Earlier this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly announced that Japan will end its peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in May and withdraw the Ground Self-Defense Force’s engineering troops there. The troops have been deployed to the northeast African country for the last five years as part of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS).

The following looks at why the decision to pull out of South Sudan was made and how it may affect future Japanese peacekeeping activities and policies:

Why did Tokyo decide to pull the Self-Defense Forces from South Sudan?

When Abe said on March 10 that Tokyo will end SDF activities in South Sudan, he noted, “The SDF delivered record results over the last five years.”

Japan has dispatched 4,000 GSDF troops to Juba since January 2012. South Sudan gained its independence only a year earlier, following a referendum, and UNMISS was established to help build conditions for development of the nascent nation.

According to the government, the GSDF troops repaired 210 km of road and finished preparing 500,000 sq. meters of land so that construction projects could be started. This month, they are scheduled to finish carrying out repairs to major roads around the capital.

Under the circumstances, the government has been considering withdrawing the unit since last fall, a senior official said.

Was the worsening security situation one of the reasons for the withdrawal?

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said security conditions in the capital, where the SDF units are now deployed, “have been stable” and relatively safe, and denied Japan is withdrawing its troops because of deteriorating security conditions.

However, last July fierce clashes in the capital between the forces of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar left at least 300 people dead. The de facto civil war forced Japanese civilians and diplomats to evacuate on Air Self-Defense Force C-130 transport planes sent from Japan.

Describing the deadly situation in July as “fighting,” though, would be an admission that Japan violated its peacekeeping operations law, which enables such missions by the SDF despite constitutional restrictions.

There are five principles for an SDF unit to engage in a U.N.-led peacekeeping mission, including a situation where a cease-fire agreement among conflicting parties is maintained.

Experts said that situation was no longer valid in South Sudan, but Abe as well as Defense Minister Tomomi Inada insisted otherwise.

Did recent allegations over the Defense Ministry’s cover-up of GSDF daily activity logs in South Sudan influence the decision?

Some observers say the furore over the cover-up may have led Tokyo to announce the withdrawal.

The daily activity logs from South Sudan last year described what Tokyo called “clashes” as “fighting.” Even though the documents had been redacted in parts, the logs predicted the U.N. mission may be suspended and GSDF peacekeeping activities limited in a worst-case scenario.

To make matters worse, the Defense Ministry initially said the logs had been “entirely discarded” in December after freelance journalist Yujin Fuse requested the documents via the freedom of information act in September. The ministry later back-peddled and admitted it had “found” the logs, and made them available in February.

News reports last week said Toshiya Okabe, the GSDF chief of staff, was told about the logs and the GSDF considered making them public, but the Joint-Staff vetoed this, highlighting the Defense Ministry’s deep-rooted tendency to conceal information.

Inada, who was not informed about this initially, ordered a special investigation Thursday to look into the case, as opposition parties demanded that she resign over her handling of the scandal in addition to her suspected links with Osaka-based nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which is at the center of a dubious land deal.

Why have SDF peacekeeping operations been problematic?

Japan has a rocky history when it comes to sending the SDF abroad on peacekeeping missions, in part because of the constitutional constraints imposed by Article 9, which prohibits Japan from waging war as a means to resolve international conflicts.

Japan by law is only allowed to have minimum military power to defend itself, and sending forces abroad had long been taboo.

Japan passed the U.N. Peacekeeping Law in 1992 amid pressure from other countries whose forces had been involved in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations. Since then, Japan has engaged in eight peacekeeping missions, including South Sudan — the only current-day operation.

The missions have been mainly logistic and construction-related in nature, not as an armed force trying to keep the peace between warring sides.

However, dispatching SDF units on overseas missions had always required thorough scrutiny that such missions did not violate the Constitution. For example, Tokyo came up with the idea of identifying a “noncombat zone” in Iraq to send SDF elements there after the Iraq war subsided, otherwise such a mission would not have been possible.

Another issue before security legislation was passed last year was that SDF units engaged in peacekeeping missions could only use arms for self defense or to protect people directly under its supervision.

The new security legislation allows the SDF to conduct kaketsuke keigo (coming to the aid of other nations’ peacekeeping troops and civilians under fire). The South Sudan mission was notable for Abe’s government because it was the first case in which the security legislation was exercised under this authority.

What could be the SDF’s next overseas mission?

Several ideas are being floated, including having the SDF play a role in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

However, many say it would be difficult for the SDF to participate because of the region’s instability, considering Japan in 2012 withdrew its troops from the Golan Heights on the border of Syria and Israel after 17 years due to the worsening security situation in Syria.

Kenji Isezaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said the decision to withdraw from South Sudan could bring to light the fact that SDF peacekeeping operations conflict too much with existing laws, making it harder to interpret the laws to allow such activities.

“After the (July) clash (in South Sudan), the SDF could no longer stay in Juba, and Tokyo and the U.N. probably understood the situation,” said Isezaki. “This could create an opportunity for Abe to start a conversation about the PKO (peacekeeping operation) principles and the Constitution.”

Isezaki, who has led disarmament programs as a U.N. worker in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and East Timor, pointed out that the SDF has actually not been qualified for peacekeeping operations since 1999, after the mandate to protect local residents became an important part of such missions.

After the Rwandan genocide, which the U.N. and the international community failed to prevent, Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general at the time, published a bulletin in 1999 that said the U.N. force shall “take all necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects … ” This means SDF peacekeeping troops can be party to a dispute.

“With this bulletin the PKO became the entity to wage war, which is not in line with Japan’s five PKO principles, or the Constitution,” said Isezaki.

There is no framework for Japan to bring court-martial proceedings, for example, against an SDF member who killed a civilian during a dispute, because the Constitution does not allow Japan to declare martial law.

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