The failures to counteract inhumanity

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Sadako Ogata was at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs in April for the release of the book she has written about her experiences as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) between 1991 and 2000.

“The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s” (published this year by W.W. Norton and Co. of New York and London) should be read by all politicians and officials involved with issues of international peace. It is a searing account of a series of humanitarian disasters that show that the capacity for man’s inhumanity to man has not changed since the tragedies and slaughter of two world wars.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his foreword, pays tribute to the efforts of Ogata to relieve suffering. While the end of the Cold War brought to an end long-standing conflicts, a proliferation of ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts followed “in which population displacement was no longer a mere consequence of war, but often its very purpose. The result was massive disorder, from the disintegration of Yugoslavia to genocide in Rwanda.”

Ogata, in her 10 years as high commissioner, saw more suffering than most of us who live comfortable lives in developed countries can imagine. She does not pull her punches in her criticisms of governments and leaders for their failures to prevent the tragic consequences of their action or inaction.

Her book concentrates on four crises although she was involved in many more. She starts with the Kurdish refugee crisis in northern Iraq following the Persian Gulf War. She goes on to discuss the problems encountered in protecting refugees in the Balkan wars, which were complicated by ethnic and religious aspirations and prejudices as well as failures by the international community to prevent massacres such as that at Srebenica.

A major section is devoted to the crises in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa where the international community failed to prevent genocide. The final section deals with Afghanistan, where conflict led to huge numbers of refugees.

Ogata stresses that while refugees had hitherto been defined as people who fled from their own countries because of war and persecution, the definition was inadequate in the 1990s when the main problems were often those of internally displaced persons. The UNHCR was not supposed to take sides in conflict situations or become involved in political and security issues, but these limitations often could not be adhered to for practical reasons, not least of which was ensuring the safety of U.N. personnel.

Fortunately, Ogata is a pragmatist with a strong sense of compassion for others. The things she saw aroused her anger and determination not to be browbeaten by anyone — from presidents on down. The term “ethnic cleansing” to her was “an aberration” of words.

She had, however, to accept that the international response to humanitarian crisis situations is largely determined by the degree to which major states hold strategic interests. This meant that she faced the greatest difficulties in Central Africa, where the interests of major powers were limited, although “the spreading conflict over Congo, if not a war between France and the United States, had the character of a proxy rivalry, which adversely affected the settlement of peace in the Great Lakes region with prolonged humanitarian consequences.”

Among Ogata’s biggest problems was how to protect refugees and internally displaced persons as well as her own staff and those of nongovernment organizations. In the Great Lakes area, she had to deal with the militarization of refugee camps and their involvement in local civil wars. Soldiers from the Rwandan Hutu regime intimidated refugees, preventing them from returning home, harassed international relief workers and even took their vehicles and equipment.

In Bosnia the Security Council failed to deal with the Serb offensive in Srebenica. “It pronounced the designation of safe areas without providing adequate deterrent strength to the peacekeepers to protect the areas. Then it prolonged decisions on the use of air power. . . . Watching the bombs dropping from fifteen thousand feet while humanitarian agencies waited in vain to come to the rescue of the people under bombardment, I began to question the effectiveness of high-technology warfare.”

She points out that the “problems of refugees could not be settled without resolving the conflicts that drove people to flee. Donor countries were generally sympathetic to UNHCR’s needs . . .” but “they would not overstep the boundaries of their geopolitical or domestic interests in resorting to bilateral action.”

Ogata stresses that “administration of international criminal justice is crucial to correcting the gross violations of human rights and enforced displacements,” but she deplores the slowness of the system.

Saddam Hussein in Iraq was a threat to peace, but his removal was so mishandled that it may well have created more problems and than it solved. The war in Iraq also sadly diverted attention from what many believe has been genocide in Darfur. Here, the international community has failed to ensure the safety of refugees and to punish the Sudanese perpetrators of the persecution. The situation in other parts of Africa remains dire, and we tend to overlook the problems caused by civil strife in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Ogata, following her retirement from her post as UNHCR and writing her book, was persuaded by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to take on the task of president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and thus given responsibility for administering Japanese aid. Sadly, Japanese aid has been cut back and finance officials seem determined to cut it back further.

The fiscal problems of the Japanese government are well known, but Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The Japanese people can hardly be proud of the fact that their country, once the biggest donor of aid, is becoming increasingly stingy. Ogata, especially, must find the situation galling after everything she’s been through.