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2/2) ON THE NATURE OF REFUGEE ADVOC
Subject: 2/2) ON THE NATURE OF REFUGEE ADVOCACY
/* Written 15 Dec 6:00 1996 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* ------------" On the Nature of Refugee advocacy (2/2) "------------ */
This thought-provoking Workshop paper is from the book,
"OLD PROBLEMS, NEW DIRECTIONS" - the proceedings of the conference on
refugee protection, compiled by the Australian Council of Churches,
18 February 1994, The University of Sydney. -- U Ne Oo.
Mr David Matas
President, Canadian Council for Refugees
12.3 WORKSHOP PAPER: THE ROLE OF NGOS IN REFUGEE PROTECTION (part 2)
A third reason refugee support groups do not do all they can to advocate
for refugees is their local focus. Tip O'Neill, former speaker of the US
HOuse of Representatives, has said: "All politics is local." Yet, for
refugees that is clearly not so. Nonetheless, there is a temptation to view
refugee issues as local issues. Local media, local politicians are close at
hand. The international media, international institutions, the misbehaviours
of foreign governments seem remote, inaccessible.
It is far easier to engage in a debate about national policies, national
institutions, because these debates are public and publicised.
International refugee debates are not just seemingly far away. They are
also often secret, behind closed doors. Institutions that would be complex
at the best of times become even more complex because of the difficulties
governments throw in the way of accessing them.
Complicating the problem even further is the absence of institutions that
should be there. Local politics offer a platform for refugee advocacy.
International institutions do not have the mechanisms which can provide the
fora for refugee advocacy. Refugee advocates operating internally have not
only to develop this advocacy, they also have to develop their own
institutions and processes to provide a platform for this advocacy.
When I said that refugee support NGOs are inhibited in advocacy for
protection, I do not mean to suggest that these NGOs are not loud enough or
rude enough or confrontational enough with governments. Rather what I have
in mind is a failure to develop techniques and mechanisms to promote
protection for refugees internationally.
I do not mean to belittle local advocacy. Obviously, it is important. What
I am concerned about is the absence of international advocacy. Yet for
refugees, what happens to them is by definition international. No one is
refugee unless he/she crosses a border. The best, most effective advocacy
in the world, if it is addressed only to the local government, will never
provide a solution to the world's refugee problems. For refugees, some
politics is international.
What does effective international advocacy for the protection of refugees
mean ? What should refugee support groups be doing that they are not doing?
I suggest it is instructive to look at generalised human rights NGOs to see
what international advocacy can mean. Generalised human rights NGOs often
take up the cause of refugees. But because they are generalised, they do
not have the experience or commitment that refugee support NGOs have. The
focus and attention of generalised human rights NGOs is often elsewhere. As
well, generalised human rights NGOs may have mandates that allow them to
deal with only some, but not all refugee protection concerns.
What we need is a marriage of the techniques and mechanisms that
generalised human rights NGOs offer with the specialisation, the expertise,
the contacts, the priority, the comprehensive coverage refugee support NGOs
give to refugee protection. The techniques and mechanisms I have in mind
are impartial monitoring and assessment of compliance with international
refugee standards; direct contacts 3with violators, second governments and
intergovernmental mechanisms; and publicity about the result.
Where does refugee protection compliance monitoring and assessment happen?
By and large, it does not exist either at the governmental, the
intergovernmental or the nongovernmental level. Is Australia in compliance
with the Refugee Convention? Is Canada? These are questions no body,
governmental, intergovernmental or non-governmental has ever addressed
since the Refugee Convention was opened for signature in 1951. To be sure,
there are lots of allegations of violations in individual cases, or in
relation to individual policies. But there is nothing comprehensive,
systematic, across the board, periodic, concerning all articles of the
Refugee Convention, the right seek and enjoy asylum in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and all other international instruments with
refugee protection standards, encompassing every country in the world.
If compliance and assessment monitoring existed at the intergovernmental or
governmental level, it would be relatively easy for NGOs to feed into the
process. NGOs may feel their inactivity in this area is excusable, because
there are no intergovernmental or governmental structures in place that
provide a forum. However, that is an excuse only. Refugee support NGOs must
lead in this case, not follow. It is only if NGOs do lead that governments
and intergovernmental institutions will follow.
What the form of governmental or intergovernmantal compliance assessment
and monitoring for refugee protection standards should be is a separate
topic, for another time. The answer to the question, what should be the
form of nongovernmental compliance monitoring and assessment is simple and
straightforward. Let's just do it.
Although there is nothing under the Refugee Convention like the Human
Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights or the Committee against Racial Discrimination under the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, there is the
Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at
which nongovernmental organisations participate, through the INternational
Council for Voluntary Agencies. There is no reason why the International
Council for Voluntary Agencies statement at the Executive Committee cannot
be used as an opportunity to express compliance concerns.
The mechanisms that are in place, for other instruments, can be used to
raise refugee concerns. The UNited Nations Special Rapporteur against
Torture can have brought to his attention situations where persons are
being returned to countries where there is a serious possibility that they
may be tortured. The Working Group in Disappearances can have brought to
their attention situations where persons face possible return to countries
where there is a serious possibility that they may be made to disappear.
And so on.
The UN theme and country mechanisms and the treaty-based bodies tend to
overlook refugee issues, because they consider refugee work to be the work
of the UNHCR. The UNHCR avoids public compliance assessment and monitoring
because it puts the institution on a confrontation course with governments
whose cooperation they seek. Left to themselves governments and
intergovernmental institutions will never engage in this compliance
monitoring and assessment. However, if nongovernmental organisations do it,
governmental and intergovernmental institutions will have to react.
The Special Rapporteur on Torture will not ignore case or policies within
his mandate brought to his attention. NOr will any of the other UN theme or
country mechanisms or treaty-based bodies. If nongovernmental organisations
do enough of this compliance assessment and monitoring and do it
systematically enough, the governmental and intergovernmental institutions
will have to react. At the governmental and intergovernmental level,
institutions will develop in response to nongovernmental concerns.
For governments as well, there is no body to receive compliance concerns.
There are recourses for individual claimants, albeit in many countries of a
very feeble sort. Institutions to deal with systematic failings are nowhere
to be found. Again here nongovernmental organisations can be creative,
using the systems that do exist, whether it be parliamentary committees,
human rights commissions or race relations boards.
At the end of the day, though, nongovernmental organisations must not rely
on the existence of governmental or intergovernmental institutions that can
channel their concerns. Nongovernmental organisations must rely on
themselves. They must address themselves directly to violators rather than
just indirectly, through intermediaries, whether it be intergovernmental
institutions or their own governments. And this work must be public. I
would welcome Australian NGOs addressing the Canadian government directly
about what we in the Canadian Council for Refugees see as failings in the
Canadian protection system. I would hope that Australian NGOs would have a
similar attitude to Canadian NGO initiatives directed to the Australian
It is this sort of international NGO solidarity in refugee protection that
is sadly lacking and badly needed. I urge us to join together to develop
/* Endreport */