By David Weissbrodt
Professor/University of Minnesota Law School, Founder/Human Rights Center (UofMN), former US Member and Chair/UN SubCommission on Human Rights
My aim today is to provide a brief overview of the goals and potentials of the United Nations, governments, and non-governmental organizations as related to cooperation in solving the refugee crisis currently plaguing our world.
The United Nations was founded after the world faced the atrocities and tragedies of World War II. In less than 6 years, the war between the Axis and Allied powers resulted in 80 million deaths — about 4 percent of the world’s population. Confronted with this reality and seeking to avoid further disaster, the UN Charter eloquently states the purpose of the United Nations: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” At a time when the world divided itself deeply between the capitalist West and the communist East, this task was no easy objective. The 50 original U.N. members rallied around the goal of “cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian character.” The U.N. called for the member nations to unite in “harmonizing the[ir] actions” in attaining and maintaining the collective peace and security of the world. Collaboration and cooperation in maintaining peace have certainly increased since the UN’s inception as more members join. Currently, 193 states sit in the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Numerous threats to peace and security of people have become evident over the years, including massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda, brutal civil war and genocide in Yugoslavia, the Korean War, Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar, political and social unrest in Sudan, the war in Syria, the displacement of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, and so on. All of these human rights challenges have prompted collaboration through the United Nations in ending violence, punishing perpetrators, and restoring peace. The U.N. is uniquely positioned to encourage collaboration between nations and international institutions, to develop standards for ending conflict and maintaining peace, to provide direct assistance to governments and affected individuals, and to challenge violators more effectively than any single nation could alone.
The current crisis surrounding the uncertain futures of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons reflect pressing challenges to peace and security to millions of people all over the world. At present, nearly 60 million people are displaced around the world because of conflict and persecution — the largest number ever recorded by the United Nations.
About 11.6 million Syrians — nearly half of Syria’s entire population– have been forced to leave their homes. Most of them are scattered within Syria, but 3.9 million were living abroad by the end of 2014 – nearly all of them in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Beyond the millions who have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors, Egypt has received the largest number of Syrian refugees, roughly 138,000 by December 2014.
By 2014 many African migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe; most Africans displaced by conflict stay in Africa. About 15 million people are displaced in sub-Saharan Africa — 4.5 million of them fled in 2014. Long-lasting conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the civil war in South Sudan, are some of the top contributors.
60 million people are refugees, asylum-seekers, subjected to trafficking, or are otherwise displaced from their homes. Accordingly, one in every 120 human beings does not have a permanent home or is seeking a new one. Close to half of those 60 million are children. If the displaced population could form its own country, it would be one of the world’s 25th largest. Many are resorting to extreme measures to reach safety. Refugees from northern African nations, for example, are making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach southern Europe. In 2014, more the 213,000 successfully made the trip, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has received reports of many other women, men, and children reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea. The “boat people,” trafficked persons, and others subject to exploitation reflect a global crisis analogous to the human rights violations during World War II.
Governmental, non-governmental, and international organizations; support groups; and advocacy collectives have responded to the current problems. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is one prominent example. The UNHCR was established by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is tasked with leading and coordinating international actions to protect refugees. It safeguards the rights and well-being of refugees and to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to seek asylum and find sanctuary in another country. The UNHCR has helped millions of disenfranchised persons to find new homes since 1950. Currently, the UNHCR employs 9,300 people working in 123 countries. The efforts of the UNHCR since 1950 have extended to every corner of the world and have encouraged cooperation between governments, as well as policy- and law-makers. By engaging governments and humanitarian organizations, the UNHCR seeks to one day achieve its ultimate goal: a universal, consistently applied, and equitable protection of refugee populations as a durable solution to the problem.
In its fight, the UNHCR is not alone. Locally in Minnesota, in what has become a hub for human rights advocacy, three organizations focus on identifying and helping refugees and asylum-seekers in need.
The Center for Victims of Torture aims to provide healing services to survivors of torture, more than half of whom are currently seeking asylum and refuge in the U.S. The Center for Victims of Torture has taken an active advocacy role at the U.S. capitol in asking for more efficient, streamlined, faster, fairer processes in reviewing and granting asylum, especially to those who are in danger of facing violence again.
The Advocates for Human Rights, also based in Minnesota, provides legal aid, advocates for reform, and works to help resettle and integrate refugees, asylum-seekers, and other immigrants to their new communities. The Advocates for Human Rights hopes to achieve its goal by engaging both the local and the global communities in first recognizing and then fighting
problems that threaten the peace and security of people. One such problem is the refugee phenomenon currently sweeping the world.
The American Refugee Committee is a humanitarian nongovernmental organization centered in Minnesota that works in 10 countries around the world to help victims of civil war and strife rebuild their homes and their lives by providing shelter, healthcare, and legal aid to more than 2.5 million people each year. ARC is focused on cooperation with governments and international bodies such as the UNHCR to bring about peace and security to affected populations.
In addition, the Red Cross is based in Switzerland with national sections in many countries and provides humanitarian support during and after conflict, supplies medical and psychological healthcare to individuals, finds and reunites families separated by war, and advocates for better and more favorable admission and resettlement policies and projects. The Red Cross also provides on-the-ground support to refugees and asylum-seekers by setting up systems in various countries to receive and accommodate refugees and asylum-seekers.
While many organizations and individuals are working to improve the status and brighten the futures of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons, no truly central body exists to tackle these problems full force, head on. At best, what now exists is a fragmented infrastructure that functions as Band-Aids. The UNHCR, various NGOs and individual leaders are providing important contributions, but unless the metaphorical wound on humanity is stitched, not merely covered, the best-case scenario is that only a small number of all those people who deserve our assistance will be helped. The UN has made some critical measures towards addressing the problems. Mainly, it has encouraged cooperation between nations facing an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers by creating the UNHCR. Additionally, it has often managed to prevent, shorten, or eliminate war that may cause such an influx. However, it has not put enough pressure on resisting countries, such as the U.S., in inducing actions and policies for the protection of refugees that would lead to increased security and protection on a global level.
Arguably, the UN has the power and the knowledge necessary to produce significant changes in how 60 million people are treated. It also has a clearly aligned goals to those ends: maintenance of international peace and security. What stands between the UN and its goals is the politically charged nature of international affairs. Unfortunately for the 60-million people searching for a new home, that barrier may be difficult to achieve in our lifetimes.
David Weissbrodt is Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and is a global authority on human rights and International law. Professor Weissbrodt’s scholarship and professional service have included: Chairperson for the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (2001-2002), the only American citizen to head a U.N. political body on human rights since Eleanor Roosevelt served as Chairperson of the inaugural Human Rights Commission. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of non-citizens for the Sub-Commission; and member of the Board of Trustees of the U.N. Trust Fund for Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Professor Weissbrodt has been instrumental in the creation and development of many key human rights institutions, including the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota. He has served as an officer or board member of Amnesty International, the Center for Victims of Torture, the (Minnesota) Advocates for Human Rights, Readers International, and the International League for Human Rights.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.