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Global Econopolitics

Sadako Ogata and 30 Years of Post-Cold War Era

  Executive Research Director


30 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the East-West Cold War. In talking about the post-Cold War world, Sadako Ogata, who recently passed away, must be remembered as an indispensable person who sharply suggested and practiced what the more and more globalized world and international society should do.

Beyond common sense

Sadako Ogata was the first Japanese woman to become a leader of a United Nations organization. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees, she attracted attention with her decisive behavioral power which even changed common sense of the organization in order to protect refugees and displaced persons that are generated one after another around the world. During four years when I stationed as a correspondent of a newspaper, Nikkei, in Geneva, Switzerland, where the headquarters of her organization is located,her presence was undoubtedly among the heads of international organizations.

In February 1991 Ms.Ogata, a professor at Sophia University, became the High Commissioner.That was the month of the end of the Gulf War (the first) that originated in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. As soon as she arrived, she faced serious challenges. Many Kurds tried to escape from Iraq, which was defeated by a multinational force led by the United States, but hundreds of thousands of people stayed in the Iraqi border area because the neighboring Turkey refused to receive them.

“If we don’t, who will?”

UNHCR protects refugees who have escaped from their home countries, but the idea at the time was that people stayed in their own country were not called refugees and were not eligible for assistance. However, if left unattended, the danger is visible. The decision made by Sadako Ogata was “Just do it” as opinions were internally divided as to whether they should be protected. She later talked about this decision in an interview with me.

“I came up with the idea that how about regarding the border as a region, not a line. If we consider the border as a line, whether people exceeds or not matters, but with considering the border as a region, I thought helping displaced people there would be seen more important”.

Her way of thinking was based on the simple and powerful idea that they help people because there are people in need. “If we don’t do it, who will save hundreds of thousands of people? Because lifesaving was the most important thing, we decided to take a realistic response”.

Since then, it has become a new standard that internally displaced persons can be also protected by the agency. This was “Revolutionary change”, Ms.Ogata called. The decision was a major turning point in the international community’s response to refugees.

Against political use

Two years after the Kurdish refugee case, Ms.Ogata took another impressive action. That was a surprising announcement to stop aid in the former Yugoslavia.

UNHCR had been helping out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which fell into ethnic conflict after the end of the Cold War. However, the Muslim side, under the pressure of the Serbian forces, boycotted the distribution of aid supplies in the capital, Sarajevo, to appeal the plight internationally. Enraged Ogata accused all political leaders and announced that UNHCR will cease assistance in the Serbian dominated territories and Sarajevo. She looked back on “I could not put up with politicizing humanitarian aid.”

This incident also led to the affair with her boss, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was dissatisfied with the lack of consultation in advance, overturned the decision and directed the resumption of aid, but what left a strong impression on the international community was Ms.Ogata’s determined attitude based on her firm belief.

Changes after the Cold War

The 30 years of the post-Cold War can be roughly divided into three periods. In the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization of the flow of people and goods progressed while the Soviet Union, which was a loser of the East-West Cold War, disappeared and the United States was pushed up into the only superpower. On the other hand, the international community was reminded that the post-Cold War world is far from peaceful and stable, with many regional conflicts and massive refugees.

In the next decade of 2000s, US power and leadership were seriously damaged following Iraq War (2003) and the financial crisis (2008). Emerging economies showed significant rise and the G20 framework was created, which only means that it entered a turbulent era of more powerful players than the arrival of a new international order.

In the 2010s, populist politicians emerged in the US and Europe, and disparities and social divisions became a big problem. On the other hand, China has come out of the emerging countries group, and it is a time to foresee the era of competition (or fight for hegemony) between US and China. We might have been seeing a move from the transitional period of the post-Cold War to the next era.

Promoting Human security

Looking at Sadako Ogata’s footsteps, the first post-Cold War decade almost overlapped with her days at the UN agency for refugee issues. Her tenure with high acclaim was from February 1991 to the end of 2000. Based on this experience, what she worked on for the next decade and more after the retirement of UNHCR was the promotion of the concept of “Human security”. This is a concept leads to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), which is now attracting great attention in the corporate community.

Ms.Ogata led Commission on Human Security established in 2001 as a co-chair with Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Amartya Sen, and wrapped up proposals. From 2003 to 2012, She worked as president of The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and tried to implement this concept in the field of development assistance. JICA still has human security as its mission now.

Guiding principle

The meaning of human security could be a bit hard to understand. The idea is to aim for sustainable individual independence and society creation by protecting people from suffering from conflict, environmental destruction, poverty, etc., and empowering them to realize their potential. It might be easier to understand if you think of the SDGs philosophy of “Leave no one behind.”

The Japanese government has advocated this idea from an early stage and it contributed to the creation of the Commission on Human Security. Japan’s Development Cooperation Charter in 2015 stated that human security “is the guiding principle that lies at the foundation of Japan’s development cooperation.” In “Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform 2019″, Japanese government mentioned in association with SDGs,”we will showcase ourselves as a powerful supporter of the SDGs, serving with the ideal of human security. ”

Business activities and SDGs

Ms. Ogata thought that it was necessary to comprehensively address as human security, ranging from urgent humanitarian assistance, such as refugee issues, to mid- to long-term development assistance. However, the term human security is not necessarily prevailed. So,it is important to think how this human-oriented approach, which Ms.Ogata appealed in the field-oriented activities in facing the challenges of the post-Cold War era, could be carried on.

SDGs, which are gaining attention in Japan as a catalyst to connect corporate business activities to the goal of a sustainable society, will be a powerful framework for realizing Sadako Ogata’s ideas. The idea of the SDGs, which adds global issues in the post-Cold War era to development issues in developing countries and demands efforts from developed countries and companies as concerned parties, is an idea that emphasizes each individual.

Dignity and warmth

I would like to mention Sadako Ogata as a leader. When she was in Geneva, Ms Ogata attracted people to meet with a dignity and warmth. Among the world leaders and prominent persons I have interviewed in the past, I felt the same atmosphere with then President Nelson Mandela, the symbol of South Africa’s democratization.

“I happen to be Japanese, that’s all”. Financial Times wrote in a memorial article that Ms.Ogata often said so. There was no doubt that she had strong opinion about how Japan should or should not do, but as the head of an international organization, she focused on a global perspective and she seemed very natural.

The Japanese government had asked Ms.Ogata to take office as a foreign minister, but she reportedly declined. Some people regret this, but rather I feel like I wanted to see her on the world stage as a position beyond one country’s representative. For example, what would it like if she sat in very front of the world leaders as the first female UN Secretary-General?

I can’t resist to imagine such a scene especially when nationalism and authoritarianism is becoming more popular in the world and some powerful political leaders make light of the United Nations and multilateralism. I can also imagine that Ms Ogata, if she was called as “first female…”, she might have responded this way. “I happen to be a woman, that all.”

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