The terrible damage being done to UNHCR's reputation


A pedestrian passes by a makeshift memorial erected by supporters of the People's Mojahedin Organization Of Iran (PMOI) during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in London on Feb. 9, 2013. At least five people were killed and more than 25 wounded in a rocket attack on an Iranian dissident camp in Iraq's capital Baghdad, police sources said.

Article Highlights

  • UNHCR’s reputation is being badly damaged by the systemic failure of the UN operation in Iraq.

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  • Iranian refugees at Camp Liberty near Baghdad have been subject to rocket attacks and horrible living conditions.

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  • In America, the MEK is overcoming an undeserved reputation after being listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

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  • Congress, in a time of tight budgets for domestic & military programs, should look carefully at UN operations in Iraq.

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The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) has long boasted impressive credentials in carrying out its important humanitarian work. Winning Nobel Peace Prizes in 1954 and 1981 for protecting and assisting refugees, UNHCR typically operates more efficiently and effectively than most other UN agencies. UNHCR’s compelling logo embodies its critical mission, picturing two human hands providing shelter for a refugee.

Now, however, UNHCR’s reputation is being badly damaged by the systemic failure of virtually the entire UN operation in Iraq.  Iranian refugees, members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (“MEK”), now residents at Camp Liberty, a vandalized, abandoned U.S. military base near Baghdad, have been subject to rocket attacks, forced to live in wretched, unsanitary conditions more like a prison than a refugee camp, and denied their property.

Worse, Martin Kobler, the bureaucrat heading the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (“UNAMI”), acts more like a paid agent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi regime and its puppet masters in Iran than a representative of the UN’s member governments.  

Kobler is clearly guilty of what diplomatic circles call “clientitis”:  forgetting who he actually works for, in this case the UN Security Council, not Iraq and Iran. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should have long ago recognized that failing to overrule Kobler, and his indifference to the MEK’s harsh and dangerous treatment, now threatens his own reputation.

In America, the MEK is overcoming an undeserved reputation after being listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the Clinton administration, which erroneously believed that appeasing Tehran’s mullahs would facilitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  

That mistake was repeated by Secretary of State Rice in 2008, also to appease the ayatollahs.  

By contrast, the U.S. military in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, found the MEK peaceful and cooperative.  The Pentagon placed all residents of Camp Ashraf, their longstanding facility near the Iran-Iraq border, under U.S. protection, which of course disappeared when coalition forces withdrew.

Last year, however, Hillary Clinton correctly removed the MEK from the proscribed list, on the condition that Ashraf’s inhabitants move to Camp Liberty.  Kobler assured the MEK that Liberty’s facilities would be equivalent to Ashraf, and that UNHCR would rapidly process their applications for asylum in third countries.  That has not happened, and as long as these refugees remain in Iraq, they will be subject to threats and deadly attacks.  

Kobler and UNAMI have repeatedly impeded UNHCR’s work, making it a pawn for Tehran’s religious dictatorship to use against the MEK. So doing violates UNHCR’s 1950 founding statute, adopted by UN member governments, which mandates that its work must be “of an entirely non-political character.”  Moreover, neither Kobler nor any other UN bureaucrat has authority to compromise UNHCR’s mandate, reaffirmed last July by the Security Council in Resolution 2061, which specifically requires UNAMI to work “in coordination with” UNHCR, not as its master.  

UNHCR was intended precisely to interpose itself in circumstance such as these. By definition,refugees face hostility and the likelihood of retribution from authorities in the country they are fleeing.  And it is frequently true that refugees are unwelcome and persecuted in their countries of first asylum. The fact that Iraq’s al-Maliki regime is under the thrall of Iran here only heightens the need for UNHCR to assert its unique mandate.

Unfortunately, however, High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has been unable or unwilling to uphold his responsibility to protect and assist the refugees, either at Camp Liberty or by finding them asylum in third countries.  

Ironically, Guterres has asked for significantly greater funding for UNHCR’s work on MEK issues in 2013, which is hard to understand given how little UNHCR is actually doing on behalf of the 3,000-plus asylum-seekers involved.

This dispute may initially sound like simply another exercise in bureaucratic turf-fighting within the UN system, but the global implications are actually far broader. If Iran and Iraq’s al-Maliki regime succeed in intimidating and impeding UNHCR, thereby politicizing its work, the consequences risk devastating the UN’s ability to provide impartial international assistance.  

All UN members should be alarmed at this prospect, since no one can predict where UNHCR or other UN humanitarian agencies will be needed next. With the UN’s political decision-making bodies already largely dysfunctional, it would be a profound loss for the UN’s humanitarian agencies to suffer the same fate.

Moreover, non-governmental organizations (“NGO’s”) which provide humanitarian assistance should also be appalled at Kobler’s damage to UNHCR’s mandate, and the damage the agency is doing to itself.  Whether or not a particular NGO does refugee work, is present in the Middle East, or tries to avoid politicization, NGO’s generally will find their humanitarian status jeopardized by the gross politicization that Iran and Iraq are wreaking.

Clearly, High Commissioner Guterres has to stand up on his hind legs and demand that UNHCR be allowed to provide protection and assistance to the refugees at Camp Liberty and rapidly process their asylum requests, no matter what Kobler, al-Maliki or Tehran’s ayatollahs want.  UN members and NGO’s should likewise insist that UNHCR be allowed to operate according to its mandate, and urge Secretary General Ban not to turn a blind eye.  

And the U.S. Congress, in a time of incredibly tight budgets for both domestic and military programs, should look very carefully at what the UN system as a whole is doing  --  and more importantly failing to do  --  in Iraq. If nothing else works, restricting American contributions to UN agencies always gets their attention.

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John R.
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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