Moving Beyond its Mandate? UNHCR and Climate Change Displacement

States created UNHCR in 1951 with a specific mandate: the protection of refugees. In recent years many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics have argued that climate change will force people to move (Friends of the Earth 2007; Greenpeace 2008; Meyers 1993). However, UNHCR has no mandate for so-called “climate displacement” as it falls beyond the scope of its Statute and the Refugee Convention (McAdam 2010). While some have called for a new legal convention to protect those displaced by climate change, there is no academic literature exploring if and how UNHCR has expanded beyond the established refugee regime to respond to climate displacement (Biermann and Boas 2010). Furthermore there are no IR theories which can adequately account for UNHCR’s changes in response to this new issue area. This article proposes a novel typology of IGOs and classifies UNHCR as a normative IGO. UNHCR’s normative type explains why it was slower to engage with climate change than other humanitarian organizations. This article fills a significant empirical gap in the scholarship on UNHCR, climate change displacement, and theories of IGO change.

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