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UNHCR should coordinate humanitarian policy, says refugee law expert

UNHCR should coordinate humanitarian policy, says refugee law expert

Arthur Helton's new book calls for more consolidated policies within the UN and a separate think tank to advise on humanitarian action.
30 April 2002
Arthur Helton presents his book to High Commissioner Lubbers (left) and UNHCR staff in Geneva.

Arthur Helton presents his book to High Commissioner Lubbers (left) and UNHCR staff in Geneva.

GENEVA, April 30 (UNHCR) - The United Nations needs to consolidate its humanitarian policies, said an expert on international refugee law and policy at a book presentation on Monday, adding that UNHCR should play a leading role in coordinating such policies.

Discussing his new book, "The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century," at the refugee agency's headquarters in Geneva, author Arthur Helton said, "Fundamentally, I find that there is no current impetus for further consolidation in humanitarian activities within the UN system."

He said the current system is based on the assumption that past crises can never happen again, such that when similar problems do occur, humanitarian actors are always caught off guard. Hence his argument for a coherent mechanism to anticipate and prepare for such crises.

"It's not really a question of policy or money in refugee affairs, but a question of organising policy, a question of process," explained Helton. "The policy should be more comprehensive and proactive to avoid being relegated to the administration of misery. A small amount of money better targeted might actually mitigate or prevent some of these activities, might actually secure and sustain people upon return and avoid the recurrence of crisis."

Calling for more "supple, nimble anticipation of what could happen," he said, "UNHCR knows the situation on the ground, has a field-based presence and is therefore in a relative position to coordinate humanitarian policy within the UN system."

Helton, who is a senior fellow for Refugee Studies and Preventive Action and director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was addressing a packed room of UNHCR staff who included former High Commissioner Sadako Ogata and current High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers.

Said Lubbers, "We're all here to find a better response. It's an immense task. Refugees are icons of where it went wrong and now we are trying to find ways to overcome that."

Reiterating the refugee agency's role in humanitarian crises, the High Commissioner added, "Those who are in power won't always be able to prevent negative outcomes. So we need something like UNHCR to prioritise human beings. The indifference is growing, so I hope UNHCR can play its role like a candle in the dark."

Helton's book reviews the last decade's twist and turns in refugee policy and humanitarian action. It also recommends ways to improve contingency planning at the national level in the United States, and offers ideas to formulate proactive refugee policies at the international level.

A key policy proposal is SHARE, or Strategic Humanitarian Action and Research. Helton elaborated, "It's a modest proposal to situate outside the UN system a small operationally-oriented think tank with consultants who try to offer thinking and analytical, real-time advice to international organisations, non-governmental organisations and governments as they try to cope with the reality of humanitarian action."

The book, which offers constructive criticism of the UN, has garnered praise within the organisation. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that it "not only asks important questions, but also makes important policy recommendations. His book will undoubtedly help us to manage humanitarian challenges better in the future."

Ogata said it was "masterfully written and innovative," while High Commissioner Lubbers called it "a fascinating book [which] relates also to the future. I will profit from this book in preparing for 2004, [when] the General Assembly of the United Nations has to decide how to go on with UNHCR, with what mandate, with what funding."