Amnesty chief targets death penalty

But ex-DPJ lawmaker knows how tough it is to effect political change


Staff Writer

There is a wide gap between Japan and much of the rest of the world when it comes to human rights issues, and nongovernmental organizations need to play a role in changing people’s awareness, especially on the death penalty, said Hideki Wakabayashi, the newly appointed executive director of Amnesty International Japan.

Japan currently has 120 people on death row. Every day they live in fear, not knowing when they are going to be hanged.

Meanwhile, the global trend is slowly but surely moving toward the abolition of capital punishment.

According to AIJ, the most recent information shows 139 countries have ended the death penalty by law or in practice while 58, including Japan, retain it.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, Wakabayashi, who became head of AIJ in March, stressed that the government, which is responsible for the death penalty, also is responsible for creating a society in which some people become criminals.

“The death penalty is a symbol of human rights issues,” Wakabayashi said. “I don’t think the government has the right to rob the most important right — to live.”

According to a 2010 government survey, 85 percent of the public approved of the death penalty, the highest rate of support since the survey was first taken in 1994. This public support is often used to back the government’s policy of maintaining capital punishment.

“We can’t just pursue advocacy,” Wakabayashi said. “We need to win the sympathy of the general public to change society.

“We need to act so that people supporting the death penalty will change their opinions — and that will change policies and politicians and ultimately, society.”

But as a former lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Japan, Wakabayashi knows just how difficult it will be to get the government to move away from executions.

He served as an Upper House member for six years starting in 2001, while the DPJ was still an opposition party, but health problems prevented him from running again in 2007.

During that time he held several key positions, including as the party’s shadow trade minister and as chairman of a committee to draft a new Constitution.

Looking back on those days he regrets one thing — that he quit the nonpartisan group of lawmakers promoting abolition of the death penalty after being warned that affiliation with such an organization would hurt his re-election chances.

“The death penalty is still a controversial issue and I was told that being in the group would affect my next campaign,” Wakabayashi said. “I’ve always regretted quitting the group. I am ashamed that I cast my philosophy and policies to the winds for the election.”

When the DPJ took over the government in 2009 after a historic Lower House election, it was believed that various human rights issues, including capital punishment, would come to the forefront, especially with the appointment of Keiko Chiba, a known opponent of the death penalty, as justice minister.

Chiba opened the execution chamber to reporters for the first time in an attempt to increase transparency, and she set up a study panel to discuss capital punishment, but in the end she also signed off on two executions.

Wakabayashi pointed out that DPJ campaign platforms have been written to play up differences with the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“So when the party includes measures on human rights, those opposed to it remain quiet . . . to win the election (by presenting a unified front),” Wakabayashi said. “But whether the party is serious about human rights is another matter.”

One example, he said, was the DPJ’s pledge to establish a human rights commission.

The need for an independent human rights organ has been cited because human rights issues are currently dealt with by the Justice Ministry, which oversees prisons and immigration control.

But earlier this month, Justice Minister Satsuki Eda announced that the commission would be an affiliate of the ministry, triggering criticism not only from opposition parties but from within the ruling coalition.

“The human rights commission has been eviscerated,” Wakabayashi said.

Aside from being a former lawmaker, the director has had an interesting career.

A graduate of Waseda University with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a master’s in forestry from Michigan State University, Wakabayashi worked as a salesman for Yamaha Corp., the musical instrument maker.

From there, he became an executive member of the Japanese Electrical Electronic and Information Union and then worked as a diplomat at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. He was also a visiting fellow at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Japan is viewed as a country that is behind when it comes to human rights issues and I would like to use my experiences to make even a small difference,” he said.

And along with Wakabayashi’s appointment this year, the global Amnesty International saw its 50th anniversary. Despite being one of the largest international NGOs in the world, with 3 million members and supporters, the Japanese group has only about 6,500 supporters nationwide.

Wakabayashi said he thinks the low number is a reflection of the limited image in Japan of human rights, with the focus on issues like discrimination and social integration.

But he pointed out that human rights covers other aspects of society, including labor issues like taking child-care leave.

“I think that the concept of human rights is narrow in Japan,” Wakabayashi said. “It is important to view human rights from a broad angle . . . and to change the definition and image of human rights.”