Chapter 2: The UNHCR Handbook and the interface between ‘soft law’ and ‘hard law’ in international refugee law
The Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951, supplemented by its 1967 Protocol, is the primary source of modern refugee law. When the text was finalized, ‘the successive drafts were subject to continual changes in the light of comments by governments and specialist agencies’, so that it was unclear whether the changes in language ‘were intended to reflect a change in substance’ or whether they were ‘intended to reflect the same meaning in different words’. From ‘a lawyer’s point of view’ the changes were ‘inconclusive’ and when looking at the meaning of the text of the Convention, it was generally felt that ‘We do not know’. The ensuing uncertainty has been left to be resolved, inter alia, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). How well this has been done is a matter of some public importance because of the social and political salience of refugee law in modern Western societies. The Office of the UNHCR was created on 14 December 1950 by Resolution 428(V) of the United Nations General Assembly. This office is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations under Article 22 of the UN Charter and the functions of the Office of the UNHCR are defined in its Statute. This means that the UNHCR is the body charged with the task of supervizing international conventions that provide for the protection of refugees. In 1979, the UNHCR published its Handbook relating to the Criteria for Determining Refugee Status (‘the Handbook’).
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