Do we need a comprehensive and binding international treaty in order to start to tackle the global issue of climate change? Of course not. Do we need the country of Lesotho to agree to chip in by reducing greenhouse gas emissions before other countries can move forward on addressing climate change? Again, of course not, and thankfully it seems that we are waking up to those simple facts.
The UN should be congratulated on setting up an official inquiry into the human rights violations perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government during the country’s civil war. Granted, that inquiry is coming rather late (about five years late), is horribly undermanned (only twelve official staff members), and is restricted to only ten months in which to complete its inquiry. And of course, it will only look at the last years of the civil war in Sri Lanka which ended in 2009, turning a blind eye to all of the ongoing human rights violations in the country today.
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 United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has been a fundamental organization within the United Nations since its inception after World War II. Today, the UNHCR has a very different mandate since its creation 60 years ago, and this is because it has been able to adequately identify the growing problems in this world and broaden there scope. Climate refugees are in a growing number thanks to the amount of environmental disasters that have been happening in the past years thanks to the phenomenon that is climate change. Tragedies like those felt all around the Indian Ocean in 2004, which left many people dead and many others internally displayed is just a fragment of what citizens of this world are exposed to when mother nature strikes.
Between 12-45 million environmental refugees are displaced from their homes each year by sudden onset disasters such as tsunamis and still more from slow onset disasters. From the conflicts in Sudan that erupted as a result of scarce resources due to climate change, to an ever-increasing rise in sea level that threatens low-lying islands such as the Maldives, the need to address climate refugees and migrants resulting from these disasters is becoming more and more critical. Continue reading UNHCR: What about climate refugees?
United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Betts argues, expanded its mandate over time in spite of states’ national interest. He explains that the reason for UNHCR mandate expansion is the strong leadership that is represented in the High Commissioner. Although this might be true, UNHCR mandate expansion cannot be used as a case to generalize the expansion of international organizations mandate. My main argument in this piece is that international organizations’ degree of freedom of action depends on the issue it is established for. On the one hand, organizations that are established around issues representing states’ national interest (i.e. security and economic matters) have less freedom of action than organizations that are concerned with non-political matters (i.e. humanitarian, culture etc.). Even with organizations that are mainly established around non-political matters, if it comes across a political issue, it would be vulnerable to states’ will.
As I mentioned above, international organizations that work around sensitive issues, such as security, are usually subjected to heavy control by states. United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) is a clear example for this. A combination of U.S. internal politics and European powers’ incentive to free-ride led not just to the failure of the mission, but to endanger UN soldiers that were sent to Rwanda. The failure of U.S. in Somalia a year before the Rwandan Genocide created fear among U.S. officials of losing more soldiers and led the American government to refuse to take any action to stop the genocide or to expand the mandate of UNAMIR in Rwanda. Some might argue that UNAMIR stayed in Rwanda in spite of the international community order to leave. Although this is true, in reality understaffed and abandoned UNAMIR was completely paralyzed and unable to take any action to preserve the peace in Rwanda. In summary, UNAMIR was vulnerable to individual states’ national interest.
Now we turn to organizations that have no political nature and are established to deal with non-political issues. I agree with Betts that UNHCR along with similar organizations (i.e. UNESCO) are freer to act on their own merit. The reason this is the case is that these organizations deal with issues that do not jeopardize states’ vital interest. Another reason is that, especially with humanitarian organizations, it is extremely hard for states to argue against their activites because if states do, they will be accused of immoral behavior. However if non-political organizations came across a political issue, they will be subjected to power politics. The UNESCO recognition of Palestine is a perfect example for this. On October 15th 2011 UNESCO approved Palestine as a full member state to the organization. Days after this the U.S. government announced that it will withhold a $60 million dollars payment to the organizations. Canada followed the U.S. and withheld some of its donations too. Although UNESCO does not have any political nature, the admission of Palestine contained a political component (the Israeli-Palestine conflict), which caused the organization to be vulnerable to power politics and to lose some of its budget.
To sum this, I agreed with Betts that UNHCR along with other non-politically oriented international organizations have easier time acting on their own. However my reasoning is different from Betts. I argue that the determinant of how free to act or to expand an organization is depends on the issue it is established around and vulnerable to states’ national interest. I supported my argument with examples from international organizations such as UNAMIR and UNESCO and showed how the issues at hand effect the degree of interference by states in the affairs of a given international organization.
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?