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Humanitarianism Is Not Enough

This tiny, determined, commanding person and her dedicated and courageous co-workers became symbols of a genuine attempt to do something for the victims in the Bosnian debacle. Ogata herself was, as Rieff puts it, “the one entirely admirable senior figure in a landscape otherwise dotted with failed or superannuated politicians serving as international negotiators.”

In another break with precedent, in November 1992 Ogata was asked to address the Security Council, thereby, as she puts it, “crossing the humanitarian Rubicon.” In her speech she demanded “a renewed commitment by the parties to respect safe passage of relief goods and non-disruption of public utilities.” She also asked for “immediate deployment of UNPROFOR and flexibility in application of their mandate to provide extensive support in logistics” and “massive bilateral and multilateral provision of resources.” She also sent a plea to all governments to keep their borders open to refugees fleeing for their lives.

The Bosnian relief effort was hampered by obstruction from every side. “All parties,” Ogata writes, “seemed to believe that our humanitarian assistance fed their ‘enemy.’” At one point the Bosnian government boycotted the Sarajevo airlift in an attempt to draw world attention to the plight of people in the Bosnian Muslim enclaves. To the disapproval of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Ogata responded by suspending the airlift, whereupon the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, who was dependent on the airlift for vital supplies and contact with the outside world, thanked her for thus drawing world attention to the plight of the Muslims and lifted the boycott on the airlift, which Ogata then ordered resumed.3

Ogata began to realize how little the UN would do to reinforce the humanitarian operation. “I recognized more than ever the limits of the Security Council,” she writes. “Its concern was primarily political, with limited heed to humanitarian consequences. It could condemn the Bosnian Serb action, but UNPROFOR, UNHCR, and the humanitarian agencies had to cope with the effects of increasingly dominant Serb power.” The situation she describes continued for nearly three years, with constantly recurring violent incidents, casualties, and political dilemmas. One such dilemma involved a basic contradiction. UNHCR was supposed to make it possible for people to stay in their homes or to return to them. In the process of ethnic cleansing vast numbers of people were brutally forced from their homes with little hope of returning; they needed immediate help from UNHCR, and Ogata did her best to provide it. Some politicians charged that she was being an accomplice of ethnic cleansing, but she had no doubt that her ultimate obligation was to save lives.

UNHCR’s efforts to reach the Muslim enclaves were regularly obstructed by the Serbs, and conditions, especially in Srebrenica and Cerska, were rapidly deteriorating. Ogata recommended to Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali that the enclaves should either be evacuated or that strong military force and other resources should be made available to protect and sustain them. The Security Council ruled out evacuation, and in April 1993 it declared Srebrenica a “safe area,” followed, in May, by Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, and Cerska-Kamenica. When Boutros-Ghali asked for 34,000 extra troops to protect these safe areas, his request was rejected by the Security Council almost contemptuously. Ogata was surprised when Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, with whom she appeared on television, said that safe areas were important as the territorial base for the new Bosnian state. “Having been immersed,” Ogata explains, “in the humanitarian implications of the Bosnian War, I had not looked at the safe areas in such terms.” She had simply considered that human lives and the “viability of people and communities should be the top-priority items at the negotiating table.”

Around six o’clock on July 11, 1995, Srebrenica fell to the Serb forces, who overran the weak UN Dutch garrison and took away and shot most of the Muslim men. Ogata managed to get to Tuzla to see the Muslim women who had fled from Srebrenica. They were desperately anxious about the fate of the men, and, understandably, were angry with Ogata and her staff, whom the Serbs had blocked from going to Srebrenica. “Why could you not come before?” they asked. “Why could you not prevent the calamity!” She writes that “the sorrow and suffering of the abandoned families at the airstrip were overwhelming. I had very few words to console them.”

Although it was easy at the time to blame the Dutch defenders of Srebrenica, Ogata has no illusions about where the responsibility lay:

The secretary-general requested additional troops to be deployed to the safe areas, but there was no response. By taking a stand without substantive backup, the council revealed its limit in both strength and authority. UNHCR and the humanitarian agencies were left to confront the growing Serb power. The safe area debate and the subsequent massacre in Srebrenica proved the limits of collective action in the face of diametrically opposed strategic interests.

The tragedy of Srebrenica forced the world to face the brutal realities of the Balkan conflict; there was concerned talk of a forceful response to Serbian atrocities. Paradoxically, the use of NATO air power against the Serbs made UNHCR and UNPROFOR personnel, who were organized in small groups in many parts of the war zone, more insecure, and potential hostages of the Serbs. “More and more,” Ogata writes, “the United Nations had to face the question of how forcefully to seek NATO support and how far to pursue the humanitarian mission.”

During the summer of 1995 the Serbs were in difficulty; the renewed Croatian offensive against the Serbs in the Krajina was a serious blow to the Serbs. In July the Serb shelling of a large, bustling market in Sarajevo, shown throughout the world on television, provoked widespread outrage. NATO airpower at last went into action. On October 12, all military action on the ground ceased, and on November 21 the Dayton peace agreement was concluded. With a cease-fire and peace, NATO was at last willing to deploy in Bosnia a force twice as large as UNPROFOR, far more heavily armed, and with the right to use force. UNPROFOR was generally dismissed as a failure, and, somewhat condescendingly, UNHCR was allotted the task of repatriating refugees, settling displaced persons, and providing for them. At the time of the Dayton agreement there were 1,297,000 displaced persons in Bosnia, 820,000 in the other republics, and 700,000 refugees in European countries—a total of some three million people to be brought home.

In the spring of 1998, while UNHCR was still engaged in the nightmare complications of settling these re-fugees in a land pervaded by anger, ethnic hatred, wanton destruction, and vengefulness, the relations between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians, who made up the majority of the province of Kosovo, began seriously to deteriorate. The Serbs were already forcing large numbers of Kosovars out of their homes. Ogata reported this to the Security Council, warning that unless a dialogue between the opposing sides could contain the demands of the extremists, a growing crisis and many more refugees could be expected. She also ordered arrangements to be made for Albania to accept refugees.

When negotiations with President Milosevic over Kosovo finally broke down, NATO, on March 24, 1999, began bombing Serbian targets in attacks that lasted seventy-nine days, much longer than had been expected, before Milosevic conceded. Before the bombing started, Ogata was instructed to pull out of Kosovo all of her staff, which had been looking after 400,000 displaced Kosovars, and move her operations to Macedonia. No one had anticipated that the NATO bombing would cause the Serbs to resort to mass deportation of Kosovars, but hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into Macedonia and Albania, catching UNHCR by surprise.

The United States and other NATO countries, which feared upsetting the delicate demographic balance in Macedonia, criticized Ogata for being slow and ineffective in dealing with this new crisis. David Rieff writes that Ogata was “humiliated and marginalized by the great powers in Kosovo.” Nonetheless camps were set up, and by mid-June the refugees spontaneously went home to Kosovo, where UNHCR engaged in its now familiar tasks of providing them with food and other necessities and winterizing their shelters. The protection of the Serb minority in Kosovo then became the most sensitive task for NATO and the UN; in fact many Serbs were attacked and large numbers left the province.


No one intervened to stop the genocide in Rwanda, which took 800,000 lives. What happened after the genocide, and is still happening in eastern Congo, was nearly as horrible, although in a less spectacular way. Once again the international community, as represented by the UN Security Council, preferred to let humanitarian operations, with no security or even enough police, serve as the pretext for not intervening with strong force in the worsening situation. The war in eastern Congo, which developed out of the refugee camps of the Rwandan genocide, has so far claimed some four million lives.

The horror of the genocide and the fear of vengeance in response to it created a flood of Hutu and other refugees into neighboring Tanzania, eastern Zaire, and Uganda. Ogata sent emergency teams there. The first Hutu refugees crossed the border into Tanzania at the end of April 1994, and three months later more than one million left Rwanda and fled to Zaire. Ogata, already fully occupied in the Balkans and with Hutu refugees in Tanzania, felt, she says, “a sense of doom.” The refugees in Zaire included many of the civil and military Hutu officials who had been responsible for the genocide. These militants were determined to stay in control of the refugees. They intended to use the UNHCR camps as a base from which eventually they would fight their way back into Rwanda. UNHCR’s immediate problem was to keep order, separate the military leaders and their followers from the refugee population, and establish the civilian character of the camps. It had virtually no means to carry out such tasks.

Ogata asked Boutros-Ghali for a force to police the camps, but in vain. Once again the Security Council and governments throughout the world were hiding behind humanitarian organizations in order to avoid committing their soldiers to a dangerous venture in a region that had no strategic interest for them. Having exhausted all other possible sources of military help, Ogata sent her deputy, Sergio Viera de Mello (who was killed while leading the UN mission in Iraq in August 2003), to Kinshasa to ask President Mobutu to provide soldiers from his presidential guard to police the camps.4 Under international supervision the Zairean Camp Security Contingent (CZSC) for a short time helped to control the intimidating actions of the Hutu military. When the new Rwandan government allied itself with the Congo rebels, however, they fled west with some of the refugees.

The Rwandan government regarded the camps as an intolerable threat. Ogata was in a painful dilemma. “Never before,” she told the UNHCR Executive Committee,

has my Office found its humanitarian concerns in the midst of such a lethal quagmire of political and security interests. While our humanitarian assistance and protection serve an innocent silent majority of needy and anxious refugees, they also serve the militants who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

For Ogata it was out of the question for UNHCR to abandon the innocent people who made up the majority of the refugees, although some important NGOs withdrew from the camps rather than even indirectly give assistance to the militants.

In October 1996 the new Rwandan government under Paul Kagame took matters into its own hands. Allying itself with the anti-Mobutu Congolese rebels, it began to attack the border camps and disperse the refugees. Many of them made it back to Rwanda. An unknown number of others went west into Zaire. The Congolese rebels were beginning their successful advance across the country to Kinshasa, the capital. Mobutu’s Zaire was disintegrating into a civil war in which the Rwandan refugees, and eventually six other countries, would soon be involved. The Great Lakes region of Africa was fast becoming a military, political, and civilian catastrophe.

By Ogata’s estimate, up to 700,000 refugees were still wandering in the rain forest of eastern Zaire in October 1996, and she and her staff improvised a search-and-rescue operation con-sisting of seventy-four teams. At UN headquarters in New York, governments were less willing than ever to intervene with troops in such a situation. After another appeal by Boutros-Ghali for a military force, a Canadian-led force was mobilized but, as the difficulties mounted, it was withdrawn by the end of the year on the pretext, in spite of Ogata’s figure of 700,000 still in Zaire, that the refugees were now going home.

In the middle of a civil war, with the NGOs its only faithful humanitarian partners, UNHCR continued searching for refugees, mostly in thick rain forest. Ogata, who was desperately concerned for the safety of her own staff, was able to see for herself the appalling conditions of groups of refugees found by her team in Zaire. From all reports, many of them continue to live there in misery today. Over one million returning refugees also had to be resettled in Rwanda, and eventually that part of the operation at least, after great difficulties, was largely successful. When Ogata visited Rwanda in June 2000 to say goodbye, President Kagame gave her the title of “Friend of Rwanda.”

The conflicts of the last twenty-five years in Afghanistan produced the largest and longest refugee exodus of the past century. More than six million people fled to Pakistan and Iran after the Soviet invasion in 1979. In 2000 there were still nearly three million refugees, most of whom had fled during the fighting, which ended with the triumph of the Taliban. Ogata found that for international donors, Afghanistan had become a forgotten country. Returning refugees encountered uncharted minefields, general destruction, and drought, and could find no work. As Ogata told the Taliban’s minister for Martyrs and Repatriation, the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women was deeply discouraging both for donors and for refugees who wished to go home.

The events of September 11 andthe American-led intervention in Afghanistan made it once again a focus of world attention. Ogata was no longer high commissioner for refugees, but as the Japanese prime minister’s representative she chaired a world meeting in Tokyo that produced pledges of assistance to Afghanistan on a scale inconceivable a year before. Japan gave $92 million to the “Ogata Initiative” designed to link humanitarian with development aid. One of its projects, sponsored by Japan and the US, was the highway from Kabul to Herat and Kandahar. In Afghanistan the efforts to rebuild the country followed immediately after the military and politi-cal action of 2001 and had at least some military protection. Thus HCR, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and all the other humanitarian agencies could carry out, as far as still formidable difficulties permitted, a program to improve living conditions and restore normal life which may well go on for several more years.


The Turbulent Decade not only provides an inside account of the workings of large-scale humanitarian aid at a very confused and violent time. It also casts penetrating light on the political and military realities of the United Nations. In particular it illustrates how wide the gap is between the sonorous resolutions of the Security Council and the situations that hard-pressed humanitarian workers and others often have to deal with in the field. It highlights the consequences of the Security Council’s periodic inability to act decisively in a critical situation, usually because of the opposition of one or another of its permanent members. Ms. Ogata’s book also reveals the understandable reluctance of governments to commit adequate forces to engage in violent and unpredictable situations that have little or no strategic interest for them. It demonstrates dramatically how much the UN’s performance in emergencies suffers from the absence of a highly trained, versatile, truly international, rapid deployment force that would be responsible to the Security Council itself and would therefore be instantly available when really needed, as it was, desperately, on several occasions in Ogata’s experience.5

Ogata argues that while large humanitarian operations cannot solve political or military problems, they can sometimes serve as a pretext for the Security Council and its member nations to avoid the more forceful intervention that the situation calls for.6 David Rieff describes the paradox:

For the Bosnians, UNHCR’s success in carrying out the role the great powers had assigned it represented both a triumph and a tragedy. Fundamentally, the better the job UNHCR and the NGOs that worked with it did in Bosnia—and, given the appalling, impossible circumstances, the job they did was magnificent—the more cover they provided for the great powers to avoid doing anything to stop the slaughter.

There is now much talk about reforming, or rehabilitating, or even saving the United Nations. Of the many proposals being made, some will no doubt be adopted. Little or nothing, however, is being said about the basic political problems that are often responsible for an inadequate Security Council response. On the whole, the US and the rest of the world’s powerful nations avoid discussing the periodic inability of the Security Council to agree on much-needed action, and the reasons for it. The members of the Security Council, and especially the permanent members, sometimes lack the sense of urgent international responsibility that, in situations when action is desperately needed, could, at least for a short time, override their disagreements or intransigent national policies. Nor do they want to consider the need for a standing UN rapid deployment force, although one is often urgently needed to tackle a problem before it grows into a nightmare. The disaster in the Great Lakes region, which continues despite the belated presence of a UN peacekeeping force, is a somber reminder of what happens when there is no forceful intervention at a critical moment.

No one should underestimate the political difficulties involved either in remedying such shortcomings or in reforming the Security Council, but unfortunately the future credibility and usefulness of the United Nations in peace and security matters depend to a large extent on progress in resolving such problems.

A statement made in mid-April by Kofi Annan about the situation in Darfur brings Ogata’s very important book into the present:

After all, giving aid without protection is like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound. Unarmed aid workers, while vitally necessary, cannot defend civilians from murder, rape, or violent attack. Our collective failure to provide a much larger force is as pitiful and inexcusable as the consequences are grave for the tens of thousands of families who are left unprotected.

We saw this all too well in Bosnia a decade ago. Back then, Bosnian civilians watched the aid trucks continue to roll while their neighbors were gunned-down in full daylight. “We will die with our stomachs full,” they used to say. “Are we now going to stand by and watch a replay in Darfur?”7

Despite many pious assurances made after the Rwanda genocide two fundamental questions remain. Will powerful governments be willing to intervene with all necessary force in violent humanitarian disasters wherever in the world they may be? And will those governments, and especially the United States, who are calling for radical improvement at the United Nations, also be willing to address their individual and collective responsibilities not only for past failures but for dealing with such disasters in the future?

  1. 3

    Ogata adds, “The media reported that the secretary-general sent a message to me ‘asking to resume the humanitarian aid.’ It portrayed the development as one in which the strong-willed Boutros-Ghali had won a row with Sadako Ogata and implied that I had been overruled. The secretary-general was also reported to have added, ‘I am supposed to direct this operation.’”

  2. 4

    David Rieff points out that Mobutu’s long and supportive relationship with the former Rwandan government made the deployment of his soldiers in the camps on the Rwandan border seem a mortal threat to the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the new government of Rwanda.

  3. 5

    See my article “For a UN Volunteer Military Force,” The New York Review, June 10, 1993.

  4. 6

    In an appendix to her book, Ogata provides the text of her eloquent and remarkably frank farewell speech to the UN Security Council, in which she forcefully makes a number of the points mentioned here.

  5. 7

    See Kofi Annan, “Billions of Promises to Keep,” The New York Times, April 13, 2005.

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