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The right person for the job? Selecting the next UNHCR chief
September 28, 2015, 7:55 am

The Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen: During the past three years, a spate of armed conflicts has erupted across the world, pushing the global number of refugees and displaced people up to 60 million, the highest level since the end of the second world war.

The developments have placed enormous pressure on UNHCR – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – a Geneva-based agency with a worldwide presence, an annual budget of over $3 billion and a workforce of some 7,000 people. And that pressure is increasing, with thousands of refugees now moving into Europe every day.

Slovenian riot police block refugees at the Harmica border crossing between Slovenia and Croatia, west of Zagreb, capital of Croatia, Sept. 19, 2015 [Xinhua]

Slovenian riot police block refugees at the Harmica border crossing between Slovenia and Croatia, west of Zagreb, capital of Croatia, Sept. 19, 2015 [Xinhua]

As if that were not enough, UNHCR is about to lose its chief of the past decade, Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister who is widely acknowledged to be one of the most savvy and charismatic leaders within the UN system.

Very little is known about the process that will be used to select the next High Commissioner. The UN Secretary-General has issued a request for nominations, and sources in New York suggest that up to 15 names have already been put forward.

But those names will not be released to the public, and the consultations that the Secretary-General and his staff will undertake with states in order to whittle down the list of candidates will be held in conditions of utmost secrecy.

While a group of NGOs are striving to make the selection procedure a little more transparent by issuing a questionnaire to those people who have declared their interest in the post, candidates are under no obligation to respond to this initiative.

As for the short-listed names, we know that they will be interviewed by a panel led by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, but we do not know the names of the other members or the criteria that will be used to select the one candidate who will eventually be presented to the General Assembly for its endorsement.

UNHCR and the millions of people that it supports will thus be placed in the hands of someone selected by means of wheeling and dealing between diplomats behind closed doors.

What kind of person should those diplomats select?

A strong case can be made for the appointment of a suitably qualified candidate from a developing or middle-country, where more than 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are to be found.

Since it was established in 1951, all of the High Commissioners have come from the industrialized states, the sole exception being Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, technically from Iran but an international figure with permanent residence in Switzerland.

With respect to gender, only one previous High Commissioner has been a woman – Sadako Ogata of Japan – who led the agency with great aplomb during the turbulent decade of 1991 to 2001.

As well as giving serious consideration to female and developing country candidates, it is essential for the UN to select a High Commissioner with proven commitment to the cause of refugees.

Unfortunately that might not happen.

The first person to announce her candidature for the top job at UNHCR was Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Prime Minister of Denmark who during the last election promised to reduce the number of asylum seekers entering the country. She is strongly supported by the current Danish government, which in recent days has placed advertisements in Arabic-language newspapers, discouraging Syrian refugees from making their way there.

If common sense were to prevail (and being the UN this is not likely) then the next High Commissioner would originate from a country with a proud record of refugee protection, thereby ensuring that she or he could act with the maximum moral authority.

Without such authority, it will not be possible for the next High Commissioner to ensure that refugees are equitably distributed across Europe, to reverse Australia’s policy of incarcerating refugees on remote island locations or to ensure that humanitarian agencies have access to the millions of people displaced within Syria.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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