Doomed to fail from the outset? UNHCR’s ‘Convention Plus Initiative’ revisited

In September 2002, the High Commissioner for Refugees outlined the contours of a new initiative: the Convention Plus initiative, which set out to develop a normative framework for global burden-sharing. It proceeded from the assumption that the present refugee law regime – in this context, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees – was not sufficient to cope with current needs. Three years later, the initiative ended without having accomplished its goal. Besides the fact that the Convention Plus initiative failed to address the question of why states parties to the present refugee regime should commit themselves to burden-sharing, the Convention Plus initiative was doomed to fail from the outset for systemic reasons. It was a futile attempt at piecemeal engineering where structural adjustment was required. In addition, the initiative placed UNHCR on a par with the states parties to the relevant instruments, disregarding UNHCR’s own distinct responsibilities. Since burden-sharing constitutes a pressing issue, which will consequently remain on the agenda until properly addressed, it is worth dwelling on this past attempt to secure equitable burden-sharing among states from the perspective of the regime itself, the parties to it, and the separate responsibilities of UNHCR.

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