Geneva (AFP) – The UN migration agency was electing a new director general on Friday in a vote testing US influence in a major international organisation, with Washington’s candidate battling accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry.
The head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been an American throughout the agency’s 67-year history with one exception from 1961 to 1969.
But President Donald Trump’s nominee Ken Isaacs, an executive with the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse, was hardly a lock to win as the IOM’s 172 member-states began voting in Geneva.
Trump’s hardline stance on migration — from the so-called Muslim ban to his “zero tolerance” policy on the southern US border that led to separating parents and children — has jeopardized Washington’s traditional right to choose the world’s top migration official.
Trump’s “America First” administration has also levelled ferocious attacks against multilateral bodies and undermined IOM’s core global function — refugee resettlement.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, noted that IOM members are worried that if Isaacs is rejected Trump could “retaliate by slashing funding.”
“But, in a political moment where the US is retrenching from global leadership, bashing the multilateral system, and attacking refugees and migrants, should Isaacs get a pass just because the United States writes the biggest cheques?” Konyndyk wrote in an analysis for the humanitarian news organisation IRIN.
– Tweets on Islam –
Trump aside, the damage to Isaacs’s candidacy has mostly been self-inflicted.
He has published numerous tweets describing Islam as an inherently violent religion, including after the 2016 attack in the French city of Nice that said “Islam is not peaceful”.
He has also retweeted xenophobic material, like a post last year from Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, which argued “peaceful Muslims” and “Jihadis” were indistinguishable.
Isaacs made his Twitter account private amid the uproar that followed his nomination in February.
But he has not denied responsibility for any of his inflammatory comments and has apologised for any offence caused.
He told AFP in March that his decades-long record of humanitarian work in majority Muslim countries like Bangladesh, Iraq and Sudan proves he is not a bigot.
But for some, like the head of the NGO Refugees International Eric Schwartz, Isaacs’s past comments are disqualifying.
“Imagine, for instance, had a candidate for this position made a similar succession of disparaging remarks about Jews, Catholics, evangelical Christians or any other religious group,” Schwartz wrote in an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post.
“Would anyone seriously suggest that such statements should not present a bar from assuming such an important office as director general of IOM?”, added Schwartz, who served as an assistant secretary of state under former US president Barack Obama.
– Facing challengers –
Isaacs is facing two challengers for the post: current IOM deputy chief Laura Thompson of Costa Rica and Portuguese politician Antonio Vitorino, a former EU commissioner.
Both Thompson and Isaacs declined to comment on their level of confidence as they greeted ambassadors arriving at a conference centre across from the United Nations compound.
Multiple diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the outcome was hard to predict.
Voting among IOM’s 172 member-states is by secret ballot and candidates need a two-thirds majority to win.
– Climate change sceptic? –
On another key issue, Isaacs has not unequivocally recognised the science establishing the causal link between human activity and climate change.
“I am not a climatologist, I am not going to jump into that discussion at all,” he said in March.
He does however recognise that environmental factors like drought and floods are increasingly forcing people to migrate and said he would have no problem implementing IOM’s already established “action objectives” on climate change.
Isaacs is vying to replace veteran US diplomat William Lacy Swing, who held senior State Department and UN posts over a career spanning half a century.
Speaking to reporters last month before his retirement, Swing noted that the IOM chief’s job has changed dramatically since he took charge.
In 2008, conversations about migration “didn’t last very long” because few were interested, whereas the subject has now become a urgent political priority in nearly every IOM member state, he said.