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Editorial: Sadako Ogata’s lasting legacy is commitment to ‘human security’

  • October 30, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun
  • English Press

“Saving people is deemed more important than anything else. So long as they are alive, they get a second chance.”


Such was the clear-cut and universally understandable way of thinking with which Sadako Ogata, the first woman to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), dealt with the complexities of international politics.


In fact, she described her thinking as “just plain common sense on the visceral level.”


Ogata died on Oct. 22. She was 92.


A truly exceptional Japanese, Ogata remained in the forefront of international aid throughout her career and achieved solid results. One thing she never wavered from pursuing was “human security,” the concept that human safety and dignity must be honored and never be threatened, irrespective of where national borders lie. Ogata started focusing on this in earnest upon her appointment to the UNHCR in 1991.


In the early 1990s, the Gulf War displaced many Kurds in Iraq, although they were not “refugees” proper by the UNHCR’s strict definition. But Ogata decided to aid them anyway, pointing out the inconsistency of helping refugees who have fled their countries but not doing anything for the Kurds who became displaced in their own country.


Her free, pragmatic style of decision-making, based on her own observation of the ongoing predicament of fellow humans in need, rather than on what the rule book says, already anticipated the coming era of globalization of crumbling national borders.


Her broadness of vision was also in full evidence as the first female president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).


She understood the inadequacy of investing only in education in developing nations, and sought the type of aid that would grow the local economy at the same time, so that the beneficiaries could make use of their education to become gainfully employed and be capable of supporting themselves.


The concept of human security was advocated by Japan, Canada and other countries, and this led to the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000. Today, these goals have evolved into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which come with the commitment to “leave no one behind.”


In the meantime, however, it is also the reality of international politics that moves contrary to that ideal have emerged.


Calls to expel immigrants and refugees have grown louder in the United States and Europe, raising the popularity of political leaders who push such an agenda. Amid the growing perils of environmental destruction, spread of infectious diseases and terrorism crossing national borders, the “my country first” sort of mentality is gaining strength.


But precisely because of this trend, we believe Japan must reawaken to the importance of human security. The administration of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (1998-2000) set this concept as a pillar of Japan’s foreign policy and created a United Nations fund, which still exists today.


The “people first” approach to aid, which Ogata kept as the basis of Japan’s international contribution, was of incalculable value and is certain to remain viable in any age.


The commitment to “leave no one behind” is a responsibility of not only the government, but also of nongovernmental organs, private-sector corporations and the entire society, which means each and every Japanese citizen.


“Japan can do it because its experience of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 has made the nation acutely aware of the importance of the international community,” Ogata noted late in her life.

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