Since 1951, rights for refugees remain sacred

As we enter a new phase both in conflict resolution and international relations in the 21st century, we need to build on foundations like the Convention to prevent history from repeating itself. 

Our world has witnessed conflict in different regions from time to time. Two world wars fought in the 20th century earned their place in history for several reasons. First, the measures that were put in place after WWI to prevent another war from erupting failed, leading to WWII. Then, the need for clear legal structures to bring sanity to the international arena became evident, leading to the creation of the United Nations in 1945 in San Francisco. The so called world powers could not afford another world war after the second when most of their economies were left in tatters.

It was also evident that gross human rights violations had been committed and nations knew that they had to draw legal guidelines to protect those affected. The Geneva Convention on refugees was born on the 28 July 1951. Countries that ratified it had an obligation to fulfill their international commitments.

The Convention defines a refugee in article 1 as ‘A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’

Some countries would return Jews to Germany before the Convention, knowing fully that they would be persecuted. With the Convention in place, governments had a human face and the victims saw a ray of light in all the darkness.

In 1967 there was an overhaul of the Convention because before this Europeans were the main beneficiaries, since they had been the most affected after WWII. A protocol was put in place to strengthen some of the fault-lines in the Convention. In the 1967 protocol, for example, the geographical scope of refugees was expanded to include other areas apart from Europe. More countries, including the United States, ratified the protocol.

Denmark was the first state to be party to the convention. 145 countries had ratified it as of July 2013.

There are several myths that the Convention clearly clarifies, one of them being the circumstances under which an asylum seeker enters the country where he/she is to seek asylum. The Convention says in article 31:

‘The contracting states shall not impose penalties on account of their illegal entry or presence on refugees who coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1,enter or are present in their territory without authorization provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.’

Also in the Convention, refugees are exempted from reciprocity – where according to a country’s law, the granting of a right to an alien is subject to the granting of a similar treatment by the alien’s country of nationality – does not apply to refugees. This notion does not apply to refugees because refugees do not enjoy the protection of their home state.

Refugees also have obligations to the countries that offer them asylum. They are required to abide by the laws and regulations of their country of asylum and respect measures taken for the maintenance of public order. The Convention also sets out which people do not qualify as refugees, such as war criminals.

In the general principle of international law, treaties in force are binding upon the parties to it and must be performed in good faith. States are also bound by the Convention to cooperate with UNHCR. Countries that ratified the Convention also agreed to inform the United Nations secretary-general about the laws and regulations they may adopt to ensure the application of the Convention.

As we enter a new phase both in conflict resolution and international relations in the 21st century, we need to build on foundations like the Convention to prevent history from repeating itself.  Respect for human rights is both morally and legally right. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”