Japanese peacekeepers were ordered to carry weapons in South Sudan in July 2016 following the outbreak of fierce fighting, despite government claims their area was devoid of armed conflict, according to a Self-Defense Forces member and a senior Defense Ministry official.
More than 270 people were killed in clashes between South Sudanese government forces and rebels in the capital Juba at the time.
“We were right in the middle of a war,” one of the 350 Ground Self-Defense Force troops deployed to South Sudan confessed on Sunday. “I thought the troops would be completely destroyed.”
Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government insisted at the time that the situation did not meet Japan’s criteria for armed conflict.
This is significant because one of the criteria for SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations is that a cease-fire agreement must be in place in the zone where the SDF will deploy. The requirement is part of the International Peace Cooperation Act enacted in 1992 to ensure SDF missions do not contravene Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.
The former peacekeeper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all of the GSDF troops began carrying loaded weapons in case the fighting expanded. They were also banned from leaving their barracks because of the risk of being hit by stray bullets.
Heavy fighting in Juba, where the GSDF engineering unit was based, broke out on July 8, 2016. The order to carry weapons was issued by the unit’s commander two days later in the wake of a violent firefight between South Sudanese government forces and rebels, the peacekeeper said.
The battle took place after some 20 rebels holed up in a building about 100 meters from the GSDF’s camp, according to the witness, who said the entire unit was armed, wearing bulletproof vests and prepared for the worst.
The troops, however, did not face a situation where they had to open fire, both the witness and the senior defense official said.
The July 2016 order to carry weapons was the second of its type given during the South Sudan mission, which began in 2012. The first was given in January 2014.
The GSDF activity logs for the mission, which were eventually disclosed by the Defense Ministry, contain references to “combat” in July 2016.
But many parts of the documents were blacked out by the ministry. Until now, it was not known how the GSDF actually responded to the approaching violence.
When Abe announced in March 2017 that Japan was withdrawing the unit, speculation was rife that he decided to do so because security had deteriorated severely in the young African nation.
But Abe and other government officials claimed that the security situation in the war-torn country had nothing to do with the decision. They claimed the troops were returning to Japan because their mission to help build infrastructure had been completed.
Controversy grew over the SDF’s presence in South Sudan after troops were mandated in December 2016 to perform new, and potentially riskier, roles under the divisive security laws rammed through the Diet. The laws eased restrictions on SDF weapons use, rescue missions and other activities that had been banned in light of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
The new roles included helping or rescuing U.N. staff and other personnel under attack when an urgent request is received.
The use of weapons by SDF members is a contentious issue under the Constitution.
The Five Principles of the International Peace Cooperation Act require the use of weapons be kept to the minimum necessary to protect the lives of those deployed.
The SDF’s role in U.N. peacekeeping operations has expanded since the 1990s. According to government logs, not a single bullet has been fired and no weapons-related casualties involving SDF members, outside forces or civilians have been reported.