National MPs have been railing against the ‘Global Compact’. Sam Bookman sets the record straight on the United Nations agreement and what it really means for immigration.
As Kiwis, we consider ourselves pretty good global citizens. We like to believe that from our corner of the South Pacific we can play an outsized role in world affairs. As many countries swing toward nativist xenophobia, we took pride when our prime minister staked out a ground for compassion and cooperation at the United Nations earlier this year.
Against that backdrop, it seems odd that National Party leader Simon Bridges took time out of his busy week to criticise a little-known United Nations agreement, the Global Compact for Migration. The United Nations’ first ever comprehensive agreement on migration, it contains a set of principles and commitments to promote international cooperation.
In an awkward video, Bridges declared that “we should set the rules, not the United Nations”. He followed up with a press release alleging that the Global Compact was an “automatic right to migrate to another country without that country’s full agreement”.
He called on the government to join a growing number of countries – such as Australia, Hungary, and the United States – in pulling out of the Global Compact, and pledged that a future National government would do so. Todd McLay, National’s foreign affairs spokesperson, asserted that the Global Compact “treats legal and illegal immigration the same”.
The Global Compact has become a codeword for many of the alt-right’s favorite punching bags. Viktor Orbán, the far-right Hungarian prime minister, has described it as “copied from the Soros plan”, and a petition imploring the United Kingdom to follow Hungary’s lead has been signed by over 100,000 people. Breitbart has described it as a “globalist pledge”, while the Dutch politician Geert Wilders likened the agreement to opening the front door to terrorism.
It seems that Bridges’ announcement has been driven by the right flank of his party. Judith Collins pinned a tweet complaining that the agreement would give up New Zealand’s geographical “advantage” in receiving fewer migrants than other countries. And the socially conservative duo Simeon Brown and Chris Penk recorded a video in front of a portrait of the Queen, which echoed the Trump administration’s language by clearly emphasising the mantra of “sovereignty”. At best, National seems to drive a wedge between liberal Labour and populist New Zealand First: at worst, it’s making a fearmongering appeal to xenophobes and racists.
Bridges’ assertion is bare-faced nonsense. Nowhere in the text does the Global Compact create a right for people to migrate wherever they want. Instead, the Global Compact declares the opposite, affirming the sovereign right of states to set their own immigration policies. “States may distinguish between regular and irregular migration status … taking into account different national realities, policies, priorities and requirements for entry”. In other words, how New Zealand’s immigration system currently works.
That starting point of sovereignty in the Global Compact is followed by a number of commitments that fall under “objectives”. These objectives are designed to ensure that all forms of migration take place in a humane and coherent framework. For example, states agree to take steps to address the underlying causes of migration, ensure that regular migration systems are accessible and flexible, and that all migrants have access to human rights protection and basic services (such as schools).
None of the commitments are legally binding. However (as Bridges correctly observes), if countries uphold their commitments, over time it is possible that they could enter into international law.
Of course, that invites an important question: If New Zealand already substantially complies with most of the Global Compact’s commitments, which aren’t binding anyway, what’s the case for signing on? The answer to that is in the agreement’s title. Migration is a truly global phenomenon. New Zealand can’t close its eyes and its borders to the rest of the world and hope for the best. 258 million people live outside their country of birth, including 21 million refugees. That number is growing.
Despite these staggering numbers, there is no single international framework for the management of migration. International refugee law is hopelessly out of date. The lack of coherence exacerbates the kind of chaos and suffering arising from the Syrian and Venezuelan crises, and the cruel treatment of asylum-seekers in Australia and the United States. The Global Compact is not perfect and will not solve all these problems, but it does create a framework for international solutions.
The choice isn’t between open and closed borders: it’s between global cooperation and global chaos. Consider the future impact of climate change. Even in the best case scenarios, tens of millions of people will be forced from their homes in South Asia, Central Africa, and the Pacific by rising sea levels and desertification. Just this week, the Minister of Defence identified climate change as a leading threat to New Zealand’s own national security. The Global Compact is a starting point toward collaborative solutions. As it states, “no State can address migration on its own due to the inherently transnational nature of the phenomenon. It requires international, regional and bilateral cooperation and dialogue”.
Bridges can’t claim to be “supportive of global action on major issues and migration”, and simultaneously exploit populist rhetoric to undermine New Zealand’s role in international cooperation. If Bridges isn’t happy with the Global Compact, instead of taking his foreign policy cues from Breitbart, he should be offering a viable alternative.
Sam Bookman is a former New Zealand lawyer based in New York and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School