Remarks at the JICA Symposium on Mme Ogata
Dear friends in Japan,
It is an honour to participate today – even if just remotely – in this memorial symposium.
It is humbling to speak not only alongside such distinguished speakers, but also to present a few reflections on just some of the countless achievements and legacies of one of my predecessors as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whom I also have the honour of calling my mentor and personal friend, Sadako Ogata.
Nobody can dispute that Mrs Ogata was a true internationalist and humanitarian. She felt a deep compassion for those suffering and deprived of their human rights and dignity. She was as comfortable and effective speaking to the Security Council or with world leaders as she was sitting with refugees in a camp, listening to their plight and helping find solutions to their challenges.
She rarely flinched in a crisis, even when she was in the midst of active conflict, as she did so often in the Balkans, or the Great Lakes of Africa, and many other places.
Mrs Ogata would have, however, cringed at many things in today’s world; first and foremost the backward slide we have seen in the field of international cooperation.
Or the failure of the Security Council to agree even on the simplest of issues – humanitarian resolutions to reduce people’s suffering.
And she would have been aghast at the ‘me first’ and “my country first” rhetoric, or the duplicitous representation by some politicians of refugees as abusers and threats, instead of explaining that they are just people – like you and me – but unjustly forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution.
But while Mrs Ogata would have lamented many of the challenges we face today, she would not have given up on refugees or other vulnerable people.
She recognized back then that the global character of the challenges we face – like the climate emergency, poverty, or a pandemic – require cooperation and a collective response.
She also understood and said – ahead of many others - that there are no humanitarian solutions to political crises like conflict and war and that a different approach was needed. She advocated strongly for development actors to be engaged at the beginning of a crisis. Ahead of time, she grasped that all elements of the international response to crises – political, human rights, humanitarian, and development – must work closely together for those crises to be addressed in an effective and sustainable manner.
This is the crux of the ‘human security’ approach that she championed decades ago.
It took more than twenty years for this to translate into mainstream aid discussions and initiatives. With the exodus of one million people to Europe in 2015 - 16 – an exodus rooted in political and aid failures - decision makers around the world understood that crises (and especially crisis of forced displacement) needed different responses, much along the lines Mrs Ogata had proposed years before.
This led for example to the affirmation by the United Nations General Assembly of the Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, which ushered in a new approach to responding to displacement. A whole of society response that brought together governments, humanitarian and development actors, the private sector, and others to help the displaced and their host communities, and to share the burden and responsibility more widely across the international arena.
JICA and the Government of Japan have been a key and longstanding partner of UNHCR in this approach, which is very much in line with Mrs Ogata’s visionary appeal from decades ago. I trust that this strong support will continue now and into the future.
As I close, I hope you will permit me to share a personal story. Mrs Ogata was a multilateralist, and an internationalist for sure, but was profoundly attached to her country and proud to be Japanese.
At the end of my first visit to Japan with her, we were flying back to Geneva and she asked about my impressions. She asked ‘did you start,’ she said ‘to understand that geography and history made us – Japan - a lonely country? We,’ she added, ‘can only thrive if we play an international role in making peace, and support stronger humanitarian and development responses’.
That was her dream for Japan, and for the world. She would certainly like this approach to continue today, and not be weakened by any considerations, especially at this time of pandemic, when the most vulnerable people in the world – among whom are the refugees and the displaced – are likely to pay the biggest price.