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Background on the Executive Committee

Executive Committee Meetings

Background on the Executive Committee

1 July 2001

Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Some History

UNHCR began activities in January 1951. The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme did not exist until 1958. What happened meanwhile?

Advisory Committee on Refugees (1951-1954)

The Advisory Committee on Refugees was established by the Economic and Social Council when UNHCR began operating. Its purpose was to advise the High Commissioner, upon request, in the exercise of the functions of the office. Fifteen states were chosen by ECOSOC as members of the Advisory Committee. They included members and non-members of the United Nations. They were:

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Fed. Rep. of Germany, France, Holy See, Israel, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela.

Many of the countries had received large numbers of refugees in the wake of World War II. The common denominator they shared, according to ECOSOC, was:

"their demonstrated interest in and their devotion to the solution of the problems of refugees."

At first, there was no plan to involve UNHCR in funding assistance activities. For the first few years, the High Commissioner of the time (Dr. van Heuven Goedhart) had very limited funds at his disposal - most of them from private sources. But he steadfastly refused to "administer misery", and asked governments:

"What does international protection mean for a man who died of hunger? Passports are necessary but hunger can't be stilled with them."

Soon came the decision by the General Assembly to prolong UNHCR for five years beginning 1 January 1954.

UNREF Executive Committee (1955-1958)

The United Nations Refugee Fund (UNREF) was created in 1954. Its purpose was to achieve the permanent settlement of refugees still living in camps in Europe - many for almost ten years. They needed help establishing themselves in crafts, trades, or agriculture; housing; vocational training; and assistance towards their migration overseas. This was the beginning of UNHCR's assistance programmes. The UNREF Executive Committee took over from the Advisory Committee. But, as its title shows, its functions were different. More than just advice, it gave directives to the High Commissioner on the UNREF programme. The UNREF programme succeeded in reducing the number of non-settled refugees. But by 1958 the situation was as follows:

  • the camps were still not cleared
  • new refugee situations had occurred in Austria and Yugoslavia following the Hungarian events of October 1956
  • refugee problems outside Europe included that of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, and Angolan refugees in Zaire

Establishment of the Executive Committee

When and how?

The decision to create ExCom was taken by the General Assembly in November 1957, as formulated in Resolution 1166 (XII). The UNREF Executive Committee's task was nearing completion. But the refugee situation, as outlined above, demanded a continuity of action on the part of the international community. ECOSOC was made responsible for arrangements for the actual establishment of ExCom. These were contained in decision 672 (XXV), adopted early in 1958. The Executive Committee held its first session early in 1959.

Its tasks

The Executive Committee's terms of reference can be summarized as follows:

  • to advise the High Commissioner "in the exercise of his functions under the Statute of his Office" - meaning essentially his work in the field of international protection. Today this advisory capacity can be said to have extended to any aspect of his work.
  • to approve the High Commissioner's assistance programmes (which was the Executive Committee's primary function). This review must take place "at least annually" - a requirement that affects all aspects of the planning and financing of assistance programmes.

Who belongs?

To become a member of the Executive Committee, states must fulfil the following requirements:

  • be a member of the United Nations or one of its specialized agencies
  • be elected by ECOSOC
  • represent the widest possible geographical basis
  • have a demonstrated interest in and devotion to the solution of the refugee problem.

The number of members grew from 25 in 1959 to 64 in 2003. (For a list of members, click here1.) The increase has reflected the widening geographical scope of the refugee problem. When the Executive Committee was created, this problem was mainly centred in Europe. It now affects all continents. As years passed, the extension of the refugee problem, combined with a diversification of UNHCR's tasks, created an ever-heavier task for the Executive Committee. To lighten the load, the Executive Committee created two Sub-Committees "of the Whole," one overseeing international protection, and the second matters of administration and finance. These Sub-Committees are open to all Executive Committee members. They meet during the week preceding the Executive Committee's annual session. Since 1988, observers are also admitted.

To support its work, the Executive Committee had two sub-committees prior to 1995; they were subsequently replaced by one Standing Committee. For more information about the work of these bodies, please refer to the respective sub-sections of the UNHCR database.

Facts about ExCom

Where and when does ExCom meet?

Formal sessions are held in Geneva, in October each year. (Until 1967, there were two sessions yearly.) Each session lasts approximately ten days. The report of the session is adopted on the last day of the session. It is then that the revised programmes for the current year and proposed programmes for the following year are formally approved.

Informal meetings: Informal meetings have become a regular feature of activities at UNHCR Headquarters. They demonstrate an increasing interest by the Executive Committee in UNHCR's work. They take play twice yearly, and are usually attend by Permanent Representatives in Geneva of Member States. Informal meetings allow the High Commission to keep the Committee informed of developments between formal sessions, and provide for an exchange of views. "Open house" meetings are held at more technical levels between ExCom members and UNHCR staff, as the need arises.

Who attends the Executive Committee:

Two categories of delegations are invited to attend:

  • Members: The first category are the members, which are the Governments. Delegations are led by the Permanent Representatives to the United Nations Office at Geneva, or high officials (including ministers) from capital cities.
  • Non-Members: The second category are non-members. Many Governments who are not themselves members of the Executive Committee show an active interest in UNHCR's work. Many of them host refugee populations and co-operate closely with UNHCR on a regular basis.

Other non-members invited to attend include:

  • other members of the UN system, particularly those such as WFP with which ties are close;
  • intergovernmental organizations, such as EEC which is an important donor;
  • liberation movements;
  • non-governmental organizations, many of whom are important implementing partners.

Delegations of non-members can number up to 150. They have an observer status. This means they cannot take part in a vote. They can, however, be granted the right to speak. The list of speakers at any ExCom session contains a fair sprinkling of non-members. Non-members are distributed over a wide geographical base. We have already seen that this is a feature of membership of the Executive Committee. This is due to the universal nature of the High Commissioner's work and the need to share the burden of international responsibility for refugees.

What rules apply?

The rules are laid down in the Committee's Rules of Procedure. The items they cover range from the election of officers to documentation and languages. Sessions are open to the public. At the opening of each session, the Executive Committee elects its Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Rapporteur for the next year. The Vice-Chairman this year becomes the Chairman next year, according to a tradition which began in the early 80s. There are no formal votes. Decisions are reached by consensus. In cases where there are strong discussions, delegations may request that their views be reflected in the summary records of the sessions (see below). The process of decision by consensus is also the one used by the Third Committee of the General Assembly (the one concerned with humanitarian affairs) in New York, when it adopts the High Commissioner's report. The reason behind this tradition has to do with the humanitarian and non-political character of the Office. It makes it possible to agree on humanitarian issues where there are political overtones, whereas a formal vote could create divisions.

What is an ExCom document?

ExCom documents are easily recognizable from the symbols which are used as identification. A list of document symbols is available2 here. Other characteristics include the following:

  • Distribution: Distribution may be "General" or "Restricted" - depending on the nature of the document. Documents in the A/AC.96/... and A/AC.96/INF... series (which are published as United Nations General Assembly documents) are normally for general distribution. Those examined by ExCom's Standing Committee are initially for restricted distribution, but after the Standing Committee session is over, are available for general distribution.
  • Languages: Most documents are issued in the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish). Others such as Conference Room Papers are issued in the working languages of the Committee, namely English and French.
  • Style: There are a number of formal rules to be observed when drafting reports to ExCom. For example, countries must always be referred to according to the official UN list which gives complete and abbreviated versions. You may find that ExCom prose makes for dull reading, but much of the stiffness is due to this kind of protocol.
  • Summary records: These are produced in English and French for each Executive Committee meeting - usually taking up a morning or afternoon. They bear the symbol A/AC.96/SR.... You may find them useful if you are interested in knowing what each delegation had to say on a specific issue.
  • The report on the session: This is adopted by the Committee in conclusion of its session. It is presented by the Rapporteur. It contains a brief summary of proceedings and the conclusions and decisions reached by the Committee. This report is then transmitted to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as an Addendum to the High Commissioner's annual report.

Summary: The significance of ExCom's work

The major aspects of the Executive Committee's action has been described - how it started, who belongs, how it functions, and the importance of ExCom to UNHCR's activities.

The Executive Committee is not a governing body as such. It has no role to play, for example, in the election of the High Commissioner. And, as has been seen, the High Commissioner receives policy directives from the General Assembly and ECOSOC.

The Executive Committee fulfills an essential function, notably in the following areas:

  • Its approval of the High Commissioner's assistance programmes. This approval is contained in the decisions adopted by the Committee on these programmes under the relevant agenda item. It gives the High Commissioner authority to establish implementing instruments for the various projects that go to make up these programmes, and to obligate funds.
  • Its scrutiny of all financial and administrative aspects. As we have seen, this is linked to the evolution and expansion of UNHCR's activities. Beyond the obvious constraints involved, this function contains a positive element. It strengthens UNHCR's credibility with the international community and, in particular, with donors.
  • Advising the High Commissioner on his protection function. The Committee's Conclusions on international protection represent an important body of opinion on detailed aspects.
  • The Committee's annual sessions and informal meetings provide an opportunity for direct contact between staff and government delegations. This dialogue can lead in turn to more active support and awareness of refugee needs worldwide, as well as enhanced responsiveness on UNHCR's part to the concerns of the international community.

Adapted from: UNHCR, "UNHCR and the UN System; The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme" (OHC 2), Geneva: UNHCR, 1989

Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection

The decision to create this Sub-Committee was reached in 1975. Its purpose was to:

"focus attention on protection issues with a view to determining existing short-comings in this field and to proposing appropriate remedies."

It was chaired by the current Chairman of the Executive Committee. This Sub-Committee served as a valuable forum, exchanging views on a variety of protection issues. The conclusions it reached were endorsed by the Executive Committee in plenary session. These conclusions concern a wide variety of subjects: they include asylum, non-refoulement, determination of refugee status, travel documents, voluntary repatriation, the rescue of asylum seekers in distress at sea, military attacks on refugee camps, refugee women, and stowaway asylum-seekers. They represent an important body of opinion, which reflects the views of governments on each topic.

Source: UNHCR, "UNHCR and the UN System; The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme" (OHC 2), Geneva: UNHCR, 1989

Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters

The decision to create this Sub-Committee was reached in 1980. This was a time when UNHCR's assistance activities had grown substantially in volume. Its purpose was to review detailed aspects of UNHCR's assistance programmes, giving special attention to administrative and financial questions. It was chaired by the current Vice-Chairman of the Executive Committee.

Source: UNHCR, "UNHCR and the UN System; The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme" (OHC 2), Geneva: UNHCR, 1989

Standing Committee

In 1995, as a means of improving its working methods, the Executive Committee decided to replace the two existing sub-committees (see SCIP and SCAF above) with a Standing Committee. The Standing Committee meets four times a year and has the authority to adopt decisions and conclusions, including conclusions on international protection which address a wide range of issues such as asylum, non-refoulement, women refugees, child refugees, etc. These in turn are endorsed by ExCom during the plenary session. Although non-binding, the conclusions express an important international consensus on legal matters concerning refugees, and have served to fill gaps in areas of the international refugee law regime not foreseen by the 1951 Convention or 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Its third meeting of the year focuses on international protection.

In preparation for Standing Committee sessions, UNHCR prepares a number of conference room papers which analyze issues of concern and submits them to the Standing Committee to serve as a basis for discussion. The Standing Committee prepares a final report at the close of its session for review by the plenary.

The terms of reference of the Standing Committee set out in more detail the work of this body (see ExCom report A/AC.96/860, section H, para.32 of 23 October 1995).

1 Member States of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guinea, Holy See, Hungary, India, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia.

Source: UNHCR Information Paper

2 Executive Committee Document Symbols

Plenary session

A/AC.96/... and A/AC.96/INF... series: documents submitted to the plenary session, and in some cases also considered by the Sub-Committees, issued in five official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish) and available for general distribution.

A/AC.96/SR...: summary records of meetings of the Executive Committee, issued in English and French for general distribution.

A/AC.96/Session/CRP...: Conference Room Papers, issued in English and French, for distribution to participants at the plenary session only.

Standing Committee

EC/Session/SC/CRP...: documents submitted to the Standing Committee, issued in English and French; there is initially a restricted distribution list for these documents, which reverts to general distribution subsequent to a Standing Committee meeting.

Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection

EC/SCP/...: documents submitted to the Sub-Committee, issued in five official languages.

EC/SCP/CRP...: Conference Room Papers, issued in English and French.

Sub-Committee on Administration and Financial Matters

EC/SC.2/...: documents submitted to the Sub-Committee, issued in five official languages.

EC/SC.2/CRP...: Conference Room Papers, issued in English and French.