Remarks by Professor José Riera-Cézanne on Migration for the The Humboldt School, San José Costa Rica
Author: José Riera-Cézanne
24 September 2022
I have participated in many model-UN exercises, at the Doctoral level, Master’s level, as a participant, and now as a speaker. I am the child of immigrant parents. My father moved to New York City from Cuba in 1942 and became a citizen in 1945. It was a time when the USA was welcoming immigrants, not treating them as criminals and expelling them from the country. My mother moved to New York from Puerto Rico, a US colony, in 1945.
When I was eight years old in 1963 and attending primary school in the South Bronx, we went to the United Nations Headquarters building on a field trip. Still today as I speak, I remember the life-changing impression that visit made on me. The brand-new headquarters building of the early 1960s, designed by the best architects of the time, seemed so futuristic and so awe-inspiring. It was a time when diplomats still wore their traditional national dress. I had never seen African men in their brightly colored traditional costumes, some even sporting beautiful hats inside the building. I was especially struck by the Indian and Pakistani women in their saris and shalwar kameez, and the African women in long colorful dresses and intricately folded lengths of cloth around their heads. I could hear many languages other than English and decided right then and there that I would learn many. I am completely fluent in four today and worked in English, Spanish and French – three of the six official UN languages – during my entire career.
That fateful day, everyone seemed to be speaking to each other in a convincing way, rushing in a hurry to some important meeting, or huddling in a corner looking over pieces of paper. I thought to myself, when I grow up, this is where I want to work. I never imagined that through my own hard work, persistence, and the ‘mysterious journey’ that is life, I would find myself working in the United Nations at age 30, after working in a corporate law firm in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and knowing it was not what I wanted to do with my life.
I gave 31 years of my life to the cause of the world’s refugees, displaced persons, and stateless people. I did my UN career working in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, better known as UNHCR the UN Refugee Agency. Refugees are those who have no Government to protect them or whose governments are actively persecuting them. Despite the large movements of people already induced by climate change and environmental degradation, for the time being there is no official international legal status for so-called ‘climate refugees’. This is, in fact, a misnomer, as we know that most people will move inside their own countries and not across international borders.
The scenario of active persecution by a dictatorial or arbitrary regime that violates the human rights of its citizens with impunity remains all too common in today’s world. We need look no further than Nicaragua to see a drama unfolding along Costa Rica’s northern border, with thousands fleeing the assurance of jail, torture, arbitrary seizure of assets, being stripped of Nicaraguan nationality or residence rights, or even disappearance and death.
You have been told today that you are the future of the world. At age 67, I feel more like a spectator in a fast action movie, with very young actors, whose plot I will never predict. But I do want to turn to the United Nations and share some thoughts on peace and today’s main threats to peace.
Nowhere in the world, except in the United Nations, can you watch an international group of diplomats, UN and regional organization officials, experts, and non-governmental organizations discuss the great challenges of our day and make decisions that affect our lives both today and for years to come.
Addressing threats to international peace and security, promoting human rights, combating poverty and disease, combating climate change, reducing the risks of international terrorism and the spread – and even use – of weapons of mass destruction, providing humanitarian assistance in war-torn and disaster-affected countries, are all among the big issues the United Nations acts upon day in and day out.
From the diplomatic standpoint, most disagreements play out in relative privacy and the public that views the UN from the outside only sees the polished performance – although today’s national leaders are more clowns and criminals than polished diplomats. The real work of the United Nations goes on behind the curtain. Journalists and the public at large are never privy to these conversations. When I hear criticisms of the United Nations by Governments, I always think, “Look in the mirror, for the United Nations is the reflection of the Governments of today’s world – nothing more and nothing less.”
In most of the recent crises, for example, we have seen a divided UN Security Council, where the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, have sharp disagreements about what is right and just in the world against the yardstick of the UN Charter. In a surprise move yesterday, China broke ranks with Russia in the UN Security Council over Ukraine.
I see three great threats to peace today.
The first of, of course, is the shifting power relations in this century – YOUR century. The world has evolved from a largely bi-polar sharing of power, meaning a world divided by two world views, which shaped and dominated the work of the United Nations. We now live in a multi-polar world, where several States are openly, brazenly, and belligerently competing for influence and even territorial domination.
Some, like Russia or Turkey, wish to recreate former empires and spheres of influence. Israel and the Arabic-speaking are also seeking to play an ever more important role in world affairs. China is firmly convinced of its position and place as the dominant power of this century and of the steep decline of the USA as the pre-eminent world power. China is already gobbling up land and influence in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other continents offering natural resources and spheres of influence for the long-term. It is a sad testament to our times that China, a permanent member of the Security Council, is also the country with amongst the highest rates of human rights abuses, and the most egregious, on the planet today. Look at the fate of Muslim Uighurs and that of other Muslim minorities. India and Pakistan, both brothers and enemies, could resort to nuclear weapons, were tensions between them to flare even more. Future tensions between China and India are likely, if not inevitable. The unstable Rocket Man of North Korea is a threat to Japan, South Korea, and other neighbors. He is now famous thanks to Donald Trump, perhaps the most dangerous man of this century. On par with him, Vladimir Putin, just three days ago, threatened a nuclear attack should NATO go one step too far in supporting Ukraine.
So, one threat to peace is this competition for power and domination, which is very hot right now, and very real, and should be taken very, very seriously. Some even say we are already on the brink of the Third World War.
But there are two more significant threats to world peace and security: climate change and mass migration. I returned from three months in Europe the day before yesterday and lived the hottest summer on record, a once in 70-year drought, and the worst forest fires in memory right across Europe. Lakes and rivers remain dry at levels unseen for centuries. This was the ‘summer of climate change’ in Europe and no one can have any doubts about what is to come for all of us when global warming begins to bite hard.
Both the UN Secretary-General, in whose Executive Office I worked for a decade when António Guterres was UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the UN Security Council, have characterized climate change as a ‘threat to peace and security’. Wars over water, for example, will begin very soon.
Finally, international migration is a cause of growing tensions between States that could even kindle armed hostilities between neighbors. This will be the century of the largest migration movements in human history, both within States and across borders, owing to the combined effects of globalization, urbanization, and climate change. The process of urbanization means 70 per cent of the world’s people will live in cities by the time you are all forty. People are already moving from rural areas to cities in unprecedented numbers. They will also migrate abroad because of bad governance and corruption, grinding poverty, and lack of prospects for their children. Most will travel legally with visas. But many will do so however they can, at risk to their safety and even to their lives. The scenes of these desperate journeys are all too familiar to each one of us. They have become commonplace in a world also seeing some of the biggest concentrations of wealth in a very limited number of hands.
For its part, climate change is driving millions of people from their homes due to the multiplication of freak storms and disasters provoked by global warming. States are simply unprepared for large-scale, and largely unwanted, irregular migration. Latin America is one of the largest and most active migration corridors on the planet. As we sit today in this beautiful amphitheater, thousands of people are literally walking through jungles and crossing rivers on foot in Panama and Costa Rica, amongst others, in perilous journeys to reach a better life in the USA.
The increasingly racist and xenophobic leaders of our world, and the masses over which they hold sway, are completely unprepared for this century of mass migration. Yet this is part of our globalized world and a byproduct of the technological revolution that brings every corner of the world into the palm of anyone’s hand. As an example, one need only look to the likely election of a neo-fascist Government in Italy after tomorrow’s election, the first fascist government in Italy and in Europe since Benito Mussolini.
As I said, I am the child of immigrant parents. I have been an international migrant myself all my life, both working in the United Nations and now retired in Costa Rica. But my story has an epilogue. I have started a fourth career, my third being as a university professor at UPEACE, and now as Director of the Latin American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change and Disasters. I have no doubt that some of us in this room will become ‘climate refugees’ tomorrow.
I now wish to turn my last productive years to help those who will move because of climate change: those who will migrate, those who will be forcibly displaced, and those who will need to be relocated out of harm’s way by their governments. I want to use my long international experience, insights, and professional networks to raise awareness of the reality of human mobility linked to climate change and environmental degradation, and the impacts of movements on individuals and communities. I want to advocate for the creation of a formal international status, which will protect people who cross an international border. I want to help Governments – especially at local and national level throughout Latin America and the Caribbean – set policies and establish programs that are well informed and documented, well designed and targeted, respecting of human rights, and effective in averting unneeded death and suffering.
Some of you are thinking that I am probably reaching for the stars at just three years shy of 70. But what I want you to take away from my remarks, from my personal story which I have never told anyone in public, is that you and you alone, each of you individually, will define where and how far you go in your lives.
It will take your hard work, your dedication, your inspiration, and your passion. Do not cheat yourselves. Do not think there is anything holding you back. Aim for the stars. They are in your reach. I did not know it at age eight, but I certainly do now!
BREVE BIOGRAFÍA DEL AUTOR
José Riera-Cézanne is Adjunct Professor in the Department of International Law and the Director of the Latin American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change and Disasters at the University for Peace (UPEACE). He joined the faculty after 32 years of distinguished service with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), most recently as Special Adviser to the Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Protection). Professor Riera-Cézanne is a seasoned expert in multilateral consultations and negotiations relating to refugees and other populations of concern to UNHCR, as well humanitarian issues more broadly. He brings to UPAZ his in-depth knowledge of international refugee law and protection issues; international humanitarian law and norms relating to the protection of the world’s growing number of internally displaced persons; international law relating to statelessness and nationality; human rights law; international migration and efforts to improve global governance of international migration and refugee flows; climate change and its ramifications for migration, displacement and planned relocation of affected populations; humanitarian accountability; evaluations of humanitarian assistance; and the UN’s cooperation with faith-based actors in development and humanitarian interventions. Professor Riera-Cézanne holds degrees from Yale College (B.A. cum laude, SY ’77), Columbia Law School (J.D. ’81) and the Parker School of International Law (Certificate in Public International Law ‘81). He has also worked towards a doctorate from the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, and studied at The Hague Academy of International Law (Private international law and Public international law). His principal area of academic research is documenting the impacts of climate change on human mobility and identifying effective adaptation strategies and State policies to promote them.