High Commissioner Lubbers departs UNHCR

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers delivered an emotional farewell to UNHCR staff and handed over temporary leadership responsibilities for the agency to Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin, who will work closely with Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane pending the appointment of a new High Commissioner.

Ruud Lubbers gave an emotional farewell address to UNHCR staff a few hours before leaving the agency headquarters for the last time   © UNHCR/S.Hopper

GENEVA, Feb 24 (UNHCR) - U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Thursday said an emotional goodbye to some 6,000 UNHCR staff around the world and handed over temporary leadership responsibilities for the agency to Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin. Ms. Chamberlin will work closely with Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane pending the appointment of a new High Commissioner.

Mr. Lubbers left UNHCR's Geneva headquarters at 3:38 p.m., ending what he described as "50 wonderful months" as the world's top refugee official.

Earlier, the former Dutch prime minister addressed a staff gathering in the cavernous headquarters atrium.

"I saw a lot of misery during my time as High Commissioner, but a lot of wonderful things as well," Mr. Lubbers said. "For me, it was a great time. And I think for you - even with all the difficult moments - it was a great time as well."

Lubbers said his term as chief of UNHCR's global efforts to protect and assist 17 million refugees and others of concern was a privilege, and he thanked UNHCR staff for their support during the last, difficult 10 months.

"I don't feel alone today, not at all," he said. "I'm not going away in anger. No. I am going away with gratitude - gratitude for what you meant to me; gratitude for working together. I am absolutely sure that not only are the refugees wonderful people, you are, too ... "

Lubbers, who took over as High Commissioner on Jan. 1, 2001, had been scheduled to retire at the end of this year. He tendered his resignation to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Sunday.

"We must now turn the page," Mr. Lubbers said. "Don't dwell longer in the past. Turn the page. That's what I ask you do to do. I'll do it myself anyway."

Concluding his remarks, the High Commissioner said he was happy that he could "hand over to my two wonderful colleagues."

"They will hold the fort, energize you," he said of Ms. Chamberlin and Mr. Morjane. "And you will energize them until a new High Commissioner comes in, the most beautiful job there is in the world."

Mr. Lubbers received several minutes of warm applause from staff - many with tears in their eyes - lining all levels of the seven-storey atrium.

Deputy High Commissioner Chamberlin and Assistant High Commissioner Morjane both paid tribute to the High Commissioner and pledged solidarity in carrying on his work.

"You humble us and you inspire us, as you've inspired many, many refugees throughout the world," Ms. Chamberlin told Mr. Lubbers. "We hope to show you our gratitude because you leave a very deep mark in the lives of so many people."

She then presented Mr. Lubbers with the first annual UNHCR Achievement Award, citing his individual and personal contributions to the lives of millions of refugees worldwide.

Lubbers was visibly surprised and moved when presented with the first annual UNHCR Achievement Award.  © UNHCR/S.Hopper

"Although it's going to be very difficult for us, we do make one promise to you," she concluded. "And that is that we will collectively bond together in solidarity to achieve and move forward your legacy, the Ruud Lubbers legacy."

Mr. Morjane assured staff of the "complete solidarity and support" of senior management during the transition to a new High Commissioner.

"I think it's the best gift, in addition to that which we have just offered with your applause, to the High Commissioner," he said. So take heart everyone ... the future is in all of our hands ... and we will carry on together."