When I started my work as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in February 1991--as the first woman, the first Japanese, and the first academic in that post--the world had just moved away from the rigidly controlled cold war structure. Within weeks of my arrival in Geneva, almost 2 million Iraqi Kurds had fled to Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the Gulf War. That was the beginning of my turbulent decade as High Commissioner until I left the position in 2000.
The Gulf War of 1991 was a major watershed in the advancement of multilateral diplomacy and humanitarian action that set the stage for the post-cold-war period of the 1990s. The scale and speed of refugee exodus were unprecedented, and the pace of their return was equally rapid. Backed up by Security Council resolution 688 (1991), the coalition forces intervened to set up a safe haven in northern Iraq to bring back the Kurdish refugees. Soon we moved to northern Iraq for the first time, working closely with international military forces to help refugees and internally displaced persons. In the following years, especially in the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes Region of Africa, we were constantly challenged to rethink our protection, assistance and solution strategies.
The foundation of protection remained legal, but ensuring this protection increasingly became an operational, practical, hands-on activity. UNHCR was on the front lines, often in war zones, and frequently alone. We became much more active in countries of origin, particularly when helping returnees to reintegrate. The times also demanded innovative approaches to asylum. We broke new ground--and together saved many lives--by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, or by implementing the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme for refugees from Kosovo. Following the dramatic events in the Great Lakes Region of Africa between 1994 and 1997, and a request by the Secretary-General to make proposals on how to ensure security and neutrality in refugee camps, we developed a "ladder" of options, from the basic "protection by presence" to a range of "medium" alternatives of training and deployment.
When the cold war came to a close, people optimistically spoke of the arrival of the new world order. Reflecting on the changed environment, peace agreements were reached in Central America, Cambodia, South Africa and elsewhere in the early 1990s. The main operations of UNHCR in these regions became...