystopian’ UN plan to erase borders, undermine the rule of law and circumvent state sovereignty. The United States, for instance, was the first country to pull out of the Compact in December 2017, calling it “an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of states.” Australia and some countries from the European Union also followed suit. The Compact, however, clearly aims to “foster international co-operation among all relevant actors on migration,” while upholding “the sovereignty of states.” The Compact reaffirms States’ sovereign rights to determine their national migration policies and to govern migration within their national jurisdictions. Neither does the Compact impose multilateralism in migration governance in lieu of the countries’ national policies. Moreover, the Compact adopts a multi-scalar approach to international migration governance, leaving it up to the states to consider whatever governance models better suit their priorities: bilateral, multilateral, regional, or otherwise.

Some enthusiasts of the Compact portray it more as a panacea to all the existing challenges within international migration and praise it for encompassing issues such as labor rights, use of migration detention, human trafficking, access to social services, xenophobia, recognition of skills and professional qualifications, remittance repatriation, and climate change as a driver of displacement. Comprehensive though it is in incorporating diverse dimensions of migration, the Compact nonetheless cannot be considered a paradigm shift in international migration governance in that it does not oblige states to take measurable concrete actions. Addressing the Marrakesh conference Minister for Labor, Employment and Social Welfare, Gokarna Bista acclaimed the Compact for placing ‘the human rights of migrants at the center.’ Although the Compact considers individual migrants as the subject, not the object, of the migration governance modalities, it shies away from placing the individual migrants at the center of the migration governance discourse. The Compact is indeed a diplomatically balanced document that strikes a delicate balance between migrants’ rights and the sensitivity and sovereignty of the States. Finally, the third discourse on the Compact considers it as a mere toothless document and raises questions on its applicability and ability to create substantive improvements in the lived-experiences of migrants, since states can easily ignore it due to its legally non-binding nature.

The Compact is a political declaration and a cooperative framework; it however fills the void in global migration governance and thus carries important normative significance. The Compact is the first ever agreement negotiated between the UN member states on what Louise Arbour calls ‘an issue that was long seen as out-of-bounds for a truly concerted global effort’ and that covers all dimensions of international migration in a comprehensive manner.’ The Compact is thus an important step forward but not a transformational document that calls for a paradigmatic shift. Amidst the current global politics characterized by contradictory forces of increasing interdependence and networks as well as jingoism and jealous guarding of nationalism, the Compact carries a far-reaching normative significance in the governance of international migration. Also, in such a political milieu an international agreement of non-binding nature such as the Compact could even be more effective than the hard laws.

The Compact is neither a threat to national sovereignty in the manner in which some countries and ultra-right-wing political forces have depicted it as, and nor is it a panacea to all the ills in international migrations as conceived by some idealists. It is therefore up to the states and their political leaderships to tap into the Compact for their common benefits, be it through bilateral or regional initiatives.

 (Hari KC is a doctoral candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada)




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