Global Compact for Migration positive for ensuring free expression, access to information, and inclusive public debate

Civic Space 9 min read
ARTICLE 19
Global Compact for Migration positive for ensuring free expression, access to information, and inclusive public debate - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (the Global Compact) in Marrakech on 10 December 2018. The Global Compact aims to ensure the dignity and safety of migrants, and coordinate government action on this issue. Negotiated by participating States, it underscores the importance of States respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights, including freedom of expression and media freedom, in their responses to migration.

The Global Compact is the first UN agreement for a common approach on international migration. It seeks to ensure the protection of all migrants’ human rights, recognising migration as a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development, and seeking to optimise those positive impacts through improved coordination.

The Compact seeks to ensure that all people are given access to objective, evidence-based, clear information about the benefits and challenges of migration, including to dispel misleading narratives that generate negative perceptions of migrants.

However, some politicians and commentators have made claims about the contents and possible legal ramifications of the Global Compact that are false or misleading, including in relation to its supposed consequences for freedom of expression. The Global Compact, though a set of political commitments, is grounded in international human rights law, and does not allow for States to take action inconsistent with their legal obligations.

ARTICLE 19 considers that there are three key areas in which the Global Compact has the potential to make positive contributions to freedom of expression, not only for migrants but for all people:

Access to information

The Global Compact commits States to “strengthen efforts to provide, make available and disseminate accurate, timely, accessible, and transparent information on migration-related aspects for and between States, communities and migrants at all stages of migration” (Objective 3). This is particularly important to serve the information needs of migrants accessing essential services (Objective 15).  Complementing these aims, the Compact promotes more comprehensive data collection (Objective 1), including for the purposes of better informing public debate, underscoring that the right to privacy must be respected in these processes.

States should implement these commitments consistently with their international human rights law obligations, explicitly providing in law the right of all people, including migrants, to access publicly held information. Importantly, this is a key target under Goal 16 of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, recognising that strong access to information laws are key to maintaining peaceful and inclusive societies, with effective, accountable and transparent institutions.

Civil society space and public participation

A “whole of society approach” underpins the Global Compact, making clear that civil society organisations, including human rights organisations, will need to play a key role in ensuring its implementation.

This implies that strong protections are needed for the rights to freedom of association, expression, assembly, and public participation, including for migrants themselves (see, for example, Objective 16(e) and (f), Objective 17(b)). Limitations to civic space, in particular those targeting migrants, will be obstacles to the implementation of the Global Compact and must be removed. This includes laws and policies that criminalise migration and/or the provision of support by civil society and human rights defenders to migrants, since they make the exercise of civil and political rights precarious.

Ensuring the participation of migrants in decision-making that affects them, including in the development and implementation of laws and policies, will be essential to effective implementation of the Global Compact. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has provided instructive guidance both on protecting civil society space, and on ensuring effective public participation.

Promoting inclusion and tackling hate

The Global Compact underscores that protecting open and free debate is key to ensuring safety and dignity for migrants, reinforcing that non-discrimination and freedom of expression are mutually reinforcing human rights principles. At the same time, it responds to rising nationalist politics, characterised by anti-migrant and discriminatory rhetoric, which often attack the universality of human rights and the institutions that protect them.

Objectives 16 and 17 of the Global Compact aim to ensure full inclusion of migrants and social cohesion, to eliminate discrimination, and to promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration. It is clear these commitments are grounded in and do not undermine States’ existing human rights obligations, including on freedom of expression.

To ensure full inclusion and social cohesion, a series of measures are set out to prohibit discrimination in law and practice, to protect and recognise the social and cultural rights and contributions of migrants, to promote inter-cultural dialogue, and commit to evidence-based education on migration and in favour of diversity in schools.

The focus in Objective 17 is primarily to counter “hate speech” with more informed speech promoting tolerance, and ensure better informed debates on migration for all people. It calls for measures that enable migrants to tell their own stories and to speak out against hatred, and sets out the imperative that politicians and other leaders counter hatred too, and support public and civil-society led efforts to campaign for migrants’ rights, and against discrimination and hatred.

The media are identified as key partners, and Objective 17 outlines how independent, objective and quality reporting is essential both to treat migrants with dignity and to ensure the public’s right of access to reliable information.  The Global Compact calls for media education and ethical reporting standards on migration, making clear that international standards on media freedom must be respected. The Compact specifies that public funding to media (for example through license fees or government advertising) should be withdrawn for media that systematically violate ethical standards, including on non-discrimination. This is consistent with international standards, which require that public funding to the media be contingent on upholding ethical standards on non-discrimination. Processes determining the allocation or withdrawal of such funds must be subject to a clear legal framework, be transparent, and also be free of political influence, to safeguard against abuse.

The Global Compact does not modify or expand States’ existing obligations under international human rights law to prohibit the most severe forms of “hate speech”. Such prohibitions must clearly protect freedom of expression, and cannot be abused to insulate governments from criticism or limit speech solely on the basis of its offensiveness.

Next steps: implementation

ARTICLE 19 urges all governments to support the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration, including through its formal endorsement later this month at the UN General Assembly in New York. As with any global commitments, the test of the Global Compact for Migration will be its effective implementation.

We urge that States draw upon their existing human rights obligations and commitments to fulfil all of the Objectives of the Global Compact, ensuring it is used to strengthen access to information, civil society space, and measures to promote inclusion and tackle hatred.