Three weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Tokyo is preparing to dispatch Self-Defense Forces personnel to join the United Nations peacekeeping operation to assist in the country’s reconstruction.
The dispatch is the first by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government on a U.N. peacekeeping mission and perhaps signals the start of more active engagement in U.N.-led operations, although the SDF elements are not expected to actually engage in keeping the peace.
Critics meanwhile said there are still many hurdles to overcome for Japan to truly increase its participation in real U.N. peacekeeping.
Yuji Uesugi, an associate professor of international cooperation at Hiroshima University, praised the Haiti deployment, saying Japan, with its expertise and experience, has a lot to offer to improve Haiti’s infrastructure.
“The SDF has overseas experience in improving infrastructure, like basic needs including roads and bridges, having been dispatched to Cambodia and East Timor,” Uesugi said.
The SDF “has helped the U.N. (peacekeeping) missions and its activities were deeply appreciated,” he added.
In response to the massive Haiti quake, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to boost the number of police officers and soldiers for the peacekeeping mission.
Japan raised its hand and in a couple of weeks the government officially approved the dispatch of 350 SDF engineers and others to offer logistic support.
But Uesugi said he was surprised at the speed with which the government approved the dispatch.
Dispatching forces overseas — even on humanitarian missions — has always been controversial, given the strong pacifist sentiment in Japan and its war-renouncing Constitution.
“I think the decision (on the Haiti dispatch) came faster than ever,” Uesugi said.
“It has been proven that if a political decision is made, (the government) can move expeditiously with decision-making and the Defense Ministry and SDF can respond,” Uesugi said.
The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was formed following a coup d’etat by antigovernment rebels in 2004.
With its high crime rate, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada described Haiti’s current state as dangerous. But he added that the U.N. mission itself was not typical because of the absence of armed conflict.
But Hiroshima University’s Uesugi expressed concern that the situation in Haiti could deteriorate.
“The situation in Haiti before the earthquake may have gotten better but we cannot ignore the security issues involving organized crime,” Uesugi said.
“I think there needs to be discussion on how the SDF would deal with deteriorating public order caused, for example, by organized crime,” he added.
Beginning with Cambodia in 1992, the SDF has taken part in six U.N. peacekeeping operations. There are currently only 39 SDF members engaged in U.N.-related peacekeeping activities, and in terms of providing personnel for such actions, Japan ranks 85th in the world.
Japan has long contributed more money than any other country except the U.S., and many experts say Japan can contribute to U.N.-led peacekeeping missions as well.
“While Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations has a prominent track record in Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere, the level of Japan’s recent contributions cannot be said to be sufficient,” Okada said in his foreign policy speech last week.
“In order to play a more active role in peacekeeping and peace-building, this government will consider further contributions beyond the mission in Haiti,” he said.
Critics, however, say this won’t be easy.
Uesugi noted the government could move quickly this time because the dispatch is in response to an earthquake. If the situation involved an armed conflict, a deployment would be more difficult, he said. SDF personnel have no direct experience in missions to actually keep the peace, such as truce monitors.
The coalition government includes the Social Democratic Party, which in general is against sending forces overseas.
“Japanese people tend to sympathize with earthquake victims and try to lend a helping hand, but I think they would hesitate if it had been an area suffering from conflict.”
By law, the SDF can only be dispatched on a peacekeeping mission if five criteria are met: a ceasefire accord between parties to a conflict; agreement by those parties, including where the mission, and Japan’s participation, will take place; the neutrality of the mission; the withdrawal of forces if any of the conditions are not met; and force can only be used in self-defense.
But the role of U.N.-led peacekeeping operations has expanded beyond resolving armed conflicts into broader social and political missions to stabilize troubled areas.
Critics including Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, said the five criteria must be reviewed for Japan to increase its participation in peacekeeping.
“I think the SDF already achieved results. Japan should drop the criteria, as they are no longer unnecessary,” Nishikawa said.
“For Japan to gain respect in the international community, it needs to take immediate action to help a country in trouble, even if there are dangers.”
Even though the Haiti dispatch decision seemed rather expeditious, Japan was criticized for not responding immediately after the earthquake hit.
Tokyo said Jan. 15 it would send a 25-member emergency medical team, three days after the temblor. On Jan. 20, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa ordered the dispatch of an SDF emergency medical team.
A former Defense Ministry official, Nishikawa slammed Japan for not responding immediately to Haiti’s needs.
“There was so much damage caused by the earthquake . . . we needed to do everything we could as soon as we could,” he said.
“Instead of discussing the reconstruction of Haiti, Japan should have sent even a small group of people within 72 hours of the earthquake to save as many people as possible.”
Nishikawa stressed that Japan needs to show the international community it can and will share responsibility with other nations.