When the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention) was agreed in 1951, the governments who framed the deal had in mind the millions of Europeans displaced by the Second World War. 2011 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Convention, as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. And at a high-level meeting in Geneva this week, 145 governments came together to re-affirm their commitment to these landmark humanitarian agreements.
At the meeting, former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari called on Europeans to use this anniversary “to pause and think of what happened in this continent, and how long it has taken us to cope with the aftermath.” He also spurred his fellow leaders to be “impatient and indignant about the persistent refugee situations the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is dealing with today.”
The two conventions being celebrated this week were first signed when the world was a very different place, but they have stood the test of time. Circumstances may have changed, but the core values enshrined in these agreements are as important as ever: that people fleeing violence or persecution must receive international protection, and that everyone has a right to a nationality and the legal protections that go with it.
During this year of incredible upheavals in the Middle East, most countries in the region stayed true to the spirit of the Refugee Convention by keeping their borders open and allowing those fleeing violence to seek asylum. This showed the continuing importance of one of the Convention’s core values: not turning back people in need of international protection.
But the nature of displacement has changed in the past 60 years. Conflicts have changed, with most now internal rather than international. Increasingly, civilians are the targets of these internal conflicts, with fewer people having the chance to flee across international borders. In 2010 there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide (who had fled persecution across an international border), but 27.5 million internally-displaced people (who fled in similar circumstances, but did not cross a border). And that doesn’t include the even larger and increasing numbers of people displaced by natural disasters.
The governments represented at this week’s meeting in Geneva gathered to make pledges about how they would live up to the spirit of these international conventions. A wide range of pledges were made, but two themes stood out. One was a commitment to tackle the particular challenges facing refugee women and girls. The number of national pledges on this issue prompted UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres to make a pledge of his own. Declaring that if UNHCR “can’t get protection right for [women and girls], we won’t get it right for anyone,” he pledged that he would do everything possible to uphold and strengthen UNHCR’s commitment to addressing sexual and gender-based violence.
The other theme which attracted an unprecedented number of pledges was statelessness. There are approximately 12 million stateless people in the world, whose lack of nationality leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In what was described as a “quantum leap” forward, the Geneva meeting saw eight countries declare they had ratified the two major treaties on statelessness this year, 20 more commit to do so in 2012, and 25 pledge other measures to protect stateless people. In her speech to the assembled delegates, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also declared statelessness to be a personal priority of hers, and pledged that the US would work to end discrimination against women in nationality laws worldwide.
Given the distrust – and even hatred – often expressed toward refugees and asylum-seekers, it was heartening to see so many governments from around the world standing in solidarity with refugees and stateless people this week in Geneva. But as is often the case, the week’s proceedings were long on inspiring rhetoric but short on concrete pledges of funding for refugees, displaced, and stateless people. This was an important meeting, and UNHCR should be commended for convening it. But pledges are easily made and easily forgotten. So now it is up to each of us to hold our governments to the promises they have made.
Melanie Teff is an advocate with Refugees International, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates to end refugee crises and receives no government or UN funding.