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With the signing of a peace agreement in Sudan, ravaged by more than 20 years of civil war, the government is weighing plans to have the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKO). Japan has received an informal request for cooperation from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has recommended that the U.N. Security Council adopt a resolution mandating the dispatch of international peacekeepers to the African nation.

Government officials stress that Japan should respond positively to the request, given its declared commitment to international peace and security. It should respond carefully, though, by first examining specific roles to be played by the SDF, as well as security and other conditions on the ground. A hasty deployment decision should be avoided.

Legislation authorizing SDF participation in PKO activities was enacted in 1992 following the Persian Gulf War. Later in the same year, Japan dispatched a 1,200-strong engineering unit to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). So far the SDF has participated in eight PKO missions, including one established in 1999 under the U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET).

Japan’s PKO activities have been favorably received both here and abroad. In a poll taken by the Cabinet Office in 2002, 76 percent of the respondents said such cooperation should be provided at current levels or in more active ways. And in a Foreign Ministry poll conducted the same year in six Southeast Asian nations, “maintenance of peace” topped the list of contributions expected of Japan, followed by “economic and technical cooperation” and “promotion of trade and private investment.”

The PKO Cooperation Law attaches severe conditions to the dispatch of SDF troops. These conditions, known as “the five principles of PKO participation,” include the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement between warring parties, acceptance of peacekeepers by the parties and adherence to strict neutrality. Moreover, a freeze was initially imposed on participation in the primary activities of a peacekeeping force (PKF), such as the patrolling of buffer zones and the disposal of abandoned weapons.

The freeze was lifted in December 2001 as a result of a revision to the PKO legislation that relaxed the rules for weapons use by SDF troops. That revision has expanded the SDF’s roles overseas, but has also increased the possibility of its getting involved in unforeseen situations. A troop dispatch to Sudan needs to be considered in this light.

In southern Sudan, one of the least developed regions of Africa, civil war had continued since 1983 between government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against a background of conflicts between Arab and black residents and disputes over oil concessions. Reports put the total number of victims at about 2 million.

Last month the warring parties reached a peace agreement through mediation by the United States, Egypt and others. Under the accord, residents in the south are to decide in a referendum, following six years of rule under an interim government, whether to maintain the federal system or become independent. John Garang, head of the SPLA, is expected to serve as vice president. The U.N. Security Council, at the behest of Secretary General Annan, is expected to pass a specific resolution authorizing the peacekeeping mission, perhaps by the end of this month.

The signing of a peace agreement and the start of an interim administration seem to satisfy the five principles, at least outwardly. However, there remain a number of concerns. First, there is a deep undercurrent of resentment in the south, inhabited largely by Christian and animist blacks, against the government in the north, which is dominated by Arabic Muslims. Darfur in western Sudan is embroiled in an escalating conflict between the Khartoum government and a different rebel group. Native residents in the east are mounting an antigovernment campaign to seek greater autonomy.

In these circumstances, the possibility of a renewed civil war cannot be ruled out. According to the five principles, SDF troops would have to pull out immediately should the ceasefire agreement break down. In reality, though, withdrawing troops ahead of schedule is difficult once they are deployed. At the least, immediate participation in PKF activities should be avoided. PKO activities like repairing roads also require careful decisions that take into account Sudan’s domestic situation.

It may be that the government, anxious to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, is trying to improve its record on international contributions. But troops are not dispatched abroad out of diplomatic consideration alone.

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