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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Department Counselor
Remarks to representatives of government,
non-governmental, and international organizations,
Seminar on Human Rights and Migrants
Crystal City, VA, April 23, 1998

Released by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

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Identifying and Protecting the Human Rights of Migrants

Good morning. I would like to welcome you to Washington at one of the best times of the year to migrate temporarily to our capital city.

This seminar on human rights and migrants commences an important discussion among the members of civil society in Central and North America. The group is unusual for its mix of government, non-government, and international organization representatives with multiple and complex interests. It is really quite extraordinary that we are all here now discussing this important topic.

The U.S. delegation to the Summit of the Americas has just returned from Chile this week, and I think it is worth noting the priority given to the rights of migrant workers in the summit Plan of Action. This seminar supports the summit's priority activities for migrants, which includes guaranteeing the human rights of all migrants, consistent with the legal framework of each country.

Many of the representatives in this room work on one or another aspect of migration or human rights, and you may believe that you have major differences with one another. First, though, I think we owe it to each other to review what we share in common in these areas.

Our Commonalties

We are all from countries whose history and economic development have been shaped by migrants. Unlike many areas of the world, the Western Hemisphere has the ability to see and deal directly with migration--not as a problem, but as a complex, historical phenomenon with both positive and sometimes not so positive aspects that must be managed humanely and effectively. That is what our North and Central American Regional Consultation on Migration Policy is all about and how this seminar came to be.

We are also from countries where protection of human rights is a strong national interest and a strong national commitment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American
Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which are both being celebrated this year for their 50th anniversary, enshrined the birthright of each person into a common, global standard accepted by the Americas as well as other nations. Human rights is a major pillar of our foreign policy--one that is shared by the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government and by the citizens of our country. I am sure that most of you have noticed, as the United States publicly acknowledged, the great improvement in respect for human rights that has accompanied peace in Central America. President Clinton, speaking in Chile while attending the Summit of the Americas last weekend, referred to "the new reality in the Americas--the march of freedom, prosperity, peace, and partnership among our nations." He noted that "in all our nations too many people have not felt this new reality, and we should resolve to continue to work together until they do." Some of those people are migrants, and all of us are their hosts.

Human Rights Treaties' Treatment of Migrants

Aside from the Universal Declaration, I have not discovered too many other major international human rights instruments that all 10 of our governments have accepted or ratified, as the case may be. However, I hope that soon our government will change that and join you and the rest of the 161 nations which are states parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). President Clinton reaffirmed on International Women's Day in March that the women's convention is our highest human rights treaty priority for ratification.

Like women's rights, there are many international treaties that treat human rights issues without specificity as to how they affect migrants. There are, however, clear implications for migrants in issues such as racism, torture, and civil and political rights. Each of these issues is the subject of an international treaty, and most of them have been ratified by most of the governments present here today.

Many of these human rights instruments contain provisions that are clearly intended to apply to citizens of a country--for example, the right to vote in a democracy--and not to migrants. Other provisions, however, such as freedom from slavery, must apply to all persons in every corner of the earth, whether citizen or migrant, and whether a migrant is documented or undocumented.

The provisions of the global human rights treaties that deal directly with migration treat largely the movement itself, rather than the treatment of migrants in other countries. The freedom to leave a country, and the right to return to one's own country, are both enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ambiguities in the Treatment of Migrants in Treaties

What, then, are some of the issues that are ambiguous in terms of their application--those that may have been included in human rights documents without migrants in mind, but which should have some applicability to a migrant population, such as access to emergency health care, or to education; issues which are under much debate in this country, as you well know? When is the distinction between citizen, legally documented migrant, and undocumented migrant appropriate, and when is it inappropriate?

We have invited several practitioners in health and education to speak on these issues in two panels that will examine health and education for migrants in greater depth. In your discussions, you may be able to identify where migrants suffer the greatest risk of being ignored, and look at practical means that have been taken to protect migrants' interests. We would like to see recommendations for practical steps that our 10 countries in the region might take to ensure the appropriate treatment of migrants within each of our borders.

Migrant-Specific Treaties in Force

There are other human rights treaties in force that deal specifically with migrants. The Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees is the most widely embraced, and has guided the international community in its protection of refugees for 47 years. The Convention against Torture prohibits the expulsion of a person to another state where substantial grounds exist for believing that s/he might be subjected to torture. All of our governments have signed, and most of us have ratified both treaties. But we have acknowledged in the Plan of Action for the Regional Consultations that the group of migrants included in these treaties is a very narrow group as compared to the majority of migrants in our hemisphere. At the same time, we must create sufficient space in our migration laws and procedures to recognize and respond to the legitimate pleas of someone who fears torture or persecution.

Consular Access

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which has been much in the news in this country, is also relevant to migrants, whether temporary or resident in the event that they are arrested or detained in the host country, or die or become mentally incompetent. One of the panels at this seminar will be on the subject of consular access to detained migrants, particularly in the context of immigration detention.

Almost every government represented here is a party to this convention. Our immigration service has long provided for notification to consular officers, and, since we became a party to this convention, the Department of State has routinely advised U.S. law enforcement officials of the notification and access requirements.

Recently, sadly, we have needed to intensify these efforts, to ensure an even better understanding by local law enforcement officials of our obligations under the treaty when a foreign national is arrested. Department of State officers have traveled to the states bordering Mexico to educate law enforcement agencies about the Vienna Convention. This type of activity was envisioned in the Plan of Action that we crafted at our regional consultation in Panama in 1997. At our most recent governmental consultations in Ottawa in February, which were terrific and very successful, the United States distributed a new publication on Consular Notification and Access that we are using to disseminate this important information.

We have also welcomed efforts by Mexican consular officials in the United States to enhance their level of consular services, to better inform Mexicans in the United Sates of what Mexican consular officers can do for them, and to establish working relationships with local law enforcement authorities. The panel before you may be able to suggest other practical steps that all of us might take to improve our ability to protect migrants in our own countries or our own citizens in other countries.

Goals of this Seminar

So, we are here to begin a process to identify those human rights and fundamental freedoms that are most in need of our attention when it comes to migrants. We should pay attention to when it is appropriate to distinguish between migrants who are documented or not, and when the issue under discussion is applicable to anyone present in a country, regardless of their migrant status. What are the risks to a migrant's human rights and fundamental freedoms that are faced in a new country that we should address at another meeting?

So, what can we hope to expect from these next two days? Given the breadth of the topic, our discussions may not be completed by the end of the day tomorrow.

We hope we will develop an agenda for the issue of human rights and migrants that we may recommend to the Regional Consultation on Migration next year. That agenda might include subject for future meetings or areas where research is needed. We might agree on basic information that should be disseminated on particular aspects of human rights and migrants.

We have all the elements of civil society here in this room to develop this work. I see dedicated service providers who work directly with migrants as they struggle in a foreign country, such as the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services of the United States, Legal Assistance Alternatives of Panama, and the Center for Attention to Migrants of El Salvador. There are international organization employees from the International Organization for Migration and from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who understand the difficulties in forging multilateral agreements to set international standards. And, finally, there are government representatives who walk the fine line between theory, policy, and practice. We have a solid corps of experts here in this room.

I encourage you to meet and try to understand those who do not share your experience dealing with migration. As NGO representatives, government officials, and international civil servants become more familiar with each other, we will see that we share enough common principles and purposes to make not only these two days productive, but most important to make a positive difference in the lives of the migrants we host and hope for. I congratulate and honor you.

Thank you.

[end of document]

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