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Prof. James Hathaway on Law Quad

MLaw, Cambridge Team Up to Help Guide UN Refugee Convention into Future

By John Masson
April 19, 2013

A six-decade standoff over how to supervise the United Nations Refugee Convention is a little closer to a solution now, thanks to the efforts of a high-powered, international assemblage of judges and academics organized by Michigan Law and the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law.

Prof. James Hathaway, the director of Michigan Law's Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, co-convened the gathering with Justice Tony North of the Australian Federal Court, a former president of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges. The goal: develop a framework to help guide the Refugee Convention into the future.

"The core concern is that the Refugee Convention—unlike other UN human rights treaties—has languished for 60 years with no oversight body," Hathaway said. "So states sign up to respect refugee rights, but there's no inter-state mechanism to hold them accountable when they don't. It's time that the Refugee Convention come into line with other major human rights treaties on this front."

Participating in the gathering were a number of globally known experts in the field, including Baroness Brenda Hale of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Dr. Volker Türk, Director of International Protection at the UN High Commission on Refugees, and Chief Justice Kashim Zannah of the High Court of Justice of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

"We brought together 10 serious opinion leaders," Hathaway said. "We presented them with good research based on practice with other UN treaties to see if we couldn't convince them to agree that something—even something fairly basic—was required."

That research was prepared by the LLM and PhD students of the Cambridge Pro Bono Project.

Over the course of the gathering, held last fall at Downing College, Cambridge, the experts hammered out a framework for creating a Special Committee of Experts—judges, academics, and other experts in the field who could issue advisory opinions at the request of courts, specialist tribunals, and even the High Commission itself.

"It's a first piece, an academic contribution to the idea of basically dislodging inertia," Hathaway said. "If adopted, it would provide the first opportunity for truly independent oversight of the Refugee Convention, the very first time that an arms-length expert body was in a position to say what is right and what is wrong, as a matter of interpreting the treaty."

The next step in the process is publication of the research, which is expected this fall. What happens after that is more of an open question.

"This is out there now," Hathaway said. "The question now is whether we can get governments and others to take cognizance of it and endorse it. Will the UNHCR feel inclined to rise to the challenge, or will the agency simply sit back quietly to see if pressure is put on it? We're not sure what will result from this, but Michigan and Cambridge can be justly proud of having taken the first step to making states accountable for their obligations under refugee law."

Read a copy of the group's recently released summary conclusions here.

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