This article examines how the Refugee Compact relates to existing international refugee law and discusses its normative implications. The author begins by identifying several common features of existing ‘compact’ instruments: (a) a focus on multi-stakeholder involvement and best practice; (b) issue linkage as a means to ensure cooperation and accountability in areas where direct reciprocity and more formal institutionalization are difficult to achieve; and (c) emphasis on political and practical cooperation as opposed to legal commitments. Compacts may also outline technical and operational principles, linked but subsidiary to existing binding international agreements. The author argues that the normative impact of the Refugee Compact depends on the extent to which it sets out sufficiently clear principles and rules that gain traction with States, eventually paving the way for binding international law.
The author suggests that the closest thing to a substantively new commitment in the Refugee Compact is the ambition to develop a “predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing among all United Nations Member States”, however this does not entail any normative or predetermined commitments. He argues that the Refugee Compact may, however, come to serve a norm-filling role to the extent that it sets out specific understandings and interpretation of existing rules of international law (e.g. reference to core political rights, such as the principle of non-refoulement, and attention to socio-economic issues, such as food security). However, it fails to offer any language pushing interpretation on more controversial issues of international refugee law, such as detention and non-penalization for illegal entry, and is weak on core socio-economic issues, such as the right to work, avoiding any kind of rights-based formulations or reference to existing standards under international law. The author concludes that the Refugee Compact represents a step back from international law, reflecting States’ lack of political will to make further binding commitments with respect to refugee protection, and a conscious choice by UNHCR to avoid discussion on the existing international legal framework at a time of repeated challenges to refugee rights in many parts of the world. Rather, the main impact of the Refugee Compact is likely to be its norm-preserving role.