Staff Writer When the Diet was immersed in heated debate in 1992 over whether to send Self-Defense Forces troops to Cambodia for U.N. peacekeeping operations, Toshihiro Shimizu thought that something very important was missing from the discussions.
The focus of the debate, which pitted the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its allies against the opposition camp, was whether the possible use of force by SDF units engaged in peacekeeping activities is permitted under the Constitution, which bans the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
“The debate over the Constitution is important, but there was no viewpoint concerning what was really needed in Cambodia,” said Shimizu of the nongovernmental organization Japan International Volunteer Center.
Shimizu testified as a representative of NGOs at the 1992 Diet session that deliberated a bill setting the framework for Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities, including the dispatch of SDF troops.
Since the law’s enactment in 1992, large-scale deployment of SDF units to overseas U.N. missions has drawn public attention. But experts such as Shimizu say the global situation requires more participation of Japanese civic volunteers in U.N.-led efforts for peace, adding that the government should pursue better coordination with NGOs active in such fields.
“When I was speaking at the Diet, I wondered if the SDF’s work to repair roads in Cambodia would contribute to helping raise the standard of living of the Cambodian people,” he said. “If they had that much money to repair roads, they could have hired many Cambodians to do the job together.”
Shimizu said creating jobs for local people serves as a cornerstone in stabilizing their lives, which in turn leads to peace. He added that JVC does its job by hiring local staff and through working with local NGOs.
JVC, established in 1980, is one of Japan’s pioneer NGOs for providing humanitarian assistance. In Cambodia, it has been helping secure safe water, providing medical assistance and supporting orphans since 1982.
Like JVC, many Japanese NGOs started operating in the 1980s to help Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.
With the rapid increase of internal conflicts in the post-Cold War era and resulting rise in the number of refugees, the role of NGOs has become ever more important with their ability to provide humanitarian assistance swiftly and at the grassroots level.
“We can directly hear the voices of local people and provide assistance for what they need,” said Seiyu Fujisaki of Association for Aid and Relief, a refugee-assisting NGO.
Fujisaki, who came back from Macedonia in February after working there for a year, said Japanese NGOs were able to play an important role in assisting Serbian refugees from Kosovo, who remained in Macedonia while most Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo.
Fujisaki said the assistance by Western NGOs for the Serbs was scarce “because the West held the view that the Serbs were evil and the Albanians were good” in the Kosovo crisis, in which Yugoslavia’s ethnic Serbian army attacked Albanians in Kosovo who were seeking independence from Yugoslavia.
“Japanese NGOs, being free from political considerations, were able to work purely from a humanitarian standpoint,” Fujisaki said. “Someone must offer a helping hand to ordinary people who are really in need.”
The AAR has been providing medical services, education, counseling and other assistance to victims of ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia since 1991. In Macedonia, it operated clinics, hiring local doctors, and provided food for children in rural areas.
Yukie Osa, director general of AAR, said cooperation between NGOs and the government, and also with the Self-Defense Forces, is important to enhance an NGO’s ability to operate in the field.
Osa argues that in emergency relief operations, the role of the military in providing basic logistics, such as transportation and communications, is important in raising the efficiency of NGOs. Removal of land mines is another area where NGOs and the military could cooperate effectively, she added.
“In Kosovo, many Western NGOs worked near their respective country’s military units,” Osa said.
However, Shimizu of JVC warned against cooperation with the military because the NGOs risked becoming targets for attacks if they worked too closely with the armed forces.
“Once we’re linked with armed units, it makes our working environment more dangerous,” he said.
While there are pros and cons for working with the military, both NGOs and the government are hoping to increase their cooperation because many Japanese NGOs lack financial resources and are organizationally weak.
In order to raise NGOs’ profile, a law to give nonprofit groups corporate status was enacted in December 1998. Before the law was established, NGOs were simply regarded as private volunteer groups, with individual members taking responsibility for their activities.
In April 2000, the Foreign Ministry created a new grant of 500 million yen to support emergency relief operations by NGOs, in addition to a 300 million yen subsidy already introduced in fiscal 1999 for strengthening NGO’s management and research capabilities.
Another move — initiated by NGOs — is the establishment in August of a networking body of NGOs, the government and businesses that aims to enhance the groups’ ability to jump-start their operations immediately after a crisis requiring humanitarian assistance occurs abroad.
Under the plan, called the Japan Platform, member NGOs can use a pool of funds disbursed by the government and businesses, and share information among the three players.
These new initiatives, along with the already established subsidy plans to support NGOs, add up to 3.1 billion yen in the fiscal 2001 budget, up sharply from 2.2 billion yen in fiscal 2000, according to the Foreign Ministry.
“Initiatives like the Japan Platform are very important because NGOs, which may be weak individually, can complement each other and raise their overall ability,” said Yukio Takasu, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Multilateral Cooperation and a former ambassador to the United Nations.
Takasu said activities of Japanese NGOs in humanitarian assistance are still limited. For example, he said, they carry out only about 10 out of some 500 projects that are entrusted to NGOs worldwide by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Former UNHCR Sadako Ogata said in a recent speech at the Japan National Press Club that she hoped to see more Japanese in the field so the nation’s assistance does not simply end with the disbursement money.
“If Japan were to provide humanitarian, economic and technical assistance, the Japanese people must show their face,” she said. “Ideas, friendship and trust are carried through people.”
Takasu said Japanese NGOs and other civilians should play an important role also in the nation-building process after a humanitarian crisis, such as in East Timor.
East Timor hopes to elect a constitutional assembly this summer that will draft a constitution and set the schedule for a presidential election and independence. East Timor is currently under U.N. transitional administration after its people voted for independence from Indonesia in August 1999.
Helping with election management and monitoring, as well as training of administrative personnel, is “an area Japan is very good at,” Takasu said.
Another important area for raising Japan’s profile in terms of personnel contribution is to increase the number of Japanese staff working at international organizations, Takasu said.
Currently, 111 Japanese are working at the U.N. Secretariat in New York — far below the “desirable” level of between 250 and 350 that the U.N. considers would be a proper reflection of Japan’s population and financial contributions to the world body. Including those working for specialized U.N. agencies around the world, the number of Japanese stands at 740.
In one step to increase entry-level personnel, the Foreign Ministry this year raised the number of people annually accepted for its Junior Professional Officers program to 65 from the 55 of previous years, Takasu said. Under this program, Japanese work for U.N. organizations as internees under government sponsorship.
About half of those interns succeed in getting hired as full U.N. staff after they complete the two-year program, he said, adding that he wants more to take on full U.N. jobs.
“I also hope to see more Japanese at the top of international organizations,” he said. “The presence of someone like Ogata has big meaning for Japan.”
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