Human Rights Watch, the second-largest rights organization in the world, will set up an office in Tokyo in April. The organization, founded in 1978, does just what its name suggests — gives attention to violations of the basic rights of all humans. HRW will come to Tokyo not to investigate abuses inside Japan, which are relatively few compared to other troubled regions, but to report on rights in Asia. Their reporting may help convince the Japanese government of its potentially very positive impact throughout Asia.
Part of that impact comes from Japan’s Official Development Assistance. As one of the world’s top five donors in real terms, despite the relatively low percentage it takes of total gross domestic product, Japan’s ODA is economically important throughout Asia. However, Japan has tended to keep its accompanying influence away from contentious, controversial areas. That course may be a pragmatic one, but concerns over human rights should not always take a back seat to confronting important if sensitive issues.
In that sense, HRW’s arrival in Japan can help. What groups like HRW do well is to identify problems, articulate issues and inform the public, all of which is sorely needed. Reports by HRW experts on refugees, children’s rights, press freedom and the spread of arms offer as clear a picture of what is happening throughout Asia as can be found anywhere. HRW’s specialized teams of journalists, academics and lawyers can help Japan focus attention on the worst abuses and the most hopeful possibilities when dispensing assistance. One need not agree with all of HRW’s conclusions to fully consider their investigatory work and incorporate their best advice.
Japan’s Security Council seat for 2009-2010 brings with it the opportunity to become, if not a champion, at least a steady promoter of rights and liberties. Consistently upholding principles of human rights would do a great deal to convince many Asians of Japan’s commitment to improving conditions throughout the region. HRW’s presence in Japan will be a constant reminder that human rights need to be not only watched but also carefully maintained and constantly advanced.
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