The UN High Commission for Refugees, alsonamed the UNHCR, is a refugee agency with its main aim to protect refugees. Arefugee can be classified as a person who was forced to leave their country inorder to escape war, natural disaster or persecution.
The UNHCR has five coredirections in which they wish to succeed in, in any given mission. Those coredirections are to protect, respond, include, empower, and solve. Protectrefugees from any harm, respond in a rapid way to any humanitarian emergency,include refugees in local systems and communities, empower refugees in givingthem a voice for their future, and solve the growing number of refugees byexpanding and diversifying solutions (UNHCR, 2017). The UNHCR was establishedafter the Second World War in 1950, with an aim to address and help therefugees that stemmed from World War II. However, 67 years later, the UNHCR isstill active in many different areas of the world. Since the UNHCR is aprogramme of the United Nations, it is governed by the UN General Assemblyalong with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC and the UNGeneral Assembly founded the Executive Committee (ExCom), whose role it is toreport to the General Assembly (UNHCR, 2017). The members of the ExecutiveCommittee are representatives of the UN member states or members of thespecialized agencies (UNHCR, 2017).
It is vital that the Executive Committeemembers are elected based on a wide geographical basis, and must show interestand devotion towards the solution of the world-wide refugee problems.First and foremost, it is necessary to draw a cleardistinction between realism and liberalism. Realism can be described as atheory in international relations which lays most of its focus on the role ofthe states, in which the states’ main goal is to survive in any given situation(Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2014a). Realists are convinced of the fact thatstates are motivated by national interest.
The three core elements of realismare as follows. First, realists support that the state has total sovereigntyand that outside the borders of the state, anarchy exists (Baylis et al.,2014a). Secondly, realists believe that the sole goal of a state is survival.Finally, realists believe that in order for a state to survive, they must beable to do so without any help from other states, therefore believing in thefact that states are solely responsible for their own well-being and survival(Baylis et al.
, 2014a). All in all, realists are focussed on gaining as muchpower, especially military power, as possible for their state. When it comes tothe role of international organizations, realists believe that the role ofinternational organizations is limited and mainly dependent on state power (VanRijswijk, 2018). Liberalism on the other hand is much more focused onthe goal of gaining wealth as opposed to power (Van Rijswijk, 2018). When discussingwealth, liberalists address that economic and social power is far moreeffective than exploiting military power. This links back to the fact thatliberalists believe that states have different national interests.
Liberalistsbelieve that states are able to cooperate, and could even do so in a way thatcould benefit both actors involved (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2014b). Justlike realists, there are several core elements that liberalists believe in.First, liberalists believe in the fact that all actors, and thereforindividuals, must be treated as ethical subjects that have the right forindividual freedom (Doyle & Recchia, 2011). More importantly, liberalistsbelieve that international organizations are vital in facilitating cooperationbetween states to achieve mutual goals. Liberalists also believe thatinternational organizations can create and/or strengthen trust between states,and that international organizations can help states prosper on an individuallevel as well (Doyle, 2011; Van Rijswijk, 2018).In short, liberalism has a stronger belief in andfocus on the cooperation between states in international organizations thanrealism does. From the descriptions of realism andliberalism, it can clearly be derived that the liberalist theory is better atexplaining and supporting the foundation and activity for the UN HighCommission for Refugees.
For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be laidon the foundation and activity of the UN High Commission for Refugees and whythose two aspects can be understood from a liberalist point of view. First, I will argue why the foundation ofthe UNHCR is best described as a liberal institution. As stated before, theUNHCR was established right after WWII, with as its main goal to manage therefugee crisis in Europe. The UNHCR’s foundation is therefor based on finding asolution to a problem that affected the whole of Europe, as opposed to just onemember state. As Doyle (2011) explains, liberalism believes in the fact thatinternational organizations are vital in facilitating cooperation betweenstates to achieve mutual goals. Deducting this back to the foundation of theUNHCR, great similarities can be found. More specifically, the mutual goal ofthe UNHCR’s member states was to solve the refugee crisis that stemmed from theSecond World War, which was facilitated by the creation on the UNHCR.
A secondexample of how the foundation of the UNHCR portrays the liberal perspective iswhen analysing the UNHCR’s financing structure. The UNHCR is almost fullyfunded by voluntary contributions. However, these contributions are not spenton increasing power for the UNHCR, but more focused on increasing wealth andstability for the refugees in crisis. Another trademark of liberalism that isechoed in the UNHCR’s foundation is the focus on the lives of the refugees, asopposed to the countries in which the refugees live. As mentioned previously,liberalists believe that individuals, refugees in this case, must be treated asethical subjects that have the right for individual freedom (Doyle , 2011).
The liberal trait of treating individuals as ethical subjects isreiterated in the basic goals that the UNHCR lives by, namely to provideshelter, food, and water for refugees (UNHCR, 2017).When focusing on the UNHCR activities,there are many more examples of why liberalism greatly embodies this specificintergovernmental organization. One of the five core directions of the UNHCR isto ‘include’. With inclusion, the UNHCR wishes to “connect refugees to localsystems and communities” and strengthen “support to States and communitieshosting refugees and internally displaces people” (UNHCR, 2017).
Focusing onthe connection of refugees to local systems and communities, it demonstrates anexample of a liberal approach in connecting states together to find a solutionto a problem. One could even argue that the facilitation of cooperation betweenstates to achieve mutual goals is done at a binary level. First, the UNHCR facilitatescooperation between its member states, such as the Netherlands, Croatia orEgypt to achieve their mutual goal to protect refugees. However, on asimultaneous level, the UNHCR also works together with non-member states, suchas Iraq or Syria whom are currently not on the list of Executive Committeemembers, to help with the refugee crisis occurring in their state. Therefor, itcan be argued that the international organization UNHCR facilitates cooperationinternally between its member states, ánd externally between its member statesand non-member states to facilitate cooperation to achieve mutual goals. Asecond example of how the UNHCR’s activities embody a liberalist perspective isby analysing one of their missions, specifically ‘cash-based interventions’. Inshort, cash based interventions is an initiative by the UNHCR in which theyprovide cash to refugees in order for them to contribute to the local economyby being able to purchase goods from local markets or make use of localservices (UNHCR, 2018). The liberalist approach on the focus of wealth,specifically economic and social power, contrary to (military) power stands inline with this activity.
Providing refugees with cash increases their wealth,therefor increasing their economic and social power. Their social power isreflected in the refugees’ ability to purchase goods as they wish, while theireconomic power is increased as they can contribute to their local economy in adignified manner (UNHCR, 2018). This example shows how the UNHCR wishes tostrengthen wealth as opposed to military power.
There are several arguments as to why a liberalapproach might be useful for the UNHCR as an intergovernmental organization.Some scholars argue that international stability is caused due to intergovernmentalorganizations (Mearscheimer, 1994). When linking this back to the UNHCR, it canbe argued that due to the UNHCR’s goal of protecting refugees from any harm,and the desire to include refugees in paving their own future, this could standsynonymous for establishing or strengthening local and international stability.Another argument that Mearscheimer (1994) sheds light on is the relationshipsbetween economic cooperation and peace. Mearscheimer (1994) argues that when aninternational organization establishes economic cooperation, it can be comparedto establishing peace.
The member states of the UNHCR must come to an economicagreement when funding their projects, which can be linked back to the conceptof ‘peace’. The concept of ‘peace’ can be associated with one of the UNHCR’score directions, namely to ‘solve’. It is the UNHCR’s mission to activelyengage with national and regional peace processes, and to support peacebuildingactivities (UNHCR, 2017). However, there are several academics that take on acritical stand against the UNHCR and its liberalist mind-set.
Loescher (2001)argues that because of the UNHCR’s financial dependence on governments and theEuropean Union, the UNHCR has a clear agenda with its actions being shaped bythe interests of governments. When analysing this, it could be assumed thatthis is in fact a realist scholar taking a critical stand against a liberalapproach. Loescher (2001) argues that due to the lack of UNHCR’s strategicthinking competence, the UNHCR does not learn from their past mistakes,continuing to let the interests of single governments influence the overalldecision-making scheme of the UNHCR. A second critical aspect of the UNHCR’sliberal mind-set is its trust in a collective security system. Realists, whomstand on the other end of the spectrum, believe that in an anarchic world astate can never be certain about other states’ intentions and must thereforhave an offensive military competence.
Liberalist on the other hand do notbelieve in guarding themselves with an offensive military. Loescher (2001)argues that the problem with a collective security system is the threat that itcan demand requirements that will circumvent opposing an aggressor withdominant power. However, I argue that this threat is not apparent in UNHCR’sstrategy. That is because the UNHCR is focused on extending their help torefugees, but not focused on challenging the states where the refugees comefrom. All in all, it is safe to conclude that the UnitedNations High Commission for Refugees can be classified as a liberalintergovernmental organization. The foundation and activity of the UNHCR isbased on the goal to help refugees, stabilize their living conditions, andcooperate with their member states to reach this goal. This foundation andactivity is in line with the basic assumptions and trademarks of liberalism,namely to avoid military power with the help of international institutions.