[Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.]
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rightfully characterized the US Supreme Court’s Sale v. Haitian Centers Council judgment in 1993 as a “setback to modern international refugee law,” and for the next two decades nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR have been trying to limit the damage, pick up the pieces, and salvage what they could after that setback.
Refugee advocates saw immediately that the central idea of the Sale decision, that the principle of nonrefoulement does not apply extra-territorially, would give a giant push to a movement among asylum-destination states that was already well underway at the time of the decision to divert refugee flows, particularly of boat migrants. What made Sale particularly damaging was not only the judgment per se, but the fact that it came from the United States, the erstwhile leader of the modern refugee regime. From Europe to Australia, but no less so among less developed states in Asia and Africa, the US example of interdicting and pushing back Haitian asylum seekers, now blessed by the Supreme Court, looked like a green light for erecting barriers not only to prevent entry, but to operate unbound by the principle of nonrefoulement, cornerstone of international refugee law, on the high seas and in other legally grey areas, such as no-man’s lands between border crossings, where territorial jurisdiction is not always clear.
This essay will look at how NGOs and UNHCR, among others, worked to reiterate in international law fora the principle that the principle of nonrefoulement knows no territorial limits, to dissuade other jurisdictions from adopting the Sale interpretation, and to challenge other states that might try to follow the US lead in interdicting and summarily returning boat migrants. A companion essay looks specifically at NGO advocacy post Sale directed at the executive and legislative branches in the United States.
IACHR: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was an early battleground in this effort. A coalition of key Haitian-specific NGOs, including the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, and the Washington Office on Haiti, joined with the Haitian Centre for Human Rights in Port-au-Prince to petition the IACHR to declare the US interdiction program a serious violation of internationally protected human rights. In 1997 in Haitian Centre for Human Rights et al. v. US, the IACHR found that US interdiction and summary return of Haitians contradicted the US’s nonrefoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention, which know “no geographical limitations” and that the US further breached article 27 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man by preventing interdicted Haitians from exercising their right to seek and receive asylum in a foreign country.
UNHCR’s Executive Committee: In the years immediately following the Sale decision, another key battleground for refugee advocates was the UNHCR Executive Committee, where the United States had heretofore played a relatively progressive role with respect to articulating refugee rights principles. But in the post-Sale 1990s, the United States began to play a decidedly obstructive role on the interpretation of the nonrefoulment principle. (See here.)
Previously, ExCom conclusions on nonrefoulement going back to 1977 routinely said that the principle of nonrefoulment applies both at the border and within the territory of states. In the ExCom conclusions of 1996 and 1997- ExCom Conclusions 79 and 82–the “at the border” language was dropped. An early draft of ExCom 79 had reiterated the standard “at the border” language, but the US delegation to the June 1996 standing committee opposed that language, calling it an overstatement of existing international refugee law. UNHCR wrote a letter to the US mission to the UN in Geneva saying that “no other state has adopted as a matter of law the circumscribed view of nonrefoulement advocated by the United States.” US advocates, including this writer, met with and corresponded with US government officials to argue that the position the US was adopting at the ExCom went even further than Sale, which had addressed high seas interdiction, but had not suggested that the principle of refoulement does not apply at the US border. In fact, Justice Stevens had said, “The INA offers these statutory protections [referring to §243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act] only to aliens who reside in or who have arrived at a border of the United States.”
A letter signed by 12 executives of NGOs, including the US Committee for Refugees, the International Rescue Committee, the US Catholic Conference, Church World Service, and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society wrote to Anthony Lake, assistant to the President on National Security Affairs, saying: “What standing will the US State Department representatives have next time we plead with West African nations not to push back Liberian boat refugees?… What signal is the US sending to countries like Turkey and Iran who have recently refused entry to Kurdish persons fleeing Saddam Hussein’s secret police?”
The US NGOs were able to convince the State Department to include in its speech to the 1996 ExCom a “political statement” that referred to the principle of nonrefoulement as applying “from the border” of a state, but the State Department only consented to refer to this as a “humanitarian principle,” not a legal one.
With the turn of the millennium and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, UNHCR convened a series of Global Consultations on International Protection intended to clarify and fill protection gaps in the Convention. UNHCR commissioned scholarly analyses and convened expert roundtables geared toward maritime interdiction and the principle of nonrefoulement, all of which set the stage for ExCom Conclusion 97 of October 2003 on Safeguards in Interception Measures. Although ExCom Conclusion 97 did not explicitly use the term nonrefoulement, it said that:
“interception measures should not result in asylum-seekers and refugees being denied access to international protection, or result in those in need of international protection being returned, directly or indirectly, to the frontiers of territories where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of a Convention ground.”