UNHCR and the Protection Mandate

UNHCR and the Protection Mandate

One need not venture far into the world of refugee assistance to encounter a maxim whose air of axiomatic truth can be a conversation-stopper, and whose terms, like sacred postulates of the refugee-response system, are rarely unpacked: The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the refugee-protection mandate.

But several issues within that black box are worth illuminating. Namely, what does "refugee protection" mean? What is the nature of the "mandate"? And is it true that UNHCR is its unique possessor? While this might seem like a dry line of inquiry, like so much else these days, it will eventually lead to George Clooney.

When UNHCR was created in 1951 by the U.N. General Assembly, its founding statute charged the high commissioner with "the function of providing international protection . . . to refugees . . . and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments." It is clear that UNHCR was commissioned with refugee protection by the General Assembly on behalf of member states, which might be termed a mandate. What is less often discussed, though, is that, even before the concept became fashionable through the U.N. Humanitarian Reform process of 2005, UNHCR's statute envisioned the agency as a provider of last resort: It would be "assisting Governments," not serving as the sole or primary guardian of refugee welfare. This is worth repeating often, since UNCHR's place in the refugee-assistance landscape has been a source of confusion at the field level to the detriment of refugees -- a confusion abetted by the recitation that UNHCR has the "Protection Mandate," now with a definite article and capital letters.

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