JUBA - Japanese troops taking part in U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan took on new responsibilities Monday, including the possible rescue of U.N. staff and other personnel under attack, and of playing a bigger part in protecting the camps of U.N. peacekeepers.
The government assigned the new duties to the 350-member Ground Self-Defense Force contingent that on Monday replaced a unit deployed in the conflict-torn country over the past six months.
The new unit will continue to undertake the Japanese troops’ main task of building roads and other infrastructure in South Sudan.
The new duties are authorized by the security legislation enacted last year that gives the Self-Defense Forces more leeway in overseas activities under the war-renouncing Constitution, but the move remains controversial at home.
Critics have warned the changes could lead to SDF troops becoming embroiled in overseas military actions for the first time since World War II, in possible violation of the Constitution.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized that the SDF personnel newly sent to South Sudan have “gone through substantial education and training” for performing the new tasks.
“I believe they will be able to carry out their jobs without any difficulty,” Suga said.
To allay concerns among the public, the government has said rescue missions will be undertaken “in very limited cases,” such as if South Sudan authorities or other U.N. peacekeeping infantry units, which are primarily responsible for policing operations, cannot respond to an urgent request.
Activities of the new GSDF unit are also limited to the capital of Juba and nearby areas. While admitting that the overall security situation in South Sudan is tough, the government has said Juba is relatively calm.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. It has been mired in conflict between government and rebel forces, and more than 270 people were killed in fighting in Juba this past July.
Japan has deployed civil engineering corps to the African country since 2012 as part of the U.N. mission in South Sudan.
The new batch of GSDF troops, led by Col. Yoshiro Tanaka, includes a 60-member garrison force that will be the prime reaction team if a rescue mission is requested.
The government also increased the number of medical officers deployed to South Sudan from three to four.
In a ceremony in Juba on Sunday to mark the change in GSDF units, Tanaka said, “The city of Juba looks calm, but we should gather information to ensure our safety and take appropriate measures.” He also told the troops to fulfill their duties so that “all return home safely.”
Under the new security legislation that came into force in March, SDF personnel involved in U.N. peacekeeping operations are allowed to use weapons more flexibly than before.
Previously, use of weapons was limited strictly to self-defense. But now when executing rescue missions, SDF troops can fire warning shots to make an armed group or rioters back off.
SDF personnel can also now join foreign troops to defend a U.N. peacekeeping camp that is shared by Japan and other countries, even if they are not the direct target of an attack.