The UN’s migration agency has snubbed the Trump administration’s candidate to lead it, a major blow to US leadership of a body addressing one of the world’s most pressing issues.
It is only the second time that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will not be run by an American since 1951.
Portuguese socialist and former European Union commissioner Antonio Vitorino won the election to be the next director-general of the IOM, edging out both a top IOM official and US candidate Ken Isaacs.
Mr Vitorino, 61, will become the group’s second director-general not from the US since the intergovernmental organisation was founded.
He is a former EU commissioner for home and justice affairs who has been president of the Notre Europe think tank for the last seven years, and is considered very close to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, also a Portuguese socialist early in his political career.
Mr Isaacs was eliminated in early rounds of voting, and Mr Vitorino beat runner-up Laura Thompson of Costa Rica, currently an IOM deputy director-general who was vying to become the agency’s first woman chief.
The move marks a searing rejection of the US candidate just as the Trump administration has been retreating from or rebuffing international institutions – including two others based in Geneva.
Earlier this month, the United States pulled out of the UN’s Human Rights Council, and President Donald Trump has recently criticised the World Trade Organisation as “unfair” to the US.
Keith Harper, who was the Obama administration’s ambassador to the rights council, tweeted: “Yet another sign that US power, authority and prestige has been so dramatically diminished.”
The “IOM Director is seen as an ‘American seat’ and Trump was unable to place an American in it”, he added.
The US State Department congratulated Mr Vitorino, calling the vote “a very competitive election with three highly qualified candidates”.
“IOM is an important partner for the United States around the globe, and we are committed to working with IOM to address root causes of migration and to promote safe and legal migration,” it said in a statement.
Mr Isaacs’s candidacy had been clouded by US policies such as travel bans and migrant family separations – and his own comments that critics have called anti-Muslim.
But few diplomats streaming out of a Geneva conference centre dared to offer an explanation about how an American was stripped of a post that the US has held a lock-hold on for decades.
Senegalese diplomat Youssoupha Ndiaye simply said of the early result: “The American is out.”
The winner was determined by dues-paying, ballot-casting members among the 172 countries in the IOM and will succeed longtime US diplomat William Lacy Swing, who leaves in September.
An intergovernmental body that became a UN-related agency in 2016, the IOM has had only one director-general who was not American since its creation 67 years ago.
But Mark Hetfield, a self-described friend of Mr Isaacs who heads the humanitarian group HIAS, which works with the IOM, put the blame on policies and invective from the man in the White House – not the candidate for the UN migration agency job.
“This IOM election really was not about Ken Isaacs, for whom I have a lot of respect as a humanitarian,” Mr Hetfield said.
“The election was an international referendum rejecting President Trump and his xenophobic, Islamophobic and isolationist policies. Let’s face it, Isaacs’s tweets were no worse than the ones coming out of the White House.”
The IOM has more than 10,000 staffers in offices in over 150 countries.
Its work has been pivotal in providing humanitarian aid to migrants, and helping track deaths of migrants across often deadly Mediterranean waters between northern Africa.
It also helps to resettle migrants accepted by foreign countries – and at times return them home.