The UN High Commission for Refugees, also
named the UNHCR, is a refugee agency with its main aim to protect refugees. A
refugee can be classified as a person who was forced to leave their country in
order to escape war, natural disaster or persecution. The UNHCR has five core
directions in which they wish to succeed in, in any given mission. Those core
directions are to protect, respond, include, empower, and solve. Protect
refugees from any harm, respond in a rapid way to any humanitarian emergency,
include refugees in local systems and communities, empower refugees in giving
them a voice for their future, and solve the growing number of refugees by
expanding and diversifying solutions (UNHCR, 2017). The UNHCR was established
after the Second World War in 1950, with an aim to address and help the
refugees that stemmed from World War II. However, 67 years later, the UNHCR is
still active in many different areas of the world. Since the UNHCR is a
programme of the United Nations, it is governed by the UN General Assembly
along with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC and the UN
General Assembly founded the Executive Committee (ExCom), whose role it is to
report to the General Assembly (UNHCR, 2017). The members of the Executive
Committee are representatives of the UN member states or members of the
specialized agencies (UNHCR, 2017). It is vital that the Executive Committee
members are elected based on a wide geographical basis, and must show interest
and devotion towards the solution of the world-wide refugee problems.

First and foremost, it is necessary to draw a clear
distinction between realism and liberalism. Realism can be described as a
theory in international relations which lays most of its focus on the role of
the states, in which the states’ main goal is to survive in any given situation
(Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2014a). Realists are convinced of the fact that
states are motivated by national interest. The three core elements of realism
are as follows. First, realists support that the state has total sovereignty
and 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 be
able to do so without any help from other states, therefore believing in the
fact 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 much
power, especially military power, as possible for their state. When it comes to
the role of international organizations, realists believe that the role of
international organizations is limited and mainly dependent on state power (Van
Rijswijk, 2018).


Liberalism on the other hand is much more focused on
the goal of gaining wealth as opposed to power (Van Rijswijk, 2018). When discussing
wealth, liberalists address that economic and social power is far more
effective than exploiting military power. This links back to the fact that
liberalists believe that states have different national interests. Liberalists
believe that states are able to cooperate, and could even do so in a way that
could benefit both actors involved (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2014b). Just
like realists, there are several core elements that liberalists believe in.

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First, liberalists believe in the fact that all actors, and therefor
individuals, must be treated as ethical subjects that have the right for
individual freedom (Doyle & Recchia, 2011). More importantly, liberalists
believe that international organizations are vital in facilitating cooperation
between states to achieve mutual goals. Liberalists also believe that
international organizations can create and/or strengthen trust between states,
and that international organizations can help states prosper on an individual
level as well (Doyle, 2011; Van Rijswijk, 2018).

In short, liberalism has a stronger belief in and
focus on the cooperation between states in international organizations than
realism does.



From the descriptions of realism and
liberalism, it can clearly be derived that the liberalist theory is better at
explaining and supporting the foundation and activity for the UN High
Commission for Refugees. For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be laid
on the foundation and activity of the UN High Commission for Refugees and why
those two aspects can be understood from a liberalist point of view.

First, I will argue why the foundation of
the UNHCR is best described as a liberal institution. As stated before, the
UNHCR was established right after WWII, with as its main goal to manage the
refugee crisis in Europe. The UNHCR’s foundation is therefor based on finding a
solution to a problem that affected the whole of Europe, as opposed to just one
member state. As Doyle (2011) explains, liberalism believes in the fact that
international organizations are vital in facilitating cooperation between
states to achieve mutual goals. Deducting this back to the foundation of the
UNHCR, great similarities can be found. More specifically, the mutual goal of
the UNHCR’s member states was to solve the refugee crisis that stemmed from the
Second World War, which was facilitated by the creation on the UNHCR. A second
example of how the foundation of the UNHCR portrays the liberal perspective is
when analysing the UNHCR’s financing structure. The UNHCR is almost fully
funded by voluntary contributions. However, these contributions are not spent
on increasing power for the UNHCR, but more focused on increasing wealth and
stability for the refugees in crisis. Another trademark of liberalism that is
echoed in the UNHCR’s foundation is the focus on the lives of the refugees, as
opposed to the countries in which the refugees live. As mentioned previously,
liberalists believe that individuals, refugees in this case, must be treated as
ethical subjects that have the right for individual freedom (Doyle &
Recchia, 2011). The liberal trait of treating individuals as ethical subjects is
reiterated in the basic goals that the UNHCR lives by, namely to provide
shelter, food, and water for refugees (UNHCR, 2017).

When focusing on the UNHCR activities,
there are many more examples of why liberalism greatly embodies this specific
intergovernmental organization. One of the five core directions of the UNHCR is
to ‘include’. With inclusion, the UNHCR wishes to “connect refugees to local
systems and communities” and strengthen “support to States and communities
hosting refugees and internally displaces people” (UNHCR, 2017). Focusing on
the connection of refugees to local systems and communities, it demonstrates an
example of a liberal approach in connecting states together to find a solution
to a problem. One could even argue that the facilitation of cooperation between
states to achieve mutual goals is done at a binary level. First, the UNHCR facilitates
cooperation between its member states, such as the Netherlands, Croatia or
Egypt to achieve their mutual goal to protect refugees. However, on a
simultaneous level, the UNHCR also works together with non-member states, such
as Iraq or Syria whom are currently not on the list of Executive Committee
members, to help with the refugee crisis occurring in their state. Therefor, it
can be argued that the international organization UNHCR facilitates cooperation
internally between its member states, ánd externally between its member states
and non-member states to facilitate cooperation to achieve mutual goals. A
second example of how the UNHCR’s activities embody a liberalist perspective is
by analysing one of their missions, specifically ‘cash-based interventions’. In
short, cash based interventions is an initiative by the UNHCR in which they
provide cash to refugees in order for them to contribute to the local economy
by being able to purchase goods from local markets or make use of local
services (UNHCR, 2018). The liberalist approach on the focus of wealth,
specifically economic and social power, contrary to (military) power stands in
line with this activity. Providing refugees with cash increases their wealth,
therefor increasing their economic and social power. Their social power is
reflected in the refugees’ ability to purchase goods as they wish, while their
economic power is increased as they can contribute to their local economy in a
dignified manner (UNHCR, 2018). This example shows how the UNHCR wishes to
strengthen wealth as opposed to military power.

There are several arguments as to why a liberal
approach might be useful for the UNHCR as an intergovernmental organization.

Some scholars argue that international stability is caused due to intergovernmental
organizations (Mearscheimer, 1994). When linking this back to the UNHCR, it can
be 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 stand
synonymous for establishing or strengthening local and international stability.

Another argument that Mearscheimer (1994) sheds light on is the relationships
between economic cooperation and peace. Mearscheimer (1994) argues that when an
international organization establishes economic cooperation, it can be compared
to establishing peace. The member states of the UNHCR must come to an economic
agreement when funding their projects, which can be linked back to the concept
of ‘peace’. The concept of ‘peace’ can be associated with one of the UNHCR’s
core directions, namely to ‘solve’. It is the UNHCR’s mission to actively
engage with national and regional peace processes, and to support peacebuilding
activities (UNHCR, 2017).


However, there are several academics that take on a
critical stand against the UNHCR and its liberalist mind-set. Loescher (2001)
argues that because of the UNHCR’s financial dependence on governments and the
European Union, the UNHCR has a clear agenda with its actions being shaped by
the interests of governments. When analysing this, it could be assumed that
this is in fact a realist scholar taking a critical stand against a liberal
approach. Loescher (2001) argues that due to the lack of UNHCR’s strategic
thinking competence, the UNHCR does not learn from their past mistakes,
continuing to let the interests of single governments influence the overall
decision-making scheme of the UNHCR. A second critical aspect of the UNHCR’s
liberal mind-set is its trust in a collective security system. Realists, whom
stand on the other end of the spectrum, believe that in an anarchic world a
state can never be certain about other states’ intentions and must therefor
have an offensive military competence. Liberalist on the other hand do not
believe in guarding themselves with an offensive military. Loescher (2001)
argues that the problem with a collective security system is the threat that it
can demand requirements that will circumvent opposing an aggressor with
dominant power. However, I argue that this threat is not apparent in UNHCR’s
strategy. That is because the UNHCR is focused on extending their help to
refugees, but not focused on challenging the states where the refugees come


All in all, it is safe to conclude that the United
Nations High Commission for Refugees can be classified as a liberal
intergovernmental organization. The foundation and activity of the UNHCR is
based on the goal to help refugees, stabilize their living conditions, and
cooperate with their member states to reach this goal. This foundation and
activity is in line with the basic assumptions and trademarks of liberalism,
namely to avoid military power with the help of international institutions. 


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