My Work: 10 Years as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and Construction of Peace (私の仕事 ― 国連難民高等弁務官の十年と平和の構築)

My Work: 10 Years as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and Construction of Peace (私の仕事 ― 国連難民高等弁務官の十年と平和の構築), by Sadako Ogata (緒方 貞子),  Soshisha, 2002, 1600 yen

Review By Fumiko Halloran

When Sadako Ogata began her work as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) early in the winter of 1991, she was immediately challenged with 15 million refugees all over the world. Barely one month into her new job, she was confronted with three crises; (1) the sudden flow of Kurds escaping from Iraq to Iran and Turkey, (2) the return of Ethiopians from Somalia and Somalis fleeing to Ethiopia; (3) and Albanians fleeing to Italy.

Having been a professor at Sophia University (上智大学) in Tokyo, and at the age of 64, Mrs. Ogata’s life drastically changed. She moved to the UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva leaving behind her husband and two grown children in Tokyo. She was reappointed twice and served until the end of 2000, all the while maintaining a commuting marriage. She retired to universal acclaim but continued to be influential in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and building international networks to deal with refugees.

This book is a collection of her writing about her life as an official of an international organization and her interviews and speeches from 1991 to 2001. With a nice mixture of personal accounts of her life of challenge and straightforward speeches on refugee issues, this book illuminates the complexity of fluid, global scale of conflicts that affect millions of people. Readers may be struck by her quiet passion and organized mind in rescuing refugees whom she sees as individuals, not statistics.

Parts of her diary were printed in the Gaiko Forum magazine. One example: In May 1993, Ogata flew from Geneva to London, gave speeches at the London School of Economics and Oxford University, then flew to Bangladesh to meet with government officials and visited a refugee camp. She returned to Geneva and two days later began a tour of Canada and the United States. In Ottawa, she met with the Prime Minister and officials at the Foreign Mministry, the Employment and Immigration Ministry, the Defence Ministry and the Foreign Aaid Agency. In the U.S., she gave the commencement speech and received an honorary degree at Amherst College; visited Washington to meet with Vice President Albert Gore, Defence Secretary Les Aspin, and Attorney General Janet Reno, was interviewed on television, and spent a day meeting with senators and congressmen. She went to New York to give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, briefed the U.N. Secretary General and senior officials on the status of refugees, and returned to Geneva. She kept up this pace for ten years, half of the year on the road, visiting refugee camps.

She defined her role as protector and negotiator for refugees, as well as a fund raiser. She ran the office of UNHCR that had five hundred people at the headquarters in Geneva and 1500 working in countries with refugees. She paid particular attention to training the staff in the field to deal with unpredictable situations as they often lived with refugees under harsh conditions facing civil war, kidnapping, murder, and unfriendly mobs. She says she gave as much autonomy as possible to the local offices.

Mrs Ogata cites three decisions as the hardest. First was 1.8 million Kurds fleeing from the Iraqi Republican Guard in 1991 shortly after the Gulf War was declared over. Some 1.4 million crossed the border into Iran but 400,000 who headed for Turkey were barred by the Turkish government from entering the country. The demise of Kurdish refugees in the mountains was reported in media around the world. Multilateral coalition forces set up a safety zone for the refugees, who were usually defined as those who crossed national borders. In this case, the Kurds were displaced persons within their country. Ogata agreed to help the Kurds and work with the multilateral forces and U.N. security force.

Second, in 1992 the UNHCR began an air lift of cargo to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina. This was humanitarian aid during the hostilities, which broke UN rules allowing entry to a country only after a ceasefire. The UNHCR took over from the International Red Cross after its envoy was killed in an ambush. In addition to French and Canadian forces, the U.N. sent 1500 protective forces to open the airport. Ogata was in Sarajevo five days after the air lift began and the UNHCR was in charge of logistics for the three year operation.

Her most controversial decision was what to do about 1 million refugees created in 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The Hutu-dominated government massacred about 500,000 people, most of whom were ethnic Tutsis. A Tutsi group then succeeded in toppling the government and its armed supporters who fled on mass to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and blended in with the civilian refugees there. As the UNHCR began its operations in the region, it became apparent that many armed Hutu soldiers were in the refugee camps. The UNHCR was not equipped to disarm them and no country stepped forward to take on the task. Ogata decided she had to to save the civilian refugees, mostly women and children, without separating them from former combatants. The UNHCR helped both Tutsi and Hutu refugees, which led to criticism from both sides and some NGOs. In the end Ogata was declared “A Friend of Rwanda” by the new Tutsi-dominated government.

At the end of 2000, Mrs. Ogata presented her final report as she finished her term as UNHCR. According to her balance sheet “success” meant the return of refugees to their homes once security had been restored or, if that was not possible, settlement elsewhere. In Africa 1.7 million refugees returned to their hometowns. In Asia, 400,000 Cambodians finally left camps to go home, ending two decades of operations in Indochina. In Central America, refugees from Guatemala returned home but some settled in Mexico. Refugees from Bosnia and Rwanda were in the process of returning to their homelands. But in 2000, the prospect for refugees returning to their homelands was dim in Afghanistan, the Caucasus region, especially Chechen, Sudan, and West Africa.

After retiring, Ogata witnessed from her apartment in New York City the terrorist attacks on the Trade Centre buildings on 11 September 2001. She was soon called back to public service by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to become Japan’s special envoy on Afghan reconstruction. She had a special interest in Afghanistan as there had been 6.3 million refugees when she took over as UNHCR. After the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, many returned home but because of the subsequent prolonged civil war, there were still 2.5 million refugees when Ogata retired and thus she saw Afghan refugees as her unfinished work. As of 2006, according to the UNHCR website, there were still 2.1 million Afghan refugees in 72 countries, including 900,000 internally displaced people.

Ogata was the co-chair of International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan, held in Tokyo in 2002 to which 61 countries and 21 international organizations sent their representatives. The conference received a commitment of US$4.5 billion from the participants; Japan committed US$500 million for various initiatives including mine removal, health, education, refugees, restoring radio and television stations, as well as sending economic consultants to the central government, etc.

Nicknamed “Field Marshall” by those who worked for her, Ogata served not only with UN peace keeping forces but also with the multilateral military forces and negotiated with the very governments that created refugees. Ever a pragmatist, she believed that rather than criticizing those who caused refugee problems, finding a common ground to protect the refugees was more productive. At the same time, as the co-chair of the Commission on Human Security, she pursued a broader concept of security by looking at non-military threats that create refugees.

Born in 1927, Sadako Ogata graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo (聖心女子大学), earned her Masters at Georgetown University and her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. She served as the envoy in the Japanese delegation at the United Nations and as mentioned earlier taught international politics at Sophia University before assuming the post of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Related review

You may also be interested in Sir Hugh Cortazzi’s review of Sadako Ogata English language version of this book which was published as “The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s” (see Japan Society Review Issue 1)

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