UNHCR, autonomy, and mandate change: Alexander Betts
The Oﬃce of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created by states in the aftermath of World War II. Its purpose was to work with states to ensure that refugees would receive access to protection and a durable solution to their situation. Its 1950 Statute established the basis of this mandate, giving it responsibility for supporting states to meet their obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and a supervisory responsibility for overseeing states’ implementation of the Convention (Loescher 2001; Betts et al. 2012). Over time, UNHCR’s original mandate prescribed in the Statute has
changed. Its “mandate” can be understood to comprise the legitimate scope of the Oﬃce’s work at any given point in time. This legitimacy comes from both explicit and implicit acceptance by states of the scope of the Oﬃce’s work. Originally, the mandate was coterminous with the Statute, but today the mandate is much broader than what is described in the Statute, as the mandate has been subject to a range of formal and informal adaptations over time. UNHCR’s mandate has changed in this period along two main dimensions: 1. “who to protect”—the scope of its so-called population of concern; and 2. “how to protect”—the scope of its activities. UNHCR’s original mission focused only on refugees, its activities were
primarily about oﬀering legal advice to states, and it worked exclusively in Europe. Today, however, its population of concern has expanded to include a range of forced migrants including refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and victims of natural disaster. Its work is not just in Europe but is global in scale, and its activities include
material assistance, humanitarian emergency response, and repatriation, etc. The question is: why and how has it been able to change and expand its mandate to such a signiﬁcant degree during its 60-year existence? One of the challenges in answering this question is that international
relations (IR) lacks a compelling theory of international organization (IO) mandate change. Mainstream IR theories would predict that international organizational change would be primarily state-led. As creations of states, IOs would only be expected to adapt signiﬁcantly if powerful states requested them to do so. At the margins, their principalagent relationships with states might leave a degree of agency slack or “organizational pathology” to enable some degree of autonomous decisionmaking. While a range of critiques of this position have begun to emerge, not least from constructivist IO scholars, most mainstream IR would predict that major IO mandate shifts would be predominantly state-led rather than IO-directed. At times, UNHCR mandate change has certainly been strongly
inﬂuenced by states. A signiﬁcant part of mandate change has been the result of explicit UN General Assembly Resolutions or resolutions of the Oﬃce’s state-led Executive Committee (Excom). This state-led element is unsurprising given that states created UNHCR and exert signiﬁcant controls over the organization: its funding has depended on a small group of states’ annual voluntary contributions and Excom closely supervises the Oﬃce’s work. However, the history of UNHCR mandate adaptation has not been exclusively state-directed. When one looks at particular episodes of mandate expansion a paradox emerges: change has sometimes taken place in spite of the absence of a clear demand for change by powerful donor states. Sometimes, adaptation has even taken place in areas in which core donor states have explicitly expressed opposition to mandate adaptation. In other words, rather than its trajectory being exclusively determined
by the choices and preferences of states, UNHCR’s history of mandate expansion has sometimes been international organization-directed. The opposition of states shows that this expansion is more than merely delegated discretion. In order to unpack these claims, this chapter inductively examines the history of UNHCR mandate change over a 60-year period. Taking “mandate change” as the dependent variable, it examines ﬁve key turning points in mandate expansion: 1. prolonging its existence (1952-56); 2. geographical expansion (1957-67); 3. becoming a humanitarian relief agency (1990-2000); 4. assuming responsibility for IDP protection (1998-2006); and 5. protecting victims of natural disaster (2007-11).