By Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International


The Executive Order of President Donald Trump produced much heat, but little light. Many were outraged and incredulous that bigotry could become the official policy of the United States, but others were too angry to listen or to reason. EI has made its position, based on international law, clear.

Nigel Farage, a member of the European Parliament from the British nationalist party, UKIP, objected to criticism from the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini by saying that Mr. Trump campaigned on imposing those restrictions, was elected with that mandate and, a week later, he did so. He added, “that is democracy”.

Is it or isn’t it democracy? To reduce democracy to elections alone is misleading and dangerous. Constitutions and treaty obligations, and human rights, and consultations are also part of democracy.
The rights and treatment of refugees and migrants are global issues. It is not possible to hide behind national sovereignty or “America First” when it comes to questions that, by their very nature, are international.

António Guterres, the new Secretary-General of the UN expressed concerns and clearly described the international obligations of States:

“Countries have the right, even the obligation, to responsibly manage their borders to avoid infiltration by members of terrorist organizations.
This cannot be based on any form of discrimination related to religion, ethnicity or nationality because:
- That is against the fundamental principles and values on which our societies are based;
- That triggers widespread anxiety and anger that may facilitate the propaganda of the very terrorist organisations that we all want to fight against;
- Blind measures, not based on solid intelligence, tend to be ineffective as they risk being bypassed by what are today sophisticated global terrorist movements."

The United States ratified the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of refugees which amended and improved the 1951 refugee Convention by eliminating geographic restrictions while maintaining the key provisions of the earlier instrument including not forcing refugees to return.

A comparison between provisions of the Executive Order and the Protocol reveals disregard for the international community and universal values.

Comparison shows incompatibility. While the executive order suspends the entry of nationals of Syria, neither discrimination by national origin nor by religion, is allowed by international standards.

“The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin." --1967 Protocol relating to the Status of refugees

The application of the Order to seven predominantly Moslem countries with the possibility for exceptions for members of religious minorities, also clearly demonstrates discrimination based on religion and suggests that this is intended to be a long-term priority.

“…the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality. Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization”. --2017 Executive Order "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the U.S."

In addition, the practices in the initial days of the Order included forced return of persons in danger.

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” --1967 Protocol relating to the Status of refugees

The Executive Order text, in addition to being wrong because it is based on nationality, shows how trumped up it is even based on its own logic. It justifies the restrictions by invoking the single largest terrorist attack in US history; the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The perpetrators of that unspeakable crime included 15 citizens of Saudi Arabia. The others were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon. They are not among the seven countries.

The US also ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) in 1992. In doing so, it committed to treat individuals “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

This experience as well as disturbing trends in other countries reveals flaws in democracy. It also reminds us that, while it is difficult or impossible for democrats to survive and function in authoritarian regimes, authoritarians often thrive in democracies.

Demagogues with their simple “solutions” and their alternative truths are dangerous for democracy and rights. As Boris Yeltsin said, “We don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. Freedom is like that. It’s like air. When you have it, you don’t notice it”.

Democracy should never be taken for granted; it must be defended every day and everywhere. The fight against those forces that poison democracy, including intolerance, takes courage and it requires education. And the mission of education is not confined to the four walls of the classroom.