Stanford University

News Service



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

Sadako Ogata discusses humanitarian assistance during war and peace

Just a month after Sadako Ogata became United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1991, she found herself faced with a major humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq as Kurds fled for their lives following a failed revolt against Saddam Hussein's regime.

For the next nine years, Ogata, as head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, tried to respond to the aftermath of the Gulf War and conflicts that created millions of refugees worldwide most dramatically in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda.

"It was a decade of unprecedented large-scale civil wars and population displacement," she told an audience at the Institute for International Studies on May 27. Ogata, who stepped down from the post in 2000, delivered two lectures on protecting refugees in war and peace as part of the spring Payne Lecture series.

Ogata, 75, recently co-chaired the Commission on Human Security created by the United Nations in 2001. The independent body, which released its final report May 1, called for broadening the concept of security to include human security based on the protection and empowerment of people. Earlier, Ogata served as a special representative of Japan on reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan. She also has extensive experience working on human rights issues at the United Nations, and has been a faculty member at Sophia University in Tokyo since 1980.

An important lesson Ogata learned during her tenure at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is the extent to which the location of a conflict counts. "If there is an area with no strategic interest, the kind of help that I can seek and get from the international community is limited," she said. "This is the reality."

Realpolitik was graphically demonstrated in 1999 when, during the height of the conflict in Kosovo, Ogata visited the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Ogata recalled that an African president accused the international community of employing a double standard for sending more assistance to the Balkans even though the fighting in central Africa had created millions more victims. "I said, 'A double standard is true,'" she recalled. "That's the reality of the political world." Ogata said, "Kosovo is in the background of Europe. If [the Europeans] don't manage Kosovo, there will be a million Kosovars in their backyard."

Although Ogata noted that "the genocide in Rwanda marked another catastrophic betrayal by the international community to prevent massive killings and outflows of refugees," she added that African leaders must become more serious about guaranteeing the security of their own people and implementing better measures to resolve conflicts.

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s signaled a change in the nature of war and peace, and in refugee protection, Ogata said. International response to the Kurdish crisis became a model for subsequent conflicts by representing the beginning of international interventions in internal wars on humanitarian grounds. Secondly, she said, the crisis led to the creation of a "safe haven" inside Iraq, which set a precedent of attempting to protect refugees inside the insecure country from which they had originally fled. Finally, the Kurdish crisis brought humanitarian agencies into close collaboration with the military for the common purpose of assuring security for refugees and displaced people.

With the Kurdish precedent established, Ogata described how UNHCR took a lead role in assisting victims of the Balkan wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo following the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This represented a huge "case of population displacement, extensive international relief mobilization and complex politico-ethnic strife," she said. In addition, "the genocide, mass killings and civil conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa produced refugees who were both victims and accomplices to the spreading conflict."

According to Ogata, each conflict involved about 2 million refugees, plus internally displaced people, civilians and migrant workers who required assistance to survive. "UNHCR had to expand its range of partnership [to] cover military forces, a large number of international agencies and a lot of nongovernmental organizations," she said. "Most of all, UNHCR's work had to shift from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin of refugees, as it coped with internal conflict situations. The issue of staff security was a serious one for UNHCR."

Ogata outlined the agency's failures and successes under her leadership. The July 1995 Serb massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica, a designated "safe area" in eastern Bosnia, proved how inadequate the existing international response was to the realities of the Balkan War, she said: "After the fall of Srebrenica, the world woke up to the failure of the 'safe area' policy." The concept created an expectation among civilian inhabitants that they would be protected, she said, even though U.N. member states refused to deploy their troops to protect the Muslim enclaves.

NATO learned from the massacre and decided to meet a Serb offensive at the next safe area established in Gorazde with firm and rapid use of air strikes. "The war went to a point of real war," Ogata said. In the end, it was decisive military action that brought peace and a negotiated settlement. "There are points in which only military action can solve a problem," she said.

Although the end of the Cold War has led to the eruption of inter-ethnic and separatist strife, Ogata said, improvements in the east-west political climate have created possibilities to settle other long-standing conflicts. Successful UNHCR missions include the repatriation of refugees to Cambodia, Mozambique and some parts of Central America, she said. These have involved peace agreements and U.N.-supervised transition periods with U.N. peacekeepers. "We were part of the package and it worked quite well," she said.

According to Ogata, humanitarian crises cannot be solved by humanitarian means alone because they are the result of political, social and military problems. "A lot of Cold War refugees were the result of the East-West tension and proxy wars, and when [those] were over there were opportunities," she said. "With refugees, you have to solve these problems; that's part of the mandate. You cannot keep refugee camps forever."

Refugee problems can be successfully resolved through a combination of political decisions, settlement of conflicts and proper procedures to enforce the peace, Ogata said. It takes time for security to be fully restored in a conflict-torn region because people have to learn to live with one another again. "It's a heart and mind problem," she said.


By Lisa Trei

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints