What’s Driving the Expansion of the UNHCR? – Amanda DelGiudice

When the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950, it was clearly given a precise and limited mandate but that hasn’t stopped it from breaking those boundaries. In the last 64 years, it has managed to expand its rule into several areas that were unspecified in the original mandate, or in any mandate for that matter. What social forces are pushing this expansion? In my opinion, it is strong internal leadership.

At its creation, the UNHCR was limited in its scope, which was likely due to a lack of support from major powers such as the United States. The original mandate was linked to the 1950 Statute and limited the organization’s specifically work only with refugees who were displaced prior to 1951 as a result of World War II. The organization was limited to working in Europe and was only given a five-year mandate, after which it had to apply for renewal. Since then, the organizations mandate has expanded to include working with internally displaced individuals as well as victims of natural disasters and it has an active role in repatriation. Not only do these new roles clearly depart from the original mandate, in some cases there is no new statue or amendment adding them to the mandate at all. 

Despite its relatively short life span, the UNHCR has clearly evolved in many ways since its creation. Not only has it expanded its geographical scope, it has also ventured into new policy areas and taken on responsibilities that were not originally intended by its creators when drafting its mandate. Although multiple theories have been volunteered to try to explain the growing power of the UNHCR, I believe that one idea discussed by Betts is particularly compelling – that internal leadership fueled the growth. 

If we look at each instance of growth in the operations of the UNHCR, we see the high commissioner of the organization making decisions outside of the organization’s mandate and actively creating a leading role for the agency in the issue area. For instance if we look at the inception of the organization, we see the first High Commissioner, Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart, actively searching and acquiring additional resources for the organization which allowed him to expand their activities and play a role in the Cold War. By aiding Germans fleeing East Berlin for West Germany as well as Hungarians trying to escape the Soviet Invasion, the UNHCR proved that it could play a powerful role in the Cold War era and won the respect of nations like the United States who agreed to expand its initial five-year mandate. Strong, proactive leadership was responsible for expanding the life span of the UNHCR and throughout that time its leaders have continued to take on this same role. 

I think that the role of organization’s High Commissioners has been invaluable in the expansion of power we have seen in the past six decades. Without a strong guiding force shaping the direction of the organization, the UNHCR would easily have never evolved into the organization it is today. This growth needed clear decision making as well as the confidence and willingness to take risks and step outside the proscribed realm of the organization. Without a strong leader making these decisions, this expansion would likely have never taken place.


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