- Born to a prominent family in Tokyo in 1927, Sadako Ogata experienced in her youth the apex and collapse of Japan’s modem empire. 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. 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.
- Ogata faced an avalanche of crises: Iraq, Bosnia, Mozambique, Burundi, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Rwanda. As the world grew weary of refugees and the number of refugees soared, Ogata energized her agency to fulfil its mandate, 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, and worked assiduously to cultivate UNHCR collaboration with governments, gaining their assistance in helping refugees and pressing them to honor the right to asylum.
- In Asia, the UNHCR for example, repatriated hundreds of thousands of Burmese Muslims who fled to Bangladesh, thousands of Cambodian refugees, hundred thousand Vietnamese boat people and thousands of Laotians returning to their countries. Ogata believes that all refugee problems are inherently political. Her experience teaches her that if the refugee crisis is to end, the injustices that create refugees must also end.
- The RMAF 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.”
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 lifefollowed. 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.
Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, truly wishes that she could be here today, but because of the ongoing refugee crisis in central Africa, and a previously arranged official visit to the Ukraine, she is unfortunately unable to attend this important ceremony. On her behalf, I would like to deliver the following message:
“I am deeply honored to receive the Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. This award means much to me, not so much because of the personal recognition it bestows, but because of the attention it brings to the cause if refugees and to my 5,500 highly dedicated colleagues in UNHCR, who are often working under arduous and even perilous conditions. The Magsaysay Award reinforces and encourages us, it helps to invigorate us with the strength we need to meet the challenge of protecting and assisting nearly 23 millions uprooted victims of war and persecution.
The fact that this award is being given for international understanding is particularly gratifying. Understanding of the refugee problem is crucial to finding solutions. Understanding is one the links in a chain of actions, without which the problems is crucial to finding solutions. Understanding is one of the links in one of the links in a chain of actions, without which the problems of refugees will not be solved. That chain, as I see it, is as follows: Firstly, governments and the public at large must be made aware of the problem of refugees. Secondly, they must understand the nature of the problem, particularly its humanitarian and sometimes political dimensions. Thirdly, government must find ways of cooperating with one another, because international solidarity and burden sharing are vital for the protection of refugees, and because cooperation among the countries directly affected by refugee crises is crucial for solving them. Awareness, understanding, cooperation, and solutions—these are the links in the chain.
Today’s world is full of contradictions, of increasing peace and economic growth, on the one hand, and of conflict and human rights abuse, on the other. Images of war and oppression, coming close to us on the screen, can be turned off at the flick of a switch. But the refugees remain, asking for understanding and humanity. From former Yugoslavia to Rwanda and from Guatemala to Cambodia, I have seen countless personal tragedies occasion by man’s savagery, mostly affecting families, women, and helpless children. And yet, these refugees are increasingly seen only as a burden and rejected at borders.
UNHCR alone cannot make people aware of the world’s refugee situation. The news media and the voices of the many dedicated workers in nongovernmental organizations also serve to help the cause of refugees. Exceedingly important are such institutions as the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, which through recognition of the work and effort of such person as my fellow awardees (Anand Panyarachun, M.C. Mehta, Sister Eva Fidela Maamo, and Mahasweta Devi—give a healthy boost to our various causes. Being in such splendid company as esteemed awardees is a collective honor which I cherish.
With more international understanding, we can better protect and save lives and restore human dignity. For refugee problems, however intractable they often appear to be, are solvable, provided there is cooperation and teamwork. It can be at the level of individual filed workers in a refugee emergency or at the level of governments, with all the power of their resources and institutions. In Asia, where the traditions of consensus run long and deep, I am proud to say that examples of international cooperation in the history of UNHCR is the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese refugees, which, thanks to the efforts of countries of asylum, or origin, and of resettlement, resulted in over 1.1 million persons being helped to rebuild their lives. I am grateful that today some 1,500 Vietnamese have been able to benefit from the generosity of the government of the Philippines.
I am pleased that the Magsaysay Foundation, in granting this award, brings worldwide attention to the serious threats to the institution of asylum that are taking place. We must not give in to the forces of xenophobia. We must speak out in defense of those persons who have been uprooted by force and persecution. And we must join forces to prevent refugee crises from occurring, by insisting on the right of all fellow human beings to live in peace in their own homes.
These words are mine, but I hear in them the voice of Ramon Magsaysay and his ideal of promoting the welfare of others. I thank you. The refugees and displaced persons of the world thank you too.”
Hers was not a typical childhood. Born in Japan on September 16, 1927, Sadako Ogata (née Sadako Nakamura) grew up in an atmosphere of constant family conversations about public affairs and diplomatic relations. This is what passed for small talk in her large clan of diplomats and politicians during shared holidays and weekends. Although she was not drawn into such intense discussions as a young girl, she carries vivid memories of her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother being engaged in them and of “so much commotion” in the clan whenever there were changes in the Japanese cabinet.
A familiar undercurrent of those overheard conversations of her elders was their intense antimilitary stance, since her great-grandfather, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, had been assassinated by young naval officers during the May 15 Incident of 1932.
Prime Minister Inukai’s daughter had married Kenkichi Yoshizawa, who thus became Sadako’s grandfather; her own mother was the eldest of his nine children. Kenkichi Yoshizawa was a career diplomat who served for sixty years in the Japanese Foreign Service; in 1932 he was minister of foreign affairs.
Diplomacy ran in the family. Several of Sadako’s uncles and cousins were also in the foreign service, as was her father, Toyokazu Nakamura. He was a career diplomat and an avid reader who kept a large library of books on foreign affairs. “And so this was my natural environment,” Ogata, the voracious reader, acknowledges.
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