Staff writer The 1991 Persian Gulf War marked a turning point in Japan’s involvement in international security efforts, triggering a debate that paved the way for the nation to participate in U.N.-led peacekeeping missions. Ten years later, however, Japan is still debating how far it can go.

The nation experienced diplomatic embarrassment when it was unable to contribute any personnel to the multinational force that fought Iraq, and its financial contribution of $13 billion to help pay for the war was welcomed somewhat less than warmly.

That bitter memory prompted the government, after protracted debate in the Diet, to push through legislation in 1992 that enabled Self-Defense Forces personnel to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations, paving the way for Japanese troops to be dispatched overseas — for the first time since World War II. After the enactment of the peacekeeping law, once dubbed as the “PKO” law, discussions on expanding Japan’s international security role no longer appeared to be taboo. Pressure on Japan to boost this role is expected to intensify further as the nation seeks to build a closer alliance with the United States under the new administration of George W. Bush.

In March, for example, a Liberal Democratic Party panel recommended that the government change its interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective defense. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, upon his inauguration last week, indicated he supports such a move.

But experts say there is still much more Japan can do by easing the limitations of the 1992 peacekeeping law.

The law limits the SDF’s activities to logistic support and bans Japanese forces from engaging in core peacekeeping activities, such as monitoring disarmament, patrolling or being stationed in buffer zones and collecting and disposing of abandoned weapons. The law stipulates that participation in such core activities will be “frozen” until a new law is established to lift the ban. To date, however, no new law has been put in place despite heated debate at times of recent crises, such as in Kosovo and East Timor.

“The establishment of the peacekeeping law in 1992 was an epoch-making event for Japan,” said Hisashi Owada, former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and the top Foreign Ministry official at the time of the law’s enactment.

Owada said the law deserves high marks because it made it possible for Japan to play a much more proactive role in the international community, not just in terms of financial contributions, but also in personnel.

Following the law’s enactment, Japan sent a large-scale mission to Cambodia from September 1992 to September 1993, the first time the SDF had participated in U.N. peacekeeping activities. Since then, Japan has sent personnel to nine other missions, including in Mozambique, El Salvador and the Golan Heights.

“I felt so good about being able to work together with people from around the world to build peace in Cambodia,” said a Ground Self-Defense Force officer who participated in the operation in Cambodia as a member of Japan’s engineering unit, rebuilding roads and bridges in the war-torn country.

The officer, who asked not to be named, said many SDF members felt fulfilled by their experience in the field because it was “real work” after years of training. “Many of those who went to Cambodia applied to go to other places afterward and some were indeed sent to several other places,” he said.

However, experts say Japan’s current mode of participation in peacekeeping missions, both in military and civilian areas, leaves much room for improvement.

“Japan should lift the freeze on core peacekeeping activities as soon as possible . . . because those activities are the main pillar of overall U.N. peacekeeping operations,” Owada said.

He added that core peacekeeping activities could well be carried out within the framework of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution because U.N. peacekeeping operations are based on three basic principles: Consent of the parties, impartiality and the nonuse of force except in self-defense.

“The Constitution prescribes that Japan cannot engage in belligerent activities, but that prescription should not be confused with the issue of accepting risks in the form of participation in a U.N. PKO (peacekeeping operation),” Owada said.

In fact, the original bill for the peacekeeping law submitted to the Diet in 1991 allowed SDF troops to take part in core activities, but changes were made as a result of political compromises to get the bill through the Diet.

Those who opposed the bill argued that personnel taking part in core activities have higher risks of being attacked in a conflict, increasing their chances of using force.

Another key point for enhancing Japan’s role in U.N. peacekeeping missions is a revision of the so-called five principles that set tight conditions on what missions Japan can take part in.

At present, the principles require a ceasefire agreement between the warring parties be in place, consent of the host countries and warring parties for Japan to participate, impartiality within the peacekeeping mission, withdrawal from the mission if the principles are broken, and the minimum use of force and only in self-defense.

The debate over relaxing the five principles came under the spotlight in 1999 when riots and mass-killings by pro-Indonesian militias broke out in East Timor following a referendum in support for the territory’s independence from Indonesia.

Japan pledged a financial contribution of $100 million, but it did not dispatch SDF personnel to a peacekeeping mission in East Timor because there was no clear ceasefire agreement between the parties involved in the fighting.

With this in mind, a Democratic Party of Japan panel in December recommended that the clause on the ceasefire agreement by warring parties be changed to the recognition of a ceasefire situation by the U.N. Security Council.

Akihiko Tanaka, a professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, said strict adherence to the five principles has unnecessarily restricted Japan’s participation in U.N. missions.

“How could the militia give consent to Japan’s participation in PKO in situations like East Timor?” he said, adding that most post-Cold War conflicts are internal ones in which truces are often broken and consent becomes unclear.

Tanaka argued that Japan could have offered to transport food, fuel and other supplies for peacekeepers in East Timor, but even such logistics support was made impossible because of the five principles.

“Unless Japan makes some revisions to the five principles and lifts the ban on core peacekeeping activities, it is difficult for the nation to be in a position to make responsible decisions,” he said, referring to Japan’s wish to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Hisako Shimura, president of Tsuda College and a member of a U.N. panel on reform of peacekeeping missions, said the SDF should also be able to provide protection for civilian members and foreign troops, something not authorized under the current peacekeeping law.

“In a U.N. peacekeeping mission, ‘self-defense’ means not just the defense of oneself, but also of other members of the mission who are working together,” said Shimura, who has long worked at the PKO Department at the U.N. headquarters.

In Cambodia, SDF members were escorted by French soldiers when involved in transportation duties, but the Japanese team was unable to provide such assistance to other U.N. personnel.

“At the U.N., it was difficult to explain Japan’s peculiar rules over self-defense,” she said.

In the field of civilian work, Shimura said the activities of police, election monitors and civil administrative staff have become very important in today’s peacekeeping missions and often involve comprehensive nation-building efforts after internal conflicts have run their course.

“Japan can do a lot more in this area without hesitation,” she said.

Owada said Japan should establish a joint Asian training center for participants from the countries of the region, especially for civilian police forces, because police have different functions in different countries and they should be better prepared to work together once deployed in the field.

The momentum, however, for expanding the scope of Japan’s personnel contribution in peacekeeping activities — both military and civilian — is not strong at the moment because of the nation’s prolonged economic slump and the lack of political leadership.

“I am worried that the Japanese have become passive and inward looking, and have lost confidence in themselves and their interests in the outside world,” Owada said.

“The most important thing now is to raise the level of commitment and understanding by Japanese citizens that it is incumbent on Japan, as an important member of the international community, to cooperate in U.N. peace efforts,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.