Migration is a positive phenomenon!

September 2019

In an interview, David Donoghue, former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations in New York and Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in spring 2019, shares his vision on migration and multilateralism, and explains which chances and challenges come along with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  


As Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations you have been negotiating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015. Why is the agenda so important for the world population?

It is always desirable to have goals in life and I think this applies to the world community, too, as well as to governments. You may not achieve the goals in full but it is good to have a framework for concentrating political energy and resources, and indicating your priority. It started with the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. There were only eight Goals that were never negotiated by all 193 countries in the UN but simply created by officials and announced by the Secretary General.

This time it was felt that a successor set of Goals for the period of 2015 to 2030 would be necessary, that should be owned by every country in the world. This meant that every country had to have the possibility to contribute to formulating the Goals. As a consequence, the agenda turned out to be very broad. I suspect that we will not achieve the Goals in full by 2030, but I am sure we will make significant progress. Approaching 2030, I expect that there might be cause for a fresh set of Goals for another 15 years.

How do you evaluate the global implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thus far? Where do you see the biggest obstacles?

The way to approach the SDGs is through mutual learning and peer support. Ideally, countries in a particular region of the world exchange best practices. Every country learns from others and, in particular, from its neighbors as countries will often be motivated not to appear to be falling behind their neighbors.

There are, of course, a number of difficulties or challenges. One is that many developing countries do not have the same detailed disaggregated data as more developed countries. This means that we do not have detailed data covering all 193 member states for comparative purposes.

Another major challenge concerns national implementation. In the first couple of years after the adoption of the SDGs, we had to allow time for countries to absorb the new Goals into their own national development plans and coordinate responsibilities within the government apparatus. Because this implementation work takes time, we can only make general observations about progress. Furthermore, governments need to understand that these Goals cannot be achieved by sticking to the traditional ministerial portfolios. Government officials need to grasp what policy coherence means. We can already see examples of governments realizing that there are synergies between Goals. On the other hand, governments are making “trade-offs” between different policy areas. This has to be minimized.

Where do you see the responsibilities of implementation in general? Should non-governmental actors be actively involved as well?

The implementation will take place at three levels: at the global level, the regional level, and the national level. The bulk of implementation will be at the national level. In most countries, there will be a platform committee of some kind, which brings the government together with other stakeholders. That means it is not just the responsibility of the government. Frankly, there is a healthier tradition of involving civil society in certain parts of the world than in others. One way of overcoming that problem is by involving international NGOs. They can help generate data where national NGOs are being blocked.

There is no limit to the expertise which may be needed for implementation of SDGs. For example, we did not specifically refer to the role of artificial intelligence because we wrote the declaration in 2014 and 2015. It is likely that over the next couple of years people will recognize that AI has a big role to play and expertise might be needed around that.

How do you see the chances of this non-binding agreement being implemented in every country in the world? Is it an effective way to reach global goals?

I think that countries will make a big effort to achieve the targets by 2030. There was no realistic prospect of the Goals being legally binding. The Goals apply to all 193 member states, including some very small developing countries which have very weak administrations and resources. Such countries could hardly have been expected to sign up to a legally binding framework, which might have punished them for poor compliance with the SDGs. The Goals can, however, be seen as politically binding. And this carries a certain moral force too. The fact that every country agreed to be part of this was important in and of itself. It meant that every country, even those who were a bit uneasy about some aspects of it, felt it was better to be part of this club than to be outside of it.

According to one view, the SDGs could indeed end up having quasi-legal status. If, say, someone claimed in a court that he or she had been discriminated against by their government and that this discrimination had contravened one of the SDGs, the judge could potentially find in favor of the plaintiff and say something which would give the SDG in question indirect legal standing. Civil society is hoping that such situations could arise.

You negotiated the New York Declaration (NYD) on large movements of refugees and migrants at the United Nations, which can be seen as the parent of the Compact for Migration and the Compact for Refugees. Are the compacts successful agreements in line with the New York Declaration?

The two compacts do reflect what was in the NYD and they are a very important follow up. They go into far more detail than we did in the NYD as it was the first time that migration and refugee issues were being considered together in the UN. It was also the first time that migration per se was the subject of a global agreement. The focus of the NYD was large movements, especially on vulnerable migrants -- and less on economic migrants. The Global Compact on Migration was meant to take the entire range of issues relevant to migrants of all kinds.

However, the overall atmosphere for negotiating has deteriorated since the NYD. I am not just talking about the obvious arrival of an administration in Washington that is not keen on multinationalism but also about populist trends in other parts of the world which are undermining multilateral diplomacy. In the migration compact, I would have liked to see more developed monitoring and review arrangements. There was a very heavy emphasis on regular migrants but the reality is that many people are irregular migrants, i.e. they have no choice but to attempt to travel illegally. That is a human reality we have to accept.

There have been many alarmist commentaries on the Compact for Migration, not only by populists. How do you explain those fears?

It is difficult for me to understand such fears because it is made absolutely clear in the compact that all of the measures are voluntary and that this is simply a menu of options from which the government may select. It obviously serves the political interest of right-wing populist parties to claim that governments would be allowing in uncontrolled numbers of foreign migrants. But that is simply wrong.

If you look at the overall numbers that come in to Europe, they are tiny compared to the number of migrants moving around Africa. Therefore, I have always been unhappy with phrases like ‘overrun’ and ‘swamped’. Some people are concerned that migration is wiping out their country’s native culture: of course, one has to respect that perception, although I think that this fear is possibly exaggerated. In that respect, spreading word about the positive experience that people have had in other countries could help.

What are these positive experiences and effects?

There is no doubt that there have been media misinterpretations of the migration issue. I think that people are failing to grasp the fact that migration has been a benefit to probably every country in the world. One in seven people in the world has a migration background of some kind. Migration enriches societies. In the SDGs and in the NYD, we felt it was appropriate to reflect upon the positive effects of migration and no one challenged that. Hungary, for example, went along with the same concept both in the SDG context and in the NYD. It means that, officially, the world has accepted that migration can be positive.

I am personally absolutely convinced that migration is a positive phenomenon. We need to represent it that way and try to counter some of these very hostile accusations and even activities directed at immigrant communities.

You mentioned the changing political atmosphere. What will change in negotiating future agreements within a changing world order?

You could argue that the SDGs are a high point of multilateral diplomacy. For the first time, all 193 member states were involved in creating the biggest agenda that the UN has ever had. Now we are in a different international environment. However, we should not become defeatist and worry about one or two governments that are retreating. It would be wrong for people to react to the turbulence of the past year or two by concluding that multilateral diplomacy no longer has a future. I think it is far too early to conclude that. A certain moral force arises from every country in the world signing up to the same set of commitments. That is an achievement that we should treasure and protect. Climate is a superb example of where international action is far better than a series of bilateral agreements because it is the same climate for all of us. Regional agreements or bilateral agreements have their legitimacy in certain instances as well. The ideal is a combination of all, but you should begin with setting the bar high at the global level. Even within a changing world order, I would still prefer to test the potential of more global agreements.

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