Germany challenges Denmark’s ex-Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt over UNHCR top job

Germany has endorsed Achim Steiner, head of the UN environment agency UNEP, as its candidate to become the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees, contesting the nomination of former Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt. 

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP and candidate for UNHCR top job.
Photo: UNEP

Steiner confirms to Development Today that he is an official applicant for the job and that his candidacy “has been endorsed”  by Germany.

Germany’s launch of its own candidate comes as a big setback for the Danish government, which presented Thorning-Schmidt as an official nominee for the position of chief of the UN refugee agency UNHCR earlier this month.

“With the huge global challenges created by heavy migration and large refugee flows, there is more than ever a need for a strong UNHCR led by an experienced person that can find solutions,” the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs Kristian Jensen said at the time.

Although Danish diplomats have confidently pushed for Thorning-Schmidt as a strong contender, the reception has been lukewarm in some countries.

Denmark’s public broadcaster DR reports that Sweden has been hesitant. During her term as prime minster, Thorning-Schmidt tightened Danish immigration policy and came under criticism from the very UN agency she now aims to lead.

While Denmark has kept its immigration relatively tight, refugees have arrived in massive numbers in neighbouring Sweden and Germany.

Development Today has learned that German diplomats started to promote Steiner’s candidacy among UN diplomats last week.

Steiner has been Executive Director of the Nairobi-based UNEP since 2006. Before that, he was the top executive at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He is a German and Brazilian national and was born in Brazil in 1961.

A spokesperson from the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin Andrea Sasse says to Development Today that they “prefer not to comment”on the matter of Steiner candidacy.

According to press reports, the Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi, a former leader of UN Palestine agency UNRWA is also a candidate for the UNHCR top job.