Defense Minister Tomomi Inada has a mission she can’t screw up when she visits the South Sudanese capital of Juba starting Friday.
She needs to meticulously assess the security situation there and possibly show that conditions are stable enough for Self-Defense Forces troops to persevere with their U.N. peacekeeping assignment without breaking Japanese law.
Inada’s visit comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet is mulling whether to give the SDF new roles that allow troops to use firearms beyond pure self-defense, a move that was considered unconstitutional until new security legislation came into effect in March.
Tokyo will make a decision by next month, when 350 SDF troops are slated to swap out a unit conducting engineering work in Juba as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
“We will carefully weigh both the situation there and progress made in training the SDF for the new roles,” Abe told a Lower House Budget Committee session last week.
If the Cabinet gives the green light, the SDF will be assigned joint guard duty at the base in Juba alongside troops of other UNMISS contributor nations. The SDF will also be able to act in kaketsuke keigo, or coming to the aid of other nations’ peacekeeping troops and civilians under fire.
The main question is whether the so-called five principles for peacekeeping are currently met: a cease-fire agreement; consent from the host country for the U.N. mission, including Japan’s participation in it; a nonpartisan operation; freedom for Tokyo to pull the plug if any conditions are not met; and limited use of force.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Juba, Tokyo insists that the five principles are in place.
But some experts dispute this, saying conditions are worse than claimed and the SDF should not be there.
“It is obvious that South Sudan is in a civil war, and one of the five principles that requires a cease-fire agreement is already gone,” said Kenji Isezaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
“The South Sudan government has also been antagonizing the peacekeeping mission and U.N. organizations. It would be hard to operate impartially.”
Isezaki has led disarmament programs as a U.N. worker in places like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and East Timor.
The SDF joined the South Sudan mission in 2012. The world’s youngest state was established only a year earlier following a referendum.
But in 2013 fighting broke out between the forces of President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka tribe, and former Vice President Riek Machar, who is supported by the Nuer tribe. The division had an ethnic undertone.
The government and the rebels agreed to a cease-fire in August last year and a transitional government was launched under Kiir in April. But clashes in the capital in July left at least 300 people dead. It seemed at the time a return to all-out civil war.
Machar has now fled the capital and large-scale fighting was averted.
But amid deteriorating security, the U.N. Security Council in August voted to dispatch a 4,000-strong regional protection force to safeguard civilians. Kiir initially resisted the deployment but backed down under international pressure.
The relationship between the U.N. and Kiir’s administration has been rocky at best. The Associated Press last month reported that South Sudan’s government has repeatedly obstructed the UNMISS mission, citing a confidential report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council.
And experts point to a related problem that the SDF could face. If Japanese troops are tasked with protecting the staff of nongovernmental organizations, the NGOs may be placed in a difficult position in instances when UNMISS does not have an amicable relationship with the government, says Takaki Imai, who heads Japanese International Volunteer Center’s office in Sudan.
“Even when the SDF comes to the rescue, it is hard to tell if the attacker is the government’s military or rebels,” said Imai, who visited South Sudan in September.
“If the SDF ends up clashing with the military, it would strain the relationship between the government and the NGOs, making it harder for us to conduct activities.”
As for security, most NGOs hire private security companies to protect their staff when traveling outside their compounds, he said.
One concern about the SDF’s new role is that personnel might get ensnared in unrelated conflicts while acting to defend other troops.
But Masahisa Sato, an Upper House lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Japan can turn down requests by the UNMISS command, and the SDF can even act to protect Japanese citizens, even if the request did not come from the UMISS but with consultation with the U.N. command.
He added, Inada should take time to explain Japan’s situation to U.N. officials during her visit to Juba.
Sato, who was a Ground Self-Defense Force commander at the time of Japan’s deployment to southern Iraq, said the expanded use of arms beyond self-defense gives a legal basis for the SDF to secure its own safety and protect Japanese citizens.
He gave the example of a Japanese restaurant owner who asked for SDF protection when a riot broke out in East Timor, where the SDF was engaging in a peacekeeping mission. The SDF had to come up with an unrelated pretext to respond, as before the security legislation took effect, troops could only protect those individuals directly under their oversight.
“Politicians passed the buck on the SDF back then. We should not put the SDF in a difficult position where they have to make these decisions,” said Sato. “As for joint protection of the camp, it would be very useful as the SDF can gain first-hand information about the situation.”
Yet Daisaku Higashi, professor at Tokyo-based Sophia University, said that excessive focus on the protection of Japanese could imply that Japan is getting special treatment within the U.N. framework.
Higashi, who previously served with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, also said the government should consider how long the SDF should stay in South Sudan, as Machar is calling for armed resistance to Kiir’s government.
“Tokyo should consider whether it is wise to keep the SDF there for long when both Kiir and Machar have no intention to walk together for peace-building in their country,” Higashi said.
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