Geneva (AFP) – The UN migration agency was electing a new director general on Friday in a vote that could repudiate Washington’s historic control of a major international organisation.
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 who has faced charges of anti-Muslim bigotry, appeared headed for defeat.
After two rounds, Portuguese politician and former commissioner EU Antonio Vitorino stood first with 65 votes and current IOM deputy chief Laura Thompson was second with 51 votes, while Isaacs trailed in third on 27, according to a source with direct knowledge of the result, who requested anonymity.
Candidates need two-thirds of votes cast and the outcome was far from certain.
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 one after the 2016 attack in the French city of Nice that said “Islam is not peaceful”.
He has also retweeted xenophobic material, such as 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.
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.
IOM has 172 member-states but only 143 were on hand to vote by secret ballot at the conference centre in Geneva.
– EU control? –
On another key issue, Isaacs has not unequivocally recognised the science establishing the causal link between human activity and climate change.
Given Isaacs’s questionable record and the European Union’s painstaking effort to forge a common response to migration challenges, installing an EU leader as IOM head could prove strategic, possibly boosting Vitorino’s candidacy, one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The candidates are vying to replace veteran US diplomat William Lacy Swing, who held senior State Department and UN posts over a career spanning half a century.