US IOM nominee riles some, may not succeed in election

Ken Isaacs, vice president at the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. Photo from C-SPAN video.

GENEVA — International opposition to the candidate nominated by the Trump administration to lead the United Nations leading migration agency could upset a long-standing practice under which the American candidate is almost always chosen, some sector experts believe.

Earlier in February, Washington proposed Ken Isaacs, a vice president of the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, as its candidate to be the next director general of the International Organization for Migration. But numerous anti-Muslim social media comments by Isaacs, for which he later apologized, have been seized upon by various humanitarian leaders and scholars as evidence that he is not an acceptable candidate.

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The decision of the Trump administration to pull out of talks on creating a global compact on migration is also seen as weakening Isaacs’ chances. The Geneva-based IOM’s 169-member countries are scheduled to elect a new head by secret ballot on June 29.

“Given that humanitarian action is supposed to be impartial and neutral, many people will feel his statements are not appropriate, and that it is time to have a non-U.S. candidate” said Jeff Crisp, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a major London-based think tank, and a former senior official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

This raises a major concern, added Crisp: “Whether the U.S. will cut its funding if it doesn't get its candidate.” The U.S. is the biggest contributor to IOM, paying about half of its $1 billion annual budget. Every IOM head since the late 1960s has been American.

In January, Washington announced that it was withholding more than half of its latest planned $125 million contribution to UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, until the agency carries out unspecified reforms.

After the U.S. State Department announced the nomination of Isaacs on Feb. 1, the Washington Post newspaper reviewed a number of his social media comments. When the Post asked the State Department to comment on Isaacs’ statements, his Twitter account was quickly made private. The Post saved and published several of his comments.

In response to a terror attack on London Bridge in June 2017, for example, Isaacs wrote: “... If you read the Quran, you will know ‘this’ is exactly what the Muslim faith instructs the faithful to do.”

In 2015, he wrote, “If Islam is a religion of peace, let’s see 2 million Muslims in National Mall marching against jihad & stand for America! I haven’t seen it!” Around the same time, he criticized former President Barack Obama’s desire to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees as a “foolish and delusional” attempt to “show cultural enlightenment.”

He also suggested that Christian refugees should be treated preferentially, tweeting: “Refugees are 2 grps. Some may go back and some can’t return. Christians can never return. They must be 1st priority.”

Isaacs currently oversees all international relief operations at Samaritan’s Purse, an organization led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham. During a more than three-decade-long career, he has directed relief efforts in numerous humanitarian crises, including Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Liberia during the Ebola crisis, Nepal after deadly earthquakes, and Greece during the arrival of large numbers of Syrian refugees. The day his nomination was announced, he was in Bangladesh providing diphtheria treatment to Rohingya refugees.

In response to the Post’s inquiries, the State Department issued a statement from Isaacs, apologizing for his posts. “I deeply regret that my comments on social media have caused hurt and have undermined my professional record,” it said. “It was careless and it has caused concern among those who have expressed faith in my ability to effectively lead IOM. I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.”

In a separate statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department would continue to support the nomination.

“Mr. Isaacs has apologized for the comments he posted on his private social media account. We believe that was proper for him to do so. Mr. Isaacs is committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. We believe that if chosen to lead IOM, he would treat people fairly and with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The apology assuaged some NGO officials. Kent R. Hill, executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute, was a senior official in the U.S. Agency for International Development in the mid-2000s, at the same time Isaacs headed the agency’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“He’s a competent professional,” said Hill. But, he added: “He’s going to have to work very hard to prove those [offensive] statements don’t reflect his more balanced perspective.” But Isaacs’ apology did little to reassure many other humanitarian leaders. “He has apologized, but he hasn’t retracted [his anti-Muslim remarks],” objected Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

“That is problematic. Many of the people migrating, forcibly or not, are from Muslim countries.”

There are two other factors that may hurt Isaacs’ chances of winning June’s election. One factor has nothing to do with him. This was the decision of the Trump administration in December to pull out of international negotiations to create a global compact on migration, which aims to promote international policies for safe and orderly migration.  

IOM would be the main U.N. agency implementing the compact. Following the U.S. withdrawal, “it’s hard for many countries to see a U.S. nominee head the agency,” said Newland.

The other factor, she said, is Isaacs’ lack of diplomatic or migration experience. The current IOM head, the highly regarded William Lacy Swing, and his predecessor, Brunson McKinley, were both experienced American ambassadors. While Isaacs has extensive experience delivering relief in humanitarian crises, “my main concern is that he seems to have no experience in migration issues,” said Newland.

Isaacs’ perceived shortcomings have raised the chances for the two other declared candidates: António Vitorino, a former deputy prime minister of Portugal and former European Commissioner for justice and home affairs, and Laura Thompson of Costa Rica, who is IOM’s deputy director general. Both are seen as serious and qualified candidates.

Another concern is Isaacs’ dismissive attitude toward the growing role of climate change as a driver of migration around the globe, a factor increasingly pointed to by IOM and the rest of the U.N. system. Writing on Facebook about the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, Isaacs called a connection between national security and climate change “a joke.”

“The meeting in Paris next week is not going to be a rebuke to ISIS. It is going to be a dinner joke, a laughing stock, and a diversion of all the real issues.”

David Whittlesey, a former senior official at IOM, now retired in Maine, said Isaacs’ position as a “climate change denier” disqualifies him for the job of leading the migration agency.

Finally, a number of humanitarian officials have expressed discomfort with Isaacs’ evangelizing. In an April 2016 radio interview with the Christian radio program “First Person” with Wayne Shepherd, Isaacs explained the role his religion plays in his work with Samaritan’s Purse. “Everything we do is done in Jesus’ name … we don’t hide who we are … We’re always ready to share Christ.”

Crisp of Chatham House said: “Having deeply held religious convictions should not be an obstacle” to heading a major U.N. agency, as long as those beliefs are confined to one’s private life. “[U.N. Secretary General, António] Guterres is a very committed Catholic. But he never spoke about it in public.”

About the author

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    Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.

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