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The government has ordered the Maritime Self-Defense Force to prepare to deploy a task force off Somalia to patrol against pirates. The piracy threat to an important international commercial shipping route has forced the government to order the dispatch of MSDF ships equipped with helicopters and high-speed boats.

The number of piracy incidents off Somalia jumped from 44 in 2007 to 111 in 2008, with three Japan-linked ships involved. This year at least 15 incidents were reported as of Jan. 29. A total of 42 ships with various national registries were seized in 2008.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and 17 nations have dispatched warships and aircraft to the area. Deployment by China and South Korea’s decision to deploy must have prompted Prime Minister Taro Aso’s decision. The hastiness of the decision is indicated by the fact that the MSDF task force will be dispatched under the maritime police-action provision of the Self-Defense Forces Law. Coping with piracy is fundamentally the Japan Coast Guard’s job, and the law supposes that such action is limited to areas around Japan.

Under the provision, the MSDF can protect only Japanese-linked ships, such as Japanese-registered or managed ships and ships with Japanese crew members or cargoes. Outside Japanese waters, use of weapons is limited to self-defense. MSDF ships can fire warning shots but cannot shoot at the hulls of pirate boats to stop them. The government has let the Defense Ministry write detailed guidelines for use of weapons in the MSDF’s rules of engagement, which are not made public. This undermines civilian control of the SDF.

The government plans to enact a new law enabling the SDF to engage in anti-piracy missions. Such a law should be drafted for the specific situation at hand so that the Diet can carefully discuss the advisability of dispatching SDF units. Detailed rules for weapons use should be discussed in the open. Both the government and the Diet should be prudent enough to prevent limitless expansion of overseas SDF deployment and the use of weapons.

To restrain the activities of Somalia’s pirates, the international community including Japan should seek cooperative ways to help stabilize that country socially and politically.

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