UNHCR's origins and early history: agency, influence, and power in global refugee policy.

Author:Loescher, Gil

This article addresses the agency, influence, and power of UNHCR regarding the evolution of global refugee policy during the Office's first twenty-eight years. This period coincided with the Cold War, a time of intense bipolar rivalry and a concentration of power among the United States and other Western governments.

UNHCR lacks a close history of its past operations and evolution. Much of the early history of UNHCR, particularly its role and activities in the formation of global refugee policy, its strategies and influence on policymaking, and its agency, influence, and power have been little appreciated. There is a need for strong institutional memory and for more analyses of early instances of UNHCR's agency, strategies, and power in shaping refugee policy and responding to past early refugee crises in order to inform the present.

International relations literature on global refugee policy has mostly adopted a statist perspective, which asserts that UNHCR, like all international organizations, lacks autonomy and is just a mechanism through which states act. (1) Partly as a result of the influence of the realist paradigm in international relations theory, leadership in international organizations is not a broadly researched theme. The common perspective claims that UNHCR is totally dependent on donor states for funding its operations, and on host governments for permission to initiate programs on their territory. (2) Therefore the Office is in no position to challenge the policies of its funders and host governments, and merely acts as an instrument of states. In fact, as the primary institution in refugee affairs, and as the world's foremost authority on refugees and displaced persons, the Office has unique authority in the humanitarian field, which at times can be utilized as influence and even power in global refugee policy. (3) UNHCR has demonstrated agency and influence over the years, has been a purposive, entrepreneurial, and strategic actor with independent interests and capabilities, and has even exercised power, despite the resistance of prominent states, (4) particularly during UNHCR's first twenty-eight years.

The Cold War and the Establishment of UNHCR

When UNHCR was established in December 1950, Europe was the principal area of refugee concern for Western states, as the Cold War intensified and new refugee flows moved from east to west. While there were major refugee movements in the Middle East and in South and East Asia at this time, the Euro-centric orientation of the UNHCR reflected the foreign policy priorities of the United States, the hegemonic power within NATO and the Western alliance. The us preoccupation with reconstruction and rehabilitation in Europe after the Second World War, and the rapidly developing Cold War with the Soviet Union critically affected the lens through which the United States viewed both its own refugee policy and UNHCR.

UNHCR was created by Western governments in such a way that it would neither pose a threat to their sovereignty nor impose new financial obligations on them. States gave the Office a mandate to provide legal protection to refugees and to provide durable solutions, but no guarantee of funds to carry out material assistance programs for the refugees under its care. Having provided the bulk of funding to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency and the International Refugee Organization during the Second World War, the United States sought to limit UNHCR to a protection role for refugees and was opposed to the Office providing material assistance to refugees.

Most significantly, American leaders considered refugee policy simply too important to permit the United Nations to control. The most important aspects of American refugee policy were maintaining international attention devoted to refugees from communist countries, encouraging emigration from the Eastern Bloc, and minimizing international appeals for assistance funds to refugees. To this end, the United States sought to limit severely the operational scope and independence of UNHCR and instead created its own American-led refugee and migration organizations, thereby enabling Washington to select, support, and control the international organizations that best reflected its own foreign policy priorities. (5) The us Escapee Program (USEP) and the Provisional Inter-Governmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants (which soon was renamed ICEM and is today IOM) were generously funded by the United States. ICEM was charged with acting as an operational organization with a broad mandate to facilitate international migration of surplus populations in Europe, including refugees. (6) ICEMs activities were initially perceived by UNHCR to directly compete with and directly affect the Office's ability to define an independent role for itself. (7)

Despite these handicaps, by the mid-1950s UNHCR began to develop a working relationship with ICEM and other organizations and to exercise power and authority autonomously in ways unintended by states at UNHCR's creation.

To explain how this occurred, it is necessary to examine UNHCR's approach to and implementation of policy in its early years and to underscore the importance of several institutional factors that made it possible for determined early high commissioners to guide and to shape the evolution of a strong and effective organization.

The organization's historical mandate, its formal structures, the early competition it faced from other international agencies and institutions, and the internal processes and internal hierarchical decision-making of the Office itself --all influenced the direction of UNHCR refugee policy during the nearly first three decades of its existence.

First, UNHCR's 1950 Statute and the 1951 un Refugee Convention formed the template for how UNHCR should function and how it should make global refugee policy. These instruments provided the Office with unparalleled moral authority and a monopoly on legal and protection issues regarding refugees. Most importantly, they also provided a legal basis for the Office's expansion of activities and its claims to legitimacy for its new geographic scope of activities from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s.

Second, UNHCR is an intergovernmental organization that was created by states to protect refugees and to provide durable solutions to their plight. UNHCR's Statute placed a temporal limitation on the Office's work by requiring that it could concern itself only with refugees who had fled their home countries before 1951. The Statute also made the UNHCR formally subject to the authority of the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. By placing UNHCR under the authority of the UN General Assembly, states provided a legitimate mechanism for further growth of the Office's mandate and activities. Throughout its history, particularly from the 1950s through most of the 1970s, UNHCR used General Assembly resolutions in flexible ways to define and expand its own competence, role, and autonomy in politically sensitive refugee situations. In particular, the General Assembly's "Good Offices" Resolutions of the 1950s through the 1970s led the Office's expansion into Africa and Asia. (8) Later, during the era of Sadruddin Aga Khan, UNHCR would be delegated by the un secretary-general to act as the un lead agency for the coordination of international humanitarian assistance, not only to refugees and displaced persons, but also to victims of human-made disasters. In the process, UNHCR--with the approval of the UN General Assembly and successive un secretaries-general--developed an enormous agenda well beyond its original mandate, greatly expanded its overall functions and authority, and became an indispensable and autonomous actor in many of the major political developments in the Global South.

Third, the international humanitarian system, the refugee regime complex, and the humanitarian marketplace within which UNHCR operates also affect the authority and freedom within which the Office frames its policies and programs. Despite early competition from US-led national and international refugee and migration agencies, by the mid-1950s UNHCR demonstrated to the United States and other states that it was the only international organization with the authority, operational capacity, and operational effectiveness to manage large-scale refugee protection and aid programs of geopolitical interest to the major powers.

Lastly, UNHCR's approach to policy is significantly influenced by the hierarchical structure of the Office. The 1950 Statute that established UNHCR invested all the authority of the Office in the person of the high commissioner. In interstate discussions at the time, un Secretary General Trygve Lie argued that the high commissioner should "enjoy a special status within the un" and should also "possess the degree of independence and prestige which would seem to be required for the effective performance of his functions." (9) Over the opposition of the United States, which sought to place UNHCR in the un Secretariat and thereby control the selection of the high commissioner, the founding states decided to create an independent high commissioner directly responsible to the General Assembly. Since its inception, therefore, UNHCR has always been referred to as the High Commissioner's Office, underlining the primary importance and independence of the person of the high commissioner in UNHCR's centralized decision-making structure. Accordingly, this article is organized around the Office's first four high commissioners.

From the beginning, UNHCRhas had a top-down hierarchical decision-making and policy implementation structure. (10) Thus the history and policy and institutional direction and expansion of the Office and its mandate have been influenced and shaped by individual high commissioners and their senior staff. The influence of the first four high...

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