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Bad time to change UN refugee supremo?

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres at a Press Conference in Geneva
António Guterres will be stepping down as High Commissioner for Refugees at the end of 2015 (Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Photo)

Around the world, more people are being driven from their homes by wars and persecution than ever before. At the same time there appears to be less agreement than ever about how to deal with simultaneous refugee crises of unprecedented scale and duration.

There could hardly be a worse time for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to lose the man who has led the organisation through the last turbulent decade. 

António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has served as the UN high commissioner for refugees since June 2005, will be replaced by a new high commissioner at the end of this year. 

There is general consensus among those working in the refugee sector that he will be a tough act to follow. Under his tenure, UNHCR has responded to numerous refugee emergencies from Afghanistan to Somalia and now Syria. The agency has increased its annual budget from just under $1 billion in 2005 to $7 billion in 2015, partly as a result of a needs-based budgeting approach introduced in 2010. At the same time, Guterres has led the push to reduce the number of staff working at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva, and to reallocate resources to field operations.

For all the criticisms of the UN as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this month – of its infuriating bureaucracy, escalating budgets and failure to intervene to prevent atrocities – UNHCR remains highly regarded. It has had an undeniably positive impact on the lives of millions of refugees, not only through its operations on the ground but also through its efforts to advocate for their rights.

“After more than 60 years we can say UNHCR is a relevant agency and one that needs an excellent leader who’s committed to its mandate,” commented Nan Buzard, executive director of the Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a global network of NGOs.

The high commissioner’s role is more than just managing a complex worldwide operation with more than 9,300 staff in 123 countries. It involves making sure that refugees receive the international protection they’re entitled to under the 1951 Refugee Convention. But pressuring governments to comply with the convention and to treat refugees humanely has to be done with an awareness that the agency cannot function without voluntary contributions from governments. It is a balancing act that requires considerable diplomatic and political skills.

“Guterres has been successful because he’s a skilled politician,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank.

She suggested that extending Guterres’ term by another year, on top of the six months it has already been extended, would have provided much needed continuity at such a critical time in the agency’s history. 

Insiders report that several states supported the idea of Guterres staying on and that he himself expressed a willingness to continue for another year but that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not take him up on the offer.

I think it would have made sense to have extended his term to see how countries deal with this outpouring from Syria and how this crisis changes the office.

“I think it would have made sense to have extended his term to see how countries deal with this outpouring from Syria and how this crisis changes the office,” Newland told IRIN. “But I’ve heard it’s not going to happen and I can’t imagine why.”

Speaking to IRIN on the sidelines of a UN summit on sustainable development in New York on Sunday, Guterres commented that he had already served two terms and his time was up.  

His only advice to his successor: "Do the right thing."

The high commissioner post was announced in August and applications closed on 14 September. 

Although candidates can apply independently, they are more often nominated by civil society groups or their own governments. So far, only one nomination has been made public, that of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark. Her nomination has not been welcomed by refugee rights groups who point to Denmark’s recent slashing of social benefits for newly arrived refugees and the fact that just a few months ago Thorning-Schmidt ran for re-election on an anti-migration platform. A Danish nomination also makes it difficult for other Nordic countries with a stronger record on refugee rights to nominate their own candidates as each regional block usually rallies behind one candidate.

Filippo Grandi, former head of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, is widely reported to also be in the running for the post, although his candidacy hasn’t been officially announced. His long experience in the refugee and humanitarian sectors make him a popular insider’s choice, but the fact he has never held political office in his home country of Italy could count against him, said Newland.

“It helps if you have someone, like Filippo, who has great experience in the (refugee) business, but there’s a lot of expertise in the organisation, and what it lacks is a lot of political skill,” she told IRIN.

Several, but not all, past high commissioners have been former politicians and most have been Europeans. However, Sadako Ogata, a Japanese academic and humanitarian with no political experience, successfully led UNHCR from 1991 to 2000.

The next step will be for Ban to convene an interview panel made up of senior UN officials and one representative from outside the UN. By October, Ban is expected to have a shortlist of three candidates, one of which has to be a woman. After consulting with key member states, he will recommend one candidate who will then have to be endorsed by the UN General Assembly. 

The process of selecting a new high commissioner, as with other top UN posts, relies to a large extent on backroom horse-trading between the major regional powers. The secretary-general is not obliged to make public the shortlist of candidates, although Kofi Annan did so in 2005. 

NGOs working in the refugee sector have little opportunity to influence the outcome other than by channelling their views through their respective governments.

ICVA has attempted to inject more transparency and accountability into the process by calling on candidates to respond publicly to a list of five questions about why they should get the job. 

In 2005, six candidates responded. “It was a different time – obviously more honesty and transparency then than now, which is greatly disturbing," said Buzard. “We’re really hoping to get at least three candidates to respond [this time] and for everyone to support this effort."

“We’re asking for these candidates to be open about why they’re interested in the position and how they hope to guide and lead [UNHCR]. 

“This shouldn’t be a backroom business deal,” she added. “This involves a lot of stakeholders, many that are without representation.”


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