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Previous High Commissioners

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© UNHCR/J.-M. Ferré

From van Heuven Goedhart to Grandi

The UN refugee agency has had 11 High Commissioners since it was established in 1950, starting with Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, a Dutch journalist and lawyer who died suddenly in the job in 1956. His achievements on behalf of refugees were acknowledged in 1954, when UNHCR was awarded its first Nobel Peace Prize. He was followed by another former journalist, Switzerland's Auguste Lindt, who soon faced the test of helping some 200,000 Hungarians fleeing their country as a result of the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Lindt was followed by another Swiss national, Félix Schnyder, who handed over to Sadruddin Aga Khan of Iran in 1965. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan spent 12 years at the UNHCR helm, longer than anyone else, and he also worked for the organization before taking the top job. The next High Commissioner, Poul Hartling of Denmark, was the first of three former prime ministers to lead the agency. Hartling's eight-year term was marked by the mass exodus in Indochina and major operations in the Horn of Africa and Central America, as well as for Afghan refugees in Asia. During his stewardship, UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Prize for a second time in 1981. Jean-Pierre Hocké, another Swiss man, was High Commissioner from 1986-89, followed by the brief stint of Norwegian politician Thorvald Stoltenberg. In 1990, Sadako Ogata – shown above with High Commissioner Guterres and ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger at a meeting in 2011 - became the first female High Commissioner for Refugees, leading the organization for 10 years. Her tenure was marked by crises in the Balkans and the Great Lakes and the repatriation of 360,000 refugees to Cambodia. She was followed by Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch Prime Minister whose four-year term in office was most marked by the voluntary repatriation of millions of people to Afghanistan. UNHCR's 10th High Commissioner was former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, who held the position from mid-2005 to the end of 2015. During his tenure, he oversaw the most profound structural reform process in UNHCR's history and built up the organization's capacity to respond to some of the largest displacement crises since the end of the Second World War. Guterres was succeeded as High Commissioner by Filippo Grandi.

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