13 October 2010

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in Oxford

On 13 October, I had the opportunity to attend António Guterres giving this year's Harrell-Bond Lecture, as hosted annually by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford.

You don't get to experience a lot of people whose headshots adorn the walls in several offices around the world, so I was even more excited to listen to him live than I already was given my particular interest in refugee issues and also his role in East Timor.

It was quite impressive to watch an excellent and engaging orator with formidable command of body language give a very well-delivered speech and then get down to courteously answer several questions regarding a variety of policy issues and countries from the packed floor (I'm sure at least 500 people, including faculty, Oxfam representatives, students etc). You might say, duh, any states(wo)man and diplomat (and he was both) gets coached in presentation skills but if you watch politicians on TV, you will see that not everyone is quite in their element when presenting in public. Apart from that, I had been reading a lot on body language and other useful soft skills lately but you're here to read about the lecture and not my favourite autodidacticism.

Restoring Rights: Forced Displacement, Protection and Humanitarian Action
In the thus-labelled lecture, he distinguished between the "arc of crisis" (a term used in TIME in the 1980s and recently borrowed by Sarkozy) where two thirds of the world's refugees were located (roughly from the Horn of Africa across the Middle East to Western Asia) and "all other crises" like the DRC, Sri Lanka and the Central African Republic (where shockingly yet sadly, the price for an AK-47 is $50). He also addressed the issue of the difficult distinction between military and humanitarian operations and its implications in the field and also discussed the divide between the human rights agenda which he says is losing ground to the national sovereignty agenda. What follows is a state of the world's refugee summary, giving comparative trends on voluntary returns, unaccompanied minors, resettlement, refoulement and the need for a different EU-wide asylum policy for improved burden-sharing (within the EU, the refugee acceptance rate ranges from 4% to 90%) on the continent that only houses 7% of the world's refugees. He also talks about the 27m IDPs and the case of urban refugees which apart from climate displacement are currently the two buzz words in refugee policy development.

In his concluding remarks, he draws attention to the three refugee research centres Oxford is blessed with and expressed his hope that such research centres will also be created in other areas in the world in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In fact, it is a hope I have held myself ever since I first wondered why of all places in the world, such a specialised organisation as the RSC is located in Oxford. While it does have the advantage of putting refugee issues at the heart of academia and attracting resources for the research of forced migration issues through the reputation of the OU brand, it also is quite geographically removed from the great concentrations of the "subjects" of its research (American University for example, famous for its teaching of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law does engage in refugee research in Cairo and offers a course there). There have been efforts in the past to promote scholarship "from the South" but apart from a handful of scholars at the most, the discourse is still very much dominated by "Northern" scholars and most if not all the publications exclusively dedicated to forced migration (compared to occasional articles in law and anthropology journals etc) are published in Oxford.

The man himself
For those of you not familiar with the person, just a few words on him, as you can find the rest easily on the UNHCR website or elsewhere on the net: He spent about 20 years in public service, used to be Portugal's prime minister during the East Timor crisis, was elected UN High Commissioner in 2005 and has this year been re-elected for a second term.

You can find a full PDF transcript of the lecture as well as its podcast HERE and the UNHCR press release on the event HERE.

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