The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path

The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path

The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path

The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path

Synopsis

Over fifty years ago, governments established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be a human rights and advocacy organization. This is the first independent history of this highly important establishment. Gil Loescher, one of the world's leading experts on refugee affairs, draws upon decades of personal experience and research to examine the origins and evolution of the UNHCR, identifying many of the major challenges facing the organization in the years ahead. A key focus is the extent to which the evolution of the UNHCR has been framed by the crucial events of international politics during the past half century and how, in turn, the actions of the eight past High Commissioners have helped shape the course of world history. In the end, Loescher offers a series of bold policy recommendations aimed at making the agency a more effective and accountable advocate for the millions of refugees in the world today.

Excerpt

For the past half century, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been at the heart of many of the gravest breakdowns of social and political order and tragic human loss in recent history. These events have propelled the Office into the maelstrom of world politics. From the 1956 Hungarian Uprising at the height of the Cold War to the mass exodus of Albanians from Kosovo in 1999, the UNHCR has been central to the international debates about human rights and international responsibility, conflict resolution, preventive diplomacy, and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. From focusing almost exclusively on protection and humanitarian relief for refugees in host countries, the UNHCR has progressively taken on additional responsibilities that involve it in a myriad of activities for refugees and non-refugees alike.

Scholars and practitioners of international relations have been slow to recognize either the rationality or significance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in world politics. Among UN agencies, the UNHCR is unique. It is both an individual, represented in the High Commissioner, and a bureaucracy with its own distinct culture and value system. The High Commissioner has little or no political authority but is vested with considerable moral authority and legitimacy dating back not just the Office's founding in 1951 but to 1921 when Fridtjof Nansen was appointed as the first High Commissioner for Refugees by the League of Nations. The UNHCR is an organization with its own identity, comprising over 5,000 individuals of different nationalities who share similar values. One cannot fully understand the UNHCR without a knowledge of its organizational culture. There exists no other UN agency where values and principled ideas are so central to the mandate and raison d'être of the institution or where some committed staff members are willing to place their lives in danger to defend the proposition that persecuted individuals need protection. As the UNHCR itself claims, if the Office did not exist, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees would be left unassisted and unprotected.

However essential the agency is, it is important not to take the rhetoric and . . .

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