Solidarity: A Fresh Perspective on International Law
In reaction to the wave of xenophobia under which the West seems to be drowning, it would be remiss not to turn our attention to how governments are managing the considerable flows of xenoi, i.e. foreigners, who cross national borders, on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. In doing so, it is important to consider the role solidarity plays in management strategies – while specifically focusing on the flow of refugees – which has reached its highest peak since the Second World War. The UN High Commission for Refugees reports estimated 17.8 million refugees in the aftermath of the Cold War; today the estimate is at 25.4 million.
The refugee challenge that the world presently faces sheds light on the idiosyncratic interdependency of human nature. As a result, calls for the expansion of human solidarity and international cooperation become the default responses to any crises. Many notable public figures have argued that the refugee challenge represents not only an issue of global governance, but also a crisis of solidarity.
More importantly, reality shows a subtler picture than a mere lack of solidarity. There is indeed a tendency in late-modern societies, especially in the Global North, to stigmatize the notion of solidarity; this distorted understanding of solidarity has exacerbated amidst the recent resurrection of nationalist ideologies.
Providing a detailed account of all the country-specific notions of solidarity would be a Herculean task. We can, however, reflect on how the notion of solidarity was shaped and reshaped throughout history by the West, or Global North in particular. The west has idealized and stigmatized solidarity in order to serve its own tribal interests.
Outside the west, there are multiple notions of solidarity, rooted in cultural and ethical traditions – the pan-African belief system known as Ubuntu, for instance, is a relational ontology. Ubuntu is premised on the idea that a person exists through and with others. In Islam, the principle of Zakat entails an obligation to share a portion of one’s wealth with needy members of the Ummah – the community of the faithful. Christianity talks about do to others what you want them to do to you, and so on.
In metaphysics, the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which played a pivotal role in the development of liberal thought provides for similar principles. Kant premises humanity’s very existence on a moral law that is unconditional and absolute for all human beings. It was a legacy of Kantian philosophy that the international community honored in seeking to develop a universal definition of solidarity, with which everyone was supposed to comply. The main international legal instruments that concern refugees, most notably the 1951 Refugee Convention, champions a notion of solidarity that was negotiated by Western powers in the aftermath of the Second World War. Originally, the Convention was solely concerned with the protection of Europeans; however, when the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was signed in 1967, protection was extended to all refugees, regardless of their nationality and ethnicity.
But did the extension on paper mean a real extension in practice? The Convention promotes a twofold definition of solidarity – signatory states are committed to a vertical solidarity, meaning that they are obliged to offer refugees protection; and, horizontal solidarity, meaning that everyone is obliged to cooperate in order to prevent few states from bearing the entire burden. Which raises the question: cooperate how? One of the most important forms of burden-sharing is resettlement in the new host country, which can involve a myriad of cultural, economic and social challenges.
Due to the temporal and spatial circumstances in which it was developed, i.e. in post-war Europe, it should not come as a surprise that such an understanding of solidarity is no longer is suited to tackle present day challenges. Nonetheless, the accommodative notion of solidarity is not an eternal verity but rather the object of an understanding, hence it can be reconfigured.
The crisis of solidarity is epitomized by the fact that the burden of responsibility is skewed towards the Global South. The latest UNHCR report points out that lion’s share of total refugees is being held by low or middle-income countries: Turkey (3.5 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400). Interestingly, Lebanon never even ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore has no legal obligation towards refugees. Similarly, Turkey the 1951 Convention but not the 1967 Protocol, and as a result, it solely has the legal obligation to recognize refugees of European origin.
In stark opposition to this trend, high-income countries are adopting strategies that are seek to close borders and deflect responsibility on other countries. For instance, during 2016 when the debate about the migrant crisis reached fever pitch, EU signed an agreement with Turkey and, in exchange for €6 billion, transferred the responsibility of all Syrians who illegally reached the shores of Greece. In 2017, Italy furthered this policy of containment by signing an agreement with Libya to prevent refugees from reaching its shores.
While claiming authorship of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Western governments are failing to uphold the principle of solidarity which is enshrined in international law. What is more, the current EU strategy underpins a deeper crisis of mores and morals, in that it is concerned with minimizing the influx of refugees – with complete disregard for abuses that they experience both at home and in host countries.
Another appalling implication of the current crisis of solidarity in handling the refugee challenge is the widening schism between reality and rhetoric when it comes to resettlement. Although the signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention committed themselves to burden-sharing, high-income countries are abdicating responsibility like Pontius Pilate. UNHCR estimates that less than 1% of total refugees in need were actually resettled in 2017 – partly because refugees seem to trigger fear and hate, more than solidarity, thanks to their demonization as terrorists, thieves and lazy opportunists.
Three flaws in our understanding solidarity need to change. First, the existing understanding has engendered a dichotomy between “deserving” and “undeserving” refugees, where the former category is circumscribed to those fleeing from “persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (1951 Refugee Convention). This dichotomy is rather simplistic, it ignores the fact that a considerable amount of people may “deserve” protection in circumstances other than persecution. Hunger, unhealthy environment, discrimination due to gender or sexual orientation, and so on can also be reasons for fleeing.
Here again, low- and middle-income countries champion higher levels of solidarity. For instance, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration adopts a broader notion of refugees, by defining them as "persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order". By contrast, Italy recently approved a bill, drafted by the right-winger Matteo Salvini, that blatantly limits to a bare minimum, the instances in which the Italian government has a legal obligation towards refugees.
Second, the current understanding of solidarity entails a formal, rather than substantive commitment from nation states – there is no operationalizing mechanism provided. The UDHR recognizes right to emigrate as a universal human right, that is not true for the right to immigrate – which is a laughable logical inconsistency, though it is politically savvy. As a result of this, an individual has the right to move, but states control where he/she can go. The balance between these two structurally antagonistic rights is to a large extent determined by the conventionally-accepted notion of solidarity. A weak definition, such as the one prevailing today, is problematic insofar as it is incapable of countering the now widespread nationalist thrusts. Worse still, the current stigmatization fosters ideological and methodological forms of nationalism – a potent rallying cry for instilling deeply rooted divides between “aliens” of the state and citizens within it.
As a result, apathy and hatred are easily fostered. There is also a normative mismatch between international treaties on refugees and their translation into national legislation. More specifically, there is a mismatch between the principle of universality that applies to human rights and the nationally-bound dimension that applies to migrant rights, resulting in a systematic exposure of refugees to a wide range of vulnerabilities. Overall, when dealing with an issue of global governance, such as the refugee challenge, nationalism should by definition be obsolete. But the stigmatization of solidarity prevents this from happening and makes it contingent on the capacity and political willingness of high-income countries, which is already hostage to boisterously crafted public opinion as seen above.
Finally, the current notion of solidarity is flawed because it provides a technical solution, in place of an empathetic acknowledgement of human interdependency. When the 1951 Refugee Convention was drafted, signatory States decided to adopt a notion of solidarity that was universal and hence apolitical, a-cultural and ahistorical. However, transforming solidarity into an organizing principle had the unintended consequence of dehumanizing the subjects to which it applies – in this case, refugees. Rather than follow a Kantian categorical imperative, major powers of the international community now follow, to the letter, the atavistic strategy of divide et impera (divide and rule), in order to foster status quo.
It certainly is important to deal with the root causes of refugee crisis, by promoting peace, human rights and good governance in origin countries; in the meantime, however, solidarity is of paramount importance to provide refugees with adequate protection, something they deserve as human beings.
Since 2016, the UN has been working on a Global Compact on Refugees, with the aim of fostering burden-sharing and promote a global system of responsibility that recognizes the key role of civil society groups – and providing refugees with ways to exercise their voice option. However, in December 2017 Trump’s America announced its withdrawal from the pact, which severely hampers the transformative potential of the Global Compact. While under normal circumstances, one would assume that the EU would step in to fill the void created by the Trump Administration, it is too early to be sure. There are however, several examples of what academic Yohannes Woldemariam calls citizen humanitarianism. Most notably, in the small islands of Lesbo in Greece and Lampedusa in Italy, where volunteers rescue thousands of refugees every year. Nonetheless, such bursts of solidarity at the local level are not mirrored in institutional policies at the EU, where international cooperation and solidarity seem like unattainable utopian visions. Whether European institutions will recalibrate towards citizen humanitarianism or dry out citizens’ own voluntary ethos, only time will tell.
Where are we headed then?
Regrettably, governments in the Global North are merely paying lip service to honoring Convention obligations. Interestingly, and hypocritically, they adduce the lack of financial resources as a justification for their isolationist stances yet, they are spending lavishly on keeping refugees out of their national borders – for instance, see the Turkey-EU deal from 2016.
One of the greatest paradox of our time is the double standard that we apply to civil and political rights, as opposed to human rights. While the former are meticulously regulated and effectively enforceable, the latter are strategically made contingent on the abstract notion of human dignity. Empathy is a great human virtue, but, as all virtues, it is desirable – not enforceable. It follows therefore, that refugees cannot, and should not, be dependent upon others empathy to access their human rights. By extension then, refugees cannot, and should not, be dependent upon borders to access their human rights – but that is not the case. To change the status quo, myths about refugees need to be dispelled, resources need to be channeled towards more inclusive refugee policies and more effective enforcement mechanisms.
In his poem “No Man is an Island”, the English poet John Donne writes,
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.
According to a recent IOM report, 4,820 migrant deaths were recorded in 2017. These are less than the peak reached in 2016 (5,681), but still a disproportionately high number. Let us for a moment put our short-term interests aside, forget about the fear of other economies catching up, avoid the usual solipsism and think about John Donne’s words. Helping refugees is more than a moral obligation – it is a recognition of human interdependency and of the fact that long-term global development, peace and stability are higher aims contingent on the effective management of migration and the successful end of the refugee challenge. De-stigmatizing the now obsolete notion of solidarity, and filling it with a new meaning, is of paramount importance. Solidarity should not be a merely technical and abstract meta-principle; it should be the guiding principle that aims to tear down barriers, and foster a sense of collective responsibility and universalism, thus allowing the development of social ties on a global basis. At the end of the day, “no man is an island”.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the small island of Sardinia, Chiara holds a Bachelor in International Economics and Management from Bocconi University and an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the LSE. Her research interests and past experience revolve around migration, gender, social wellbeing, and environmental health. A voracious reader, tenacious half-marathon runner, and with a forma mentis that is pillared on insatiable curiosity and critical thinking, she has a hankering for writing.