Humanitarianism Is Not Enough

Sadako Ogata
Sadako Ogata; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.