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Humanitarianism Is Not Enough

The word “humanitarian,” as it is now commonly used,1 is relatively recent; in many languages it does not even exist. The idea of a country or a people or even the “international community” having a responsibility for a particular people’s calamities is also relatively recent and by no means universally held. Humanitarian action was originally considered to be an activity not to be sullied by involvement with political or military afffairs. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the original humanitarian organization, has preserved the distinction to this day. Other agencies, however, and particularly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have found that their tasks have increasingly involved them in controversial political and military activities.

The cold war restricted the UN’s capacity for action in many ways, including both peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. When the frozen international structure imposed by the cold war thawed, numerous civil and community-based conflicts, usually involving ethnic or separatist groups, broke out in several parts of the world. Many of them created large flows of refugees and great human suffering. The UN Security Council, encouraged by its apparent post–cold war ability to agree on important decisions and by its unanimity in quickly approving the first Gulf War, launched a series of operations intended to deal with these conflicts and, if possible, resolve them. The success of such large, mostly improvised operations was distinctly mixed.


Sadako Ogata was appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees in early 1991, just in time for “The Turbulent Decade,” as her book is aptly titled. As she points out, she was the first Japanese, the first woman, and the first academic to hold this extremely demanding job. Although she had been a member of several Japanese diplomatic missions to the UN, she was a professor of international relations and at that time the dean of the Department of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. She was then in her mid-sixties. She had never been in a helicopter. She soon found herself in charge of large emergency field operations in several of the most violent and lawless parts of the world.

The Turbulent Decade is not an ordinary diplomatic memoir. For one thing the story itself is as fascinating as it is tragic. Ogata’s descriptions of the fiendish complexity—human, political, military, and even philosophical—of the situations she was involved in are remarkable for their clarity. Her book is also a penetrating chronicle, and critique, of the UN in action, and of the political, logistical, and financial obstacles that bedevil emergency humanitarian missions and can cause the UN to fail both its workers risking their lives in the field and the people they are trying to help. In addition she provides a personal account of a courageous, compassionate, and thoughtful person who was completely devoted to the task of helping refugees wherever in the world they might be, and who became agonized at the frequent limitations on what could actually be done for them. Sadako Ogata’s clear, quiet, and always courteous prose makes her descriptions more vivid and her criticisms, especially of the international system, more telling.

As high commissioner for refugees, Ogata had to deal with refugee problems throughout the world. Among them, when she took office, were the return of 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique; the fate of three million refugees from Indochina who had fled to neighboring countries, and 360,000 refugees who were to be repatriated to Cambodia; the more than two million people uprooted in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala; as well as asylum seekers from Haiti and Cuba. In The Turbulent Decade she concentrates on four crises involving refugees, in northern Iraq, the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa, and Afghanistan. As she explains, the numbers of people and the strategic interests at stake in those places made them of particular urgency.

When Sadako Ogata took up her post at the headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva in February 1991, she had two main objectives. The first was to make UNHCR “quick, smart, effective, and adaptable to a fast-changing environment.” The second was to act on her conviction that when the UN had to deal with governments or groups that were corrupt, brutal, or devious, it was not enough to take the high moral ground and condemn their bad behavior. She was fully aware that there are seldom, if ever, humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. However, she was determined that UNHCR must find more practical ways of dealing with refugee problems and, in doing so, become the most effective emergency mechanism in the UN system. Within a month of her arrival the tragic situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq presented her with the opportunity to work toward these goals.

UNHCR was already assisting 1.3 million Iraqi Kurds who had taken refuge in Iran when at the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein took savage reprisals against the Kurds in Iraq for their uprising against the regime. Nearly half a million Kurds fled to the mountains in northern Iraq, where their suffering in harsh winter conditions caught the world’s attention. The United States coalition forces launched a spectacular relief operation, “Provide Comfort,” in this inaccessible region, and the nearly half-million Iraqi Kurds they rescued arrived at the Turkish border hoping for asylum, which Turkey, with its own Kurdish problem, was unwilling to grant. The US military was anxious to hand them over to UNHCR as soon as possible. As one senior American officer put it, “We know how to deal with logistics but not how to deal with refugees.”

Ogata was well aware that, technically, these Kurds did not come under her mandate, since they were displaced persons in their own country, and therefore not refugees. She had no difficulty in deciding that they had to be helped nevertheless, thereby creating an important precedent. The other problems facing her were more serious. She was concerned to maintain the Kurds’ security against future attacks in northern Iraq after the coalition forces left. She was determined not to establish camps on the Turkish border in which the refugees might be trapped for years, but to get them to return to their homes as quickly as possible.

Since UNHCR had no armed forces or other “security personnel” and its immediately available resources were already committed to dealing with other refugee situations, its deployment in northern Iraq was slow. The US was understandably disappointed with the UN’s delay in taking on the responsibility for the refugees. However, Sadruddin Aga Khan, himself a former high commissioner for refugees, was able to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government, effectively creating a safe haven in northern Iraq and providing a legal basis for UN agencies to work inside Iraq. Saddam Hussein greatly preferred to have UNHCR rather than the coalition forces in Iraq’s northern territory. By June most of the refugees had returned home, and UNHCR was heavily engaged in providing them with food, clothing, health services, and other necessities, and with winterizing their tents and other housing.

During this crisis, unlike those that followed, the main parties, including the US forces, with twenty thousand troops, the government of Iraq, and the Kurds, each for different reasons, were more or less agreed on what should be done. Ogata was determined to improve UNHCR’s preparedness to deal with future emergencies. Her determination was to be tested little more than a year later in Yugoslavia.


The breakup of Yugoslavia led to an orgy of hatred and brutality on the part of different groups which was characterized by the savage practice of “ethnic cleansing.” This was a process designed to assure Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims that each group would dominate the region in which it was struggling to establish its own state. Each ethnic conflict created thousands of displaced persons and refugees. By mid-1992, the world’s attention was mostly fixed on the deadly struggle between Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia. Both the European Union and UN negotiators had failed to stop the bloodshed, and for the next three years NATO stood aloof. The responsibility for action therefore fell to the United Nations. The Security Council, unable to agree to intervene with force, eventually sent the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), a peacekeeping mission with a vague and largely humanitarian mandate, an arrangement wholly unsuited to intervention in a full-scale war. In an impossible position, UNPROFOR did what it could to help the victims, suffered many casualties, and was heavily criticized.

In former Yugoslavia there was no convergence of interests among the contending parties. For more than three years no effective international intervention force was deployed, and international action remained limited largely to humanitarian aid. By the summer of 1992, UNHCR was helping 2.7 million people in Yugoslavia’s six republics. Almost by chance, Ogata found herself in charge of a huge and hazardous humanitarian operation, “serving,” she writes, “as the ‘fig-leaf’ to cover the reality of strategic inaction.” The International Committee of the Red Cross had been leading the relief effort when, in May, the head of its delegation was killed in an attack on a relief convoy, and the ICRC mission was withdrawn. This left UNHCR to lead a major logistical operation in an active war zone with two thousand vehicles and three thousand aid workers from 250 organizations, of whom fifty were killed.

UNHCR’s road convoys were often blocked, threatened, or attacked—there were ninety roadblocks between the supply base at Zagreb and the besieged city of Sarajevo. To supply relief to Sarajevo, Ogata therefore had to organize what turned out to be the longest-lasting emergency supply airlift in history, with a total of 12,100 flights. The airlift was often the only way into and out of Sarajevo. Ogata herself, in addition to regularly visiting the war zone, was engaged in raising funds, negotiating access for her aid workers to beleaguered cities and towns, and dealing with the extraordinarily difficult local leaders on whose cooperation the operation ultimately depended. UNHCR was not permitted to operate in Serb-controlled Bosnia, at that time some 70 percent of the territory.

As a writer covering the Bosnian war, David Rieff, a highly perceptive and rigorous observer of humanitarian crises, developed a deep admiration for UNHCR at this period. “However ad hoc and almost incidental the decisions that led to UNHCR’s new centrality,” he wrote,

the agency underwent an unprecedented and astonishing transformation and, in a matter of months became what Gil Loescher, the historian of UNHCR has called “the world’s largest relief agency.” As one HCR official later recalled, “The preeminent role the UN and the UNHCR came to play in Bosnia was less the result of a grand plan than of the contradictory policies of different Europeans, the prevalent desire of the Europeans not to get involved, and a series of other fuck-ups.”… The new structures were quickly put into place…. And the great powers would have their humanitarian fig leaf for nonintervention…. Mme. Ogata’s decision had been a triumph.2

  1. 1

    According to the OED, its original usage was theological, meaning “one who affirms the mere humanity of Christ.”

  2. 2

    David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon and Schuster, 2002), pp. 133–134.

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