The former United Nations high commissioner for refugees looks back on a decade’s work.
From 1990 to 2000, Ogata served as “the first woman, the first Japanese, and the first academic” to head the politically sensitive UNHCR, landing the job just at a time when the Cold War was giving way to more open borders for good and increasing ethnic nationalism for ill. The commission was charged with two big tasks: “one to protect refugees in the midst of internal wars and communal conflicts and the other to carry out the large-scale repatriation of refugees to still-insecure and unstable home countries.” UNHCR was severely tested early on when, following defeat in the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein turned against the Kurds and forced a major refugee crisis, compounded both by the unwillingness of neighboring Turkey to provide assistance and by UN sanctions against Iraq, which made it difficult for food, fuel, and other necessities to be brought overland to Kurdish-controlled areas. Within a single week, Ogata writes, 1.75 million Kurds fled from northern Iraq; when the crisis abated, “the pace of return was equally rapid, requiring emergency rehabilitation.” Refugee crises of similar proportions soon emerged in the Balkans, then Rwanda, then the Balkans again, with UNHCR involved in relief efforts that often included military partnerships, a consequence of the evolving use of militaries as peacekeeping forces. Ogata acknowledges that the commission often faced shortages of money, staff, and other essentials; but, unlike former UN field commander Roméo Dallaire, who charges in Shake Hands with the Devil (Jan. 2005) that the UN response in Rwanda was thoroughly insufficient, Ogata maintains that the commission did what it could with what it had and was especially successful in establishing “partnerships with a wide range of actors to meet the critical lifesaving challenges of conflicts and violence.”
Such bureaucratic language does little to explain the human dimension of these crises, and Ogata’s book is bloody but rather bloodless. Still, it makes a useful insider account of the complex politics of humanitarian enterprise.