Canada is among several other countries preparing to approve a United Nations agreement on migration next week.
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, set to be approved in Morocco, will be the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement under the UN to cover all dimensions of international migration.
But — despite some recent confusion — it won’t be legally binding.
Craig Damian Smith, the associate director of the Global Migration Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, explained to Global News that it can more accurately be described as “a set of indicators and best practices.”
“They’ve all agreed on a set of indicators and best practices, and ideally, they will lead to better co-operation toward common goals in the international community,” he said.
He explained that pacts and agreements shouldn’t be confused with international treaties, which can be legally binding.
“It’s not a treaty, it doesn’t require any kind of ratification — the states are just signing their names saying they’ll try to co-operate,” Smith said.
Andrew Scheer speaks out against agreement
On Tuesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rose in the House of Commons and stated that signing on would mean that “foreign entities” would be able to dictate Canadian immigration policies.
“Canadians and Canadians alone should make decisions on who comes into our country and under what circumstances,” Scheer said.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Scheer of using “Rebel Media talking points” — a reference to the controversial website, which has been linked to the alt-right.
Scheer’s statement is factually incorrect: this Compact is a political declaration, not a legally binding treaty: it has no impact on our sovereignty. Canada has always been a champion & example of safe, orderly & regular migration. https://t.co/wfk7VqAKJU
— Chris Alexander (@calxandr) December 4, 2018
Scheer’s characterization of the pact’s legal authority was dismissed as “factually incorrect” by a former Conservative immigration minister.
Chris Alexander, who served as immigration minister under Stephen Harper, tweeted that the pact “is a political declaration, not a legally binding treaty.”
Global News reached out over email to Scheer’s office for comment and was forwarded a statement that reiterated his position against the pact.
“Conservatives have always stood up for secure borders and a safe and orderly immigration system. That’s why we’ve demanded Trudeau take action to fix this mess. We believe Canada must be in control of our borders and have full autonomy over who enters our country,” it read.
It did not touch on the fact that the pact is not legally binding. But Tories’ problem with the pact goes beyond its legality.
In a motion put forth by immigration critic Michelle Rempel, it called on the government to study exactly how the pact will affect Canada’s sovereignty, immigration policy, freedom of the press, and the potential costs of adopting measures related to the pact.
Objective 17 of the agreement has also been criticized. It reads that countries should “promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets… including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology.”
Scheer, along with other right-wing politicians, have said that amounts to infringing on freedom of the press.
However, the pact also says signatories must commit to protecting free speech, “recognizing that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration.”
Smith explained that part of this is political talking points for opponents, especially in this case because immigration can be an especially politically-charged issue.
He noted some right-wing governments have said they won’t sign it.
“What’s going on with politicians saying that they won’t sign on, or making a big deal about it, is it’s about signalling to a domestic audience,” he said.
Internationally, the criticism about the deal has come across the globe. The United States has refused to sign on.
Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, have also shunned the accord — a sign of how the bloc has turned increasingly restrictive on accepting refugees and migrants alike since a 2015 spike in arrivals.
In late November, the Australian government said it will not sign up to the pact, despite playing a key role in drafting it.
Australia said it’s concerned signing onto the pact will undermine its policies to deter asylum seekers, which include maintaining offshore detention facilities and turning away boats arriving by sea.
Austria has said that it will not sign up. Belgium’s prime minister has said he will support the pact, but his right-wing coalition partner has opposed it and threatened to withdraw his support for the government if it signs on.
If it’s not binding, what’s the purpose?
While not legally binding, the migration pact and other international documents do carry weight.
“It’s like the Sustainable Development Goals,” Smith explained, comparing it to goals set by the UN on a variety of topics, such as eliminating poverty and climate change.
“It doesn’t have the force of a treaty. But it’s a set of indicators that states have said, ‘OK, we want to leave no one behind.’”
That means over the next year, there will be more meetings, discussions and therefore accountability on issues related to migration.
“That’s what you call soft power diplomacy,” Smith said.
Anne Peters, director of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Germany, also pointed out that the text of the agreement “does not contain short and clear obligations,” and is more akin to the 2000 Millennium Declaration in terms of legal obligations than it is to say, the Paris climate change pact.
Writing for the European Journal of International Law’s blog, Peters explained it does have some legal weight.
It is worded to encourage domestic courts and authorities to consider it in their interpretations of the law. Immigration agencies could also draw on the pact in making discretionary decisions.
“So overall, signing the migration compact will not be irrelevant in legal terms,” Peters concluded.