Wednesday, December 05, 2018

NZ should sign the UN Global Compact on Migration

One of the foundations of New Zealand foreign policy has been support for international institutions and international law. Now, the National Party is opposing that foundation over the UN Global Compact on Migration, saying that "it's not for the UN to tell NZ what to do", and threatening to withdraw from it if the government signs it. So what does this evil UN compact do?

having read the final draft version, the answer seems to be "what we're doing anyway". The Global Compact is a non-binding agreement - an aspiration statement more than anything - written in pure business quack-speak rather than the legal language of UN treaties. It basicly says that orderly migration is good, and better when migrants are welcomed by the societies they move to. It sets out some broad principles which should govern it - including human rights and national sovereignty - along with a series of objectives and "actions to be considered" in achieving them. Most of these objectives and actions are completely unobjectionable, and things New Zealand does anyway. So there's stuff like making it easy for migrants to know whether they'd actually meet the legal requirements to move to your country (duh), opposing people smuggling, and reducing the scope for migrants to be exploited. Plus boring things like working towards portable social security, mutual recognition of skills, and making it easy for migrants to send money back to their families. Through this, there's a constant focus on human rights, gender, and the rights of children, but this echoes actually-binding treaties NZ is a party to, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So what's controversial? National says it "treats legal and illegal migration in the same way". This doesn't seem to be the case. The principles section makes it clear that states may distinguish between regular and irregular migration status, including in the implementation of their commitments. And this is made clear in the section on providing basic services to migrants:

We commit to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services. We further commit to strengthen migrant-inclusive service delivery systems, notwithstanding that nationals and regular migrants may be entitled to more comprehensive service provision, while ensuring that any differential treatment must be based on law, proportionate, pursue a legitimate aim, in accordance with international human rights law.
What is a "basic service" is undefined, but New Zealand is already a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires us to recognise the right of all persons, without discrimination, to social security, health, education, housing, and an adequate standard of living (developing countries get to decide the extent to which they implement these rights for non-nationals. Developed countries like NZ don't). So, to the extent that we see this as an obligation, its one we signed up for fifty years ago. As for what it actually means, I'd interpret it as ruling out UK-style "hostile environment" policies (under which illegal migrants - or people who have forgotten their papers - cannot even rent homes or open bank accounts, let alone get jobs, go to school, use the hospitals, or receive benefits, in an explicit attempt to starve them out). We can't leave illegal migrants to starve in the street, or punish their children, but under that provision it seems lawful to treat them in the same manner as tourists or make them subject to the same residency requirements for services as citizens - or at least, no more unlawful than it is at present.

Iain Lees-Galloway says there's some areas of concern, such as "having identity cards for migrants, and what could be viewed as regulation of free speech". The former is an objective to implement the right to a legal identity by ensuring that both nationals have proof of nationality and migrants are issued adequate documentation at all stages of migration. The specific actions make it clear that this is largely an obligation on source countries to make it easy for people to get passports, birth and marriage certificates etc, rather than some Orwellian requirement to give migrants ID cards to mark them out from the rest of the population. As for the free speech stuff, suggested actions include enacting or maintaining anti-hate crime legislation and to cease public funding for media outlets that systematically promote xenophobia, racism and intolerance. We already have obligations to do both under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, so its hard to see any problem here.

So what's the real problem with this compact? Simple: it says immigration detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and outlaws leaving migrants to drown at sea. Racist countries such as Australia and much of Southern Europe hate this. And their racist discourse has been picked up and used locally by the National Party. Its kindof disturbing that they have those sorts of friends, but that's National for you. And so now they've become a party which explicitly opposes a rules-based international order. Except for trade in dairy products, of course.