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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee (UNHCR)

represented by Gisela Hirschmann and Marlene Micha

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1949 as a specialised agency of the General Assembly (GA) with its headquarters in Geneva. Its mandate includes the protection of refugees and finding durable solutions to refugee problems around the world. Moreover, in the Guiding Principles of 1998, the UNHCR formally committed itself to the challenge of helping Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who, unlike refugees, do not cross an international border and therefore are not protected by refugee law. In total, there are an estimated 11.4 million refugees and 24.5 million IDPs. The main legal documents on which the UNHCR’s work is based are the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

The Executive Committee of the UNHCR is a subsidiary body of the GA and both advises the UNHCR and reviews its programmes. It currently consists of 76 Member States.

On our first day in session, we negotiated the agenda setting. Our NMUN 2009 agenda consisted of the following topics:

  1. Return and Reintegration of Refugees and Displaced Persons;
  2. Addressing the Refugee and IDP Situation in Chad and Sudan; and
  3. Capacity Building in Regions with Refugee and IDP Populations.

As the crisis in Sudan had escalated some days before the conference, with the Sudanese President, Mr al-Bashir, expelling 13 of the most important international NGOs in reaction to the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing a warrant of arrest against him, many countries opted for the situation in Chad/Sudan as the first topic. We nevertheless supported the original order, since we believed it to be more important to discuss the general issue of Return and Reintegration of Refugees and IDPs first, before we could move on to regional cases such as Darfur and Sudan, before moving onto instruments for return and reintegration such as capacity-building measurements. After several hours of negotiation, no consensus could be achieved among the delegations and the agenda order was left as it was originally outlined by the chair.

On our second day we started to debate on the first topic, Return and Reintegration of Refugees and (Internally) Displaced Persons. There soon were some group dynamics emerging within the Committee, with the United States selecting a group of countries to work on their proposals and an ‘African bloc’ under the leadership of South Africa. We soon experienced the ‘Australian foreign policy dilemma’ of being a ‘Western’ country while being rooted in the Asian-Pacific region. Since our main priority was to reform the UNHCR mandate in order to establish a legal protection framework for IDPs that do not fall under the 1951 Refugee Convention, we spent the second day drafting our initial ideas and reaching out for potential partners and supporters.

The third day of the conference is referred to as ‘Meltdown-Thursday’ because of it being the longest day with the most intense debates. We continued to work on our proposals with the surprising support of Nigeria, Turkey, Ireland, and Venezuela. Moreover, we tried to make our idea public through holding speeches, which was difficult considering the large number of delegates – we only got two speaking slots. The United States was the only country who strongly opposed our idea of establishing a working group with the purpose of reforming the UNHCR mandate with regard to IDPs. Israel, however, suddenly got the same idea of establishing a legal protection framework for IDPs and started to work on its own paper.

The final day of the conference was rather hectic due to the deadline for handing in the final drafts that required the chair’s approval. With the help of Nigeria, Ireland and a part of South Africa, we managed to get our proposal approved by the chair as draft report segment No. 5. With a huge list of sponsors and supporters, we believed our proposal to be widely accepted, however the tension rose as Nigeria called for a roll-call vote when the adoption by acclamation of our draft report segment failed. In the end, however, our report segment got accepted with a vote of 51 to 2 (with 15 abstentions and 9 countries being absent). This meant that we successfully promoted the idea and even included a reference to our slogan of being a ‘good international citizen’ and therefore taking up the responsibility to sufficiently protect refugees and IDPs.

The other draft report segments that got all passed dealt with various topics such as enhancing protection mechanisms for women and children as the most vulnerable groups in refugee camps and establishing a global partnership for information sharing in order to avoid duplicating help and also provide a more effective and efficient reaction to refugee and displacement problems. Another segment was called ‘Family First’ and highlighted the importance of families staying together or being (re-)unified during the return and reintegration process of their respective home countries. The remaining report segments dealt with the refugees’ repatriation and the inherent right of voluntary return, strengthening the role of local and regional capacities for protecting refugees and insuring funding mechanism for the programmes installed.

Thus, despite all the different group work going on, we managed to adopt a holistic report that treated all the different aspects of the UNHCR with regard to the return and reintegration of refugees and IDPs. We managed to balance promoting our paper and meanwhile having a look at all the different proposals, which was not easy at all time. We had to constantly balance the different input given by other delegations to our proposal and meanwhile ensure that the other paper referred to Australia’s main concerns, such as the legal protection of IDPs and obligations each state has when trying to be a good international citizen.

After a long preparation phase, we were more than glad that the conference turned out to be an enriching experience in which we not only managed to get our paper passed, but also had a major influence on others and got different perspectives on the topics which we had been dealing with for the last months. It was a unique learning experience which offered one little glance of what diplomats have to do every day: achieve consensus among different nations whose agendas that are both various and also often miles apart from each other.