She did everything in her power to save the lives of refugees, by making direct visits to conflict-torn spots and cooperating with relevant governments and armed forces. She reproved what was called “one-state pacifism” — a tendency to be solely preoccupied with Japan’s security — and called for international cooperation in this respect.
Amid the increasingly destabilized international situation, now is the time to learn from the attitude adopted by the “world-famous Ogata,” so her task will be carried on.
One of the foremost Japanese with an international outlook, who served in various positions such as U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Sadako Ogata has died at the age of 92.
The world was undergoing a turbulent period following the end of the Cold War when Ogata headed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000.
Problems frequently occurred involving massive numbers of refugees due to civil wars and armed conflicts worldwide.
In Iraq, Kurds — an ethnic minority persecuted by the regime of President Saddam Hussein — were left with no place to which they could flee, as Turkey refused to accept them as refugees.
The UNHCR’s primary task is to protect refugees who have fled to other countries, and therefore, Kurds in Iraq were not covered by that mission. But Ogata did not follow the precedent, and she decided to protect them.
This was tantamount to treating “internally displaced people,” whose safety is not guaranteed by their own governments, as if they were refugees. Ogata’s realistic decision made a change in determining how refugees should be aided.
During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she arrived at troubled areas, wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest. Emphasizing that relief supplies airlifted by the United Nations were supporting isolated residents, she urged the international community to aid them.
Unhampered by the United Nation’s red-tapeism, Ogata always looked at scenes of trouble and sympathized with people in a weak position. This explains why she was called the UNHCR chief “in action.”
After leaving the UNHCR, Ogata served in such positions as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and she emphasized the importance of post-conflict peace building and development assistance. She also showed her presence in discussions over “human security,” the idea of attaching importance to the dignity of individual persons, not just national security.
Deeply memorable about Ogata is that while continuing her energetic activities, she spoke about her anxiety over Japan’s present situation on a notable number of occasions.
She was worried about an introverted tendency among the Japanese, such as a reduction in the number of students going overseas to study and the lack of interest in the international situation. She asserted that Japan could not aspire to be an “isolated island that enjoys prosperity” while secluded from the rest of the world. She wished Japan would become a society that respects other countries.
Ogata studied in the United States. At a time when only a few women were working, she taught at universities while raising her children and taking care of her mother. After that, she was named head of the UNHCR, becoming the first Japanese, the first woman and the first former scholar to take up that position.
How can we bring about an environment that fosters internationally minded people like Ogata? That is one of the tasks Japan should tackle.