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The Refugee Convention at 50

Analysis/Editorials, 2 July 2001

When delegates from 26 countries as diverse as the United States, Israel and Iraq gathered in the elegant Swiss city of Geneva in 1951, they had some unfinished business to attend to.

World War II had long since ended, but hundreds of thousands of refugees still wandered aimlessly across the European continent or squatted in makeshift camps. The international community had, on several occasions earlier in the century, established refugee organizations and approved refugee conventions, but legal protection and assistance remained rudimentary.

After more than three weeks of tough legal wrangling, delegates on 28 July adopted what has become known as the Magna Carta of international refugee law, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

This resulting instrument was a legal compromise "conceived out of enlightened self-interest," according to one expert. Governments refused to "sign a blank check" against the future, limiting the scope of the Convention mainly to refugees in Europe and to events occurring before 1 January 1951.

It was hoped the 'refugee crisis' could be cleared up quickly. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the guardian of the Convention, which had been created shortly before, was given a three-year mandate and was then expected to 'go out of business' with the problem solved.

Fifty years later, the treaty remains a cornerstone of protection. There have been momentous achievements and changes along the way. Regional conventions were created in its image. Some provisions such as the definition of the term 'refugee' and the principle of non-forcible return of people to territories where they could face persecution (non-refoulement) have become fundamental international law. With the treaty's help, UNHCR assisted an estimated 50 million people restart their lives.

The global crisis outgrew parts of the original document and a 1967 Protocol to the Convention eliminated the time and geographical constraints. Issues which the original delegates, all males, never even considered such as gender-based persecution became major problems.

This refugee world also became more crowded, with millions of refugees, economic migrants and others on the move. All of this, some critics argue, has made the Convention outdated and irrelevant.

On the 50th anniversary of its adoption, a lively debate is underway. British Prime Minister Tony Blair says though the treaty's "values are timeless" it is now time to "stand back and consider its application in today's world." Many jurists say the Convention has shown extraordinary longevity and flexibility in meeting known and unforeseen challenges.

Whatever the outcome of these discussions, it is certain that millions of uprooted people will continue to rely on the Convention for their protection.