International civil servant Sadako Ogata (born in Japan in 1927) was chosen to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1991.
On December 21, 1990, Professor Sadako Ogata was called from her post as dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo and asked to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Elected by the full U.N. General Assembly for a three-year term starting January 1, 1991, she assumed office on February 18 at a time when the plight of refugees in many parts of the world thrust the problem to the top of the international agenda.
The High Commissioner's Office, with administrative headquarters in Geneva, was established by General Assembly resolution in 1951 as an integral part of the U.N. system. Governed by an executive committee comprised of representatives from 44 nations meeting annually to set forth UNHCR's guidelines and programs, the High Commissioner is responsible for executing a twofold mandate vis-á-vis refugees, who are defined by statute as "persons who are outside their country of nationality and who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion, are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of that country or to return to it." Accordingly, Ogata's primary task was to provide immediate, short-term protection for refugees, such as employment, education, and asylum. This also includes seeking guarantees that neither the life nor liberty of any refugee will be threatened should he or she opt for returning home. A second function is more comprehensive, with UNHCR searching for permanent solutions by facilitating the voluntary repatriation of refugees, their local integration into new national communities, or their resettlement abroad.
High Commissioner Ogata and the Office for Refugees were threatened by an overload of cases, reflected in the statistics. Between 1951 and 1992 UNHCR sought to administer to about 750,000 people a year, whereas beginning in 1992 some 5,000 human beings were forced to abandon their homes each day, or double that total in a single year. By 1993 the spread of violence and ethnic conflict in the post-Cold War world had driven an estimated 44 million people—from Yugoslavia and Burundi to Kuwait—to flee across borders. An additional 24 million refugees were displaced within their own countries, such as Iraq and Serbia. The sheer magnitude of the escalating global refugee crisis—with displaced persons representing more than one in every 130 inhabitants of the globe—forced Ogata to expand UNHCR'S traditional role and budget. For example, in August of 1994, The Economist reported that Ogata upset other UN people by declaring that she would suspend aid to Bosnia if attacks against relief conveys didn't cease. "She had no qualms about defying UN officialdom", the magazine wrote. Ogata was also a fierce advocate for the estimated two million Rwaandan refugees during that crises in the mid-nineties.
Sadako Ogata herself, determined to prove equal to the task, relied on a wealth of experience in international civil administration. Born on September 16, 1927, in Tokyo, most of her first 50 years were directed toward an academic career. After receiving a B.A. from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, she decided to do graduate study in the United States, where she earned an M.A. in international relations from Georgetown (1953) and a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berkeley (1963). Returning to her native Japan, Ogata lectured from 1965 to 1974 at the University of the Sacred Heart and also at the International Christian University, serving at the later from 1974 to 1976 as an associate professor of diplomatic history and international relations. In 1980 she moved to Sophia University, where she became a professor and later (1987 to 1988) director of the Institute of International Relations, before promotion in 1989 to dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies.
Toward the end of the 1970s Ogata had increasingly combined her teaching and research activity with diplomacy. During 1978 and 1979 she was envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at the permanent mission of Japan to the United Nations, having served there as minister from 1976 to 1978. She was Japan's delegate to the 23rd, 25th, and 30th to 33rd sessions of the General Assembly, and also to the Tenth Special Session, which was devoted to disarmament.
Ambassador Ogata's exposure to the more specialized refugee problem intensified as of 1978-1979 when she acted as chairperson of the executive board of UNICEF, the children's fund. Again, she acquired a first-hand impression of the human dimensions when she was made U.N. special ambassador for Indochinese refugee relief (1979); the representative of Japan to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (1982 to 1985); and a member of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (1983 to 1987). In 1990 she was the independent expert sent by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to investigate the situation of Cambodian refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Married and the mother of a son and daughter, Ogata became a member of the Trilateral Commission in 1984 and sat on the board of governors of the International Development Research Center beginning in 1986. The busy Ogata also served on many government advisory councils as well as on the boards of academic associations and foundations.
Further Reading on Sadako Ogata
Ogata has published a number of books on diplomatic history and international relations as well as numerous articles. Among her works are: Defiance in Manchuria—The Making of Japanese Foreign Policy 1931-1932 (1964); Vantage Point from the United Nations (Kokuren kara no shiten), (Japan, 1980); Survey of International Organization Studies in Japan (Nihon ni okeru kokusal soshiki kenkyu), (Japan, 1982); and Normalization with China: A Comparative Study of U.S. and Japanese Processes (1989). Information on Ogata was also available on the internet, by searching for "Sadako Ogata" (August 13, 1997).