Vatican, US Diverge on UN’s ‘Global Compact on Migration’

The Holy See is one of the new agreement’s strongest supporters, but the Trump administration has rejected it as an unjustified intrusion on national sovereignty.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, shown addressing the United Nations conference on migration in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on Dec. 10, has said the U.N. ‘Global Compact on Migration’ comes at a ‘critical moment’ in history.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, shown addressing the United Nations conference on migration in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on Dec. 10, has said the U.N. ‘Global Compact on Migration’ comes at a ‘critical moment’ in history. (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

MARRAKESH, Morocco — The Global Compact on Migration — a U.N.-prepared agreement aimed at bringing a more globally coordinated approach to international migration — was signed Dec. 10 by 164 governments, including the Holy See, which firmly backed the nonbinding treaty.

But the United States, along with Hungary, Japan and 26 other states, did not, believing it fails to deal effectively with the phenomenon and, in the view of many of the nations that declined to sign, undermines a nation’s sovereign right to decide how to protect its borders.

Addressing this week’s intergovernmental conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, where the agreement was signed, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Dec. 10 that the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration came at a “critical moment” in history.

Increasingly, he said, migration contains “adverse factors” that are forcing people to leave their homes, and these challenges have not been “managed well,” resulting in crises. These, in turn, can produce “rhetoric” that “can eclipse reason,” he continued, adding that migrants then end up being seen “more as threats than as brothers and sisters in need of solidarity and basic services.”

For this reason, Cardinal Parolin believes the Global Compact on Migration — also known as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — is needed, to “assist the international community to prevent crises and tragedies,” while at the same time seeking to “improve the governance of migration.”

The cardinal said a need for such governance is “bound to increase” as the world becomes more interconnected.

The secretary of state is adamant that such a global problem requires a global solution — both shared commitment and shared responsibility — so that migration is, as the agreement envisions, “more safe, orderly and regular.” That is something “no state can achieve alone,” Cardinal Parolin asserted.

He also highlighted, in a second speech to the conference given Dec. 11, the special role of faith-based organizations in providing “locally tailored support to migrants in vulnerable situations” and called for greater migrant participation in formulating the policies that concern them.

“The Holy See shares the Global Compact’s guiding principles on a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach,” Cardinal Parolin affirmed. “In this regard, it is worth remembering that the deeper root of these whole approaches is the priority of the human person, its inalienable dignity and integral development, which is the real aspiration of every human being.”

But the Holy See, which according to the cardinal has “contributed significantly” to the agreement through the work of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, also has some reservations about it, particularly concerning terminology referencing “sexual and reproductive health services.” Such terminology in U.N. documents is interpreted by abortion activists as mandating access to abortion.

The principles and guidelines contain “certain ideological interpretations of human rights that do not recognize the inherent value and dignity of human life at every stage of its beginning, development and end,” Cardinal Parolin said, adding that the Holy See will make such objections known “in due time.”


U.S. Opposition

The drafting process for the Global Compact was launched in 2016, after all 193 U.N. member states, including the United States under President Barack Obama, adopted a declaration saying no country can manage international migration on its own and agreed to work on a pact.

But President Donald Trump pulled out in 2017, saying numerous provisions in the compact were “inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies.”

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See declined to comment to the Register on the Holy See's position on the agreement, but the Trump administration, which has taken a strong line against illegal immigration, has since doubled down on its opposition to the compact.

In a Dec. 7 statement, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said the government believes the agreement’s commitment to “strengthening global governance” in this area “contains goals and objectives that are inconsistent and incompatible with U.S. law, policy and the interests of the American people.”

The agreement and the process that led to its adoption undermine national sovereignty, the statement said, and so the U.S. government cannot sign an agreement that “imposes or has the potential to impose” international guidelines and standards that “might constrain our ability to make decisions in the best interests of our nation and citizens.”

The Global Compact, it said, represents an effort by the U.N. “to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of states to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws, policies and interests.”

And although not legally binding, the statement said the U.S. is concerned it could lead to “customary international law” or “soft law” in the area of migration. The word “compact,” it said, “implies legal obligation,” something the U.S. rejects, as it believes it is tantamount to creating a new international law.

The statement also gave a non-exhaustive list of nine areas where the pact runs “contrary to U.S. law and policy,” including “free expression,” “national detention standards” and “undermining national workers.”

“In sum, the compact strikes the wrong balance,” the statement concluded. “Its pro-migration stance fails to recognize that well-managed, legal immigration must start and end with effective national controls over borders.”


Other Opponents

Although the other 192 countries unanimously agreed on the 34-page compact in July, other nations have since followed the U.S. and withdrawn from it. These include Hungary, Austria, Israel, Poland, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Estonia and Slovakia.

Hungary, which has strongly defended its right to control its borders in the face of European Union protests and threats, said it would not be “conforming to a single point” of the agreement.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Nov. 28 the compact is “fully at odds with Hungary’s interests because it inspires migration instead of aiming to stop migration processes.” He also said it “favors the business of people smugglers” at a time when the international community should be focusing on “dismantling their network.”

Italy has suspended its support for the agreement, saying it would not attend the conference in Marrakesh until parliament had voted on the compact.

The U.N. has expressed disappointment over the withdrawals, insisting the agreement does not oblige states to do anything against their will and expressing hope they will come back to sign it in due course.

Cardinal Parolin believes the document “promotes a different narrative,” telling the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Dec. 4 that, rather than emphasize “the negative aspect” of “problematic migration,” the Holy See wants to foster reflection on its “positive aspects.”

Asked about the lack of Italy’s presence in particular, he said: “I do not judge anyone; I can only express my regret, because we believe that the Global Compact can be a useful tool.”

He said the Holy See “always supports a multilateral approach to international issues,” adding that in global matters, “you need to give global responses, prepared by the international community.”  

In his speech to the secretary general of the conference Dec. 10, he said the Holy See is “convinced that the enormous challenges that migration poses are best faced through multilateral processes rather than isolationist policies.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.