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UN: Surprise Pick For UNHCR; Saudi Woman Chosen For Population Fund

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has chosen former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers to head the UN refugee agency and a Saudi Arabian woman to direct the UN Population Fund. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the change of leadership in the two key UN agencies.

United Nations, 26 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- From a crowded field of candidates, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has made the surprise choice of former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers to be the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lubbers told reporters in New York yesterday (Wednesday) that he was shocked but pleased by the appointment. Lubbers said he had been backing countryman Jan Pronk, the Netherlands' environment minister, for the post.

Other candidates for the position were Bernard Kouchner, the UN's administrator in Kosovo, and Carl Bildt, a special UN envoy for the Balkans.

But Annan said the 61-year-old Lubbers' experience in government and in non-governmental sectors made him most suited for the needs of the refugee agency. Lubbers was prime minister from 1982 to 1994, and since leaving office he has held top positions in organizations focusing on globalization and development. Annan said:

"What Mr. Lubbers brings to the job is that leadership of the highest level, that experience and that judgment and that ability to reach out to governments and get them to work with us on these issues and to get them to support the programs that we're doing."

With more than 22 million people under the care of the refugee agency -- known as UNHCR -- in Europe, Asia, and Africa, its role in the past decade has taken on new importance.

UNHCR has more than 5,000 staff in about 120 countries and a budget of about $1 billion for this year. Beyond the financial needs of the agency, Annan says it is an important time to enlist the help of governments to protect refugees and treat immigrants fairly.

A study commissioned by UNHCR last summer said a growing number of refugees -- many of them Afghans, Iraqis and people from the developing world -- are now forced to use illegal means when they seek to enter Europe. In many cases, they end up the victims of trafficking. The study said current policy in many European states risks bringing an end to the right of asylum on the continent.

"We tend to think that these problems are only in the third world, but they are becoming major problems in the developed countries, in Europe and to some extent [in the United States], and we need to get the governments to be sensitive to the needs of refugees and the need to protect them."

If approved by the UN General Assembly, Lubbers will succeed Sadako Ogata of Japan, who is finishing the second of two five-year terms as high commissioner in December. She won praise from Annan yesterday for her handling of refugee matters during the tumultuous 1990s. Ogata released a statement saying Lubbers would bring a "wealth of international experience to the position."

The secretary-general's second high-level appointment announced yesterday was Thouraya Ahmed Obaid as the new executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.

Obaid was born in Baghdad, in 1945, but her early schooling was at the American College for Girls in Cairo and she has several degrees from U.S. universities.

She will be responsible for helping governments with issues such as women's reproductive health, family planning and population growth -- sensitive questions in the Arab world. If approved by the General Assembly, Obaid will be the first Saudi woman to hold a top UN post.

At a news conference yesterday, Obaid was asked about Saudi Arabia's response to her appointment in light of its own record of restricting women's rights.

"I have been endorsed by the [Saudi] government. I have been with the United Nations for 25 years and I have been from the very first day, [in] 1975, responsible for women's programs in the Arab region, which is a difficult region for that issue."

Obaid said the Saudi government has not interfered with her work in the UN system and that she did not expect it to in her new post. She added that Saudi Arabia has recently taken steps that will improve the situation for the country's women -- joining the UN human rights commission and signing the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women.

Obaid is currently the population fund's director for Arab states and Europe. She will succeed another woman, Nafis Sadik of Pakistan, who has directed the agency for 13 years and is considered a pioneer in the field of women's rights. The UN population fund is the world's largest internationally funded source of population assistance to developing countries.