Dr Sania Nishtar: in the run for the top UN refugee post

Published November 10, 2015
Dr Sania Nishtar – Photo courtesy Heartlife
Dr Sania Nishtar – Photo courtesy Heartlife

"If there is one person who can serve and serve the world refugee agency objectively, I have little doubt in my mind, of all the four candidates, she is the most suited," said Riaz Khokhar, former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

Khokhar was referring to the government's nomination of Dr. Sania Nishtar, also Pakistan’s former federal minister now in the final run for the coveted post of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

If all goes well and she is appointed, Nishtar, a medical doctor and founder of an Islamabad based think tank, Heartfile (that has helped thousands of poorest of the poor refugees to access life-saving treatment) will take over as high commissioner of the world refugees agency from former Portugese prime minister, Antonio Guterres.

And if appointed, she will be the 12th and the second female taking charge of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), after Japan's Sadako Ogata, who served from 1990 to 2000.

She will also be the third non-European (apart from Ogata and Sadruddin Aga Khan from Iran, who could be considered hailing from the south but resident of Switzerland) and the only non-white among the four current nominees since its inception in 1950.

Among those vying for the post are two women -- former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the former CEO of Save the Children International, Jasmine Whitbread; and one man Filippo Grandi, the former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency.

To even have been shortlisted for this position, said Khokhar, is a great compliment to her and for Pakistan. Having seen her operate in international forum with aplomb, he said she was "eminently qualified and brilliant".

Nishtar’s credentials are impressive with broad ranging experience in civil society, government, international development, policy and advocacy, humanitarianism and development, institution building and reform and with frontline learning which come from setting up institutions, fundraising and partnership building.

Talking about her forte as an astute communicator leading international commissions, he said she would be "well positioned to foster better western-Muslim relationships" at a time when almost "three in four refugees are Muslims".

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst said she could bring valuable experience to the UNHCR due to her ample experience of working on humanitarian assistance. "It will be great for Pakistan and I wish her luck", he said.

Very happy about his colleague's nomination and for her being short-listed for the post, Dr Zulfikar Bhutta, a leading expert in global child health and founding director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health, at the Aga Khan University, in Karachi, said: "She is extremely capable and experienced in international affairs and would be an asset to the organization if elected."

Having experienced living in conflict zone and among refugees and having first-hand experience of living in a country that has IDPs as well as Afghan refugees and her broad understanding of the issues afflicting the world, not just in the sphere of healthcare but in the realm of human rights, governance, economics etc reflect her background, her experience and her scholarship, Khokhar said.

"She has all the ingredients – the capacity, capability and intellectual back-up – to be a success."

Whoever, takes over Guterres, stepping down after a decade and at the agency's most critical time in its 65 year history with the looming European refugee crisis it makes the proper selection of the next high commissioner all the more crucial. In addition, with fifteen new or reignited conflicts in the last five years, the number of people forced from their homes by conflict, every single day, has nearly quadrupled – from under 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year.

In such a context, say most experts, it is important the commissioner should be from a refugee hosting country. “The leadership of UNHCR has been dominated by donors; it is time that host countries are also recognized as this would signal the critical importance of bringing all stakeholders together” said Khokhar.

Imran Zeb, Pakistan’s Chief Commissioner on Afghan refugees, said Pakistan was well placed as it had "been part of the system" and knew the issue well. "I think being a woman, a Muslim from a developing country that is host to nearly 2.5 million refugees, and from Asia, everyone will benefit."

He further said for too long the west have been major donors and it is time countries from this region as well as the Middle East (which has only recently donated for Yemen crisis) pump some money into the UNHCR. "With Nishtar, the chances are better, as she can play an important role in motivating Muslim countries to make the required pledges," said Zeb.

Pakistan has a proud record of refugee protection. The country has been host to the highest number of refugees for more than three decades running.

Explaining Pakistan's role in the refugees issue with over 3 million refugees at one point, where it espoused the most tolerant policies ever, Zeb said: " Pakistan today has the most protracted refugee situation and is now the second largest host country after Turkey. While we have 1.5 million registered

Afghan refugees, we have over a million unregistered ones too, spread from Peshawar to Karachi, who enjoy the same facilities as that of a Pakistani. "A new UNHCR head from Pakistan would, therefore, have moral authority," he concluded. 

When contacted for her views, Nishtar simply said: "I'm deeply honoured and greatly humbled that I am being considered."



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