With the Ground Self-Defense Force troops in South Sudan scheduled to arrive back in Japan on May 27, experts have called for the government to thoroughly review Japan’s peacekeeping mission there amid debate over whether it was in line with the nation’s principle of only sending troops to places with an ongoing cease-fire.

Three experts — Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former high-ranking Defense Ministry official; Kenji Isezaki, a professor of international relations at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies; and Akira Kato, professor of international politics at J.F. Oberlin University — said Tokyo should closely examine whether Japan properly assessed the local security situation in South Sudan and fully understood the U.N. legal framework under which a peacekeeping unit operates. Fierce clashes in Juba last July left at least 300 people dead, forcing Japanese civilians and diplomats to evacuate.

They were speaking on Wednesday at a round-table discussion in the Diet members’ office building to which lawmakers were invited. Members of the ruling coalition were absent from the meeting.

Yanagisawa said there was a need to establish what, if any, political goal the government had in sending troops to South Sudan and to what extent that goal was achieved.

“The Abe administration’s citing of the GSDF unit’s achievement in road construction in Juba as one of the reasons for the unit’s withdrawal is odd since road construction cannot be a political goal,” he said. Tokyo has boasted that GSDF troops repaired 210 km of road in South Sudan.

Looking back at the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces units in 2003 to Iraq during the Iraq war, Yanagisawa, who oversaw the dispatch as assistant chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said, “Although a GSDF unit did a good job in humanitarian assistance work (in Samawah in southern Iraq), it is impossible to say that the SDF mission in the country was successful because the political goal of reconstructing and stabilizing Iraq was not achieved.”

Isezaki called for a detailed look at whether the Abe administration’s inclusion of kaketsuke keigo (coming to the aid of other peacekeepers and civilians under fire) was appropriate in the GSDF peacekeeping unit’s task under both Japanese and international law.

Japanese Communist Party policy chief Akira Kasai said, “Since kaketsuke keigo could have resulted in killing both GSDF members and South Sudanese as internal conflicts were occurring frequently, strict examination of Japan’s peacekeeping operation in the country should be carried out.”

Isezaki pointed out that protecting local people was now the main mission of U.N. peacekeeping operations, which involved the use of weapons and could result in deaths on both sides — civilians and peacekeepers. But it was not possible for the U.N. command to ask SDF members to engage in kaketsuke keigo, which fell under the U.N. concept of protection, because Japan lacked laws to try SDF members who injure or kill local people during a peacekeeping mission, he said.

International humanitarian law, which governs U.N. peacekeeping operations, automatically makes the U.N. and peacekeeping units belligerent parties, putting SDF peacekeeping troops in contradiction with Article 9 of the Constitution, which in part says, “The right of belligerency will not be recognized.”

“How can Japan fulfill its international responsibility without an appropriate domestic legal framework to try SDF members who, for example, have killed 100 local people during a peacekeeping mission?” Isezaki asked.

Isezaki, who served as a civilian worker in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, said that Japan should seriously consider sending unarmed SDF members for cease-fire monitoring and civilian police officers for U.N. peacekeeping operations instead of sending SDF units for such operations, which could involve the use of weapons under the U.N.’s current policy of prioritizing the protection of local people.

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