New Book: UNHCR and International Refugee Law

(cross-posted from Forced Migration Current Awareness)

(This Note was contributed by Corinne Lewis, a former legal officer with UNHCR, who now works in the area of business and human rights law. She is currently drafting a book for Advocates for International Development that provides guidance to law firms on the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.)

I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide information about my book UNHCR and International Refugee Law: From Treaties to Innovation, which was just released by Routledge this summer.

Following nearly ten years of work as a legal officer with UNHCR, with posts in Headquarters in Geneva and in the field, I decided to couple my practical experience with research done in connection with my PhD thesis in order to have a more global understanding of UNHCR’s role related to international refugee law. This book builds upon a number of preliminary ideas I had, which were published in an article in the International Journal of Refugee Law in 2005, titled “UNHCR’s Contribution to the Development of International Refugee Law: Its Foundations and Evolution.”

In the book, I focus on the ways in which UNHCR contributes to the creation of refugee law and works to ensure that States actually implement such law in their policies as well as their practices. In general, the book attests to the organisation’s dynamic contribution to the evolution of international refugee law and thus, the law’s continued viability in protecting refugees.

Specifically, the book addresses four questions:
1. What are the foundations for UNHCR’s role related to the development and effectiveness of international refugee law?
2. What are the formal and informal means that have facilitated the adaptation of UNHCR’s role?
3. How has UNHCR influenced the development of international refugee law?
4. How has UNHCR enhanced the effectiveness of international refugee law?

The initial two chapters consider the basis for UNHCR’s role related to international refugee law. The responsibilities that UNHCR was assigned concerning refugee law in its statute were greatly influenced by the mandates and work of the refugee organisations that preceded UNHCR. These refugee law responsibilities relate to two key areas: the development of international refugee law and ensuring the effectiveness of such law.

However, these responsibilities are not static, but have evolved during the more than 60 years of UNHCR’s existence as UNHCR has dealt with new movements of refugees, changes in States’ willingness to accept refugees and their treatment of asylum-seekers. Therefore, Chapter 3 considers the formal statutory means and UNHCR’s implied powers, which facilitate the changes in UNHCR’s role.

Chapter 4 examines how the crisis in international refugee law and refugee protection, which began in the 1980’s, brought to the fore the weaknesses in refugee law and the problems with States’ respect of such laws. The measures that UNHCR then undertook to address such weaknesses and to attempt to ensure that States respect international refugee law are considered in Chapters 5 and 6 respectively.

The final chapter, Chapter 7, weaves the observations from the first six chapters into an overview of UNHCR’s interaction with international refugee law and then suggests how UNHCR should extend and strengthen its role related to international refugee law.

I am greatly indebted to so many former colleagues in UNHCR who work tirelessly on behalf of refugees throughout the world and from whom I continue to learn. I hope that this book assists them and others working with refugees to have a greater understanding of how UNHCR influences the content of refugee law and works to ensure States’ respect for such laws so that this role can be further enhanced in the future.



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