The UNHCR

Journal Article Analysis: Loescher, Gil (2001) ‘’The UNHCR and World Politics: State Interests vs. Institutional Autonomy’’, International Migration Review, 35:1, pp.33-56.

*(Originally submitted to the University of Leicester, Politics and International Relations Dept. on 10th April 2019)

Introduction

The article by Loescher argues that UNHCR policy and practice have developed as a consequence of independent actions carried out by its office as well as the influence of State interests. This review examines the argument raised by Loescher that the UNHCR is ‘not well placed to stand up for protection principles’ (Loescher 2001, p.49) by analyzing the UNHCR’s paradoxical role of being non-political in character, yet engaging in political actions to provide protection to refugees. The effect of political challenges to the UNHCR in its transformation into a more humanitarian organization, and the significance of this for its provision of more traditional forms of protection are further evaluated. This review goes on to consider the significance of the UNHCR’s predominant focus on repatriation as highlighted by Loescher, arguing that the paramount role of the UNHCR is the provision of international protection, with voluntary repatriation being one of the solutions for protecting refugees. 

I.  The UNHCR’s mandate to provide international protection to refugees

  1. The UNHCR’s non-political role in a political world

Loescher argues that the UNHCR is ‘not well placed to stand up for protection principles regarding refugees’, since ‘to fully promote protection would threaten funding, access to conflict situations, and the ability to be operational.’ (Loescher 2001, p.49). Loescher’s assertion arguably evokes the perceived tension between the UNHCR fulfilling its mandate of fully promoting protection of refugees on the one hand, and effectively securing funds and access to conflict situations on the other, aims which arguably involve engaging with the political sphere of State policies. This tension, it is submitted, underscores the UNHCR’s paradoxical role of being ‘entirely non-political’ in character, while at the same time exercising what may be perceived to be the political role of ‘being humanitarian and social…to groups and categories of refugees’. (UN General Assembly, Art.2, 1950) This is argued to be the case since the politicality of the UNHCR’s humanitarian relief policy may at times be apparent in the way the UHCR attempts to influence opinions within the public sphere, for instance, by encouraging States to contribute funds or open its borders to ensure the protection of refugees. This was arguably the case during the Bosnian war when the UN High Commissioner ‘played an active role in the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY), where she met regularly with peace negotiators, representatives of the Bosnian government, leaders of the warring parties’ (UNHCR 1999, p.5). It is submitted that the socio-political realities that arise in conflicts such as the Bosnian war impose constrains on the extent to which the UNHCR is able to act in a politically neutral way in providing humanitarian  relief to the victims of all parties, since failing to condemn and prevent clear violations of international humanitarian law by warring parties may result in the UNHCR breaching its own mandate of providing international protection.

  • Political challenges to the UNHCR in its evolving role as a humanitarian organization.

The political challenges to the UNHCR’s role of providing international protection through an evolving humanitarian policy appears to be acknowledged by Loescher when he argues that ‘the transformation of UNHCR into a more general humanitarian emergency organization… has put the agency at the mercy of a much broader set of political and strategic calculations’ (Loescher 2001, p.49). The UNHCR’s provision of humanitarian relief, for instance, during the Bosnian war was arguably vulnerable to the political constraints imposed on it by the warring parties. This was exemplified by the claim that ‘UNHCR officials on the ground generally found themselves negotiating with the warring parties from positions of considerable weakness’ to continue with the provision of humanitarian relief ‘at virtually all costs’ to keep the operations going. (UNHCR 1999, p.10). The irony was that the parties that the UNHCR negotiated with included the Bosnian Serbs who were the very ones engaged in ethnic cleansing at that time (UNHCR 1999, p.10). It is submitted that the UNHCR’s persistence in providing humanitarian relief under exclusionary state policies that were calculated to deny legal protection to victims of war undermined traditional forms of protection such as asylum by encouraging ‘those in dire straits not to seek asylum abroad.’ (UNHCR 2001, pp.5-6).  

II. The UNHCR’s central focus on repatriation

Loescher argues that ‘repatriation became a central part of UNHCR’s new global strategy, making it more likely that repatriation would be promoted under less than the strict conditions of voluntary repatriation’ (Loescher 2001, p.47). This review questions the extent to which the UNHCR’s predominant focus on repatriation in the 1990s was at times unavoidable in context specific situations involving ground realities such as violence faced by refugees in host states. For instance, among the Hutu refugees in the Zairean refugee camps that they had fled to were those involved in the genocide in Rwanda. Schafer argues that when these ‘refugees flocked to camps for protection, the political atmosphere of genocide followed them, creating a state of war in the in the camp’ (Schafer 1998, pp. 327-328). Such exigencies faced by the office of the UNHCR may have made it extremely difficult in certain cases for the UNHCR to rely on solutions apart from repatriation.

Loescher’s assertion that ‘there was a growing view that refugee safety did not necessarily outweigh the security interests of states’ (Loescher 2001, p.47) highlights the possibility of misunderstanding the UNHCR’s mandate of providing international protection. It is submitted that such a view fails to recognize that the ‘UNHCR exists to ensure that refugees are protected and their interests are advocated; not to strike some kind of balance between seemingly conflicting interests of states and refugee populations’ (Takahashi 1997, p.596). It is argued that the UNHCR’s primary role is that it ‘shall assume the function of providing international protection, under the auspices of the United Nations, to refugees’, with the means for achieving this goal to be achieved by ‘seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments … to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities.’ (UN General Assembly, Art.1, 1950). A close reading of the UNHCR mandate enshrined in Art.1 of the Statute of the Office of the UNHCR  allows the inference that voluntary repatriation of refugees is not the paramount goal of the UNHCR, but one of the ‘permanent solutions for the problems of refugees’ together with their ‘assimilation within new national communities’. As such, ‘concepts like “safe return” which stipulated that conditions in the home country did not have to improve substantially but only appreciably so that there could be a “safe” return’ ( Loescher 2001, p.47) would possibly undermine the UNHCR’s mandate of providing international protection  to refugees, since repatriation in such situations is ‘to be pursued and implemented at as early a stage as possible, even if at times that may mean taking insufficient regard of protection principles.’ (Takahashi 1997, p.595). The significance of such a situation would arguably be the possible breach by the UNHCR of standards of human rights protection found in international law in response to political exigencies such as pressure from host States and absence of burden sharing among them.    

Conclusion

This review analyses the tension inherent in Loesher’s assertion that the UNHCR is ‘not well placed to stand up for protection principles’ (Loescher 2001, p.49) by examining the UNHCR’s non-political character in promoting the protection of refugees, while engaging in what essentially may be deemed political activities such as seeking access to conflict areas. The review supports Loescher’s argument that the transformation of the UNHCR into a humanitarian organization has at times made it vulnerable to the political constraints imposed on it by State parties in a way that has undermined the provision of international protection. It concludes by considering the significance of the view noted by Loescher that ‘refugee safety did not necessarily outweigh the security interests of states’ (Loescher 2001, p.47), arguing that such a perspective fails to take into account the idea that the UNHCR’s core mandate is not repatriation, but the provision of  international protection to refugees, with repatriation being one of the solutions for achieving this goal.    

Bibliography

Chimni, B.S. (2004) ‘’From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems’’, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 23:3, pp.55–73.

Loescher, Gil (2001) ‘’The UNHCR and World Politics: State Interests vs. Institutional Autonomy’’, International Migration Review, 35:1, pp.33-56.

Schafer, L. E. (1998) ‘’Learning from Rwanda: Addressing the Global Institutional Stalemate in Refugee Crises’’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 6:1, pp. 315-339.

Takahashi, S. (1997) ‘’The UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation: The Emphasis of Return over Protection’’, International Journal of Refugee Law, 9:4, pp. 593-612.

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Online: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3628.html 

Last accessed: 7 April 2019.

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Last accessed: 4 April 2019

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Online: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3510.html

Last accessed: 9 April 2019.

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Online: https://www.unhcr.org/publications/fundraising/4a0d20356/global-report-1999.html

Last accessed: 5April 2019

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘’UNHCR’s mandate: the politics of being non-political’’, 10 March 2001.

Online : https://www.refworld.org/docid/4ff57eb32.html 

Last accessed:  9 April 2019.

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Online: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4ff5940e2.html

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Last accessed 6 April 2019.

Photo by Matias Di Meglio on Pexels.com

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