Ruud Lubbers: Refugees' New Advocate

Former Prime Minister of the Netherlands Rudolphus (Ruud) Lubbers took on his latest international role when he assumed the position of U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in early January. Lubbers, 61, succeeded Japan’s Sadako Ogata, who had held the position for almost a decade.

Lubbers began his political career in 1973, when he joined the Dutch government as minister of economic affairs. He also served as chair of Globus, the Tilburg-based Institute for Globalization and Development, and international president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

But despite Lubbers’s international stature, the Dutch government had put forward another top official, Development Minister Jan Pronk, for the U.N. post. Dutch officials were “flabbergasted” by Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s choice of Lubbers, according to a report in London’s The Guardian—as was Lubbers himself. “I knew very little about the issue. I had not applied for the job,” The Guardian reported Lubbers telling top staff members at UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters shortly after the appointment.

In office from 1982 to 1994, Lubbers was the Netherlands’ longest-serving postwar prime minister. He was considered “the father of the oft-praised ‘Dutch model,’ ” according to Munich’s Süddeut-sche Zeitung. The Dutch model was the highly successful strategic plan for reducing the national budget deficit and alleviating mass unemployment. In 1995, Lubbers took a hiatus from his political career to teach courses at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He apparently approached his return to the international limelight this year with relish, wasting no time in making a plea for more funding from world governments. “The cause of ref-ugees deserves financial resources,” he said shortly after his appointment.

Last year, in an interview with the Earth Times News Service, Lubbers said that people perceived globalization as a threat to “the very essence of their being.” He added that the only way for the “global compact”—a partnership between the U.N. and the private sector for spreading the benefits of globalization—to succeed would be for those involved to connect with people at a grassroots level and galvanize them to create a more humane society.

And that is precisely the task he faces now.