The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security

Breakfast Seminar

Please note: This page refers to an event that has already taken place.

Time: Tuesday, 04 March 2014 08:30-10:00
Place: PRIO, Hausmanns gate 7, Oslo

​​​Dr. Anne Hammerstad presents her new book, The rise and decline of a global security actor: UNHCR, refugee protection and security (Oxford: OUP, 2014).

The book follows the UN refugee agency through some of the past two decades' major conflict-induced humanitarian crises and complex emergencies, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and eastern Zaire/Congo. In the 1990s UNHCR went through a momentous transformation from a small, timid legal protection agency to the world's foremost humanitarian actor playing a central role in the international response to the many wars of the tumultuous last decade of the twentieth century. Then, as the twenty-first century set in, the agency's political prominence waned. It remains a major humanitarian actor, but the polarized post-9/11 period, concern over shrinking 'humanitarian space', and a worsening protection climate for refugees and asylum seekers spurred UNHCR to abandon its claim to be a global security actor and return to a more modest, quietly diplomatic role.

The rise of UNHCR as a global security actor is placed within the context of the dramatic shift in perceptions of national and international security after the end of the Cold War. Prominent among 'new' security issues were the perceived threats posed by refugees and asylum seekers to international security, state stability, and societal cohesion. The book discusses UNHCR's response to this new international environment; why UNHCR adopted, adapted and finally abandoned a security discourse on the refugee problem. 

Debate Topics: 

  • What is the future of humanitarian action in the polarized and dangerous environments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia?  How organizations such as UNHCR  avoid the stamp of being part of 'western agendas'?
  • With Syria in mind, to what extent should UN and non-governmental humanitarian actors speak out in favour of particular political and military solutions to displacement-creating conflicts? In this regard, what lessons should we take from UNHCR's 'political activist' decade in the 1990s under the leadership of Sadako Ogata?
  • Mass displacement and international solidarity: In situations of mass displacement which threaten to become protracted, such as in the case of Syria, should humanitarian relief and the building and maintenance of camps be the main – almost the only – response?



Discussants are Cindy Horst, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kristian Berg Harpviken.

Chair: Marta Bivand Erdal


This PRIO event is co-hosted with the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS)


Biography of Author:

Dr Anne Hammerstad is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent, research associate of the South African Institute of International Affairs, and recent ECRC Global Uncertainties Fellow. In addition to the book 'The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security (OUP, 2014), Dr Hammerstad has published on migration, refugees, conflict and security in, among others, Security DialogueReview of ​International Studies, and Conflict, Security and Development.