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A history of helping the displaced
The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path, by Gil Loescher

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Gil Loescher can lay claim to the honor of writing the first definitive history of the world's premier refugee organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Moreover, it is history with a difference. Instead of merely recording the past, UNHCR and World Politics also launches into a critical prescriptive analysis for the future of the organization that was originally meant to be an ad hoc answer to a temporary malaise affecting post-World War II European refugees.

It is at one level the story of how a UN agency perpetuated itself to remain in existence as long as there is violent conflict in a world between nation-states, and at another level a highly opinionated discourse on what has been wrong with the UNHCR and how amends can be made to make it more responsive and effective to its constituency of nearly 20 million refugees and other people of concern.

Loescher, a 20-year veteran of refugee studies who has worked in the corridors of UNHCR, has a prolegomenon-cum-justification for authoring this book: Lack of cogent institutional memory is a serious lacuna in the organization, and Loescher hopes that this journey down memory lane will help instill a sense of the policy evolution and direction, and political constraints that have governed the Office in the last 50 years. Being an intergovernmental organization, UNHCR maintains a "perilous balance between the protection of refugees and the sovereign prerogatives and interests of states", by projecting refugee rights norms into a system dominated by concerns of national interest and security. The extent to which powerful states dictate to UNHCR and the extent to which successive high commissioners have skillfully manuevered to maintain independence within limits is the leitmotif of the book.

Cold War origins under Goedhart (1951-56)
UNHCR's early freedom was circumscribed by Cold War politics. The USSR accused the organization of acting as a cover for the Western bloc to engineer defections and plant spies in Eastern Europe, and subsequently boycotted it. The deliberation and drafting of the 1951 Refugees Convention were conducted solely by Western powers and non-communist member states of the UN. The convention "was intended to be used by the Western states in dealing with arrivals from the East, and largely reflected the international politics of the period". (p 45)

Ironically, the US government remained opposed to the UNHCR in its first few years, beginning with the defeat of the American candidate for the post of high commissioner. Washington funded rival organizations and treated UNHCR as a "sideshow and a mostly irrelevant organization".

The tide turned by 1955, with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to UNHCR and American representatives assuming active roles in UNHCR's executive committee. Soviet attempts at "re-defection" of refugees in Austria also raised US funding for UNHCR's local integration solution.

Independence and expansion under Lindt and Schnyder (1956-65)
Under Swiss diplomat Auguste Lindt, "UNHCR's orientation became clearly pro-American". (p 81) US government financial and diplomatic backing of UNHCR operations rose to great heights during the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when the international community specifically designated UNHCR as the "lead agency" to oversee a large-scale humanitarian emergency. Simultaneously, Lindt displayed independent action by persuading Western states that the repatriation of Hungarian minors in the interests of family unity must take precedence over Cold War calculations; this action earned the respect of the socialist governments of Yugoslavia and Hungary.

At the turn of the decade, the US identified some refugee programs outside Europe as affecting its strategic interests by being sources of possible communist subversion and "encouraged the High Commissioner's office to get involved in these situations". (p 91) UNHCR "good offices" were used to mount big operations for Chinese refugees in Hong Kong and Tibetans in India, setting precedents for UNHCR intervention in refugee assistance throughout the developing world.

In the 1960s, UNHCR increased its range of services in Africa, gaining the trust and dependence of newly independent countries on the continent. Under Felix Schnyder (another Swiss diplomat), UNHCR changed the approach of assistance by providing reintegration and reconstruction assistance to returnees in Algeria. Lindt favored material assistance over legal protection in terms of UNHCR priorities, leading some protection advisers in the organization to complain that "most African countries sought UNHCR involvement only for the money". (p 119)

More visionary than the previous two high commissioners, Schnyder expanded the "good offices" concept with missionary zeal, taking the plunge into uncharted waters like non-mandate Laotian refugees in Cambodia, rural resettlement programs in southern Africa, and acting as a "drop of oil" that would attract other specialized UN agencies to refugee development.

He also allowed UNHCR to be used as "the perfect cover for US policymakers" in the Sudan, where Washington was mindful of not upsetting the government by aiding refugees emerging from the south of the country. Likewise, "well aware of its limited resources and mindful of following a policy that would put it in conflict with a major power", Schnyder took no action in the Cuban asylum crisis. (p 133)

The golden era under Aga Khan (1965-77)
Under the Iranian Sadruddin Aga Khan, UNHCR "shed its image of being a tool of the United States and gained credibility as an independent global actor". (p 141) His election was opposed by the Americans on grounds that he was "Afro-Asian oriented" and would neglect the Cold War escapees in Europe. True to prediction, Sadruddin creatively extended UNHCR's mandate to Sudanese in "refugee-like situations", ie, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), while staying away from sensitive IDP cases like Indonesia and Nigeria.

From a lead agency, UNHCR moved to becoming the "focal point" in the gargantuan Bangladesh operation, coordinating the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program (WFP) and a bevy of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972 or when Pinochet's terror machine created Brazilian and Argentinian refugees, Sadruddin was careful to maintain good working relations with the governments and at no time did he publicly condemn their inhuman actions, again drawing protests that legal protection and human rights were being sidelined by UNHCR. "Reluctance to criticize governments for their human rights policies remained a cornerstone of UNHCR policy until the 1990s." (p 175)

Problems galore under Hartling (1977-85)
Danish politician Poul Hartling, the new high commissioner, "did not maintain a healthy independence from the United States, unlike Sadruddin". (p 202) The bargain for losing freedom was a quintupling of the UNHCR's budget from Western states, and thanks to ample donor funding, even greater priority was given to material aid and physical care rather than protection.

While forcefully arguing on behalf of Vietnamese boat people fleeing the communist regime, Hartling was non-vocal about the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the massive rejection of Cambodians by Thailand and Rohingyas by Burma in 1978-79 (both Cambodia and Thailand were US allies at the time).

Civil wars fought under the banner of the "Second Cold War" in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, etc, led to the new problem of refugee camp militarization, with internal UNHCR reports lamenting that "humanitarian aid actually contributed to prolonging conflict", but no action was taken to remedy this dilemma that would continue into the 1990s. Widespread proscription and rights abuses that took place in Afghan camps in Pakistan were ignored and left to the excesses of fundamentalist Islam and Western interests.

Touching rock bottom under Hocke and Stoltenberg (1986-91)
Upset that UNHCR might be veering towards a "legalistic" approach, the US campaigned for a new "operational" high commissioner, Jean-Pierre Hocke, the Swiss ICRC official. However, Hocke's term "tore apart the UNHCR, drastically lowered morale, and subjected the Office to international humiliation". (p 249)

Downgrading of the UNHCR's legal culture reached its nadir, leading NGOs and many UNHCR personnel to complain that the new-look organization had "lost its soul". Hocke's promotion of repatriation as the "only viable solution" even in conflict zones, using subtle coercion and misinformation on refugees, was widely resented within and outside. The only significant achievement of Hocke was to anticipate the end of the Cold War and negotiate the entry of countries from the Eastern bloc to sign on to the 1951 Convention and join UNHCR.

Several financial crises overtook Hocke's last years, muddled by allegations of personal corruption and declining Western contributions. His pro tempore replacement, Norwegian Thorvald Stoltenberg, improved the Office's relations with donors in the executive committee, and during his short tenure he also suggested policy shifts toward helping governments transport non-refugees back home and preventing future migration flows.

New challenges under Ogata (1991-2000)
Sadako Ogata, the Japanese professor and diplomat, "proved to be an enterprising entrepreneur and showed a sophisticated awareness of the political opportunity structures within which the UNHCR operated". (p 273) As the ultimate "practical HC", she did not believe in lecturing governments or directly accusing them of improper behavior. The end of the Cold War pushed her to assume the role of "teacher of refugee norms" in Russia and the former Soviet states, furthering the reach of the international refugee regime.

Voluntary repatriations were successfully carried out to Cambodia and Mozambique, even though the law was diluted to read that UNHCR would encourage returns if conditions in home countries improved "appreciably", not the original "substantially". A structure of emergency response teams was introduced in UNHCR to pre-position for imminent displacement crises, and public information and visibility of the organization in visual and print media was sharpened (Time magazine, for example, invented the phrase "Ogata's Angels" for UNHCR staff working in difficult conditions).

Ogata also opened internal and UN-wide debates on preemptive action, such as not waiting for refugees to cross borders before taking action. "Preventive protection" failed in Bosnia and barely succeeded in southern Somalia. As one writes, clarity and predictability of UNHCR response to IDP flows are still prisoner to state stipulations and inter-agency politics.

The post-genocide refugee explosion from Rwanda and militarization of camps were colossal failures that "constituted a dereliction of responsibility and moral negligence" of the Office. (p 313) UNHCR advocacy for asylum-seekers in "Fortress Europe" was also minimal, with Ogata not keen on losing regained confidence of donors by upsetting them. American and Australian detention centers for asylum applicants also went unaddressed by UNHCR.

The subservience of protection to operations received a coup de grace with the internal restructuring of Project Delphi. Close cooperation between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and UNHCR in Albania and Macedonia after the Kosovo war also attracted widespread condemnation as compromising the impartiality and independence of the Office. Russian policies in Chechnya were not criticized although they caused immense hardships and displacement. African refugees also passed below the radar of UNHCR attention.

Loescher's main deduction from the evolutionary history of UNHCR is that the imbalance between protection and material operations threatens the raison d'etre of the Office and should be promptly redressed. Though the Office is a "highly political actor clearly shaped by the interests of major governments", it must show "courage and a willingness to confront governments when necessary". (p 367)

UNHCR's "culture of defensiveness" that impedes learning, debate and innovation are also areas for change. Loescher alleges that UNHCR is unaccountable to its constituency, refugees, as is evident in numerous contrived repatriation policies. Bureaucratic mentality is blamed for this undemocratic trait, though Loescher has no concrete suggestions on how refugees can be made more participative in policymaking. He also dwells upon the financial crunch but lacks recommendations on broadening private sector partnerships or other innovative methods to ensure a steady flow of income to the organization.

Last but not least, Loescher advises UNHCR to practice "listening and taking in the views of others and not just pronouncing its own positions and opinions". (p 376) From this author's recent stint at UNHCR, it is evident that openness to scholarly and external views is slowly gaining ground, though it is difficult to predict whether any "Lessons Learned" are being imbibed in the process.

A complete book in many senses, Loescher could have renamed it A US-UNHCR Saga, a la Boutros Ghali's controversial memoir. For an intimate account of American stewardship, influence and leverage on a UN body, read this book.

The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path, by Gil Loescher. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-924691-2. Price US$21.95. 431 Pages)

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Sep 7, 2002




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