As Sadako Ogata reminds us, no one flees home and
homeland of their own accord. Wars and persecutions drive them away, and the havoc that
occurs when old hatreds are given new license. Such conditions are on the rise, so much so
that during Ogata's six-year tenure as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) the number of refugees in the world has swelled by ten million. Some twenty-three
million displaced people now rely upon the UNHCR to protect their rights to asylum and to
provide humanitarian relief. They are High Commissioner Ogata's responsibility.
Born to a prominent family in Tokyo in 1927, Sadako Ogata experienced in her youth the
apex and collapse of Japan's modem empire. She was seventeen when the atomic bomb ended
the era. After college in Tokyo, she earned a master's degree in international relations
in the United States and, in 1963, completed her doctorate at the University of California
at Berkeley. Years of teaching and domestic life followed. In 1976 Ogata joined Japan's
mission at the United Nations. Later she chaired the executive board of UNICEF and
represented Japan on the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1991, the General Assembly
elected her to her current post.
As High Commissioner for Refugees, Ogata faced an avalanche of crises: Iraq, Bosnia,
Mozambique, Burundi, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Rwanda. But the world was weary of refugees.
Many countries denied them asylum. On the run, they were subject to deadly assaults,
sexual abuse, and conscription. Relief supplies were looted. Even Ogata's own workers were
harassed and attacked. Facing these challenges with the fearless dedication for which she
is noted, Ogata energized her agency to fulfill its mandate.
As the number of refugees soared, Ogata created standby emergency teams and improved links
with the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations that are her agency's frontline
partners in delivering food, shelter, and medical supplies. She inspected far-flung UNHCR
projects and tirelessly encouraged her burgeoning staff. To really help refugees, she
concluded, the UNHCR must look beyond the immediate misery and address their long-term
needs for rehabilitation and development. In doing so, she stressed the needs of women and
children, who form the lion's share of the world's refugees and who suffer most when
civilized life breaks down.
Ogata also worked assiduously to cultivate UNHCR collaboration with governments, gaining
their assistance in helping refugees and pressing them to honor the right to asylum. To
poor countries, she offered practical aid in return for their agreement to host refugees
or to accept returnees.
In Asia, for example, two hundred thousand Burmese Muslims who fled to Bangladesh have
been repatriated to Myanmar and supported with health, education, and development aid
through the UNHCR, as have thousands of refugees resuming to Cambodia. Some one hundred
thousand Vietnamese boat people have been successfully repatriated to Vietnam; twenty
seven thousand Laotians have returned to Laos. A key to success in such programs has been
Ogata's insistence that the UNHCR be permitted to monitor the experience of returnees
against reprisal and discrimination.
Ogata believes that all refugee problems are inherently political. They begin when
governments turn against their own people, or when certain basic rights to life, security,
and liberty are denied. Her experience teaches her that if the refugee crisis is to end,
the injustices that create refugees must also end.
This will take time, says the High Commissioner. "We will probably have to go through
a period of rather cruel experiences and fighting," she says. "But I think human
beings will learn. I hope."
In electing Sadako Ogata to receive the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International
Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes her invoking the moral authority of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to insist that behind the right of every
refugee to asylum lies the greater right of every person to remain at home in peace.