Strong Leaders and Strong Connections: The Evolution of the UNHCR

Traditional International Relations theory would put states at the forefront of change, domestically and at the international level; however, sometimes this is not the case. For the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the path leading to change has been driven by states as well as from within, without a clear influence from a member state. Acting in its own volition, the UNHCR’s mandate evolved since its inception after World War II. Where has this change come from? Betts pushes the idea that leaders in the position helped to push the mandate change throughout the years, with member states acting as impediments from time to time.

The person that takes on the role as high commissioner has played an integral role in the expansion of the UNHCR over the years, according to Betts. Throughout the piece, he outlines the expansions that took place over the years both through the scope of UNHCR’s activities and whom they are concerned with. Since 1951, there have been only 10 high commissioners, with tenures ranging from a few months to a decade. With the ability to hold office for a long period of time, the commissioner can develop ties and work in the long-term as well as the short-term. This view of the importance of individual reminds me of Waltz’ emphasis on examining different levels of international relations: the international image, state image, and finally the individual image. However, this mostly applies to the onset of war, nevertheless Betts relies on the importance of the third image in analyzing the changes in UNHCR mandate. Betts asserts that strong leadership as well as strong connections with other organizations allowed the UNHCR to solidify its position despite some member states attempting to block such expansion.

Although member states provide substantial backing to policies that appeal to their interests, throughout the history of the UNHCR not every move to expansion appealed to member states, particularly to the interests of the United States. With climate change, we see the UNHCR attempting to change its mandate to include refugees affected by climate change. Their report on the effect of climate change highlights their desire to expand the scope of who they term ‘population of concern’ as they recognize that science cannot protect people from the damage that has been done to the environment that can cause them to need to leave their home countries. However, they have not yet been able to expand in this area due to lack of support from the General Assembly. Once again, the network of other international organizations is aiding them in expanding despite the lack of interest by member states. This support allows the UNHCR to begin to develop their approach to refugees, allowing them to slowly begin to form a place for themselves in the role as protector of this expanded idea of refugees.

Between the role of the individual and the role of the international system, the UNHCR has been able to solidify a larger role in aiding refugee populations and internally displaced people. Betts argues that the role of the individual has been paramount in paving the way for change as the high commissioners have proved to be strategic in expanding the scope of the office of the UNHCR. Although states tend to not allow for the UNHCR to gain power, the UNHCR has developed a technique of gaining the support of other international organizations, bypassing the need for official support from the General Assembly. In the future, this critical partnership (strong leaders and other international organizations) may continue to change the UNHCR’s mandate as problems arise and the world changes.


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