The Cabinet on Tuesday greenlighted a plan to beef up the Self-Defense Forces’ role in U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, a move that would let troops use weapons beyond purely self-defense scenarios for the first time since World War II.
The expanded mandate under the contentious new security laws, called kaketsuke keigo, would allow SDF personnel engaged in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to come to the rescue of U.N. and nongovernmental organization workers under attack there.
The new mandate would let the SDF engage in such activities for the first time since Japan began taking part in U.N. peacekeeping operations in 1992.
The expanded mission parameters have sparked public concern that Japan could become embroiled in military conflicts, but the government has promoted the change as a positive step and emphasized that appropriate limits are in place.
“The SDF personnel should be proud that they have gone through rigorous training for the new roles and I expect them to contribute to peace and stability of South Sudan, while honoring its tradition of peacekeeping operations,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a news conference.
The next batch of SDF members will be sent in stages starting Sunday to replace the 350 personnel currently in South Sudan. The new mission parameters will officially take effect Dec. 12, Inada said.
Under the security laws, the SDF will be allowed to defend base camps of other countries even if Japanese personnel are not directly targeted.
SDF personnel had previously been barred from engaging in rescue missions, including of foreign partners or Japanese citizens, unless those in need of rescue were directly under SDF supervision.
Government officials heralded the move as a landmark achievement for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as it is the first concrete step stemming from the hard-fought security bills since they took effect in March.
Officials have said Japan is now living up to international standards when it comes to the use of arms on peacekeeping missions.
The scope of the new mandate, however, is limited compared with other nations because of the Constitution’s Article 9, which prohibits waging war.
The government has already established other limits, and officials have repeatedly stated that SDF units in charge of engineering projects won’t be responsible for security enforcement.
The Abe government has also said the SDF will only be dispatched in cases when there are no other options.
Inada said SDF operations in South Sudan will be limited to the capital of Juba and surrounding areas, saying the security situation there is relatively stable.
There are about 20 Japanese nationals currently living in Juba. Protecting Japanese living in areas where SDF forces are engaging in peacekeeping was a primary motivation for the change, officials have said.
Previously, SDF personnel lacked training and a legal basis for such missions.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that rescuing Japanese nationals is the fundamental purpose of the new policy. But the government warned that the SDF won’t be able to enter areas where fierce fighting is taking place. Juba saw violent clashes beginning in July, despite Inada’s claims of relative stability.
The self-imposed limitations are due to concerns over deteriorating security situations in South Sudan, especially after clashes between forces of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Machar Riek have left at least 300 people dead since July.
Under Japanese law, the SDF cannot be dispatched to areas where armed conflict is taking place, but Abe and Inada argue that a cease-fire is still in place, which is another condition for an SDF deployment.
Tokyo also has a trump card in the event of a crisis: It can bring home SDF units at any time their safety cannot be secured.
Abe emphasized this point during an Upper House committee session Tuesday, saying he “won’t hesitate to withdraw the SDF” under such circumstances.
In 2012, the government cut short the SDF peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights citing deteriorating security conditions there.
Meanwhile, the recent clashes have shown that conducting peacekeeping missions in South Sudan are not merely a challenge for Japan.
Kenya last week withdrew its 1,000 troops deployed to South Sudan after a U.N. inquiry accused peacekeepers and their Kenyan commander, Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, of failing to properly respond to a Juba hotel attack during the clashes.
Amid the fragile security situation in South Sudan, Kiir’s government agreed to receive a 4,000-strong U.N. regional protection force. But bureaucratic red tape has stymied their deployment, the Sudan Tribune has reported.