Ogata calls for stronger political will to solve refugee crises

Report
from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 27 May 2005
GENEVA, May 27 (UNHCR) - The international community must stop using humanitarian action as a fig leaf for political inaction, cautioned former UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata, stressing that strong political will is crucial to prevent a repeat of crises like the Rwandan genocide.

The former High Commissioner made these comments at a panel discussion in Geneva Friday to launch her new book, "The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the refugee crises of the 1990s" (W.W. Norton and Company, 2005).

Covering her years at UNHCR from 1991-2000, the book explores issues like refugee protection and humanitarian assistance; coordination between humanitarian organisations, NATO and other militaries; and the global political and strategic climate in which these crises occurred. It offers a critical account of the political, logistical, bureaucratic and financial obstacles that hampered and are still hampering emergency humanitarian action.

There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems," said Ogata, explaining that in the many emergencies she oversaw at UNHCR, humanitarian relief in itself was not enough because the problems were caused by political factors.

"UNHCR is a protection agency. But what does protection really mean during conflicts, when states can't provide protection for their citizens?" she asked, describing UNHCR's hands-on protection of refugees and displaced people in four volatile regions in the '90s - Iraq, the Balkans, Africa's Great Lakes region and Afghanistan.

"UNHCR has been a real force by making states face up to responsibilities. It has become a space to defend victims against or in spite of states," said fellow panelist Jean-Baptiste Richardier, Director-General of UNHCR partner Handicap International.

In situations of extreme insecurity, like in the Balkans, UNHCR has also worked closely with military institutions like NATO. However, noted Ogata, "Military intervention in humanitarian situations has to be the last resort. I would prefer to see more effective preventive action and political action to be mobilised."

Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Strommen, also on the panel, shared her view: "We lack a political architecture to match the humanitarian architecture," lamenting the lack of political institutions and political will internationally.

This inaction has had devastating consequences, as seen during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed some 800,000 people. "I'm not convinced the world is committed enough to prevent another genocide," said Ogata, citing as an example the limited assistance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today.

Challenges remain even in post-conflict societies like Afghanistan, where UNHCR's repatriation and reintegration work needs to be supported by longer-term developmental assistance.

Ogata noted that when she was High Commissioner, she regularly complained about the gap between relief and development. As head of her country's development arm, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, "I am stuck in the gap right now," she quipped.

"UNHCR has helped to bridge the gap through partnerships in places like Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Central America," said Handicap International's Richardier. "There's no nobler concern than for refugees and displaced people. This book invites us to do better."

Summing up her accomplishments at UNHCR, Ogata conceded, "I don't think we solved the problem, but we made a difference. I hope UNHCR can continue to be at the forefront of humanitarian intervention."

By Vivian Tan