Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Sadako Ogata’s Will
NISHIKAWA Megumi  / Journalist

November 7, 2019
The United Nations high Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency dealing with humanitarian assistance and refugees, used to be regarded as being on the sidelines and not particularly important. It came suddenly into the limelight in the 1990s, not because the refugee problem suddenly became more serious, but because of a lady called Sadako Ogata.

If she had not been appointed as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1991 ~ 2000) leading this agency, UNHCR might have been unable to deal with the refugee problem effectively, and could have been branded as “useless”. In order to meet the pressing need to protect the refugees, she ventured valiantly into areas hitherto untouched by UNHCR, and went about constructing new approaches to tackle the challenges.

Up until then, only those who fled outside the border of their own country were recognized as refugees, and those who stayed within the border were deemed to be outside UNHCR protection. Faced with the challenge of Kurdish people within Iraq for the first time, Mrs. Ogata expanded the mandate of UNHCR to include the protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and devised new schemes such as “Temporary Protection”. In order to respond promptly and effectively to the rapidly changing environment for humanitarian assistance, she brought about the establishment of an emergency response mechanism within the UN system.

She also took steps to work with military forces in humanitarian operations, something thus far regarded with reluctance by UNHCR. It was based on her practical judgment that military forces were needed for humanitarian assistance and protection of refugees in conflict areas, while there were limits to what humanitarian agencies could do. Some criticized these new approaches as “expansionism”, but as she put it, “Other agencies either lacked the resolve or were unprepared. We had no choice but to do it.”

It was then the accepted wisdom among the countries concerned that the refugee problem was unrelated to politics. Mrs. Ogata kept arguing that it was by its very nature a political problem. In 1992, she was called by the UN Security Council to report on the issue of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia. It was exceptional for a humanitarian agency to be asked to make a report to the Security Council. It was then that the refugee problem was placed at the center of the political debate.

When she became the President of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) (2003~2013), she injected into her job the expertise garnered through her involvement in the refugee problem. With respect to the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines, where the Islamic guerrillas and the government forces clashed for a number of years, she dispatched a JICA staff expert on development to join the International Monitoring Team in 2006, when peace settlement had not yet been reached. It was the first time that Japan involved itself in development assistance to an area where there was no peace agreement yet. She justified her decision as follows: Development assistance, being large in scale, takes time to get started. If we start preparing for development assistance in parallel with the efforts to restore order and to build peace, we can start the process of reconstruction sooner following the peace agreement.

The Japanese government dispatched Self Defense Forces units to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Kenya for relief of Rwandan refugees. This was the first example of Japan’s international humanitarian relief operation at its own initiative under the International Peace Cooperation, not as a part of UN peacekeeping forces. Mrs. Ogata’s strong appeal moved Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to make this decision.

Among journalists covering humanitarian assistance and development issues, there must be few, if any, who have not attended Sadako Ogata’s press conferences. I personally have had a number of opportunities to see her, including interviews. Her openness to the media was based on her belief that it would serve her and her organization’s interest to do so. She said, “If an organization remains fixe in its conservative ways, it will be left behind by society”. It was symbolic that the staff of UNHCR, previous known for its closed approach to the media, started actively cultivating the media with information on their activities some time after Ogata’s appointment.

When she assumed office at UNHCR, she said that she wished to see Japan occupy the position of a “humanitarian major power”. In her book published 15 years later, she had this to say about the Japanese government’s attitude to refugees who come to Japan seeking protection:
“Transparent management of the system based on humanitarian considerations has not been established yet, and satisfactory results are yet to come.”

Megumi Nishikawa is Contributing Editor for the Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2019年 11月 7日









一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟