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It was in 1984 that the United Nations adopted the “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” More than 110 countries have since joined the treaty, but surprisingly Japan is not yet one of them. Finally, however, the government has decided to ratify the treaty and has been seeking Diet approval of ratification. This is certainly a most welcome step. Torture has no place in any civilized society, and Japan must make its stand known to the world by ratifying the convention.

There have been incessant calls, both inside and outside the country, for Japan to do so. Nongovernmental organizations have been particularly aggressive in lobbying the government as well as international opinion to get the treaty ratified by this nation. Yet successive governments have turned a deaf ear.

Such reluctance has been something of a puzzle to many people. After all, Japan’s postwar Constitution clearly stipulates that “the infliction of torture by any public officer and cruel punishment are absolutely forbidden.” (Article 36). Why the procrastination? One uncomfortable truth is that traditional legal concepts in Japan have lagged behind the civil- and human-rights standards that have taken root throughout the world since the end of World War II. Much of the current Japanese penal code goes back to the Meiji period, well before the term “human rights” came into international vogue.

As things stand, many people in Japan’s law-enforcement community are reluctant to have the entire Japanese penal code and internal police practices scrutinized by outsiders. For the same reason, it is no accident that those NGOs working with potential victims of torture within Japan’s penal system — Amnesty International, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and the Center for Prison Rights, to name but a few — have been most active in lobbying the government for change.

Public indifference has been another cause of government inaction. By inclination, most people brought up in a hierarchy-conscious society like Japan find it difficult to grasp the spirit behind the phrase “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” as found in the preamble to the Convention against Torture. Thus, for all the Japanese enthusiasm for and support of the U.N., when it comes to the concept of universal human rights, people are apt to leave it to the government of the day to show them the way.

By taking the lead in rectifying the situation, the current government is breathing new life into the human-rights movement to seek changes in the Japanese penal and legal code that will bring it more in line with prevailing international standards.

Ratification of the Convention against Torture means committing Japan to the submission of periodic reports concerning its implementation of the convention. This has the potential to become a major turning point, not only in Japan’s human-rights history, but also in the effort to render the Japanese legal system more compatible with generally recognized principles of international law.

One test comes with the issue of recognizing the competence of the Convention against Torture Committee to hear cases filed by individuals who claim to be victims of torture. Accepting this so-called “Optional Protocol” would make it possible for victims of torture to communicate their grievances to the Convention Committee without going through the government. Such independent recourse is essential to ensure that the government fulfill its obligations under the Convention against Torture.

In addition, the convention provides that a signatory country must either extradite or prosecute any suspect who has been accused of committing torture, wherever it may have taken place. This provision has been in the international spotlight since the arrest of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in Britain and the subsequent controversy over his extradition to Spain.

In ratifying the convention, the Diet should also include a clear-cut provision in Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law banning the repatriation of undocumented foreigners if they are likely to be subject to torture on returning home.

Hopefully, ratifying the Convention Against Torture will give further impetus to the Japanese government to embrace more human-rights treaties. Japan is a signatory to only nine of the 23 human rights-related conventions adopted by the U.N. and other international organizations. A country that does not take as its point of reference the basic rights of humanity risks suffering the worst possible fate — a slide into irrelevance and isolation.

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