Chapter 10: Innovations in Activism in the Digital Era Campaigning for Refugee Rights in 2015-16
New digital technologies offer citizens, interest groups, and political parties innovative ways to communicate, mobilise, and organise. The internet has heralded many innovations in collective action, from online petitions to viral memes and Twitterstorms. Digital organising and campaigning can have far-reaching effects in a world with over 10 billion devices connected to the internet and where 1 billion people own smartphones (Kissinger 2014). However, commentators are divided over the significance and impact of digital communications on democracy. It is not clear whether the internet has enabled greater and more informed political awareness and participation or whether it degrades political culture by encouraging so-called slacktivism and clicktivism. These are particularly important questions given the loss in confidence in established political parties and the growing strength of populist parties and far-right movements in many western democracies, as Anheier’s introduction to this Report highlights.
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In 1951 in Geneva, at the heart of Europe recovering from a devastating war, states negotiated the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a landmark agreement which offered protection to those forced to flee across borders due to persecution. States tasked the newly created United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with overseeing and supervising this convention. A small office was established in Geneva for international refugee lawyers to advise states and ensure refugee law was adhered to. In that same year, states established another new international organization: the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME). Its purpose was to organize the relocation of thousands of labor migrants from post-war Europe to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. To perform these tasks PICMME had a fleet of ships and officers with experience in the mass movement of
migrants across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These two organizations were just the tip of the iceberg of a growing population of inter-governmental organizations, created in the aftermath of World War II.
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States created UNHCR in 1951 with a specific mandate: the protection of refugees. In recent years many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics have argued that climate change will force people to move (Friends of the Earth 2007; Greenpeace 2008; Meyers 1993). However, UNHCR has no mandate for so-called “climate displacement” as it falls beyond the scope of its Statute and the Refugee Convention (McAdam 2010). While some have called for a new legal convention to protect those displaced by climate change, there is no academic literature exploring if and how UNHCR has expanded beyond the established refugee regime to respond to climate displacement (Biermann and Boas 2010). Furthermore there are no IR theories which can adequately account for UNHCR’s changes in response to this new issue area. This article proposes a novel typology of IGOs and classifies UNHCR as a normative IGO. UNHCR’s normative type explains why it was slower to engage with climate change than other humanitarian organizations. This article fills a significant empirical gap in the scholarship on UNHCR, climate change displacement, and theories of IGO change.
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