Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
SADAKO OGATA, UN High Commissioner for Refugees: I have the mandate not only to protect
refugees but solve their problems. And so when the refugees are given asylum, when the refugees
are resettled and their problems are solved, that is very satisfying. And we have seen in the
last six years large refugee problems solved.
KEITH PORTER, producer: This week on Common Ground, a conversation with Sadako
Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
PORTER: Are there refugees missing in Central Africa?
OGATA: Yes. We know that there were about 1.1 million refugees from Rwanda who were in
the camps in eastern Zaire. And about, more than 700,000 have gone back. But we still are
missing more than 200,000 people.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is a position created by the U.N. General Assembly to
resettle those left homeless in the aftermath of World War II. Today, the Commissioner oversees
a global operation, with over 26 million refugees in 140 countries and a 5,000 member staff.
In its long history the office has twice been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The current
commissioner is Sadako Ogata, a small, dignified Japanese woman who commands respect around the world.
OGATA: A refugee is someone who crosses borders and seeks the protection of another
country because he or she is no longer able to receive the protection of a state—his own
state—on account of persecution, which is caused by political or religious or various group causes.
PORTER: Do you as the High Commissioner help people who are outside that definition of a refugee?
OGATA: Yes, very much more. This is the basic definition of refugees, who flees a country
for persecution reasons. But this, and it’s on an individual basis. But there are today more
people who flee on account of violence, gross violation of human rights, or for conflicts. But
the basic definition of a refugee is someone who flees a country and crosses borders. However,
in today’s world, for, because of conflicts there are many people who are in refugee-like
situations. That is they are in their own countries but still because of violence or conflict
they are no longer where they are. And they are usually known as internally displaced persons
and there are several million internally displaced persons when we also give protection.
PORTER: How many refugees are there in the world?
OGATA: Well, altogether my office is responsible for some 26 million people. And strictly
speaking about half of them are refugees in the sense that they have crossed national borders.
PORTER: Wow. Twenty-six million people; that’s a lot of people.
OGATA: That is a lot of people. It’s as large as several countries.
PORTER: Yes. Oh, that’s amazing.
OGATA: Sizable countries.
PORTER: Your mandate calls for the work of the High Commissioner to remain humanitarian
and non-political. Is it sometimes difficult to remain non-political?
OGATA: Yes. Non-political in the sense that the reason why we protect, give protection to
refugees is for humanitarian reasons. But you see a lot of the causes that force people to flee
are political causes. So we do have to deal with political problems but solve them in a humane way.
PORTER: And what are the, what mechanisms can you bring to bear on any situation where
there might be refugees involved? What are the things you can call upon?
OGATA: Well, whenever people who flee across national borders, immediately I do have the
mandate to extend international protection or examine their cases; whether they merit
international protection or not. So I would say I have a office in about 110 countries all over
the world, including a lot of the industrialized countries. People come to seek asylum. And in
most places there are asylum-examining procedures that the states have set up. But we do have
some kind of a supervisory role to see that states do provide asylum to those who are in need.
So we can intervene on behalf of refugees or asylum seekers.
PORTER: And when that happens what, I’m wondering about the resources then. I mean, once
you give them the protection where do the resources come from then that feed the needs of those
OGATA: The largest need for resources are when groups, large-scale outflow of refugees,
take place. And we do have to set up camps to give them shelter—in addition to protection—shelter,
medical care, food, etc. The largest single case of people who are refugees are still the Afghans.
PORTER: The Afghans? Really?
OGATA: The Afghans. At the peak there were about six million people, Afghans, who were in
Pakistan and in Iran. And the number has now down to about 2.4 million.
PORTER: My gosh.
OGATA: But as a single caseload they are the largest.
PORTER: Who pays?
OGATA: Well, there are, states pay. In the international community I would say about 20
countries are the major donors. But they continue to provide financial resources in order to make
possible that those who are fleeing their own states do have a chance to be protected.
PORTER: I know even in the United States we find that natural disasters are the things
that are the most difficult to predict and to budget for, and it must be the same way in your
position. You have no way to predict.
OGATA: We have no way to predict but there are certain cases of people whom we, who are
likely to still require international protection. So about a third of our budget is considered
to be general program that requires yearly contributions. So we have that; more predictable ones
are under the general program. And then a lot of the unpredictable cases where we make special
appeals every year.
PORTER: In the U.N. system who do you report to?
OGATA: I report to the General Assembly.
PORTER: I see. And what kind of staff do you have?
OGATA: We have about 5,400 staff all over the world, including all the local staff. And
it’s quite a large office.
PORTER: I would say that the work you do is one of the more public faces of the United
Nations. Do you agree?
OGATA: Yes. Because there is always a great concern to the fate of people and the fate
of, especially, victims. And there is concern at the same, and since the fate of people’s lives
are at stake I think there is a great interest in making sure that there is a body that takes
care of them.
PORTER: I know that for many of us who cover the United Nations or who get caught up in
the debates about budgets and resolutions, we forget that for most of the world, when they think
of the United Nations they think of someone like you. They think of UNHCR.
OGATA: Well I am very glad to know that they think of us, because we represent one aspect
of the UN. The United Nations covers a lot of things.
OGATA: But from the very beginning, my office was set up by General Assembly resolution
in 1950, and then there was a statute, a convention on the protection of refugees which was
adopted the next year. And my office has a statute, is on a statute, there is a statute that
gives the mandate to the High Commissioner. The only thing that I can say is that it’s a very
generous recognition of independence that has been given to my office. If there is a refugee, we
can intervene. And without going through any inter-governmental bodies.
PORTER: Who would do this work if there was no High Commissioner for Refugees?
OGATA: There has, no—nobody has that kind of a mandate. But for large-scale victims of
conflict, during conflict situations, the International Community of the Red Cross does extend
protection to victims. There are many agencies that give assistance. But there are few, very
few, agencies that have a protection mandate.
PORTER: I see. I know we had Undersecretary General Joseph Connor on our program recently
talking about the budgets and we know that there has been no actual dollar increase in the UN
budge in two or three years now. How does that affect your office?
OGATA: It does affect us, but we are on extra-budgetary; we are not on regular budget.
Which means that there is no treaty obligation to provide us with any funds. It is strictly on a
voluntary contribution basis by states. And the regular budget part of our work is to give us
some administrative costs. It really is the original administrative costs, when our office was
set up. So about some 300 persons’ posts are covered by the regular budget. So it’s about 3% of
our budget. The rest is all voluntary.
PORTER: Okay. Well, you began this position in February of 1991. What has been the most
satisfying part of the job?
OGATA: Well, when we can solve the problems of refugees that is extremely satisfying.
There are individuals who—I have the mandate not only to protect refugees but solve their
problems. And so when the refugees are given asylum, when the refugees are resettled and their
problems are solved, that is very satisfying. And we have seen in the last six years large
refugee problems solved. Like the Indochina refugees. We have tried to work with them for about
20 years and most of the Indochina refugees problems are now solved. Also in Central America; it
was a, during the ’80s it was a very much a refugee hot-bed. And that is virtually solved except
for the Guatemalans. Those are extremely satisfactory achievements. But we have also faced the
biggest outflow of people; northern Iraq: 1.7 million people fled in 10 days. Some partially
solved, but not fully. Yugoslavia; it was a the height about 2 million refugees and 2 million
internally displaced people inside Bosnia. At least there’s no war. And people, we’re trying to
help them go back. But it’s far from finished. The country is still very fragile. But at least
there’s no war right now. And the 2 million Rwandan and Burundi refugees, we’re still struggling
very much to try to help them.
PORTER: We often hear in the news about Central Africa. And one of the stories that we’ve
heard recently is about missing refugees. Are there refugees missing in Central Africa?
OGATA: Yes. We know that there were about 1.1 million refugees from Rwanda who were in
the camps in eastern Zaire. And about, more than 700,000 have gone back. But we still are
missing more than 200,000 people. And there are some people, I’m afraid, have already died. But
a lot of them may still be in the rain forest in Zaire. And we are carrying on a search, finding
them, trying to improve their conditions and then evacuating them. Almost, it’s because
evacuating, repatriating them back to Rwanda. There are Burundi refugees who are also in this
category. And we still continue to try to find them.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata. Mrs. Ogata has held this position since 1990. Prior to
her service at the UN, she was Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sofia University in Tokyo;
she received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963.
Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the
broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit,
non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: I visited, in fact did a radio program, about a Rwandan refugee in Uganda, near
the border with Rwanda. And at this camp there were mostly Hutus and I guess my question is, how
do you know or is it a concern whether or not there may be war criminals in these refugee camps?
OGATA: Of course it’s a great concern. In the refugee camps both in Tanzania and in Zaire
there were genociders. And not all genociders have been indicted. But there must be, and then
there are many people who are not in the refugee camps but who are in the neighboring countries.
But we cannot arrest people just because they might be. There has to be a judicial process. And
that is far from being effective.
PORTER: What, I know it must happen, we hear about it around the world, about refugee
camps being used as hiding places or as cover, security cover, for military operations. For the
opposition in different countries.
OGATA: Certainly, yes.
PORTER: What do you do? How do you solve that?
OGATA: We have tried, we have always tried to maintain the civilian character of refugee
camps. But it is true that very often refugees flee and because they’ve lost the war, civil war,
or they were in the opposition. I mean, the camps for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan or the
camps in Thailand across the border from Cambodia; always there was a military element which we
tried to contain, but we could really not fully achieve this. And how do we do this? Legally
speaking the responsibility lies in the asylum countries. Because they are, it’s a sovereign
right to decide who can, we are, we intercede and request on behalf of the victims. But
maintaining law and order; the civilian character; making sure that they’re not armed, that they
do not violate the public order of the countries of asylum, is really up to the countries that
receive these people. But when large-scale outflow takes places, I mean like 300,000 or 400,000,
even a million, in most situations the countries that receive them do not really have the
capacity to legally process them or to provide the necessary security measures. And this has
been a big problem.
PORTER: Oftentimes military leaders will set up…
OGATA: …We try…
PORTER: …next to a refuge camp also…
PORTER: Put their weapons next to a camp.
OGATA: Exactly. And then, even if I try to maintain the civilian character of the refugee
camps they may be unarmed when they are in the camps but they do have access to arms. And this
is what happened in, a lot in eastern Zaire.
PORTER: Yes, yes. And if you set up next to the camp then you can hope that you won’t be
attacked because of that. I see. Well, another question for you: at this camp that I visited,
the name was Rukginga, there were, it was the first time I realized that there were people who
lived in camps for years and years at a time. What are the longest-serving refugees that we have
right now in the world?
OGATA: Well there are long-standing refugees, for example, in the Horn of Africa where there
has been fighting between the Ethiopians, Somalis, and there are some nomadic people who move
from one country to another, depending on the problems that exist. And also they would go to
places where they are likely to get assistance. So there are long-standing refugees of that sort,
too. I can’t, I don’t know who are the longest-standing. It took twenty years for, to solve the
Indochina refugees. And the Afghans have been, some of them are there since ’79.
There are small refugee case loads that we are trying to solve and end the refugee camp
situations. Because it’s not only trying not to make sure that the international community is
not overburdened, but that the refugees who are in camps for a long time and are used to assistance
really lose the capacity to be self-reliant. Which is always a very bad feature.
PORTER: That’s another thing that I learned at this camp, is that there are actually
people who get plots of land. I mean they, here they were growing…
PORTER: Is that a common occurrence?
OGATA: No, but Uganda—was this inside Uganda?
PORTER: It was inside Uganda.
OGATA: Yes. Uganda has been very generous in this sense. That they would give, Uganda
will give them land and there was several countries that did this. Would give them land and
they’ve become part of the community in a way. They till the land and produce goods. And
virtually they no longer depend on neither Uganda nor the international community. So it is I
would say, even if they’re not given citizenship, by the time they get citizenship they are no
longer refugees and no longer on international assistance. But there are people, and that’s one
way of solving refugee problems, as part of the communities to which they have sought asylum. And
that is also, Uganda has been generous and they even still do that today.
PORTER: Sometimes though you get refugees that come into a community and the people, the
natives there, have some resentment because they see the refugees getting international attention,
perhaps some medical attention. And the people who were there first say, “Why not us? Why aren’t we getting that?”
OGATA: Well we are more and more trying not to give only refugees assistance in situations
of that kind. We try to give assistance to the communities so that the community will be willing
to accept them.
PORTER: I see.
OGATA: And that, we, these are new developments that we’re trying to promote.
PORTER: What’s an average day like for the High Commissioner for Refugees?
OGATA: When I am at headquarters it’s very much like, I would say, working in an office.
All day long there are lots of visitors. There are lots of internal meetings. And lots of
telephone calls and so on from all over the world, trying to ask for decisions on various refugee-related problems.
PORTER: And then what about when you’re in the field? What is that like?
OGATA: Well, that is a very, I think I would spend about 40% of my time outside
headquarters. It is not only going to the field where refugee, the refugee camps and visiting
various asylum countries to thank them, but also to see what problems I have to solve. But also
I have to visit capitals of donor countries, fundraising; so it’s quite a busy job.
PORTER: Yes, I’m sure it is. What do you think will be, what has been the biggest
challenge that you face now as you look toward the end of your tenure at the end of next year?
What’s the biggest challenge facing you now or facing your successor?
OGATA: Well, one thing is to try to make, the office is also undergoing reform. And
trying to make, I said two years ago that we should make the Office of the High Commissioner a
slimmer and trimmer one. So with the introduction of all sorts of computers and modern
technology there are many kinds of work that could be streamlined and does not require the same
manpower. Also in the, we should be delegating more decision-making authority to the field. So
that not everybody has to refer to the headquarters for decisions. So there is the two: slimmer
trimmer in the sense of efficiency; and also delegation to the field. And that requires quite a
lot of work. That is a big challenge but I think by the end of next year, ’98, this should have
yielded considerable results.
PORTER: The end of next year, when your term ends, how will the selection process be
OGATA: The selection process would be recommendation; I would imagine that there will be
many countries that would come up with candidates. The Secretary General would probably be
examining that and will be proposing to the General Assembly to elect.
PORTER: I see.
OGATA: The High Commissioner for Refugees.
PORTER: And are you interested in another term?
OGATA: Right now I am just interested in doing my current term and finishing it well.
PORTER: I see. What kind of, what was your position before this?
OGATA: I was Dean of the Faculty for Foreign Studies at Sofia University in Tokyo.
PORTER: I see. And did you have a particular interest in refugees?
OGATA: Not really, although in 1979 I was asked by my government, the Japanese government,
to lead a team to the Thai-Cambodia border to see what kind of measures the Japanese could, the
Japanese government provide for helping the refugees, Indochina refugees. And that was my first
exposure. But I have been a delegate to the United Nations on and off since 1968. And I have
been, as a delegate know what the problems were about refugees and the international cooperation
with regard to refugees. So indirect familiarity.
PORTER: I see. But you have found it a rewarding experience?
OGATA: It’s been extremely rewarding. And it’s not, it is not just because you do help
people who are in extreme difficulties. But the last six years have been times when there were
enormous large crises. Humanitarian crises of the kind that you didn’t really see previously.
Because it just happens to be the period of transition from a bi-polar world to whatever world
that it is moving towards. And this change in international political structure was very much
reflected in internal conflicts of the kind that produce a lot of refugees. And we were extremely
challenged not only in dealing with them but also in seeking solutions.
PORTER: I have one last question for you. What is the one thing that the nations of the
world could do to make the job of the High Commissioner for Refugees easier?
OGATA: One thing is to maintain, provide asylum to those who are in need. An asylum is
also at stake not only in the industrialized countries, where they’ve, the feeling very much is
that asylum-seekers are not really genuine refugees, but they may be migrants. And that they
should be, and there is a restrictive quality towards foreigners. There is some kind of a
xenophobic tendency in many industrialized countries. But in the developing countries the
burden is very heavy. And because of heavy outflow of people. And so there is also the feeling
that, Why don’t refugees stay in their own countries. So asylum is as stake and this is a great,
of grave concern.
PORTER: That is Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For
Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security