Trump scored easy political points this weekend with the anti-immigrant and anti-globalist crowds when he withdrew from negotiations for the UN Global Compact on Migration. The Global Compact does not violate US sovereignty but that does not matter if Trump can win points by trashing it.
Late Saturday, Nikki Haley announced the US was withdrawing from a UN conference on migration and on Sunday Rex Tillerson held a press conference rationalising why the US could not participate in negotiations for the Global Compact. They claimed that the Global Compact would restrict US sovereignty by dictating migration policy to the United States, deciding who can and cannot enter the country. Although shouting about US sovereignty capitalises on anti-immigrant and anti-globalist sentiments, it reveals Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Global Compact and how international law works. The compact cannot violate sovereignty because it is a non-binding treaty with no enforcement mechanisms, does not establish any new rights for migrants, and could actually restrict certain types of migration.
First, the Global Compact does not set policy for individual countries or have any enforcement mechanisms. The Global Compact is a complex, soft power tool that builds on 30 years of consensus building and dialogue about the drivers, challenges, and benefits of migration. The Global Compact on Migration—whose full name is Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration—aims to increase cooperation on regular migration and protect the human rights of migrants. If adopted in 2018, the compact could include non-binding principles on the treatment of migrants, conditions during detention or deportation, and standards for identifying trafficked victims. Non-binding principles are exactly that—not legally binding; instead, the compact aims to build common understanding, shared approaches, and better organise humanitarian responses. In contrast, the compact’s sister treaty, the Global Compact on Responsibility Sharing for Refugees, could have more ambitious goals of refugee resettlement quotas and launching a comprehensive response plan.
Second, the Global Compact does not create any new rights for migrants—in fact human rights organisations have been largely disappointed. The main achievement of the compact and it’s predecessor, the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, is to consolidate rights found in other treaties, like the 1951 refugee convention and 1967 protocol, the child rights’ treaty, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the Global Compact would acknowledge the very low bar that migrants have human rights, it would not challenge the fundamental difference in how international law approaches refugees versus migrants. Refugees are a privileged category with guaranteed rights in international law, while migrants are often criminalis
ed, exploited, or completely ignored. The NY Declaration and Global Compact reinforce this logic by asserting that refugees deserve rights while migrants deserve assistance. This interpretation is something the Trump team could get behind.
Third, international cooperation on migration does not always encourage migration. In fact, other countries that oppose immigration have used the negotiations to advocate for stronger border control in the compact. For example, the EU has signed readmission agreements with Serbia, Pakistan, and Turkey to facilitate quicker deportations and actually funds the training of border guards in Libya. While Trump’s approach to migration is abhorrent, his agenda would be better served by being in the compact negotiations than out.
The simplest explanation for US withdrawal is that they did not like a recommendation to increase regular (i.e. legal) migration. Most experts agree that increasing legal pathways for migration reduces the number of migrants choosing illegal and more dangerous routes. The UN recommendations are based on a simple humanitarian calculus considering the thousands of migrants dying along the Mediterranean and the US-Mexico borders this year alone. And while Trump’s immigration policies clearly clash with the UN, the recommendations are not a violation of sovereignty. To be clear: there is nothing in this non-binding compact that will force the US to accept new refugees or migrants.
But all this does not matter because trashing the Global Compact on Migration is good for Trumpian politics. Trump can reward anti-globalist by denigrating another multilateral forum: another chance for chest thumping about national sovereignty. The Trump team can use the threat of unchecked migration or waves of desperate refugees to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment, even though the compact could actually restrict migration.
The Global Compact’s most radical claim is that migrants should be treated like human beings. The compact’s recommendations, principles, and standards of practice will layout practical ways of protecting human lives, encouraging due process, and helping migrants integrate into communities. But treating migrants with dignity and rights is not on the Trump agenda—instead he found another way to stoke anti-immigrant and anti-globalist populism.