A step in the right direction

Japan will soon express its willingness to become a party to the twin protocols of the four Geneva conventions that were approved in 1949 to protect war victims and prevent the kinds of abuses that had occurred during World War II. The supplementary protocol agreements, adopted in 1977, set humanitarian rules for protecting noncombatants in international armed conflicts (excluding declared wars between states) and in civil wars and other localized conflicts.

Last month the Diet approved the government’s plan to ratify the protocols. These will take effect for Japan six months after the government deposits the instruments of ratification with the Swiss government, which serves as the secretariat. As of June 25, 161 countries were parties to the first protocol, which extends protection to victims in international armed conflicts; and 156 to the second protocol, which applies to victims in noninternational armed conflicts such as civil wars.

Japan is already a party to the four Geneva conventions. These are formally known as the (1) Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick of Armed Forces in the Field; (2) Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea; (3) Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War; and (4) Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

All four treaties include a common clause (Article 3) that applies to noninternational armed conflicts. This humanitarian article sets restrictions, for example, on the use of modern weapons and abusive activities by combatants. The protocols were added to cover other localized conflicts such as struggles for national liberation.

The first protocol, which was designed to protect noncombatants, stipulates, among other things, that belligerents must exercise restraint in selecting their methods of fighting as well as types of weaponry, and that they must limit their attacks to military targets. The second protocol, which covers noninternational armed conflicts, prohibits abuse, hostage-taking and acts of terrorism against noncombatants; conscription of children under 15; and forced evacuation of civilians (except in certain situations).

Why is Japan only now accepting the protocols? The answer has to do with Article 9 of the nation’s pacifist Constitution, which prohibits the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. The article has essentially ruled out the involvement of the Self-Defense Forces in military conflicts abroad. Because of these limits on the SDF, the government had not given serious thought to ratifying the protocol agreements. In 1999, however, a domestic committee on international humanitarian laws was created to conduct a detailed study with government and Red Cross officials.

The need for ratification has necessarily increased in recent years as the SDF’s roles abroad have significantly expanded, as illustrated by the dispatch of SDF units to Iraq earlier this year. Now that SDF troops have joined the multinational force led by the United States and Britain following the handover of Iraqi sovereignty to the Iraqi people, there is a greater possibility that they could get involved in armed conflict. Both the U.S. and Britain, as well as Iraq, are parties to the four conventions. Therefore, all three are bound by the humanitarian principles contained therein — especially Britain, as it is also a member of the twin protocols.

Realities on the ground in Iraq demonstrate how difficult it is to abide by these principles. The use of force by U.S. and British forces has involved activities that legal experts say could constitute treaty violations — such as the bombing of media facilities and missile attacks on private residential areas. Those responsible for these activities, they say, could be prosecuted by international courts.

The world today is still fraught with conflict, but it is no longer the lawless world that it once was. With Japan acceding to the protocols, the U.S. is the only major industrialized country that has not yet accepted them. Some Americans, though, argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the Geneva conventions altogether. That would be a dangerously unilateralist course that we hope is avoided at all costs.

Any nation’s international standing will surely increase if it complies with humanitarian principles. Plainly, Japan’s ratification of the protocols represents a step in the right direction — a step that imposes an international obligation on the nation to deal with armed conflicts and acts of terrorism from humanitarian as well as criminal standpoints.