Three Women, One Man in Race for Top UN Refugee Post

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Oct. 23, 2015 – Among the candidates to take over from Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as the next high commissioner for refugees is Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist, former government minister and founder of a healthcare NGO in her native Pakistan.

Sania Nishtar UNHCR candidate
Nishtar is the only non-European of the four candidates who have applied for the job and agreed to answer five questions posed by the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a global network of NGO’s with a long history of work on forced displacement issues.

She told ICVA that while candidates for top UN posts typically come from donor countries, selecting a candidate from the world’s top refugee hosting country would send a signal that all stakeholders matter and it would be empower the most affected countries to contribute.

Nishtar said her first refugee experience was in 1979 when relatives from Afghanistan arrived to stay with her family in Peshawar.

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The CEO of Save the Children International, Jasmine Whitbread, who holds dual UK and Swiss nationality, told ICVA that with many donor countries facing an influx of refugees for the first time, there is an “unparalleled opportunity to re-frame the issue for good.”

“I believe that the very difficulties of the situation we are facing may prove the galvanising force for change we need,” Whitbread said. “UNHCR is well placed to help catalyse this movement, and I would aim to bring all my experience and skills to bear to ensure we do not miss this opportunity.”

She also said UNHCR must throw its full weight behind breaking down the artficial divide between humanitarian and development work.

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Former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, told ICVA that if she gets the post she would continue the good work started by Guterres on supporting stateless people. She noted that while much of the attention of UNHCR’s work is on refugees and the internally displaced, there are some 10 million people without citizenship.

Thorning-Schmidt also said she was concerned that even though thee are twice as many internally displaced people as refugees, they are not afforded the same protection.

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Filippo Grandi, the former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, noted that his humanitarian experience dates back to the early 1990s including in Iraq, DRC and Afghanistan.

The Italian, who as head of UNRWA was responsible for the welfare of five million Palestinian refugees, also told ICVA that the high commissioner, as a senior adviser to the secretary-general, is “an important participant in the global discussions on conflict prevention and resolution, sustainable development, human rights and climate change.”

He noted that funding will continue to be a challenge for the refugee agency with only 12 governments providing over 80 percent of UNHCR’s funding.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

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Jan Eliasson: the Swedish diplomat is heading the search for a new high-commissioner for refugees

Sept. 24, 2015 – A panel headed by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson will present a short-list of three names to Ban Ki-moon in the coming weeks as he seeks to find a replacement for Antonio Gutteres as high commissioner for refugees.

Gutteres is stepping down after ten years in the post and his successor will take over at a crucial time in the agency’s 65 year history. There are currently 60 million refugees around the world, a figure which includes 40 million displaced inside their own borders and five million Palestinian refugees, whose welfare is handled by a separate agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Among those vying for the post is the former head of UNRWA, Italian Filippo Grandi. He stepped down last year as commissioner-general of the agency that he joined in 2005 as deputy commissioner-general. He assumed the top post in 2010. During his time with UNRWA, he oversaw major refugee crises including the 2006 Lebanon war, the destruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007, the 2009-09 Gaza conflict and the conflict in Syria, which is home to some 550,000 Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s care.

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the head of the UN Environemntal Program Achim Steimer are also among the candidates. The short-list is expected to include at least one female candidate. Once Ban makes his selection, he then sends it to the General Assembly for rubber stamping, which will likely happen in November.

The new refugees high-commissioner will head a 10,000 person agency working in some 123 countries. UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes, in 1954 and 1981.

Eight of the ten previous high commissioners for refugees have been Europeans. The only non-Europeans were Japan’s Sadako Ogata, who served from 1990-2000 – and who is also the only woman to have headed the agency – and Iran’s Sadruddin Aga Khan, who was high-commissioner from 1965-1977.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related Story: Former Danish PM Nominated to Head UN Refugee Agency