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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the David Rockefeller International Leadership Award at the Trilateral Commission's 25th Anniversary Evening, New York, 1 December 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the David Rockefeller International Leadership Award at the Trilateral Commission's 25th Anniversary Evening, New York, 1 December 1998

1 December 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to celebrate with you such an important anniversary and it is a great honour for me to receive the David Rockefeller International Leadership Award. I am very proud to share it with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Peter Sutherland, not only for myself, but also on behalf of the millions of refugees and other people UNHCR cares for, and works with.

The 1973 Tokyo Statement of Purposes of the Trilateral Commission, declared that growing international interdependence, "requires new and more intensive forms of international cooperation to realize its benefits and to counteract economic and political nationalism". This tenet of the Trilateral's philosophy is of great significance to me: as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; as a professor of political science; and - last but not least - as a Japanese, whom family traditions, personal involvement and other circumstances have kept for many years in the midst of international affairs.

Underpinning the Trilateral's original vision was what I would define an "internationalist" approach. It wished to promote the values of advanced industrialized democracies. It aimed at bridging the "communication" gap with Japan, bringing it more fully into the community of advanced democratic societies.

But the Trilateral's philosophy was not - as it has often been said - exclusive of other countries and societies. On the contrary, it had a strong element of inclusiveness, and sought to ensure that developing countries, and countries from the eastern block, could benefit from the values and resources of industrialized democracies.

This has been a successful quarter of a century for the Trilateral Commission. Much of this success, I must say here - and I know I am speaking for all of you - is owed to David Rockefeller. Allow me to pay him a very special, personal tribute. It is most appropriate that the International Leadership Awards are being given in his name. David Rockefeller's leadership has been crucial in making the Trilateral play a meaningful role in the world. And David Rockefeller's strong vision of society and of the future, and his profound sense of caring for others, have been the crucial elements of his leadership. He has taught us that no true leader can fail to possess these qualities: a sense of vision, a sense of caring.

Let me now say a few words about my country. When the Trilateral was established, anti-military, anti-war feelings still prevailed in Japan. Of course there was the protective shield of the US security umbrella. Although Japan's economy was soon to achieve world power status, it was a country and a society somehow lacking political goals. It was only later - during the 70s and 80s, with the trade frictions - that Japan was subjected (once more, one could say) to external pressure to "internationalize". During the oil crisis, and then, much later, during the Gulf war, Japan came under much criticism, sometimes unfairly, for not sharing enough of the world's burden.

Japan "internationalized", but - perhaps as an extreme reflection of the shock of war - it did so by emphasizing its contribution to international public good. All this helped the formation of an international conscience in Japan. It translated not only into the deregulation and liberalization of markets and finance, but also into a dramatic expansion of its overseas development budget, into some acceptance of refugees and migrants (10,000 Indochinese were resettled in Japan), and even into the use of its military for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes.

It is therefore all the more worrying to observe that, in the economic and political crisis which has recently affected the country, the impulse to be "international" seems to have waned. The current crisis is - of course - not just an economic one: it reflects a stagnant social and political system, which takes one cautious step at the time - often too little, or too late - and favours the re-awakening of inward-looking attitudes.

Should this be confined to Japan, it could simply signal a natural reaction to a difficult economic juncture. But the problem is broader. Japan's international commitments in the 70s and 80s never matured into clear policy directions. I am even more worried that the public commitment of the United States to provide international leadership is receding. This is of serious concern to the world and to the Trilateral Commission in particular.

In societies which are becoming tremendously multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, internationalism means essentially a commitment to work towards an inclusive international community, prosperous, secure, and based on democratic values. This commitment has two complementary facets: it must be turned - externally - towards less developed countries, and - internally - towards the most vulnerable elements of societies - and especially minorities, migrants and refugees.

True, internal politics in the United States and in Western Europe are still based on inclusive ideals. But there are numerous and very serious signs that international commitment is receding. Look at the United States, for example. Look at its elected representatives, its administration, its media, its civil society associations: with many notable exceptions, their focus and attitudes are becoming inward-looking. They are often based on an internal political agenda, sometimes a purely electoral one, rather than on a broader commitment to international leadership.

Seen from the viewpoint of an organization dealing with terrible human suffering, it is morally difficult to justify the amount of time and energy devoted in American public life to domestic issues which not only appear to be of limited relevance, but also weaken the international leadership role that the United States could play to address some of the problems causing such suffering.

Mine are not just impressions. This trend has very tangible consequences, and from my point of observation they are very serious. The example of peacekeeping operations is very telling. Although the number and intensity of conflicts have not decreased - on the contrary, one could argue that localized, but very destructive conflicts have multiplied in the last few years - mobilizing human and material resources for peacekeeping has become more difficult. And the reason for this is clear, especially in the United States: decision makers do not have the necessary conviction, energy and political courage to persuade voters that it is important and necessary to lead conflict resolution efforts by sending troops to remote countries, apparently far removed from direct national interest.

It must be said that in the case of the Bosnian war, which for three years raged at the borders of Western Europe, the West eventually summoned sufficient political energy and allocated substantial resources to stop the fighting and try to build peace. The same may be happening today in Kosovo. But this commitment must be compared to the much more hesitant efforts deployed to resolve other conflicts: for example in Central Africa, where ethnic problems in two very small countries, Burundi and Rwanda, have caused in the past four years one of the largest genocides of the century, and have triggered a spiral of war and violence threatening a vast swathe of Africa - and all this, with few and fragmented signs of clear, decisive international action.

Working with refugees and other displaced people places us in a crucial vantage point from which to observe the trends in internationalism. We deal with global problems, that demand international commitment to be resolved. And we are very concerned. True, there is still widespread support for the cause of refugees, particularly in immigration-based societies, such as in North America; and my Office continues to benefit from substantial political, moral and financial support from the United States, Japan and some European countries, especially the Nordics. But - except when large, visible humanitarian emergencies compel governments to allocate resources - the overall trend is towards a decline in support to humanitarian work. We have had enormous difficulties this year in raising the voluntary contributions necessary to carry out our basic activities. The contributions of many key donors, especially in Europe, have been sharply reduced.

Even more importantly, other, essential tools of international cooperation are declining. Overseas development aid budgets are decreasing very rapidly, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Japan. We all know the case of the United States' arrears in the payment of its assessed contribution to the United Nations. One wonders how long it will take for other countries to follow this example. One wonders whether multilateralism, today, is not at risk of disappearing, overwhelmed by particular, narrow interests.

I fear that if there is a decline in commitment to leadership in international affairs, this will have a negative impact on the commitment of secure and prosperous societies, and of their governments, to ensure that the weakest among their components enjoy the benefits of security and prosperity. This will inevitably expose the latest arrivals: immigrants and refugees in particular. This trend is already very clear in Europe, where inward-looking attitudes are frequently whipped up by unscrupulous politicians into xenophobia and racism; and where very delicate immigration and refugee issues, instead of being addressed through an open, rational, internationally conscious approach, are politicized, distorted, blown out of proportion. Much in the same way as national interests are pitched against global responsibilities in international matters, the security and prosperity of some are thus presented as incompatible with those of all the others, and especially of "foreigners", in national contexts.

This is perhaps an inevitable paradox of democracy. Democracy enhances in the public the sense of ownership of common resources, which in turn can foster particularism and the prevalence of local or sectoral interests. This is beginning to happen also in developing countries. Former President Nyerere of Tanzania, explaining how difficult it had become for the current President to promote the acceptance of refugees in his country, once told me that it had been relatively easy for himself, in the 70s, to grant asylum and give land to large numbers of refugees: no member of parliament and little free press was then at hand to object to this decision, which, much as it was enlightened and humanitarian, was nevertheless one taken without democratic consensus.

Politicians are responsible not to turn ownership into defensiveness, and eventually exclusion. Exclusion negates democracy. Democracy is profoundly incomplete if it is not inclusive of all members of society, including of course the poorer strata, but also the "foreigners" - minorities, migrants and refugees in particular. Perceiving and presenting exclusion of some groups as an effective manner to preserve the security and prosperity of rich societies is not only morally wrong - it is also fundamentally misleading. As migratory and refugee flows demonstrate, security and prosperity are not just national issues. The larger the number of countries and people that enjoy them, the more prosperous and secure will all countries and all people be. In the immediate, this may require some efforts, even some sacrifices - supporting peacekeeping in far away countries, putting money into multilateral cooperation - but, if I may say so, it is going to pay off. Global solidarity is a worthy investment - not even a costly one, perhaps - in a future of global peace and security for all of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are here tonight to commemorate the 25th anniversary of an important effort to promote internationalism. The Trilateral Commission's primary objective was to create non-exclusive international leadership. Much progress has been made, not least in Japan. Much remains to be done. The inward-looking trends I have spoken of are dangerous. Today, the search for "new and more intensive forms of international cooperation" proposed by the 1973 Statement of Purposes to counter narrow national agendas, should aim at developing a wider concept of "strategic interest". The end of the Cold War has made the immediate understanding of this concept much more difficult. Explaining it to the general public, let alone having it accepted by public opinion, has become a far less simple undertaking than when the world was divided into blocks, and internationalism was easy to present as a necessity for survival.

The challenge for the Trilateral Commission in the next 25 years will be to continue to stand for its ideals of shared international leadership, and to promote, trilaterally, a multilateral approach to the world's problems. The challenge will also be to base this effort in the visionary and caring values of which David Rockefeller is such a vivid example. Attributing the award given in his name, and in the name of international leadership, to the head of an organization which promotes and implements global solidarity, not only is an honour to my Office and myself, but also tells the world that peace and prosperity are not selective goals: that they will not be enjoyed by some, unless they are available to all.

Thank you.