Sadako Ogata came to DC this week to promote her new book, The Turbulent Decade, which chronicles her stint as UN High Commissioner on Refugees from 1990-2000. I took Mrs. Adamu to see her give a talk at the Library of Congress. You can listen to her Mar 8 appearance on The Diane Rehm Show, a local NPR politics roundup. She also made appearances in New York.
The audience was, not surprisingly, mostly professional, Japanese women. Ogata is a hero(ine) to Japanese women because she was one of the first Japanese women to secure a major role in Japanese politics, born in an era when few women attended college. She’s been the subject of countless TV shows and books (Including “Sadako Ogata’s Way of Life“), causing a bit of a sensation because of her liberal politics (and pedigree), direct personality, and unapologetic professionalism and cosmopolitanism.
I couldn’t help but be a little surprised when I saw the diminuitive figure of the elderly Ogata. I was expecting someone larger than life judging from all the hype. She did have an aura about her that exuded confidence. She deserve it — not was she the first woman, the first Japanese, and the first academic UNHCR, she is also credited with changing refugee assistance from the traditional “set up camps when they get here” model to what we know today. Under Ogata, humanitarian aid came first, political solutions were the number one priority, and in general she refused to allow refugee assistance to become a “humanitarian figleaf” that masked a dire situation.
The talk itself ended up being a kind of disappointment, with Clark sounding off at any opportunity with lines from his 2004 presidential campaign (Inside info: He’s planning to run again). But some interesting points:
Ogata prefers not to talk about Japan’s role in refugee assistance and human rights promotion, presumably because of its atrocious record. This we found out by asking two questions at the talk:
“As someone who is well-known as a powerful voice in Japan’s foreign policy, I wonder what you think of Japan’s role in refugee assistance and in particular accepting refugees, and also what do you think the future of organizations like JICA might be?”
She answered in purely general terms, saying that JICA does a good job in its mission, Japan has done a lot to help refugees abroad but could “do better” at home.
Mrs. Adamu’s question: “General Clark mentioned the importance of regional human rights institutions, but Asia does not have it. I know that more than half amount of development assistance of Japan and JICA is for the Asia region. However, I think that its assistance has been divorced from the aspect of human rights. How do you evaluate Japan’s role in the region to improve human rights.”
Ogata: “Asia is the least regionally-organized region (in terms of regional human rights infrastructure). However, what can be done and what we are trying to do is to improve the countries economics first. Currently, some of the Asian countries are working together for establishing a new free trade system. The economic development leads to stabilize the region because many Asian countries are economically underdeveloped. For example some countries such as Malaysia and Thailand developed its economics and started becoming donor countries among Asian countries. Improving human rights and establishing a regional human rights institution in Asia are not everything. We are trying to meet the needs of the Asia region. For historical reasons that I won’t discuss here, Japan has not been able to do much in promoting human rights. Asia wants to come together, but its focus has currently been free trade agreement.”
Sadako Ogata (緒方 貞子: Ogata Sadako; born 1927) is a Japanese scholar and administrator. She served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 until 2001. Now she is the chief of the board of Japan International Cooperation Agency.
She was born in Tokyo. Her mother was a daughter of Inukai Tsuyoshi and influenced by his liberal political attitude. She was graduated from University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo and later studied in Georgetown University and University of California, Berkeley. She taught international politics at Sophia University.