Catherine O’Neill, refugee worker, cofounded women’s commission

NEW YORK — Catherine O’Neill — whose travels with the International Rescue Committee to refugee camps led her, along with the actress Liv Ullmann and others, to found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children — died Dec. 26 in Los Angeles. She was 70.

The cause was complications of cancer, said her husband, writer Richard Reeves.

Ms. O’Neill — who served on the board of the rescue committee, an aid organization that responds to humanitarian crises — had a professional career that included stops in the private, public, and charitable sectors. In the 1970s, she ran for the state Senate in California and for secretary of state, and she was the finance director for Governor Jerry Brown’s 1976 presidential campaign.


Ms. O’Neill was the first chairwoman of the group now known as the Women’s Refugee Commission. It was founded in 1989 after she, Ullmann, and others visited Pakistan, Thailand, and elsewhere and found, especially where war had driven people from their homes, that a special agency was needed, under the umbrella of the International Rescue Committee, to work on behalf of displaced women and families.

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They saw, Reeves said, that in many camps ‘‘the system was run by men and geared to caring for the men.’’

“Young men of fighting age were fed first, then the boy children, because they’d be fighters in the ­future, then the old men, and then the women,’’ he said.

The Women’s Refugee Commission now has a full-time staff of 25 with headquarters in New York. Its advocacy focuses on gender-based violence, migrant rights, sexual and reproductive health, the needs of adolescent girls, and other issues.

Catherine Elizabeth Vesey was born in Queens, N.Y. Her parents were emigrants from Ireland. Her father became a New York City subway conductor; her mother was a cafeteria worker in city schools.


Catherine graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and taught for a year in La Grange, Texas. She later earned a master’s degree in social work from Howard University in Washington and a second master’s, in international affairs, from Columbia.

In 1999, Kofi Annan, then secretary general of the United Nations, appointed her director of the UN Information Center in Washington, a job she held until her retirement in 2007.

Her first marriage, to Brian O’Neill, ended in divorce.

In addition to her husband, whom she married in 1979, she leaves two sons from her first marriage; a daughter; a stepdaughter; a stepson; a sister; a grandchild; and three step-grandchildren.