Tag Archives: United Nations

International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

Last year, we decided to observe March 16 as the annual Open Borders Day. The date was chosen because Open Borders: The Case, the website, officially launched on March 16, 2012. Broadly, the goal of the day is to ponder a world with open borders, the moral case for it, and how such a world might differ from the status quo.

Before settling on March 16, we had an internal debate among our regular and some of our guest bloggers about the choice of date. Various dates, including the Fourth of July, had been proposed, but we ultimately decided to go with our own day, so that it would be free of the baggage (positive or negative) of other days, and could be used to highlight open borders as an issue in its own right. At the time, I (and as far as I can make out, the others participating in the discussion) weren’t aware of perhaps the closest contender: International Migrants Day. The day was designated and is recognized by the United Nations to be on December 18 each year, starting in the year 2000. The Migrant Rights Network has a nice-looking website devoted to the day.

In this blog post, I explain three ways that International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day differ:

  1. Focus: the status quo versus open borders
  2. The attention to migrants as a separate class of people
  3. The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

Continue reading International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

The modern borders regime was designed to secure international peace

This is part of a book project, see explanation here. It’s written as part 1B in this outline. For the Google Doc version, see here.

The UN-led international order is primarily dedicated to protecting the “sanctity” of borders against foreign invasion, or, to a lesser extent, interference.

The universal hegemony of the Western nation-state model is a major historic victory for the statesmen, especially Anglo-American statesmen, who built first the League of Nations and then the United Nations, and who successfully established a post-WWII world order largely conforming to their ideological vision of how mankind should be politically organized. Though Woodrow Wilson’s career ended in humiliating failure when the US Congress failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, leaving the US outside the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson is probably the single most important intellectual influence on the modern geopolitical order, which attempts to embody the principle of national self-determination that he propounded.

The world was definitely not organized on the basis of national self-determination in 1914. For one thing, there was great freedom of migration. Though some border controls existed, e.g., at Ellis Island, where a small proportion of would-be immigrants were sent back for medical reasons, it was possible for most people to go migrate into and out of the leading nations of the world without passports or visas. If it is part of national sovereignty to control citizenship and residency in a nation’s territorial boundaries, as is often alleged, the nations of the world in 1914 did not enjoy, or at any rate did not exercise, effective national sovereignty. Furthermore, most of the surface of the globe at that time was governed not by nation-states, but by large transnational empires. Among these, there was a distinction between dynastic empires ruling over large landed territories containing ethnically varied peoples all subject to the same monarch, and colonial empires in which a “mother country” with an independent national life ruled over overseas territories inhabited by peoples who were definitely considered to be at a lower civilizational level, and with whom the mother country’s historic contacts, usually commercial in nature, had begun much more recently, during the European Age of Exploration. Of the dynastic empires, the leading examples were the Austrian Habsburg empire and the tsarist Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty; China and the Ottoman Empire were other examples. Of the colonial empires, the leading examples were the British, French, and Dutch empires, though the Portuguese and Spanish empires, dissolved well before 1914, had helped to establish the pattern for this kind of colonialism. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, though initially directed mainly against the dynastic empires, was also inimical to the colonial empires, and the dissolution of most of the dynastic empires in the immediate aftermath of World War I and of the colonial empires after World War II both represent victories for Woodrow Wilson’s idea.

Many reasons can be suggested for the long-run success of Woodrow Wilson’s geopolitical reorganization of the world. Obviously, US military power is one major factor. The US remained potentially the largest military power in the interwar years, and became the world’s largest actual military power during and after World War II, as it remains to this day. Indeed, the military preponderance of the US only increased after the fall of the Soviet Union and may have been at a historic peak at the time of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But the US did not exactly march out and impose its geopolitical vision on the world. It didn’t join the League of Nations and turned isolationist during the interwar years, except for a few interventions in the Western hemisphere. It joined World War II in self-defense after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war. That said, the US needn’t have prioritized the European theater, and the energetic war it waged in western Europe probably reflected sympathy for its democratic allies in Europe and pursuit of its principles of justice and right, more than national self-interest. Moreover, the US aided Britain and blockaded Japan before it was officially at war. From WWII on, US military power was deployed worldwide, but often in ways not particularly consistent with Wilsonian principles. Thus, in WWII, the US was the ally of two empires, and after the war, the US connived at the Soviet conquest of eastern Europe. In the Cold War, the US often made “realist” (i.e., cynical) alliances with authoritarian regimes, violating Wilson’s slogan of “making the world safe for democracy.” Wilsonian principles remained the goal, however. The US preferred to ally itself with democratic nation-states when it could, and US backing made it possible for some of these, especially in Europe and East Asia, to flourish in a security which they lacked the military strength to obtain for themselves. Continue reading The modern borders regime was designed to secure international peace

Non-Refoulement (and “Secretary Hildebrand”)

In 1077, the monk Hildebrand who had become pope and taken the name Gregory VII, excommunicated the German emperor, causing a collapse of his power, on the grounds that the latter had usurped the Church’s right to appoint, or “invest” bishops. The “investiture controversy” that followed lasted for well over a century, and ended in a sort of Pyrrhic victory for the popes, who destroyed the German imperial House of Staufen, but at the cost of empowering its rivals, especially the kings of France, who eventually took the papacy “prisoner” at Avignon. Meanwhile, the duel of pope and emperor triggered a lot of thinking and gave the Italian city-states the chance to emerge as autonomous republics in alliance with the papacy against the empire. In my view, the investiture controversy was a crucial episode in the rise of Western freedom. Prior to the mid-11th century, the papacy was weak and more often than not a pawn of either the Roman nobility or the German emperors. Hildebrand and a few colleagues were bold ideologues who spearheaded what historian Norman Cantor has called a “world revolution.”

Turning to the present, the UN is a bit like the early medieval papacy: it is weak and widely disdained, yet it has a sort of latent institutional legitimacy which could be a very powerful instrument in the right hands. A charismatic and ambitious secretary-general, with a powerful and popular ideology and a willingness to use all the material means and moral influence of his office to pursue it, could change the world. I suspect that in many areas of international law and policy, e.g., the trade regime, the international patent and copyright regime, bilateral and multilateral investment treaties, sovereign debt, travel/migration/visa regimes, and so on. There are multiple equilibria. For example, it might be in poor countries’ interests not to expropriate multinational corporations if no one else is doing it– why make oneself a pariah to the investment community?– but in their interest to do so if they could all agree to do so at the same time to punish an investment source country, at the exhortation of the UN, because they would get a reputation not as thieves but as good global citizens (while also pocketing the expropriated wealth). A brave and charismatic UN secretary-general– let’s call him Secretary Hildebrand– might give his agency teeth one of these days.

If so, one of the aspects of international law he might give teeth to is non-refoulement, the principle that it’s illegal to return a person to a country where they’re likely to suffer persecution or torture. (I approve, on natural law grounds. Knowingly to compel a person to go where they’ll be persecuted or tortured is tantamount to perpetrating persecution or torture.) A grad student, Jessica Rodger, wrote a thesis about it. I quote:

[3] During the last days of August this year, a humanitarian drama unfolded in the Indian Ocean. 433 asylum-seekers were stranded aboard a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, which had rescued them from a sinking Indonesian ship. They had requested refugee status from the government of Australia when they entered Australian waters, but their request had been denied. Despite pressure from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the international community in general, the Australian government stood by its decision. The crisis was only resolved when the governments of Nauru and New Zealand agreed to process the asylum-seekers, with Australia providing financial assistance and transport.1

[4] The Tampa incident brought home to many in the Asia-Pacific region a fact that those in Europe and Africa have long known. The issue of asylum-seekers and the granting of refugee status is an incredibly complex problem which the international community, as of yet, is not fully equipped to deal with. This paper will examine the international law regime which has been developed to deal with refugees. The cornerstone of this regime, and the focus of this paper, is the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is the idea that it is illegal for states to expel or return (“refouler”) refugees who have a well-founded fear of persecution. Over recent years this principle, and the refugee regime itself, has found itself increasingly under threat.

[5] An examination of some of the more recent situations of mass refugee flows, and also of the restrictive refugee policies being implemented by Western nations, will help to illustrate both the importance of the non-refoulement principle and the problems which the states themselves face when trying to live up to their international obligations.  Both states and refugees often find themselves on uncertain legal ground when attempting to invoke the non-refoulement principle. The reason for this is that the parameters of the principle are not clearly defined. This has become especially problematic recently as refugee flows have increased and states have become more reluctant to accept asylum-seekers. States are therefore using the grey areas of the non-refoulement principle to get around their international obligations.

“Secretary Hildebrand” could exert pressure for the non-refoulement principle be written into countries’ laws, and encourage countries to punish non-compliance by making their trade policies, visa policies, and investment policies unfavorable to countries guilty of non-compliance. I suspect that any UN secretary-general famous enough to be a household name worldwide would have a good chance of forcing countries to make non-refoulement a reality.

I’m proud to report that the grandfather of a friend of mine forged a lot of documents, in the aftermath of World War II, so as to save people from repatriation to Stalin’s Soviet Union, where they would have been killed, and got them into the US instead. Such people are among history’s heroes. Schoolchildren should be taught to admire them.