Publication - OI

Sadako Ogata

LE 04.09.2023

Japanese and first woman to lead the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000

Célestine Rolland

Célestine Rolland is a student in the Peace, Humanitarian Action and Development Masters program at Sciences Po Lille, specializing in the study of conflict management and development issues.

Mots clés :  Portrait   droits humains   Migrations   Négociations   ONU   réfugiés   UNHCR 

Sadako Ogata was a diplomat and academic. At the head of the UNHCR during the 1990s’, she oversaw major operations especially during the Gulf War, the Yugoslavia conflict and the Rwanda genocide, reforming the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency. From 2003 to 2012, she led the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) driving development programs to provide assistance to the poor.

Born Sadako Nakamura in Tokyo in 1927, she was the daughter of a diplomat and the great- granddaughter of former prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Thanks to her father’s profession, she grew up between the United States, China and Japan. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature in Tokyo, she pursued her studies abroad and finally obtained a PhD in International Relations from the University of Berkeley. She was firstly an academic at the faculty of foreign studies at Sophia University in Tokyo before starting her career in the UN. She retired in 2012 and died at the age of 92 in 2019.

Her position as the High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)

In 1991, she became the first Japanese and the first woman to hold the position of High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR). In doing so, she broke a triple glass ceiling. As a woman, many were skeptical about her ability to occupy such a senior UN position. But also because she was Japanese, a nationality with a very specific working culture with which the UN and even more so the UNHCR were very unfamiliar with. And finally, she was coming from the academic world while the UN is dominated by career bureaucrats and former political leaders. However, she quickly demonstrated that she had all her place there. A few weeks after her nomination, she earned the nickname « bare-foot giants » or « diminutive giant » in reference to her petite stature but also her great implication and negotiation skills during the first Gulf War. 

A commitment to the Internally Displaced People (IDP)

Not only did she hesitate to shake up the UN Refugee Agency by refusing to be desk bound, flying from one country to another to directly meet the refugees and hear their voices, but she was also able to negotiate with political leaders. At the time, millions of Kurd people were fleeing the wrath of Saddam Hussein, but the road to Türkiye and Iran were incredibly dangerous. Within the UNHCR, she pushed the commission to recognize in its mandate the assistance to be given to internally displaced people. She also engaged in tough negotiations in Iraq and Türkiye, which led to the formation of refugee camps administered by the HCR on their shared border.

This is one of her main legacy within the organization. IDPs are nowadays defined as persons who were forced to leave their home to avoid the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, violations of human rights or disasters but who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border. Even though it isn’t a legal status and the definition remains mainly political, the HCR is today enabled to help those people.

Another illustration of her skills in terms of diplomacy and negotiation took place during the Balkan War in 1993. While she was already overseeing major rescue operation in ex-Yugoslavia, in a great poker move, she made the decision to suspend all the aid and relief operation in Bosnia in retaliation for the fact that the Bosnian government and Serb nationalists were doing everything possible to prevent food and basic necessities from being delivered to victims of the siege of Srebrenica. This action helped unblock the situation in a few days and to reach an agreement with Bosnian officials and relief resumed shortly after.

Her work within the UNHCR has enabled the organization to fully embrace its new role in a world freed from the Cold War and where multilateralism was becoming the dominant form of diplomacy. In her book The Turbulent Decade – Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s’, she described how the HCR faced major crises throughout the 1990s’, assimilating the UN agency as a « fire brigade » always in ebullition. It is particularly thanks to her that the HCR has succeeded in establishing itself as a major player in international and humanitarian crises. She received the 2005 Great Negotiator Award by Harvard for putting herself in the frontline of conflict and being able to make such great changes to help the world’s dispossessed.

She was convinced that helping the poor and especially the refugees was an obligation not only from a human rights point of view, but also to strengthen democracy and prevent the erosion of democratic values. An opinion that echoes the European Union migration policy and the securitization of migratory issues which are now associated with questions of nationalism and national security. The work of the UNHCR in the Middle-East and especially in Syria is hindered especially since the need for refugee resettlement is far too great compared to what Western states are offering. According to her, the best way to prevent all that suffering is to resolve « the factors which force people to move » but also by demonstrating the solidarity and generosity of democratic regimes in the light of these events.

Pour citer ce document :
Célestine Rolland , "Sadako Ogata. Japanese and first woman to lead the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000". Portrait [en ligne], 04.09.2023,