With the death of Sadako Ogata, the world has lost a tireless advocate and activist, and a fearless moral force. Ogata was the first woman to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Throughout her career, she was at the forefront of international efforts to protect the weakest in societies. Her passion and intellectual rigor will be much missed.
Ogata was born in Tokyo in 1927 to a distinguished family: Her great-grandfather was Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, who was assassinated by navy officers in 1932 for trying to stop Japanese military incursions into China, her grandfather was a former foreign minister, and her father was ambassador to Finland.
After a peripatetic childhood, living in the United States, China and Hong Kong, Ogata returned to Tokyo, where she graduated from University of the Sacred Heart. She went on to get a master’s degree at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. She stayed in academia, believing that work in the foreign service was incompatible with life as a mother.
Higher powers did not agree. She was asked in 1968 to join Japan’s U.N. delegation. A decade later, she became the first woman to represent Japan at the world body. She was also chairwoman of UNICEF’s executive board.
Ogata served on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1982 to 1985, was a member of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues from 1983 to 1987, and in 1990 the UNCHR dispatched her as an independent expert to investigate the plight of Cambodian refugees on the Thai-Cambodia border. That expertise won her the support of U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who recommended her to become high commissioner for refugees when her predecessor left office early to return to government.
Originally anticipated to merely finish that term, Ogata secured another, ultimately serving for a decade. She fought hard for her charges, demanding changes in the office’s responsibility to protect not only refugees who cross borders but those who flee conflict while staying within their own country; these are now known as internally displaced persons. At the end of the first Persian Gulf War, she demanded that Iraqi officials set up refugee camps to deal with more than 1 million Iraqi Kurds fleeing persecution. She clashed in 1993 with Perez de Cuellar’s successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, over her decision to suspend aid to Bosnia when Serb nationalists blocked assistance to besieged Muslims in Srebrenica; she prevailed and the blockade was eventually lifted.
After a distinguished term, during which she visited more than 40 countries, she returned to Tokyo to become the first female president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which handles aid to developing countries. During a decade in that position, she helped raise Japan’s profile, especially in Africa.
Ogata was a trailblazer. She was a path-blazer for women — especially Japanese women — in international leadership positions, but important as that is, it does not begin to capture her life and career. Current U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called her “a visionary leader who steered UNHCR through one of the most momentous decades in its history, transforming the lives of millions of refugees and others devastated by war, ethnic cleansing and genocide, and helping redefine humanitarian action in a fast-evolving geopolitical landscape.” She made it a point of going to crisis zones to understand better the situation of her charges: As she explained, “I have to be on the ground and see how people flee or how those displaced suffer even after returning home.”
One of her most important contributions is a framework for action that focuses on protecting the individual from a range of threats, including conflict. Poverty, climate change and political repression all create refugees. But the traditional paradigm for security focused on the state and largely ignored the fates of the people within those entities. For Ogata, such a position reversed priorities: What was the point of protecting a state when citizens within it suffered? That view has gained adherents and the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution backing a focus on human security in 2012.
While a representative of Japan, Ogata was not reluctant to criticize her own government when it fell short of her standards. She noted that Japan’s record of accepting refugees is poor, taking in just 42 of the 10,943 who applied for refugee status last year. (Another 40 were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.) For her, “It’s very unfortunate Japan has little sympathy to those who are suffering,” adding that “if Japan doesn’t open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it’s against human rights.” That basic judgment drove her work and her life. She will be missed.