Donald Trump's nominee to lead UN agency rejects anti-Muslim charge

An attendee wears a hijab and a pro-Trump cap during an anti-Sharia rally in Seattle, in June 2017.
An attendee wears a hijab and a pro-Trump cap during an anti-Sharia rally in Seattle, in June 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - President Donald Trump's controversial nominee to lead the UN migration agency dismissed allegations of anti-Muslim bias on Thursday (Feb 22), telling AFP he "never" considers the faith of those in need.

But Ken Isaacs, also accused of being a climate science sceptic, did not directly confirm that he recognises climate change as a key driver of global migration, a central conviction of the International Organisation for Migration.

Isaacs has taken a leave of absence from his post as vice president of the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse since being tapped by Trump on Feb 1 to head the Geneva-based IOM.

Isaacs held a senior role with the US Agency for International Development during George W. Bush's administration.

Following his nomination for IOM director-general - a job traditionally held by an American - the Washington Post highlighted a series of anti-Muslim social media posts, which have since been removed.

The paper reported tweets between 2015 and 2017 in which Isaacs claimed the Koran "instructs" Muslims to commit acts of violence, suggested Syrian Christian refugees should be given priority over Muslim ones and challenged claims that Islam was a peaceful religion.

In a February 11 editorial, the Washington Post said his leadership of IOM "would be an embarrassment to the United States" because of his "ignorant, prejudiced and incendiary comments" on Twitter.

Some civil society leaders have also voiced concern over the nomination.

Isaacs has previously expressed "regret" for his "careless" comments, and the State Department said it was "proper" for him to apologise.

In written responses to questions submitted by AFP, Isaacs sought to further defend his more than three-decade record as a humanitarian worker in major trouble spots like Somalia, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

"As a person of faith, I have deep respect for people of all faiths, including followers of Islam," Isaacs said in an email sent by a spokesman.

"I have dedicated my life to serving fellow human beings on the run from wars, famines, and the most incomprehensible disasters known to man. I have never paused to consider their faith, and I never will," he added.

MANMADE CLIMATE CHANGE?

IOM's 169 member states will elect a new director-general in June to replace veteran US diplomat William Lacy Swing, who since 2008 has led the agency tasked with assisting vulnerable migrants around the world.

Isaacs currently faces two rival nominees from Costa Rica and Portugal, including a sitting deputy IOM chief, but the director-general post has been held by an American throughout the organisation's 67-year history, with one exception in the 1960s.

Isaacs' critics have also zeroed in on a Facebook post in which he called the link between national security and climate change a "joke", specifically regarding the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Asked by AFP whether he recognised manmade climate change as a key driver of global migration - which IOM does - Isaacs said: "I have witnessed with my own eyes how weather patterns, drought, low crop yield, desertification, hurricanes, typhoons and extreme weather trigger migration."

"IOM's comprehensive approach takes all of these factors into account, and I see every reason to uphold its central objectives in managing environmental migration," he added, without using the words "climate change" in his three-paragraph answer.

Trump, who pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris accord, has staffed his Cabinet with several climate change sceptics.

The State Department declined to answer a question submitted by AFP as to whether an IOM led by Isaacs should continue to emphasise the role of climate change in migration.

Overall, Isaacs said he was committed to "facilitating safe, orderly, and regular migration", while working to build on IOM's "dedication to transparency, integrity, and accountability."