Displaced from home ground - The UNHCR has strayed from its original mission to provide refugees wit

by Gil Loescher

Ruud Lubbers, newly appointed as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, takes charge of a vastly different agency from the one created nearly 50 years ago. It is one that has forgotten its original mission. The most worrying change is the growing importance of the agency’s operational activities at the expense of its traditional role of focusing on the protection of refugees.p. Unlike operational activities, which concentrate on short-term relief work, protection of refugees offers long-term solutions by helping them return safely to their countries, or settle in others. It also works to create greater respect for human rights in order to reduce the risk of future displacements.p. During the last decade in particular, the shift towards operations has gained considerable momentum. From the Balkans to the African Great Lakes, the agency has launched spectacular emergency operations. Governments have been willing to fund such operations because of their high profile and ability to assuage public opinion. As a result, the UNHCR has come to be identified primarily with providing massive relief to refugees and war victims.p. This change is creating a new organisational culture within the agency. The big humanitarian emergencies of the 1990s spawned a cadre of UNHCR logistics personnel and managers whose priorities were effectiveness of aid delivery rather than the preservation of asylum or the protection of refugees. Success and failure of UNHCR action are now judged mainly on quantitive measurements such as the technical standards of aid delivery and fulfilling the material needs of refugees and threatened populations. Protection of the human rights of displaced and threatened populations – an important qualitative aspect of the agency’s work that is harder to measure and less easily sold to donor governments – is frequently neglected.p. One of Mr Lubbers’ first tasks should be to raise the protection profile of the UNHCR. True, relief operations provide for the physical security of refugees and give UNHCR staff a presence with which to monitor protection developments in the field. But material assistance operations must not dominate the agency’s policies to such an extent that traditional protection of refugees and asylum-seekers is undermined.p. Protection issues do not figure consistently as a priority in the UNHCR’s management culture. The influence of the agency’s Division of International Protection on operational issues is marginal and its director has no independent authority to act, even in the most pressing protection crises.p. The sidelining of protection within the agency not only damages the traditional protection ethos of the organisation but also severely limits the staff expertise needed to pursue a vigorous protection policy. This is unfortunate because UNHCR staff daily face difficult political and moral dilemmas, often without the benefit of knowledge about either the underlying nature of refugee disasters or the success or failure of past UNHCR interventions in similar situations.p. The high commissioner could redress this imbalance by restoring the link between the protection division and field operations and allowing the director of protection to oversee both. In addition, operations managers should be held accountable for short-comings and failure in protection activities as well as for assistance.p. The high commissioner must maintain a core mission and identity for his agency in the face of changing world politics. The UNHCR today lacks identity and the limits to its practical work and scope are unclear. As the organisation has taken on more general humanitarian and development assistance tasks, so it has expanded the roster of its clients to include many different kinds of forced migrants. Not only is it questionable whether the UNHCR has the resources or expertise to take on such a broad range of activities. The ambitious and ambiguous nature of its enlarged mandate and programmes also lead to confusion and loss of autonomy.p. Part of the solution to making the agency’s institutional structure stronger is to identify a niche for the agency in humanitarian affairs. One of the UNHCR’s strengths is its clear original mandate, outlined in its charter, to protect refugees and to promote solutions to refugee problems. This is what makes it indispensable. But the UNHCR loses authority and autonomy when it steps outside its mandate to take on tasks that other agencies or governments do better.p. The advantage of reaffirming and clarifying its original mission would be to provide personnel with a sense of overall purpose. A specific niche would also provide the public with a strong message about the UNHCR’s focus. With a strengthened and well-focused UNHCR, Mr Lubbers can then begin to reverse the dangerous erosion of refugee protection that has occurred in recent years.p. _ Loescher is a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame ._ — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2000.

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