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"Don't be bureaucratic" departing Ogata tells UNHCR

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"Don't be bureaucratic" departing Ogata tells UNHCR

20 December 2000

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata bade farewell to her staff Wednesday, preparing to end nearly 10 years as chief of one of the world's premier humanitarian organizations.

Mrs. Ogata, who will be succeeded on Jan. 1 by former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, told staff assembled in UNHCR's Geneva headquarters that the agency's strength lies in its ability to deal with "very hard reality" while maintaining a "powerful idealism."

"Don't be bureaucratic - keep thinking," said the former academic who took over in 1991 to steer UNHCR through the most turbulent decade of its 50-year history. "Overly bureaucratic organisations are going to become irrelevant in a globalised world. Our contact with real people and situations has kept us alive. Maintain this approach ... "

Mrs. Ogata, who said she plans to spend time with her family in Japan and then write a book, described how she had to "hit the ground running" on her arrival at UNHCR in early 1991.

"The Kurdish refugee crisis happened a few weeks after my arrival," she recalled. "The war in Slovenia started when we had not yet finished repatriating the Kurds, and soon spread to Croatia. After a few more months, Somalia's disaster heralded a new series of African humanitarian tragedies. I realised that something crucial was going to happen to very key elements of the refugee equation - to borders, to wars, to the way people fled and the world responded. I had to think very quickly - and two main conclusions permeated my vision of the Office in the years to come.

"The first was that UNHCR would end if it remained a slow, static, conservative organisation; if UNHCR was to stay relevant - and when I say relevant, I mean to refugees - then it had to be quick, smart, effective, and adaptable to a fast-changing environment.

"The second conclusion was that just to speak from the 'high moral ground' on which - I was told very early on - the High Commissioner stood, was not enough. Telling states to protect refugees was fine - but we had to help them do it, and actively search for solutions while staying as much as possible close to the refugees themselves, so that our arguments would be credible."

While acknowledging that UNHCR has made mistakes and attracted criticism from both within and without the organization, Mrs. Ogata said the agency has "kept a steady pace in adapting to a changing world, and we have had some resounding successes, of which we should be very proud."

Looking at the future, Mrs. Ogata said the world would remain "rather unsettled - at least for a while. The long transition that started in the late 80s is not finished. Translated into UNHCR terms, this means that there will be more emergencies involving refugees and internally displaced people."

Other crucial priorities for UNHCR include:

  • Refining UNHCR's ability to prepare for, and respond to emergencies.
  • Clarifying the relationship between refugees and migration in an era of globalisation that has changed the way people move across borders in search of safety, or jobs, or both.
  • Closing the so-called "gap" between emergency assistance and longer-term development.

Mrs. Ogata praised U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's selection of Ruud Lubbers as her successor.

"It is of great comfort to know that I am leaving UNHCR in good hands, and after a smooth transition," she said. "Ruud Lubbers is an experienced political figure. I have met him several times in the last few weeks and he has struck me as a humane and deeply committed person."

In concluding, the High Commissioner said she was "thrilled to start a new life," but "I also feel sad to leave UNHCR." She remembered UNHCR staff who died in the line of duty, including four murdered in less than two weeks last September in West Timor and Guinea.

"Sometimes in the past ten years the burden of suffering and death that our work entails has been difficult to carry - for all of us," she said. "Nothing can compensate the loss of our friends, and of many refugees who have perished in spite of our efforts. But - please - be proud of the courage of so many colleagues trying to help millions of people worldwide; and rejoice in the knowledge that you have - indeed - saved thousands of lives. This is an extraordinary achievement."

UNHCR, which has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, this year marks its 50th anniversary. It's 5,000 staff care for more than 22 million refugees and others of concern in some 120 countries, often in difficult and dangerous places.