In July 2005, Doudou Diene, a special representative of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government.
He visited Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido to see if Japan, an aspirant for a U.N. Security Council seat, was keeping its treaty promises regarding racial discrimination.
His trip caused quite a reaction. Although the regular domestic press largely ignored his reports, they inspired a vivid debate in the new media. This column will chart the arc of the issues, and demonstrate a potential sea change in how the U.N. holds countries accountable for human rights.
But first, some quick background: In 1996, Japan effected the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, promising to take all measures, including legislation, to stop discrimination on the basis of “race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” A decade later, Japan still has no law outlawing racial discrimination and has also refused attempts to pass one.
So Diene came to see things for himself, talking to individuals, spokespeople, and government officials. Afterward, he reported that discrimination in Japan is “deep and profound,” and Japanese society is “spiritually and intellectually closed.” His recommendations (see side bar) included establishing laws and enforcement mechanisms to protect human rights.
This isn’t something that much of Japan’s polity wants to hear.
For example, alarmism about establishing human rights commissions caused Tottori Prefecture to repeal Japan’s first antiracial discrimination law (Community Page: May 2, 2006).
The same goes for a national Human Rights Protection Bill (“jinken yogo hoan”) in the Diet. In April, an entire book was published to scuttle it, interpreting U.N. standards as “the totalitarianism of developed countries.”
Said book even provided manga for the masses — depicting foreigners picking fights in bars, lying down on the job, and laying waste to apartments, then unjustly calling the human rights commission to “rat” on any boss, barkeep, or landlord who objected.
Mentioning the Diene report in passing (comparing it to “book of lies” “The Rape of Nanking”), the book demanded the Foreign Ministry show some backbone for a change, stop the U.N. “insulting our country,” and “protect our sovereignty and independence.”
Many Internet groups and pages heralded the report as an appropriate allocation of attention to a long-neglected problem. Human rights groups, with a few reservations, were energized — finally getting the ear of the U.N.
But critics created objections: questioning Diene’s depth of knowledge after only a week in Japan; comparing Japan’s mild discrimination to historical examples of apartheid overseas; decrying the apparent “ploy to embarrass the Japanese government in the eyes of the world”; and alleging partiality — with Diene “following the bidding of activists” (including this writer). One claimed “there are no national minorities in Japan.”
Japan’s Foreign Ministry responded thus: “There may be few countries, if any . . . where some form of racial discrimination and xenophobia does not exist . . . (Japan) reiterates its firm commitment to fight earnestly and effectively against every kind of racial discrimination that may exist in our country and to eliminate it.”
As evidence of earnestness, the ministry cited “public education and promoting awareness programs,” youth exchanges and foreign scholarships, “foreign youths to assist teaching” at schools, and foreign exchanges (aiming to catch Japanese while young, not convince die-cast Japanese adults). It also pointed at the (now moribund) Human Rights Protection Bill and hoped it would someday pass.
The debate could have faded there, but Diene returned to Japan in mid-May of this year, visiting Okinawa, Osaka, and Tokyo.
Why the homecoming? Diene, in Osaka, said: “Discrimination is not something you deal with only once. You must follow up on it all the time, because it mutates. And the current mutation is antiterrorism.
“While racial discrimination used to be the province of extremist far-right parties, it is now becoming a regular part of democratic systems, being blended in . . . with the fight against terrorism.”
As if on cue, Japan passed its new Immigration Law on May 17, reinstating the fingerprinting of foreign residents.
Said Diene: “This illustrates something I have been reporting on for four years. Since Sept. 11, there has been a process of criminalization of foreigners all over the world. In an ideological atmosphere where there is a strong growth of nationalism and xenophobia, this clearly leads to discrimination of foreigners.”
He reiterated in Tokyo that “Japan has no official, no national, legislation against discrimination, and this is against the international instruments (requiring this from) member states.”
Responding to criticisms, Diene acknowledged his report’s limitations: “I have not been able to meet everybody I would have liked to.” His standard requests, to meet the highest officials wherever he visits, had not yet opened doors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi or Tokyo Gov. Ishihara.
Regarding the alleged lack of objectivity, he said: “I am receiving no U.N. salary for my work here, so my views are independent of any government or interest group. I am also not only surveying Japan,” he added, citing trips to over a dozen other countries.
“I am surveying countries based upon the promises they made themselves under the international instruments they have signed,” as is his mandate as special rapporteur.
He concluded that to alleviate conflicts between peoples, one thing regions need is a general account of history. Citing UNESCO’s assistance in convoking the best historians in Central Asia, Africa, and Central America, he noted the importance of drafting a version all countries in East Asia can accept.
A critic soon piped up: “Isn’t rewriting history what dictators do?”
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer states for the record he has met and attended several of Diene’s presentations, contributed copious data, and written at length on his statements. I am a firm supporter of both Diene’s report and recommendations.
This should not, however, divert our attention from what’s going on here. The U.N. is now holding countries more accountable for their treaty promises. The U.N. recently reformed its Human Rights Council, long considered the hideout for the worst human-rights offenders. Member states will apparently be judged on their own human rights practices.
Japan is one of 47 member states elected in May to the Council. Diene said his reports should help its government focus on the issues.
And through his practice of meeting in person, listening to individuals and groups who feel they are victims of discrimination, we may well see a grassroots strengthening of Japan’s civil society.
What Diene said
In January 2006, Diene formally issued a 23-page report of his findings to the U.N. (available at www.debito.org/UNdienereport012406.html).
He wrote that racial discrimination and xenophobia in Japan affect 1.) national minorities (the Burakumin, the Ainu Hokkaido aborigines and Okinawans); 2.) descendants of former Japanese colonies (the Korean and Chinese Zainichi generational foreigners); and 3.) foreigners and migrants.
Diene pointed out a.) social and economic discrimination, where “minorities live in a situation of marginalization in their access to education, employment, health, housing, etc.;” b.) political discrimination, where “national minorities are invisible in State institutions;” and finally c.) cultural and historical discrimination, reflected in the “poor recognition and transmission of the history of those communities and in the perpetuation of the existing discriminatory image of those groups.”
He stated that “it can hardly be argued that Japan is respecting its international obligations,” and that “racial discrimination is practiced undisturbed in Japan.” He recommended a.) government recognition of the problem and political will to combat it; b.) a national antidiscrimination law; and c.) commission for equality and human rights.