The day after US President Donald Trump signed his now notorious Muslim ban, he spoke with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Over the phone, she reportedly “explained” to Trump the United States’ obligations under international refugee law, which requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds.
It’s hardly surprising that President Trump had to learn about the United States’ responsibilities towards refugees from a foreign head of state. But it’s clear that after only a week in office his administration’s lack of familiarity with and respect for refugee and human rights law is already charting a dangerous course for the country and the world.
While the exact scope and meaning of the executive order continues to be deciphered, on its face and as applied to date, Trump’s order appears to violate several international treaties ratified by the US, some provisions of which have been incorporated into US law and cited as binding by the US Supreme Court.
In particular, the order seems to fly in the face of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees which updated the post-World War II Refugee Convention of 1951, and other international human rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.
One of the reasons international law is so valuable is because the international community of nations has developed it as protection against such abuses, both in our country and around the world, often in the name of national security.
International law has learned from the past and made explicit that none of these violations can be excused by an appeal to national security, nor should they be permitted by an appeal to xenophobia.
The United Nations Refugee Convention requires that the US provide protection and safe haven to those facing persecution. By shutting the door to refugee admissions, whether temporarily or indefinitely, Trump’s order flagrantly violates that core obligation. This order also breaks with the long US tradition and history (with some abhorrent exceptions that should never be repeated) of opening its doors to refugees.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and International Migration Organization noted this proud tradition in a joint statement in reaction to the executive order. “The long-standing US policy of welcoming refugees has created a win-win situation: it has saved the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world who have in turn enriched and strengthened their new societies,” the statement read. “The contribution of refugees and migrants to their new homes worldwide has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The legislative and negotiating histories of the Refugee Convention further make clear that discrimination by contracting states against different groups of refugees is a direct violation of the treaty.
While governments are responsible for designing their own refugee resettlement programmes, these programmes must conform to international obligations. They must select refugees for resettlement only on the basis of their needs, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other related characteristics.
While the Convention allows exclusion of certain persons from refugee protection - for example, if they committed war crimes - this exclusion is determined on a case-by-case basis and certainly does not allow any sort of blanket ban against a group of people or nationality.
By halting admission of refugees from Syria, Trump has carved out an impermissible exception to a key US treaty obligation for a vulnerable community, one based solely on that community’s country of origin. This is a clear violation of the Refugee Convention.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘All international laws Trump’s Muslim ban is breaking’.