07 Dec, 2023

Breaking Barriers

5 mins read

Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The first woman and the first Japanese to serve as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Sadako Ogata broke barriers to women in multilateral diplomacy. She pioneered the concept of human security, ensuring that refugee concerns are fully part of political negotiations and peace processes.

Her humanism and realism are instructive in light of the current global crisis caused by spiking refugee numbers.

Human Rights

A human right is a standard or norm that enables people to live with dignity. It consists of the satisfaction of one’s developmental, physical, psychological and spiritual needs. Fulfillment of a single right often depends on fulfillment of other rights, such as the right to food and shelter.

As the first Japanese and the first woman to become the UNHCR chief, Ogata brought refugees chased from their homes by war and conflict close, putting her whole heart into helping them. She donned body armor and flew into conflict areas – from the mountains of Iraq after the Gulf War to the devastated parts of the Yugoslav wars – to hear the voices of the displaced for herself.

Ogata argued that people are more important than their nations, and broke down the old assumption that protecting national security was the main task of the international community. In 1999, she came to Brookings as part of a project with other leading thinkers to bridge the “relief-to-development gap” that affects recovery after conflict.


displaced persons, people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence, persecution or fear for their lives due to race, religion, political opinion, caste or membership in a particular social group. Refugees are not able to return home safely and independently and must live in countries that have accepted them.

When Ogata was appointed the first woman, the first Japanese and the first academic to lead UNHCR from 1991 to 2000, her work began at a time of tumult, as she dealt with the Kurdish refugees from Iraq, the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide. She gained a reputation for being a hardworking, fearless leader who was always willing to go into conflict areas and listen to the voices of the displaced.

Having grown up abroad with her diplomat father (the great-granddaughter of former prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai), Ogata was no stranger to international humanitarian work. She helped shape the organization into a strong advocate for displaced persons and focused on helping refugee women and children.


Peacebuilding is the development of constructive relationships across ethnic, religious and class lines to resolve and transform the structural conditions that generate deadly conflict. It includes a range of activities, from supporting formal processes of negotiation between governments and armed groups to disarming and rebuilding political, economic and judicial institutions.

Amid the global chaos, peacebuilding efforts are often fragmented and uncoordinated. They may focus on meeting immediate needs and managing crisis situations, or they might aim to build a lasting peace in the aftermath of war. Neither approach is sufficient in its own right, but a combination of both is needed to meet longer-term goals and achieve sustainable peace.

In this landmark book, John Paul Lederach provides a framework for building peace, stressing the importance of multiple peacemakers and long-term perspectives. A renowned leader in the field of conflict resolution, Lederach offers profound wisdom and insight as well as deep passion for his work. This is a must-read for anyone working to bring lasting peace and sustainable development to the world’s most troubled places.


A daughter of a diplomat, Ogata spent her youth moving around the world on her father’s postings to San Francisco, China and elsewhere. She graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo and earned master’s degrees at Georgetown University in Washington and UC Berkeley.

She was the first Japanese woman to serve as Japan’s ambassador to the UN and chaired the executive board of UNICEF. She was also a leading figure in revitalizing development policy for her country.

Ogata believed the key to ensuring peace was in education and the humanization of people. During her time as the High Commissioner for Refugees, she regularly visited conflict zones and areas in crisis of her own volition to see and hear the voices of refugees firsthand. She even donned body armor to visit war-ravaged regions like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Her commitment to humanity shined brightly, and RET will always cherish her memory. She passed away on 22 October at the age of 92.

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