The Global Compact on Migration Conference in the Philippines, August 14 and 15, preparatory to its formal adoption in Morocco in December 2018.
TODAY we tackle issues that have confronted mankind since way before the League of Nations was born, drew first breath out of the womb and struggled mostly without success until it famously died from being ignored by the public and the politicians in the smoke of the greatest war in history—the very war it was established to prevent.
But unknown to most, the League achieved a great deal that was of enduring value that would provide solid and sizable stones for the foundation of its reincarnation in the United Nations. In particular, the issue of migration, which increased to unprecedented levels following the World War that pushed for the creation of the League.
Far from being a failure, the bright young professionals working for the League of Nations rather than the old diplomats who misused it for their countries’ malignant purposes, took the League as far as it was possible to go on such issues as migration—along with the issues of refugees in general; of sex and drug trafficking, prostitution and organized crime; and other abuses committed against the most vulnerable people on the planet regardless of where they fled from and where they ended up: people on the run for their safety, for their lives, for the survival of those they loved, or—in the best situation—to give themselves and their families a better life.
And last but not least, and in many cases, first and foremost, those who believe in themselves strongly enough to act on the belief—or delusion if you will—that their lives are completed and their talents best tested by the challenge of new places and new faces; along with the satisfaction of starting all over in another place among other people who will benefit from their presence. They answer the primal call of primal nature, first heard by the first humans in Africa to venture out when there was, really, nothing out there. Far from encountering abroad new peoples, new cultures, new ways of living: they populated empty spaces, creatively recreated the old ways of life they had left behind in new ways to adapt to new places; and thereby created the fruitful and enriching diversity of the world, and of every country in it that is ever the gift of strangers to the strange lands into which they come.
The League of Nations died but it left so much of itself behind that much of the work of establishing the new United Nations after a Second World War required mostly the reassembling of the best that had come before—in many cases by the same young professionals who had done the good work, and as old men saw their work come to life again with a renewed sense of the same grand purpose with a better grasp of the hard and harsh reality in which it must be achieved.
Of course the League’s more famous political aspect died the death it deserved; but the professionals who worked for the League made sure enough remained to make a second attempt much easier and faster. They left such enduring monuments of organizational know-how and data gathering which they housed in indestructible institutions like the International Labour Organization, along with tried and tested practices of scientific disciplines like statistics, economics, sociology, demographics and myriad others which—unlike the strong opinions which generate passionate attachment but which time easily disproved—proved enduring enough to support new accretions of data and evolution of methods. These are the parts of the League that continue in the life of the United Nations. So what we do in the United Nations today is not a fad but a continuation of the best of the work done before. Rarely understood, this work is hardly ever consulted by publics and politicians. It deliberately covers itself in a blanket of terms of art—or jargon the amateurs complain—sufficiently dense to deter the dangerous which is to say the politicians who are prone to misunderstand and misuse them. The young professionals of the League then went on to build yet another commonwealth of the good and called it the United Nations. (From there, old and wiser, they became the leaders of the Free World and while fresh generations of professionals took up their work). The most recent example is the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals which is the global consensus of the right goals to improve life and the right approaches to achieve those goals—a consensus that spans capitalist superpowers and the last communist behemoths. All agree, these are goals that governments of any kind must want for their people to be worthy to be called governments. It always embarrasses me when I mention national development plans which do not cite the SDGs as their sole bases, for then I suspect the plans are attempts to reinvent the wheel without any grasp of the perfect model of the wheel in the SDGs. There is only one way to do economics and that is with classical economics; and there is only one way to attain sustainable development for the great benefit of the greater number of people “without leaving anyone behind,” as a rather tiresome UN slogan goes.
Today the world is still at war—although the absence of open warfare between great powers perpetuates the delusion of the Long Peace of the Cold War between two superpowers that diverted public attention from the hot wars they sponsored and where as many people died as in the Second World War.
And it continues to this day. There’s hardly a place in the world where there is no violence and scarcity, where atrocities are not committed mostly by those who are technically guiltless of them because they are not governments (which alone are covered by human-rights conventions); where more people are dying of worse hunger amid the greatest supply of readily available food in the history of mankind.
And yet some things of great value are still being done—rationally, soberly, patiently, with all the knowledge possible to attain, and all the intelligence of which the best educated and dedicated are capable. Things again that will endure on which the future again can build with confidence that these things will bear the weight of what comes next regardless of what happens to the United Nations in this era so hostile to multilateralism and global cooperation in work for the greater benefit of mankind—and not for their easier exploitation by great powers who think it is now their turn at the trough on the excuse they had been shoved away from the trough in the past by their declining rivals today. As if anyone’s grievance justifies their mistreatment of those who never did them any harm.
The Global Compact on Migration will be one of these monuments. A monument to those who worked hardest, longest and the most on it: The young experts of all the UN missions—all from every UN member state avidly for, actively against, or just overly cautious about—but all of them interested in solving the crises of migration today alongside the bureaucracy of the United Nations.
When the Compact was approved a month ago at the General Assembly without fanfare, for adoption in the Marrakech Conference in December, most of the experts and their ambassadors said with a pleasing modesty that the Global Compact on Migration is not perfect, that more work needs to be done, that it is a work in progress. But I told them that is false modesty, that they have much to be proud of, and they had best shut up. That was one of my few contributions to the Compact and I think it was necessary.
This Compact is as good as it gets, given the evil times into which migration has come. No, more, this is not just as good as it can get in times so filled with hate, division and envy. This is as good as it will ever get, even in the good times sure to come when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction—when it will seem obvious that we had achieved and gotten the world to accept all that is indeed necessary and imperative to make the migrant experience that humblest of things for which to aspire: a decent one.
So that the only thing that remains is for governments and people to implement them—both for the sake of migrants and for their own self-respect as human beings. To be decent: the highest aspiration of mankind.
If not everything in the compact is an enforceable right, indeed the compact is nonbinding except by conscience; nonetheless everything pertinent to the migration experience has been mentioned, touched upon, debated, taken apart and put together, and finally set down with a clarity no one who had read the first draft thought possible.
And it went as far as it is possible to go in an imperfect world so that none may say when they abuse the stranger in a strange land, “Oh, that’s wrong? That’s a bad thing to do? We did not know.”
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