October 8, 2015 / 10:18 PM / in 2 years

U.N.'s Ban rejects calls to keep refugee chief amid crisis

UNITED NATIONS/GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has disregarded a request from a large number of member states to keep the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in his job for an extra year to cope with the worsening refugee crisis, diplomats said.

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) speaks to media about the refugee crisis in Europe, following their bilateral meeting at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres was elected by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 and re-elected in 2010. Earlier this year, the assembly voted to extend his mandate by 6-1/2 months to Dec. 31, on Ban’s recommendation.

But the sources, who include the chairman of the U.N. refugee agency’s executive committee, said Ban decided to resist pressure for a further extension of one year, and resort to a normal election process to make way for a new high commissioner.

Several diplomats said it was unusual for a secretary-general to ignore such appeals, though they acknowledged it is Ban’s right to do so.

Many countries, including those hit by the surge of refugees in the Middle East that has spilled over into Europe, backed an extension for Guterres, concerned his departure could leave a temporary leadership vacuum at a time of crisis, diplomats said.

Guterres has warned for years that millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere would turn to Europe if such countries as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan did not receive more help to cope with their refugee populations.

The chairman of the UNHCR’s 98-member executive committee (EXCOM), Mozambique’s U.N. Ambassador in Geneva, Pedro Comissario, requested that Ban recommend extending Guterres’s term by a further year in a July 7 letter to the U.N. chief.

Comissario said in the letter, which was seen by Reuters, “I was recently approached by, and further consulted with, many ambassadors of EXCOM member states in Geneva ... who conveyed their views regarding a possible need for a further extension of (Guterres’) mandate.”

SUPPORT FROM THE CRISIS REGION

Comissario said he consulted with regional groups, key donor nations, major refugee hosting countries and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Among reasons to keep Guterres, he wrote, was the fact that both the deputy and assistant high commissioners were only recently appointed.

Several diplomats said Jordan and Turkey, which host millions of refugees who fled the 4-1/2 year civil war in Syria, were among the countries that wanted Guterres to remain. Jordan’s U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar told Reuters her country would have welcomed having Guterres’ term extended.

Comissario told Reuters in Geneva that Ban’s rejection was “unfortunate,” but noted it was up to Ban to make the decision. He added that there was overwhelming support for extending Guterres again for another year.

It was not immediately clear why Ban decided against an extension. His spokesman said only that the selection process for the post was still under way, and a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based UNHCR declined to comment.

One Western diplomat said he thought Ban felt it was “important to ensure proper rotation.” Another diplomat said that several countries were eager to take over the high-profile post and had lobbied Ban against extending Guterres.

Comissario told Reuters there was a short list of three candidates for the post: Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and veteran diplomats Achim Steiner of Germany and Filippo Grandi of Italy.

The UNHCR statute makes no mention of term limits for the high commissioner, though it states that the terms of the appointment are set by the secretary-general.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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