UNHCR mourns death of former chief Sadruddin Aga Khan

The UN refugee agency's youngest-ever and longest-serving High Commissioner, who led the agency through some of its most challenging moments and devoted his life to humanitarian work, has died at the age of 70.

Former High Commissioner for Refugees Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan with Bangladeshi refugees in 1973.   © UNHCR/W.van de Linde

GENEVA, May 14 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is mourning the death of its former High Commissioner, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who led UNHCR through some of its most difficult times in the 1960s and 1970s. He died in Boston on Monday at the age of 70.

"All in UNHCR and the entire humanitarian community are deeply saddened by the passing away of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan," said current High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers when he received the news of the death while on mission in West Africa. "He left an indelible print on UNHCR's history - leading the agency through some of the most challenging moments. Sadruddin's name became synonymous with UNHCR."

Prince Sadruddin devoted his life to humanitarian work. In 1963, he served as UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner for three years before becoming the agency's youngest-ever High Commissioner in January 1966 at the age of 33.

He was at the helm of the UN refugee agency during one of its most difficult periods. This included the 1971 Bangladesh crisis, which uprooted 10 million people; the 1972 exodus of hundreds of thousands of Hutus from Burundi to Tanzania; and the Indochinese boat people tragedy of the mid-1970s. In 1972, he played a key role in finding new homes for tens of thousands of South Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.

"There were surreal and unbelievable moments," he said, recalling a paradoxical incident that had arisen from the Ugandan situation. "I was visiting transit camps in Italy for Asians who had been kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin and I met some Africans who had been airlifted out by mistake and didn't even know where they were. One told me, 'I was in Entebbe when the airlift started and all of a sudden I was put on a plane and all of a sudden here I am in Italy and all I want to do is go home.' We arranged for them to fly back."

In his 12 years as High Commissioner - UNHCR's longest-serving - Prince Sadruddin's passion for the refugee cause was well known. "The refugee is a product of our errors, his predicament an indictment of our conduct as peoples and nations. He exists for our education and as a warning," he told UNHCR's Refugees magazine in 2000. "If there is one thing that is worse than being a refugee, it is being a refugee without asylum."

After leaving UNHCR in 1977 at his own request, Prince Sadruddin founded the Geneva-based Bellerive Foundation to promote the protection of nature and the environment. He also served in various capacities on behalf of the United Nations - dealing with humanitarian situations like Afghanistan and Iraq during the first Gulf War - and was a trustee of several charity organisations.

The former High Commissioner published several books and received numerous national and international decorations, including the French Légion d'Honneur and the United Nations Human Rights Award. He is survived by his wife, Princess Catherine Aleya Aga Khan.