Civilians are killed as the Sri Lankan military closes in on the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar refugees escaping the brutal junta are stranded on Thailand’s border with Myanmar.

North Korea’s dictatorship continues to keep a tortuous grip on its starving people.

Meanwhile Japan — a major donor to all those nations and many more — remains relatively quiet, shying away from active roles in opposing assaults on humanity.

“We want to urge the Japanese government to exercise more influence on improving human rights in neighboring countries,” said Kanae Doi, Tokyo director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization.

“And in order to be able to do that, it will require more staff and a proper office here,” Doi said in an interview with The Japan Times, explaining why the rights’ group decided to open its 18th office and second in Asia — in Tokyo.

The 30-year-old organization will be celebrating the office’s opening on April 9 with a charity dinner featuring appearances by Executive Director Kenneth Roth and Myanmar activist and former political prisoner Bo Kyi.

Doi, a lawyer and expert on international law, has single-handedly managed HRW’s activities in Tokyo since July 2007 after spending a year working at its New York headquarters, where she convinced her peers of the organization’s need to maintain a foothold in Japan.

“HRW understood the importance of developing an Asian stronghold, and gave me the opportunity to set up a branch,” she said.

Doi explained that although its first office in Asia was established in Hong Kong, it has stayed low-key to avoid attracting the attention of the Chinese government.

“The Hong Kong office tracks China’s human rights record, and needs to be discreet,” Doi said, adding that her job is quite the opposite. Rather than a reporting office, Tokyo is an advocacy office relying heavily on media exposure to get the group’s message out, she said.

Her work mainly involves advocating to politicians and government officials, exchanging information, making policy recommendations on rights issues, translating press releases and reports for the media, and raising donations to keep HRW’s activities going.

With the new office hiring one more full-time member, Doi hopes the fundraiser will help cover the various expenses connected with the expansion.

“Although we cover over 80 countries worldwide, we only have 18 offices,” she said, adding that she wants to make Tokyo a fundraising center to earn extra revenue that can be spread to the various researchers and writers working across the globe.

Different from Amnesty International, a mass-membership human rights NGO largely operated by volunteers, Human Rights Watch is a network of experts in various fields, with a full-time staff of roughly 280 people who are mostly lawyers and journalists.

Their main activity involves gathering information and producing reports — often in collaboration with activists in the country in question — on violations of international human rights norms. These are then used to pressure governments and organizations to take action.

Doi said that while HRW is considered the world’s second-largest rights organization after Amnesty, in many a country coverage is handled by only a single researcher.

“We have one researcher in Seoul covering North Korea, another in Pakistan and another in India,” she said. “The truth is, we need more people.”

She said she plans to expand the full-time staff in Tokyo to four or five people, eventually.

“Our immediate concern is with Sri Lanka, where the battle between the military and rebels is increasing the civilian death toll by the day,” Doi said.

“And as a nation providing over 50 percent of the Official Development Assistance to Sri Lanka, the Japanese government has enormous potential to influence matters” Doi said.

“We have tons of work to do. I hope many people can join the dinner to learn about us and how their support can help defend human rights around the world,” Doi said.

Human Rights Watch’s charity dinner takes place April 9. Tickets will be available for ¥35,000. For more information, contact Human Rights Watch at tokyo@hrw.org or (03) 3234-9145.

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