National / Politics

GSDF completes withdrawal from South Sudan

Kyodo

All of the Ground Self-Defense Force troops deployed for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan have returned to Japan, ending Japan’s five-year mission in the war-torn country, the Self-Defense Forces said Saturday.

The withdrawal of the 350-member unit took place in stages based on a government decision announced in March.

With no SDF unit engaged in an active U.N. mission, Tokyo is considering other ways to contribute to international peace-building efforts.

The unit was mainly composed of the GSDF’s 9th Division, headquartered in Aomori. The last contingent of 40 troops arrived at Aomori Airport on Saturday.

The GSDF unit drew heavy public attention because it was the first to be assigned the unprecedented task of armed rescues under the divisive security laws Japan enacted in March 2016. But the unit was never called upon to rescue anyone during its stint, which began around December.

SDF activities overseas were heavily restricted under the war-renouncing Constitution, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government enacted the laws to circumvent those constraints so the SDF can more actively contribute to global peace and security.

In South Sudan, which is in the midst of a civil war, the GSDF was given more leeway to use weapons, allowing it to rescue U.N. staffers or others under attack. Previously, the use of arms was strictly limited to self-defensive purposes.

They were also tasked with playing a bigger part in protecting U.N. peacekeepers’ camps.

Japan began deploying civil engineering units to the country in 2012 to build roads and other infrastructure as part of the U.N. mission there. But security has been dicey since it won independence from Sudan in 2011. Fighting between government and rebel forces erupted at the end of 2013. A peace deal was signed in August 2015, but renewed fighting in Juba, where the GSDF was based, killed more than 270 people last July and caused many to flee.

The SDF can only serve in areas where a cease-fire is in effect.