The Stateless and the New UN Secretary-General

| August 22, 2016
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Olympic refugee team

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his wife Yoo Soon-taek meet with members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team in the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The year 2016 marks two critical events: the number of stateless people (refugees and migrants) has reached at all-time high with some estimates at 65 million, and, alongside the U.S. election, the member-states of the UN will select a new secretary general.

One of the candidates for that post, Vuk Jeremic, the former president of the United Nations General Assembly, has released a detailed 53-point platform for how the United Nations needs to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century. (On climate change, for instance, some of its positions align with the points raised in these pages by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Sustainable development—a subject much covered by EIA—is also extensively addressed.)

When it comes to the crisis of the stateless—those who have fled their homes, been ejected from their states by war, conflict, natural disasters or economic collapse, or who can no longer remain as citizens of their states by virtue of their race, religion, ethnicity or class—the old, established ways of doing things are coming under strain.  One person in every one hundred on this planet is now disconnected from a state. The phenomenon has grown so pervasive that, for the first time, a “national” Olympic team comprised of representatives of the “refugee nation” competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Jeremic points out that the crisis of the stateless is “putting the UN System under huge strain; it is probable that the UN will face even greater burdens in the time ahead.” He is confident that the challenge can be met, but only if “there is an overhaul of how these activities are organized and delivered. In particular, tough questions should be asked and answered regarding the UN System’s comparative advantage.”

Let me offer the beginning thoughts of my own modest proposals for moving forward. I would stress that these are not finalized proposals but first musings, a start for dialogue and discussion.

As I see the current crisis, there are several interrelated issues continuously arising: 1) questions of identification and documentation; 2) conditions of places of refuge; 3) opportunities for the displaced; and 4) a rising demand for services as the number of stateless grow while national budgets are shrinking.

So, some initial thoughts:

a) re-imagining the old Nansen Stateless passports of the early 20th century, but modernized for the 21st century utilizing the latest biometric features, which would help to regularize the ability of stateless people to travel and transit countries, and to be assigned work visas and obtain services such as bank accounts, which depend on reliable identification. A new Nansen system could also collect and store data to link passport holders to actual individuals. The goal would be to gain such documents wider international acceptance.

b) in setting up temporary refugee camps and other places of shelter, the current system treats refugees and migrants as powerless dependents. It also assumes that the national forces that have been detailed to take control of camp management will be in a position to provide all needs (including security)—but as we have seen, this depends greatly on the quality of the personnel assigned and the resources at their disposal. Perhaps a way forward is for people registered under the new Nansen passport system to receive training in a variety of jobs surrounding camp management: from translation and registration to security to health care to construction and maintenance. Over time, perhaps some camps and transit centers could acquire legal status (for instance, being leased from national governments) and those who find refuge there could play a greater role in camp administration. Assigning jobs gives status and dignity to residents and could remove some of the economic incentives for further uncontrolled migration (especially if camps could also be allowed to develop economic zones). This could also provide much needed time to allow for more orderly processing of asylum requests and ultimate plans for permanent resettlement of stateless people. A plethora of abandoned military bases around the world, relics of the Cold War buildup, could serve as the basis for such communities. Again, what the Nansen commission did in the 1930s to resettle and develop communities for stateless persons left homeless in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire might provide a useful template for the current day.

c) The UN suffers from a perennial lack of personnel for humanitarian relief and peace-keeping missions. If a refugee Olympic team can be staffed, why not create a Peace Legion, where Nansen passport holders could be recruited and trained (as peace-keepers, security forces, medical personnel, etc.)? A public-private partnership with foundations such as the Gates Foundation could provide the financing and resources for training and equipping a Peace Legion in conjunction with expertise provided by national military services. Cooperation with existing entities like the Knights of Malta could provide the necessary legal basis for the Peace Legion to obtain bases, have barracks for personnel and be able to field planes and other equipment without infringing on the sovereignty of the existing member-states.

Several years ago, speaking to students at the Naval War College, Abiodun Williams, who served as Director of Strategic Planning for United Nations Secretaries-General Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan, compared the problem of crafting a rapid and effective peace-keeping response to emergency situations to a town that, after a fire has broken out, must then try to create a fire department while the conflagration burns. The member-states may eventually respond, but time is lost. Moreover, there is now an observable diminishing return to televised pictures of crises goading or shaming national governments to act, as the Syria conflict plainly shows. A Peace Legion might give a future UN Secretary General a small group of first responders to immediately tackle a crisis, while giving him or her time to assemble a more permanent and larger force from the member-states; at the same time, a Peace Legion made up of former refugees may have greater empathy for the tasks at hand.

Amitai Etzioni maintains that, in considering the problems of the 21st century, it is necessary to consider “thinking outside the box,” for new solutions and approaches. Fridtjof Nansen tried “outside the box” solutions to cope with the massive disruptions that occurred after World War I. A neo-Nansen approach might be called for  a century later when the crisis of the stateless is several orders of magnitude higher.

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Category: Blog, Migration

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