On to the Next Norm- Caroline Courtney

After more than sixty years of sorting and dividing power at the international level, one would think that the world would at some point understand that political dynamics change. It is generally accepted by all schools of thought that power shifts hands and state rewrite their interests in response to events happening every day. Who are we to kid ourselves and say that an organization will look and function the same way it did decades ago?

The expansion of the High Commission of Refugees (HCR) is a fascinating example of how bureaucracies will adapt to survive in an ever-changing world system. If the HCR were to function like it did in 1950, it would only be handling matters of European crisis migration and, even then, only by managing affairs at the consultation level with no real jurisdiction over policy within the states in question. So yes, perhaps the conflict in the Ukraine would be more regulated, but aside from that, the world wouldn’t be much better off.

One particular aspect of the HCR that separates it from many other UN bodies is that is independently financed. This means that adaptation to global norms and state interests (and perhaps those states’ budgets) is critical to the survival of the commission. It must remain a relevant player in as many world issues and cover as much ground to incentivize states to get involved by donating and participating in refugee issues, something that can only be done through expansion. According to Alexander Bett’s analysis of the autonomy of the UNHCR, the transition of the organization from consultation agency to humanitarian aid agent was one that experienced phases of state led influence which eventually led to a self-sufficient decision making regime that worked under much more impartial operations and procedures.

In the early years of the commission, its only real power was granted to it by states seeking a legitimate face to conduct missions that contributed to their own international interests. This kind of transaction was incredibly prevalent during the Cold War when the UN would use the HCR to intervene in areas that were vulnerable to communist oppression. In 1967, the commission was granted full global jurisdiction by the Protocol to the 1951 Convention. By the 1980s, as the number of decolonized states increased and the need for refugee aid expanded, the highly limited commission had bloomed into a fully operational aid agency that functioned around the world, without necessarily requiring individual state approval. It was a transition of both state and circumstantial request that established the HCR as an almost completely autonomous agency. Change was needed and change came, in as little time as the situation allowed.

It is important to understand that this situation can only occur within organizations that are independently financed, only that the process will occur much faster. Every institution is prone to adaptation and no norm is more or less prone to change than any other. States will always look to international organizations to provide an acceptable face for missions of state interest just as those same organizations will use states to gain international approval for expansion and autonomy.

This symbiotic relationship relies on the fact that the institution framework will continue to demand more from the international community. One day we will be talking about preserving intellectual property and the next we will be talking about how to handle environmental refugees. As long as there are problems to be solved there will be organizations that will continue to grow and change in order to meet the demands of the age. The only thing that ever changes is which interpretation or social construct will be used to justify the growth.

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