The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, with just one “amending” and updating Protocol adopted in 1967 (on which, see further below), is the central feature in today’s international regime of refugee protection, and some 144 States (out of a total United Nations membership of 192) have now ratified either one or both of these instruments (as of August 2008). The Convention, which entered into force in 1954, is by far the most widely ratified refugee treaty, and remains central also to the protection activities of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the aftermath of the Second World War, refugees and displaced persons were high on the international agenda. At its first session in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly recognized not only the urgency of the problem, but also the cardinal principle that “no refugees or displaced persons who have finally and definitely ... expressed valid objections to returning to their countries of origin ... shall be compelled to return ...” (resolution 8 (I) of 12 February 1946). The United Nations’ first post-war response was a specialized agency, the International Refugee Organization (IRO, 1946-1952), but notwithstanding its success in providing protection and assistance and facilitating solutions, it was expensive and also caught up in the politics of the Cold War. It was therefore decided to replace it with a temporary, initially non-operational agency, and to complement the new institution with revised treaty provisions on the status of refugees.