Arthur Helton: agent for the dispossessed

Guy S. Goodwin-Gill
21 August 2003

When did I not know Arthur? He seems always to have been in and among the issues of refugees and human rights, and I thought he always would be. Ever a friend and ally, he proved a wonderful support back in the 1980s, when I was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Protection Officer for North America and he was directing the Refugee Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. He saw it as his task to spread awareness of the international dimension of refugee protection throughout the United States, but also to strengthen the law in its protection of due process and the rights of the displaced, wherever there was the need.

His reputation and authority soon moved beyond the United States. We stayed in touch as he became a part of European discussions about refugees. He was keen to learn, keen to contribute, and someone who could be counted on to have first-hand knowledge of countries and situations.

He was an obvious choice to be a founding member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Refugee Law (IJRL), which UNHCR and Oxford University Press set up in 1989. He regularly contributed both to the IJRL and to other academic journals, and indeed wherever he thought he had a chance to influence opinion and practice.

He was great fun, too, with a wonderful sense of humour, but also a mischievous, almost elfish side. The anonymous ‘UNHCR Note on International Protection You Won’t See’, is now known to be pure Arthur. Distributed magically to the UNHCR executive committee early one morning in 1996, its conclusions, as Arthur said, were hardly radical; but in a moment of apparently diminishing commitment to protection, they were a timely call to UNHCR to be ‘more effective in fulfilling its unique human rights mandate.’

The ‘UNHCR Note on International Protection You Won’t See’, written by Arthur Helton, was published anonymously in the International Journal of Refugee Law, Volume 9 (1997).

At New York University Law School, in Budapest, and then recently at Columbia, he shared this knowledge and understanding with students, being among the first and the most willing to teach refugee law and policy to a new generation who have also proved, thank goodness, concerned with the way of the world.

If a place was in crisis and displacement was in the air, Arthur had likely been there, once if not three times. He tirelessly directed and drove the Open Society Forced Migration Project into the countries of the post-cold war world, pushing against all obstacles for new, practical, humanitarian initiatives in the Commonwealth of Independent States; ultimately angered and frustrated by the resistance among those – governments and international organisations – who should have known better.

The telephone was ever his office. No matter where he was, somehow he would find the time and opportunity to check in with headquarters, to keep up with the mail and the queries; to accept innumerable requests for presentations here, a paper there, a comment, a contribution. Generous to a fault with his time, always warm in his commitment... and then, to shame us all in middle age, he took up running in marathons.

One of the things I loved about him was the measure of his inbuilt scepticism. ‘Measure’, because it never seemed to descend to the level of cynicism, but instead brought a healthy questioning to every assumption and every institution. Yes, he was an ardent advocate of NGOs, which he saw as increasingly essential counterweights to the breadth of powers now claimed by governments over migrants and refugees. But he was worried too about agency capture, and NGOs’ increasing dependence on government handouts.

He also believed deeply and strongly in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, though he knew both its strengths and weaknesses. He was a lawyer, but he would negotiate beyond the law, if that was what principle required. I think it was this capacity for understanding which made him such a powerful interlocutor for the displaced and the dispossessed.

He called his last book The Price of Indifference. Again, it’s a challenging work, calling for new thinking from old institutions about the refugees who are ever with us. But Arthur was never one just to ask questions; he had his own views, and offered proposals born out of long experience and understanding.

If we do anything, then those of us who knew him, and those who will come to know his work and his values, cannot remain indifferent to this his life; but must draw inspiration and strength from his example. For, as Arthur knew, there will be no end to the demand for humanitarians.

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