Research Handbooks in International Law series
Edited by Vincent Chetail and Céline Bauloz
Chapter 16: The mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
The editors of this volume asked me to prepare a chapter on 'the mandate' of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The perceptive reader might well ask why this is an interesting topic. Might it not simply yield a chapter consisting of citations to a plethora of General Assembly Resolutions that over a 60-year period have asked UNHCR to perform certain functions relating to refugees and other displaced persons, or perhaps a description of where, when and how UNHCR has acted in the world - with some prediction about future theatres of action? Or it might be suggested that what is relevant in discussing agency action is the issue of 'legal authority', which can be answered in lawyerly fashion by consulting the usual sources of legal competence. The term mandate seems to muddy the water; it is found neither in UNHCR's founding documents nor is there a firmly established definition of the term in international practice. But lack of clarity has not produced an apparent disincentive to usage. Indeed, it may be that because the term - both its meaning and scope - is unclear that it is rather regularly wielded in discussions of what international organizations can and should do. Even for an organization as well-established as UNHCR, the mandate question remains surprisingly lively. It is raised both within the organization and by members of UNHCR's Executive Committee, as the Office continues to respond to the needs of displaced persons under changing world circumstances.
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