P R I S O N S O F T H E S TAT E L E S S
The Derelictions of UNHCR
here are currently over 20 million people ‘of concern’
to the ofﬁce of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees. Just over half of those are internally displaced or stateless, with 8 million having ﬂed across an international border. Established in 1950, unhcr was charged by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees with the protection of their interests: full political and economic rights in the country of asylum, with the hope of eventual voluntary repatriation. As a brutal testament to its contemporary failure, at least 3.5 million of those refugees currently struggle for survival in sprawling camps in Africa and Asia. Fleeing from genocide, imperial aggression and civil war, only to be herded into camps or sent back to the country they were escaping, these asylum-seekers and returnees are part of a seemingly endless human tragedy. If it was originally a guarantor of refugee rights, unhcr has since mutated into a patron of these prisons of the stateless: a network of huge camps that can never meet any plausible ‘humanitarian’ standard, and yet somehow justify international funding for the agency.
Like many of the un’s specialized agencies—the World Food Programme, the un Development Programme and others—unhcr functions independently of the General Assembly. Most of these bodies have their own assemblies and compete with each other for their portfolio, prestige and funds.1 Responsibility for the 4 million Palestinian refugees remains with the un Relief and Works Agency but, partly through its support for both refugee camps and repatriation, unhcr has successfully encroached on the territory of the development organizations. Financed by donations and periodic appeals, rather than as a structural part of new left review 42 nov dec 2006
the United Nations, it has always been constrained by the interests of the rich ‘donor nations’, and its level of funding largely depends on how it sells emergency relief operations to the West. During the 1980s the United States criticized unhcr for being too ‘legalistic’, and concerned with protecting refugees in America and Europe: it wanted a focus on relief operations in the South. Jean-Pierre Hocké—a Swiss car-salesman turned Red Cross ofﬁcial—was appointed in 1986 to reform the agency. He began to focus the organization on the mass return of refugees, at one point provoking a staff revolt by cutting food rations to Ethiopians who declined ‘voluntary repatriation’, and failing to condemn the forcible repatriation of the Vietnamese boat people. When Hocké was pushed out of ofﬁce in 1989 by ﬁnancial crises and allegations of corruption, the Norwegian Thorvald Stoltenberg brieﬂy held the fort before the appointment of Sadako Ogata as High Commissioner at the end of 1990. The agency that Hocké and Stoltenberg left behind was demoralized and unsure of its post-Cold War purpose. By the time Ogata left in 2000, its mandate would have been transformed. The publication of her memoir provides an opportunity to track unhcr’s evolution during that ‘turbulent decade’, and assess its changing responsibility for the camps and their inhabitants.2
Ogata took up her post during the whirlwind of Operation Desert Storm. Within months, the reassuringly-named Operation Provide Comfort was launched, with un and unhcr support, in order to corral hundreds of thousands of desperate Kurds back into Iraq. Presented to the media as an emergency relief campaign, it signalled the beginning of a successful reform of unhcr’s mandate and methods, in the direction originally charted by Hocké. During the 1990s, Ogata—soon with the help of Koﬁ Annan—was to retool this apparently outdated agency as an instrument for the new age of humanitarian warfare. The free world could no longer score political points by opening its doors to the oppressed, and the nationalist and ethnic...
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