Crépeau begins UN Special Rapporteur term

François Crépeau / Photo: Owen Egan

By Cynthia Lee

We are all migrants, McGill law professor François Crépeau says.

In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants told his audience that human migration is a simple truth all of us must accept.

“Sealing the borders is a fantasy; migration happens and we have to live together,” Crépeau told the General Assembly’s third committee. “Migration is in the DNA of mankind, it is how we cope with environmental threats, with political oppression, but also with our desire to create a meaningful future for ourselves and our children.”

And so began Crépeau’s three-year term as the UN’s Special Rapporteur, where he will be responsible for finding ways to protect the human rights of migrants across the globe. His is a thematic mandate, the human rights of all migrants, and his role will be as his title indicates, to investigate and report. Among Crépeau’s duties are to write four reports a year, two on thematic issues which will be submitted to the Human Rights Council, and two country reports he will deliver to the General Assembly.

In describing his role, Crépeau, the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Professor in Public International Law in McGill’s Faculty of Law, insists that one must first understand the role of the United Nations as a negotiation platform, and not expect it to work as governments do.

“The UN brings people together on a platform to find solutions. It is effective, but not in the way governments are. For example, if a country doesn’t want to act on our report and recommendations, they will not; the countries are the drivers.”

In the 1980s, the UN, under a specific mandate from the UN Human Rights Council, began to appoint special rapporteurs to look after treaties and covenants to monitor issues such as racial discrimination, the rights of women, the rights of children and in Crépeau’s case, the human rights of migrants. These treaties and covenants give the international community the scope to use relevant international norms and standards to solve a particular issue. This is all done with the goal of ultimately eliminating violations of the human rights of migrants through recommended actions and measures on national, regional and international levels. Overall, there are 49 special mandates within the UN.

As special rapporteur, Crépeau has the ability to investigate claims he receives from relevant sources. These fact-finding missions may send him around the globe to investigate allegations of human rights violations. He can also send urgent appeals and communications to concerned governments to clarify and bring to their attention alleged violations. Apart from these, there are several actions Crépeau can take. If something has happened in a country, such as a border closing or a rescue at sea, he can “examine, monitor, advise and publicly report” on human rights problems through “activities undertaken by special procedures, including responding to individual complaints, conducting studies, providing advice on technical cooperation at the country level, and engaging in general promotional activities” to demonstrate that the international community is aware and concerned.

Canadians, Crépeau notes, generally consider migration to be a societal benefit. This attitude runs contrary to most of Europe, where migration is largely considered negative, he says. Given this, Crépeau stresses how important it is that each and every individual be vigilant of xenophobic attitudes and strive to treat migrants with dignity and respect for their human rights.

“Indeed, migration is not an anomaly: it is the normal state of our human condition on this planet.”

Watch a video interview with François Crépeau on the Faculty of Law’s Focus Online: