News: Ruud Lubbers, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, recently succeeded Sadako Ogata as High Commissioner for Refugees.
Analysis: This transition takes place during the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR, and perhaps the jubilee year is an appropriate time to reflect on the accomplishments of and challenges facing the agency.
Mrs. Ogata will prove to be a difficult act to follow. She has very successfully managed one of the most immense and demanding operations in the UN system, as the voice of some 22.4 million asylum-seeking people whose “country of origin has proved itself unable or unwilling to protect” their basic rights. The UNHCR is confronted with a daunting task, yet it has done remarkably well in minimizing the human toll of displacement.
As international conflicts become less common in our era, supplanted by internal ones (civil wars, ethnic strife, etc.) with the many refugees they create, the UNHCR finds its responsibilities ballooning. Simultaneously, its budget has been reduced in recent years (from more than $1 billion in 1998 to $824.7 million in 2000). The agency has nevertheless maintained its high level of performance, even while its personnel have been physically attacked in some countries.
The UNHCR came under fire in 1998, following a series of criticisms published in a prominent newspaper, alleging that the agency had mismanaged funds and lost its sense of purpose. However, UNHCR spokespeople provided pointed and effective counter-arguments, proving the accusations to be both alarmist and lacking in perspective. The overwhelming support of the UNHCR by Member States during the affair attests to the high esteem in which they hold the agency.
Mr. Lubbers, also president of the World Wildlife Fund, has a long history of humanitarian involvement. He will face many challenges as High Commissioner, including increasing numbers of refugees from the complex conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region, the resettling of Tajik refugees in neighboring states, and raids on UNHCR supplies in Guinea.
He should also examine issues sometimes overlooked, including internally displaced persons, some 6 million of whom fall under UNHCR’s mandate; environmental degradation caused by the concentration of people in refugee camps; improvement in the security of UNHCR personnel in the field; and problems specific to women and children, who compose three-quarters of refugee populations worldwide.
If Mr. Lubbers follows the high standards of efficiency, integrity and competence as set by Mrs. Ogata, then the UNHCR will continue to be a cornerstone of the UN’s humanitarian efforts.