INTRODUCTORY NOTE by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of human rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, is the centrepiece of international refugee protection today.(1) The Convention entered into force on 22 April 1954, and it has been subject to only one amendment in the form of a 1967 Protocol, which removed the geographic and temporal limits of the 1951 Convention.(2) The 1951 Convention, as a post-Second World War instrument, was originally limited in scope to persons fleeing events occurring before 1 January 1951 and within Europe. The 1967 Protocol removed these limitations and thus gave the Convention universal coverage. It has since been supplemented by refugee and subsidiary protection regimes in several regions,(3) as well as via the progressive development of international human rights law.
The 1951 Convention consolidates previous international instruments relating to refugees and provides the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees at the international level. In contrast to earlier international refugee instruments, which applied to specific groups of refugees, the 1951 Convention endorses a single definition of the term “refugee” in Article 1. The emphasis of this definition is on the protection of persons from political or other forms of persecution. A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
The Convention is both a status and rights-based instrument and is underpinned by a number of fundamental principles, most notably non-discrimination, non-penalization, and non-refoulement. Convention provisions, for example, are to be applied without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. Developments in international human rights law also reinforce the principle that the Convention be applied without discrimination as to sex, age, disability, sexuality, or other prohibited grounds of discrimination. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement is so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it. It provides that no one shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.
Finally, the Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to States granting more favourable treatment. Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form. Most States parties to the Convention issue this document, which has become as widely accepted as the former “Nansen passport”, an identity document for refugees devised by the first Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, in 1922.
The Convention does not however apply to all persons who might otherwise satisfy the definition of a refugee in Article 1. In particular, the Convention does not apply to those for whom there are serious reasons for considering that they have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, serious non-political crimes, or are guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. The Convention also does not apply to those refugees who benefit from the protection or assistance of a United Nations agency other than UNHCR, such as refugees from Palestine who fall under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Nor does the Convention apply to those refugees who have a status equivalent of nations in their country of asylum.
Apart from expanding the definition of a refugee, the Protocol obliges States to comply with the substantive provisions of the 1951 Convention to all persons covered by the refugee definition in Article 1, without any limitation of date. Although related to the Convention in this way, the Protocol is an independent instrument, accession to which is not limited to States parties to the Convention.
Under the Convention and Protocol, there is a particular role for UNHCR. States undertake to cooperate with UNHCR in the exercise of its functions, which are set out in its Statue of 1950 along with a range of other General Assembly resolutions, and, in particular, to facilitate this specific duty of supervising the application of these instruments. By its Statute, UNHCR is tasked with, among others, promoting international instruments for the protection of refugees, and supervising their application.
The fundamental importance and enduring relevance of the Convention and the Protocol is widely recognized. In 2001, States parties issued a Declaration reaffirming their commitment to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and they recognized in particular the core principle of non-refoulement is embedded in customary international law.(4) Moreover the General Assembly has frequently called upon States to become parties to these instruments.
Accession has also been recommended by various regional organizations, such as the Council of Europe, the African Union, and the Organization of American States. As UNHCR prepares to commemorate, in 2011, the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, it is hoped that more States will accede to these instruments. Today, there are 147 States Parties to one or both of these instruments.
In view of the increasing recognition of the fundamental significance of the Convention and the Protocol for the protection of refugees and for the establishment of minimum standards for their treatment, it is important that their provisions be known as widely as possible, both by refugees and by all those concerned with refugee problems.
Additional information on the Convention and the Protocol, including accession details, may be obtained from UNHCR, or directly from the UNHCR website at www.unhcr.org.
Geneva, December 2010
FINAL ACT of the United Nations Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons
I. The general assembly of the United Nations, by Resolution 429 (V) of 14 December 1950, decided to convene in Geneva a Conference of Plenipotentiaries to complete the drafting of, and to sign, a Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and a Protocol relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.
The Conference met at the European Office of the United Nations in Geneva from 2 to 25 July 1951.
The Government of the following twenty-six States were represented by delegates who all submitted satisfactory credentials or other communications of appointment authorizing them to participate in the Conference:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany (Federal Republic of), Greece, Holy See, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland (the Swiss delegation also represented Liechtenstein), Turkey, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Venezuela, Yugoslavia
The Governments of the following two States were represented by observers:
Pursuant to the request of the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees participated, without the right to vote, in the deliberations of the Conference.
The International Labour Organisation and the International Refugee Organization were represented at the Conference without the right to vote.
The Conference invited a representative of the Council of Europe to be represented at the Conference without the right to vote.
Representatives of the following Non-Governmental Organizations in consultative relationship with the Economic and Social Council were also present as observers:
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
International Federation of Christian Trade Unions
Agudas Israel World Organization
Catholic International Union for Social Service
Commission of the Churches on International Affairs
Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations
Co-ordinating Board of Jewish Organizations
Friends’ World Committee for Consultation
International Association of Penal Law
International Bureau for the Unification of Penal Law
International Committee of the Red Cross
International Council of Women
International Federation of Friends of Young Women
International League for the Rights of Man
International Social Service
International Union for Child Welfare
International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
World Jewish Congress
World Union for Progressive Judaism
World Young Women’s Christian Association
International Relief Committee for Intellectual Workers
League of Red Cross Societies
Standing Conference of Voluntary Agencies
World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
World University Service
Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations which have been granted consultative status by the Economic and Social Council as well as those entered by the Secretary-General on the Register referred to in Resolution 288 B (X) of the Economic and Social Council, paragraph 17, had under the rules o procedure adopted by the Conference the right to submit written or oral statements to the Conference.
The Conference elected Mr. Knud Larsen, of Denmark, as President, and Mr. A. Herment, of Belgium, and Mr. Talat Miras, of Turkey, as Vice-Presidents.
At its second meeting, the Conference, acting on a proposal of the representative of Egypt, unanimously decided to address an invitation to the Holy See to designate a plenipotentiary representative to participate in its work. A representative of the Holy See took his place at the Conference on 10 July 1951.
The Conference adopted as its agenda the Provisional Agenda drawn up by the Secretary-General (A/CONF.2/2/Rev.1). It also adopted the Provision Rules of Procedure drawn up by the Secretary-General, with the addition of a provision which authorized a representative of the Council of Europe to be present at the Conference without the right to vote and to submit proposals (A/CONF.2/3/Rev.1).
In accordance with the Rules of Procedure of the Conference, the President and Vice-Presidents examined the credentials of representatives and on 17 July 1951 reported to the Conference the results of such examination, the Conference adopting the report.
The Conference used as the basis of its discussions the draft Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the draft Protocol relating to the Status of Stateless Persons prepared by the ad hoc Committee on Refugees and Stateless Persons at its second session held in Geneva from 14 to 25 August 1950, with the exception of the preamble and Article 1 (Definition of the term “refugee”) of the draft Convention. The text of the preamble before the Conference was that which was adopted by the Economic and Social Council on 11 August 1950 in Resolution 319 B II (XI). The text of Article 1 before the Conference was that recommended by the General Assembly on 14 December 1950 and contained in the Annex to Resolution 429 (V). The latter was a modification of the text as it had been adopted by the Economic and Social Council in Resolution 319 B II (XI).
The Conference adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in two readings. Prior to its second reading it established a Style Committee composed of the President and the representatives of Belgium, France, Israel, Italy, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, together with the High Commissioner for Refugees, which elected as its Chairman Mr. G. Warren, of the United States of America. The Style Committee re-drafted the text which had been adopted by the Conference on first reading, particularly from the point of view of language and of concordance between the English and French texts.
The Convention was adopted on 25 July by 24 votes to none with no abstentions and opened for signature at the European Office of the United Nations from 28 July to 31 August 1951. It will be re-opened for signature at the permanent headquarters of the United Nations in New York from 17 September 1951 to 31 December 1952.
The English and French texts of the Convention, which are equally authentic, are appended to this Final Act.
II. The Conference decided, by 17 votes to 3 with 3 abstentions, that the titles of the chapters and of the articles of the Convention are included for practical purposes and do not constitute an element of interpretation.
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