Sadako Ogata obituary: ‘Diminutive giant’ of international diplomacy

Ogata was the first woman to be United Nations high commissioner for refugees

Sadako Ogata ‘was not afraid to tell the world as to what needs to be done and how she proposed to do it’. Photograph: Patrick Aviolat/EPA

Sadako Ogata ‘was not afraid to tell the world as to what needs to be done and how she proposed to do it’. Photograph: Patrick Aviolat/EPA


Born: September 16th, 1927
Died: October 22nd, 2019

Sadako Ogata, the first woman to be named the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the first Japanese national to hold that position, died on October 22nd in Tokyo. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by the Japan International Co-operation Agency, a government-funded aid organisation of which Ogata was president for nine years before her retirement in 2012.

Ogata was appointed to lead the refugees commission at the age of 63 in 1991, as the cold war was coming to an end. As high commissioner, she oversaw refugee operations during a time of ravaging conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor and other regions, as well as the return of refugees to their homes after wars in Cambodia and Ethiopia.

Her petite stature (she was less than 5ft tall) and mild manner masked a formidable moral vision. She earned the sobriquet “diminutive giant” after one of her signature achievements: in 1991, in response to the displacement of more than a million Iraqi Kurds during the first Gulf War, she pushed the commission to change its rules to provide aid not only to refugees escaping from their countries but also to those fleeing conflict within their countries. She engaged in tough negotiations with Iraqi officials that allowed the agency to set up refugee camps on the northern Iraqi border with Turkey.

And in 1993 she clashed publicly with UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali after she made the audacious decision to suspend all relief to Bosnia at a time when both the Bosnian government and Serbian nationalists were obstructing deliveries of food and blankets to victims of the Serbian siege of Srebrenica.

“She was not afraid to tell the world as to what needs to be done and how she proposed to do it,” said Yasushi Akashi, a diplomat who was once the secretary-general’s special representative in the former Yugoslavia.

Her move so angered Boutros-Ghali that he immediately countermanded it, but within five days the Bosnian government allowed the refugees commission to resume sending relief.

“Mrs Ogata was a visionary leader who steered UNHCR through one of the most momentous decades in its history,” Filippo Grandi, the current high commissioner, said in a statement, “transforming the lives of millions of refugees and others devastated by war, ethnic cleansing and genocide, and helping redefine humanitarian action in a fast-evolving geopolitical landscape.”

Early life

Nakamura was born on September 16th, 1927, in Tokyo, the eldest daughter of Toyoichi Nakamura, a diplomat in the foreign ministry, and Tsuneko Yoshizawa, a granddaughter of Tsuyoshi Inukai, a prime minister who was assassinated in 1932. (An accomplished tennis player later in life, she occasionally played matches with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.)

As a child, Sadako lived in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, as well as in Guangdong, China, and Hong Kong. While the family lived in China, her father hired a Japanese-American tutor to ensure she kept up her English.

She moved back to Tokyo and was attending a Catholic school, Sacred Heart, when American forces firebombed the city in the second World War. She graduated from the school’s affiliated university with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.

A Rotary Foundation fellowship took her to the Georgetown University school of foreign service in Washington, where she pursued a master’s degree. While there, she worked as a translator for Michiko Fujiwara, a visiting Japanese politician, who introduced her to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ogata earned a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. She met and married Shijiro Ogata while conducting research for her dissertation in Tokyo. Survivors include her son, Atsushi, and her daughter, Akiko.

Ogata initially pursued a career in academia because she thought it would be almost impossible to enlist in the foreign service and keep up with the demands of being a mother.

But with her strong scholarship in international relations and her fluency in English, she was appointed to a Japanese delegation to the UN General Assembly in 1968. She subsequently took on roles as a minister in Japan’s mission to the United Nations and as chairwoman of the executive board of the UN Children’s Fund.

Stint in Myanmar

She first worked with refugees as a special emissary to the border between Thailand and Cambodia, and then as Japan’s first representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights. That job led to a stint in Myanmar as a special rapporteur.

She was there when secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar recommended her to fill the post of high commissioner.

“Women were not expected to serve in such high-ranking positions in international agencies,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament and a friend of Ogata. Ogata’s appointment was particularly surprising, Inoguchi added, given that she came from an “Asiatic paternalistic culture”.

Ogata told an interviewer in 2015: “I didn’t have any consciousness that I was Japanese”; rather, she said, she “happened to be Japanese”.