NEW YORK — Before the end of the year, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will fulfill one of the most critical responsibilities of his office - appointing a new high commissioner for refugees. As the leaders of organizations that aid uprooted people by providing humanitarian assistance and by working to protect their human rights, we can bear witness to the high commissioner's crucially important mission.
Replacing outgoing High Commissioner Sadaka Ogata will be no easy task. The end of the cold war unleashed a wave of ethnic, religious, and territorial clashes that have stretched the resources not only of the UN refugee agency itself, but also of the global network of voluntary organizations dedicated to the welfare of the world's dispossessed. During this period, Mrs. Ogata's tireless efforts have repeatedly focused the global spotlight on the conditions of the world's most vulnerable and oppressed peoples.
While the high commissioner's work can be high-profile, as in Kosovo, much of it is conducted in relative anonymity, providing services for the victims of the world's forgotten wars in places like Sudan, Chechnya, and Angola.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is the lead agency in the delivery and coordination of humanitarian assistance and in protection for the world's burgeoning population of refugees (now over 14 million). As such, it has the ability to affect the lives of more people than any other UN organization.
The next high commissioner will have to deal with increasingly complex situations. For example, in many war zones, huge numbers of civilian victims have been driven from their homes but have not crossed an international border. Since it operates under the charter of the UN, the refugee agency is bound to respect the sovereignty of the states where it operates. Yet often, it is the state itself that is persecuting those people the UN refugee agency is trying to assist.
Such a dynamic has sometimes created tensions between human rights groups and assistance agencies like those we represent, since there can be a temptation to avoid antagonizing the state, lest it shut down aid operations. Such tensions make it all the more important for the high commissioner to provide a clear voice on issues of refugee protection.
This imperative was demonstrated last year during NATO action in Serbia. With hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing in terror from Serb repression, Ogata's agency stood almost alone in sharply criticizing the Macedonian government for its attempts at border closings, forced relocation of refugees, and efforts to return refugees to Kosovo against their will. The UN refugee agency took this strong stance despite political pressure from the US and other NATO countries to go easy on Macedonia and consider its political vulnerabilities.
The agency's refusal to back down invoked the ire of many members of the international community, including several key donors. As a result, Ogata's organization was on a number of occasions unfairly criticized by governments and military authorities for its supposed failures in its response to the crisis.
While the UN refugee agency has admitted it fell short in many areas during the Kosovo crisis, the damage to its image led to Draconian budgetary restrictions imposed by the US Senate.
It is hard to see how such a punishment can reform an agency whose funding is already inadequate and whose mandate requires it to operate under emergency conditions. Nonetheless, the next high commissioner must correct these politicized apprehensions, and demonstrate the capacity and resolve to effect real reforms where they are needed.
But the most important role is to protect refugees. The US and other key governments should reinforce this priority with Mr. Annan now as he prepares to select Ogata's successor. The next high commissioner must stand up to the very governments that most influence the nominating process and contribute the bulk of the agency's annual budget. To effectively fulfill the agency's mandate of refugee protection, the next high commissioner must be willing to speak truth to power.
The lives of millions of dispossessed and oppressed will depend on whether Annan's selection has the courage and determination to advocate strongly on their behalf, often at the risk of offending key members of the Security Council.
*Reynold Levy is president of the International Rescue Committee, and Michael Posner is executive director of The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society