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IS JESSEN-PETERSEN THE NEXT HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES?

15 April 2005

We'll venture a guess. The next U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will most likely be Soren Jessen-Petersen. Of the eight announced candidates, he seems to be the most qualified, the best placed, and the most experienced in that field. No one will question the stature or commitment of all the others. Bernard Kouchner, who had occupied the post of U.N. Commissioner in Kosovo, has a worldwide reputation as an activist in the humanitarian fields. But he also has a reputation of getting easily bored, forever looking for the ultimate assignment. The French government would welcome his appointment but may not fight for an opposition to a Socialist party member when it has its own candidate for other international positions.

Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister had produced several publications on reforming the U.N. and tacitly ran for Secretary General. He may be still running on the premise that his country is part of Asia and the Pacific region. As head of the Crisis Group in Brussels, he is in a position to influence international policy but could draw on limited support for a job like handling refugee emergencies. Mark Verwilgen could always get someone's backing in his Belgian hometown. The only thing working for him is his first name; but it is offset by that of his family. The Italians, or at least our colleagues at La Republica, are certain that Emma Bonino will get the job. They reported a possible deal where Europeans would agree to Paul Wolfowitz in the World Bank in return for Bonino at UHCR. But the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense already got Europe's backing and it is not certain that Europeans -- or even Senor Berlesconi in Rome -- are united behind the former Italian Commissioner. The European-American "deal" may be related not to UNHCR but to the World Trade Organization and its French contender. Hans Dahlgren is a formidable candidate well known to the Secretary General and a powerful figure behind generous contributions by Sweden to major U.N. ventures. Besides, as Stockholm's Expressen stated, the Swedes believe that the U.N. is God and they are his chosen people. But Dahlgren is more of a political figure with an overall agenda, not just limited to Refugees. Kamel Morjane of Tunisia must be the most "unlucky lucky" international official. While he was fortunate -- and qualified -- to get the post of Deputy High Commissioner, he was rumoured for so many posts, including Special Rep for Iraq and Human Rights -- but never got any. With a certain need for backing by donor countries, he is not likely to be offered this one.

Now the process is at three steps: sounding out varied refugee groupings and political soundings; interviews with the Deputy Secretary General, the Chief of Staff and the Secretary General; selecting and clearing the final choice. There was a Portuguese newspaper report mid-March when the Secretary General was in Madrid for the anti-terrorism conference. It claimed that Mr. Annan stopped in Lisbon on his way to Jerusalem to offer the UNHCR post to a former Portuguese official. It was assumed to be their official candidate Antonio Guterres. But Lisbon was bypassed.

That leads us to Soren Jessen-Petersen. He had spent most of his professional career in the humanitarian field, particularly helping refugees. He is a proven administrator who represented UNHCR in New York when Kofi Annan took over as Secretary General. If any higher stature was needed, he gained it through his recent appointment as High Commissioner in Kosovo where he fared at least better than his own country's former Prime Minister.

The UNHCR choice is likely to receive special attention from both the Secretary General and his Chief of Staff. The Lubbers debacle will prompt them to take extra care in selecting his successor and both of them had started their careers when they met there in Geneva. Both know Soren very well, professionally and personally. Hence our guess that the unassuming down-to-earth Dane is the most likely to win.