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Japan’s leadership test in Sri Lanka

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. would support an Indian bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council may reinvigorate the process of Security Council reform. Japan too has made permanent membership in the Security Council a high priority in its foreign policy. As such, it might consider how its handling of the Sri Lanka file reflects upon its leadership potential.

Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly in the wake of the diplomatic crisis created by the Persian Gulf war, Japan has been struggling to develop a meaningful role for itself in international politics. Constitutionally constrained from participating in collective security operations that involve the use of force, and unfairly scorned during the gulf war for its “checkbook diplomacy,” Japan has sought to cast itself as a “power for peace.” It is a means of making a different kind of contribution to the world’s peace and security.

But in its handling of the crisis in Sri Lanka, Japan seems to be losing its way. Sri Lanka has in fact played a central role in Japan’s efforts to re-define itself as a “power for peace.” In 2003 Japan hosted the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka, and it played an important function in the Norway-led peace talks that followed. Japan’s foreign aid to Sri Lanka has been part of the peace and reconciliation efforts, and Japan has given far more foreign aid in the last 10 years than any other country. The benefits to Sri Lanka from such aid should not be minimized, and it will no doubt contribute to the economic growth and stability essential to the postwar peace process in Sri Lanka.

Nonetheless, because Japan is by far the largest aid donor to Sri Lanka, it is in a position to exercise considerable influence over the policies of the government with respect to grave humanitarian and human rights issues. These include the need to reintegrate tens of thousands of internally displaced persons into their home areas, end the indefinite and unmonitored detention of thousands of suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents, conduct an independent investigation into war crimes allegations, take meaningful steps to restore the rule of law, and generally move to ensure that Tamil grievances are addressed. There is widespread consensus that a failure by the government to take these steps will likely result in a resurgence of violence down the road.

There is little evidence, however, that Japan has used its unique position to meaningfully influence the government of Sri Lanka to develop policies that would address these issues. Back in 2008 when the ceasefire broke down, Japan suggested it “might review” its aid policy, but since then it has been conspicuously reluctant to criticize Sri Lanka government policy and conduct.

In the closing months of the conflict last summer, when the world press was full of dire reports about hundreds of thousands of civilians having been trapped between opposing forces in the North, Japan did little publicly beyond issuing anodyne statements of concern and reaffirming its continued commitment to provide humanitarian assistance.

Japan’s inaction prompted prominent international human rights organizations and other NGOs to publicly address letters to the Japanese government in the summer of 2009 claiming that Japan had a responsibility to do more. Japan did little in response. Indeed, it has often sent mixed messages, providing one message to local audiences on issues such as the proposed international investigation into alleged war crimes, and quite another to the wider international press.

Japan can and should do more in pressing the government of Sri Lanka to address the ongoing humanitarian, human rights and rule of law issues in the postconflict period. What is more, aside from its significant leverage as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and debt-holder, Japan could draw upon its own experience as a source of historical lessons and moral authority in advising the government of Sri Lanka. For while the analogies are quite imperfect, Japan’s experience in the aftermath of World War II could nonetheless offer some insights.

The strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the warmth of that bilateral relationship speaks to the possibilities for peace between former enemies when the defeated are treated with magnanimity and respect. The manner in which Japan evolved from a militarist regime into a pacifist liberal democracy with a hugely successful economy points to the possibilities for peaceful change in the aftermath of devastating conflict. Even the extent to which the Tokyo war crimes trials served an important role in restoring the legitimacy of the postwar regime and accelerating the return of Japanese sovereignty is not without its relevance to how Colombo might want to think about the war crimes issues in Sri Lanka.

Instead of exercising leadership in some of these ways, however, Japan not only looks ineffective but runs the risk of appearing cynical and unprincipled in its pursuit of strategic and geopolitical interests at the expense of both the “power for peace” role that it aspires to develop, and the peace process in Sri Lanka itself. This is because Japan’s studied refusal to add to the international pressure on the Sri Lankan government, while it continues to pour money into infrastructure development, could be construed as not simply more ineffectual checkbook diplomacy, but in fact a cynical investment in the regime — no matter what — for the purposes of securing Japan’s sea lanes to energy sources in the Middle East, and precluding China from interfering in Japan’s perceived sphere of influence.

The failure of Sri Lanka’s most significant development assistance partner to lend weight to the widespread international pressure upon the Sri Lankan government to address the many significant humanitarian and human rights issues, and respond meaningfully to Tamil grievances, provides the Sri Lankan government with the necessary space to withstand the pressure. This not only raises the risk of perpetuating the human tragedy that continues to unfold in Sri Lanka, but in the longer run it contributes to the possibility of the conflict resuming in the future. Quite apart from the moral implications, such a consequence is not in Japan’s interests, from the perspective of either its strategic and geopolitical concerns, or its efforts to become a “power for peace” with U.N. Security Council aspirations.

Craig Martin is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and a graduate of and frequent visiting lecturer at Osaka University Graduate School of Law and Politics. He specializes in international law and comparative constitutional law.