The People and Ideas of Bellagio/

Robert Barsky

Bellagio Residency: April 2018

Project: “Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing From Persecution”

Guggenheim Fellow Robert F. Barsky participated in the Bellagio residency program in 2018. During this residency he worked on Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing From Persecution. He is a Professor of French, European Studies, Jewish Studies, and Law at Vanderbilt University. He was the Canada Research Chair in Law, Narrative and Border Crossing from 2019 to 2020.

How Seven Days at the Bellagio Center Changed the Trajectory of International Refugee Law Forever, with Robert Barsky 

In 1965, amidst rapid decolonization in Africa and Civil Rights struggles in the US, the war in Vietnam was exacerbating Cold War tensions and creating new perils for innocent civilians in Southeast Asia. That very year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called upon 18 of the leading international lawyers and specialists in refugee matters to craft a new universal legal protocol to provide protection, and status, for persecuted and stateless people. The prevailing refugee law regime at the time was based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which provided a definition of refugees and set forth a pathway for protection and status for people who had been affected by WWII. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sought an updated agreement for current and forthcoming calamities and, to that end, called upon 18 of the leading international lawyers and specialists in refugee matters to craft a legal instrument that would modernize refugee law and create an international protocol to provide legal protection, and status, for persecuted people. 

But what procedure should they follow to craft this new agreement, and where would the parties to this negotiation convene? The Rockefeller Foundation offered its Bellagio Center in Northern Italy to host the “Colloquium on the Legal Aspects of Refugee Problems.” Here, ideas were born that developed into the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a treaty that still governs international refugee law today. 

Six decades later, Robert Barsky, who has dedicated a significant portion of his adult life to researching, teaching, and advocating for immigration and refugee law, walked these same grounds and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what had taken place there. He felt the “unimaginable importance of a Bellagio residency” as he studied alongside experts from across sectors who were working from different perspectives to solve some of the most complicated challenges of our time. “You put leaders from multiple disciplines in a room together and ask hard questions all day long. It’s remarkable,” he says. Robert was at Bellagio to work on his book, Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing from Persecution, which draws empathy for refugees by examining the obstacles they face through the lens of well-known fictional characters, like Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante the Pilgrim, Don Quixote, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and Alice in Wonderland.

Robert felt a remarkable connection to the 1965 conveners as he walked the same gardens and pondered the same issue as they did. “The change that happened within those walls was staggering,” he says, reflecting on the moment he decided this 1965 convening at Bellagio would be the topic of his next book. “What were the negotiators saying to each other during their convening in Bellagio? How did they imagine the negotiation would unfold?” He decided that after the publication of Clamouring for Legal Protection, he’d embark on a research mission to find out. 

Through writings and minutes from the convening, Robert came to understand why this small, closed-door Colloquium happened in this format, rather than a typical large-scale UN meeting. “In the wake of World War II devastation, negotiators had made significant progress to advance international human rights. The 1951 Refugee Convention established an internationally recognized definition of a “refugee” and outlined the legal protection, rights and assistance that they are entitled to receive. Negotiators for the new Protocol were worried that without the urgency that defined the post-WWII negotiations, states would opt out of a new treaty in favor of regional agreements and that the UNHCR would lose ground that it had worked so hard to attain,” he says. 

At the Bellagio Colloquium in 1965, the outlines of a new treaty were drafted, and the next step was to secure buy-in from each country. “The Bellagio Colloquium marked the beginning of the negotiations,” Robert reports. “They continued through correspondence and discussions on a state-by-state basis until the new treaty was finally signed in 1967.” This process marked a new way of negotiating an international treaty, through a method that circumvented the normal convening of a conference of plenipotentiaries.

The internal memos, minutes, and other documents from the Bellagio Colloquium and subsequent negotiations take on a particularly vivid hue in light of the 1980 Vienna Convention which “entrenched a principle that’s of great importance for this case, that if there is ambiguity in the meaning of a treaty, adjudicators can look back to the context of its negotiation,” Robert explains. From his research on this context, Robert found that the architects of the treaty intended “not just to help people gain status, but actually give them the opportunity to live rich and complete lives.” 

As he researched this story, Robert explored whether the treaty stands up against today’s challenges. If the true essence of the treaty is, as Robert interprets it, to enable refugees to have full lives, then  “every state party to the Protocol is in violation of its tenets.” With an eye to the current international landscape, he points to the urgent need for renewed efforts to protect persecuted and displaced people, and the possibility of using this negotiation as the basis of a new legal approach.

Major events like war and climate change have exacerbated the number of displaced people needing support in recent years. The number of refugees worldwide increased from 27.1 million in 2021 to 35.3 million at the end of 2022, the largest yearly increase ever recorded, according to UNHCR’s statistics on forced displacement. 

The climate crisis, in particular, presents a unique challenge to the treaty’s efficacy. In 2022, 84 percent of refugees and asylum seekers fled from highly climate-vulnerable countries, an increase from 61 percent in 2010, according to UNHCR. “By my reading of the treaty,” Robert shares, “if people’s lives are upended by climate crises, and if the state in which they live is becoming  uninhabitable, then they should be able to leave the country and claim refugee status in another state.”

Thinking about new solutions to this intricate problem, Robert says that we need to advocate on behalf of persecuted peoples, rather than watching from the sidelines as pathways to protection are barred by administrative and physical obstacles. Ultimately, in Robert’s opinion, “we need to soften borders dramatically and ensure that people are provided with the means to exercise their right to protection, status, and the possibility of living rich and fulfilling lives.” 

Robert’s scholarship in immigration and refugee law has unlocked new perspectives on the processes by which vulnerable migrants seek protection, and he has worked to change people’s attitudes about borders and border crossing in favor of respect and care. Clamouring for Legal Protection calls for empathy for people seeking humanitarian protection with the idea that when people get to know characters – both real and fictional – who have fled persecution, they are more likely to admire their courage and fortitude rather than admonishing them for their quest. Robert’s forthcoming book on the intertwined histories of the Bellagio Center and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees promises detailed accounts of the Bellagio Colloquium, from which will flow new insights into international refugee policy today, and new legal avenues for tomorrow.

  • Thanks to what I learned while in Bellagio, I’ve been studying how this special approach worked back in April of 1965, when 18 of the world’s leading legal scholars gathered in the Villa Serbelloni to develop a new treaty to protect and resettle refugees.
    A Note from Robert