UNHCR – A Humanitarian Organization with a Mandate to Protect Civilians in Refugee Camps

It is difficult to imagine a more humanitarian space than that of the refugee camp, whose foremost purpose is to provide refugees with temporary shelter, assistance, and protection until they are voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin, locally integrated in the host state, or resettled to third countries. The categorization of refugee camps as civilian and humanitarian is not, however, unproblematic. Refugee protection has always been deeply affected by greater security issues; rather than serving as civilian and humanitarian safe havens, camps for refugees (and internally displaced persons) have on a number of occasions become notorious for serious problems of insecurity, including armed attacks, arbitrary killings, torture, exploitation and military recruitment. But who can, and should, be held responsible under international law for these human rights violations?

This is the initial question discussed in my book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility. Here, I examine the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) international responsibility for human rights violations taking place in refugee camps. The book argues that UNHCR under certain circumstances can, and should, be held responsible under the International Law Commission’s nascent framework of the Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. Specifically, UNHCR’s international responsibility will depend upon an evaluation of the host State’s ability and willingness to provide effective protection.

UNHCR and the Protection of Civilians in Refugee Camps

The book essentially finds that UNHCR’s mandate to provide refugees with ‘international protection’ includes the provision of physical safety and basic rights, and that UNHCR furthermore holds an affirmative duty to act and intervene to secure the basic human rights of refugees. That said, it is clear that UNHCR occupies a challenging place in the international arena when it is both entrusted with an ambitious mandate and also frequently caught in a vice between the preferences of actors such as donor governments and host states. It is to be a norm entrepreneur, supervisor and enforcement agency of refugee rights at the same time as it is expected to be a cooperative partner to states and NGOs, and the ultimate provider of material assistance. As Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps highlights, UNHCR’s protection role has become increasingly pragmatic, focusing more on the provision of food and shelter, and refugee security has as such had to give way for other competing priorities.

Considering the clear link between UNHCR’s international protection mandate and physical security, why, then, does the physical security and basic human rights of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR appear to be only a peripheral issue within the organization? The book presents several explanations. Firstly, UNCHR appears to believe that if it ‘flaunts’ its own responsibility, this risks detracting attention from the responsibilities of host states, who, after all, have the primary responsibility to protect refugees on their territory.  Secondly, however, because it surfaces at the crossroads between state sovereignty, national security and international human rights, refugee security is generally considered to be ‘high politics’ and exposes a tension between human rights norms and realpolitik. Organizations such as UNHCR tend to view attention to physical protection issues as a threat to their neutrality, impartiality and independence. Thus, for fear of jeopardizing relationships with governments, UNHCR appears to emphasize ‘soft diplomacy’ and prioritize less controversial tasks, such as the provision of material assistance, in the face of ‘hard’ human rights concerns. But, as even UNHCR itself has noted, it has a duty to fulfill its mandate regardless of ‘political circumstances and imperatives’. UNHCR’s challenge thus lies in staying true to its main principles, and not throwing them overboard as soon as it meets resistance. This logically means that UNHCR also cannot expect to please all sides.

Without downplaying the fact that UNHCR often has to make choices between bad and less bad options on the ground, it is arguable that without an increased focus on basic human rights and physical protection, UNHCR runs a real risk of ‘simply administering human misery’. More importantly, ignoring refugee security arguably affects the situation as much as confronting it. While UNHCR’s international protection mandate may be ready to be fully implemented in theory, because it appears not to be a current priority within the organization, it is far from certain that the mandate is fully understood, and applied thereafter, among the main actors concerned with protection and security within UNHCR.

Wide Scope for Improvements

Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps suggests that there is wide scope for improvements within UNHCR aimed at strengthening refugee protection. First, in order to ensure full and proper implementation, it is important to clarify UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis physical security both internally within the organization, and externally among its operative and implementing partners. In 2009, the UN Office of Internal Oversight (UN OIOS) undertook an extensive study of UNHCR’s approach to the safety and security of staff, operations and persons of concern. This study suggested that UNHCR’s mandate was often misunderstood among the main actors dealing with security issues.

A clarification of this mandate will hopefully also lead to a security focus that is more proportional between staff security and refugee security, and, on an international level, this may alleviate the current eclipse of UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities vis-à-vis physical protection of refugees and others of concern in refugee camps by the more pragmatic and operational activities of actors such as UN OCHA. In fact, recent years’ activities within the Security Council concerning the ‘protection of civilians’-framework have contributed to UN OCHA, whose mandate is essentially that of coordinating humanitarian response (and thus not protection), becoming the primary actor involved in refugee camp security. In a 2005 report by the UN Secretary-General, no mention of UNHCR’s role in protection monitoring is made – rather it is suggested that UN OCHA shall collect data on attacks against refugee camps and collate baseline information on issues such as security related to internally displaced persons.

A clarification of UNHCR’s mandate may also lead to improvements with regard to training and administering UNHCR staff: a shortage of protection staff seems to be an endemic problem within the organization, and is something which clearly has serious consequences in some operations where UNHCR has not even been aware of persistent rights violations. UNHCR must also reward staff who voice protection concerns – currently there appear to be no institutional incentives to do so.

It is also arguable that the current system of periodic rotation of staff between departments, headquarters and the field deprives UNHCR from any true expertise or staff specialization in the field of refugee physical security. Roughly speaking, there seems to be a general sentiment that each individual UNHCR staffer shall be able to tackle most of UNHCR’s various tasks, whether these tasks concern refugee camp security or material assistance. This system arguably impedes upon UNHCR’s possibility to use the skills acquired over the years to best effect. As one UNHCR staff argued in a 2005 study of UNHCR organizational culture: ‘Rotation is a serious problem … If a finance specialist has to move and become a programme person, it lowers things down to the lowest common denominator.’

Monitoring the human rights situation is an integral part of UNHCR’s exercise of its international protection mandate, and international protection cannot be advanced without full knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation. It appears as if UNHCR needs to reconsider the manner in which it collects, analyzes and, perhaps most importantly, uses the information on protection concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s experiences with security concerns in refugee camps are currently neglected or disguised through generalizations and shortcuts in the monitoring process. As such, new incidents can flourish. UNHCR’s internal evaluations have also shown that many field staff are not sufficiently aware of the relevant policies and guidelines, or about their monitoring roles and responsibilities. This was also emphasized in the 2009 UN OIOS Report, which inter alia found that UNHCR lacked adequate guidelines for security and protection officers in the field to enable joint assessment and physical protection of refugees and other persons of concern, and that the accountability framework, reporting mechanism, definition of security responsibilities and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of security measures were not adequately defined. It is clear that the protective effect of UNHCR’s protection monitoring depends upon how the gathered information is used.

More Protection, Less Material Assistance

A renewed focus on UNHCR’s international protection mandate might entail that UNHCR focuses less on providing material assistance. However, experience suggests that in cases where UNHCR has been unable or otherwise unwilling to provide material assistance, other organizations have stepped into the void. Such was the case in Thailand, when UNHCR sought to minimalize its involvement in the camps that were controlled by Cambodian military factions. This clearly suggests that there is an abundance of international and non-governmental organizations that can provide material assistance. Only UNHCR, however, has the mandate to provide international protection.

UNHCR’s accountability is the topic of an upcoming panel – organized by members of and affiliates to the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies – at the Humanitarian Studies Conference in Istanbul October 24-27, 2013. More information about the conference and the panel ‘UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: an examination of parallel regimes’ is found on http://www.humanitarianstudiesconference.org/. The book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility can also be pre-ordered through Brill’s webpage: http://www.brill.com/products/book/protecting-civilians-refugee-camps.