Editorials

An objective probe is needed

The Abe administration has started examining its handling of the kidnapping of two Japanese and their subsequent murder by the Islamic State extremist group. There is no guarantee that the probe will be sufficiently objective and credible, especially since it will be carried out by officials who were actually involved in the government’s unsuccessful efforts to save the two men — Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, a self-styled security consultant.

The investigation team will be led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, originally a bureaucrat from the National Police Agency, who was in charge of communication with the liaison office set up in Jordan and coordination among government ministries and agencies concerned after the militant group on Jan. 20 posted on the Internet a video of Goto and Yukawa sitting in orange jumpsuits with a masked man in a black robe wielding a knife between them. The team will include Yasuhiko Nishimura, deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management, Shotaro Yachi, head of the National Security Council’s secretariat, and officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the NPA.

Although the team will hear the opinions of outside experts, neither they nor lawmakers will join the team. It is unclear to what extent the third-party experts’ opinions will be reflected in the team’s report to be compiled in April. Even if the report is issued, the government might censor crucial information by invoking the state secrets law. In addition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will not be interviewed by the team.

Last August, the government learned about Yukawa’s abduction by the Islamic State group in northern Syria. It then set up the liaison office and an information and communication desk inside the prime minister’s office. Goto’s whereabouts became unknown after he entered Syria in October — reportedly to search for Yukawa. On Dec. 3, his wife notified the Foreign Ministry about an e-mail she received, which said that a group had kidnapped him.

The investigation team needs to investigate a number of issues raised about the government’s handling of the incident. Many knowledgeable people question why the government did not open its liaison office in Turkey, which they regard as the most appropriate location. Steps taken by the government after Dec. 3 also need to be scrutinized. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has only said that the government pursued the most effective ways to solve the crisis. Yet the dispatch of more than 30 Middle East experts to the liaison office reportedly did not take place until after news of the hostage crisis broke on Jan. 20.

Abe’s decision to tour the Middle East in January while being aware of the abduction of Goto and Yukawa also merits scrutiny. Opposition lawmakers have questioned whether his Jan. 17 speech in Egypt announcing $200 million in Japanese aid to Middle East countries concerned provoked the Islamic State militants. Abe said, “We are going to provide assistance for refugees and displaced persons from Iraq and Syria. We are also going to support Turkey and Lebanon. All that, we shall do to help curb the threat the Islamic State poses. I will pledge assistance of a total of about $200 million for those countries contending with the Islamic State to help build their human capabilities, infrastructure and so on.”

In a hastily arranged news conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 20, Abe subsequently emphasized that the aid was intended for humanitarian purposes to “provide food, medical services and other support to help those who have lost their homes and become displaced persons within the region.” But the decision to hold the news conference in Jerusalem with the Japanese and Israeli flags in the background was criticized by observers in Japan. Moreover, Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just agreed to deepen economic ties and cyber-security cooperation, which showed that Japan is building closer ties with Israel.

The investigation team needs to investigate the Abe administration’s crisis management in an objective manner. Otherwise, its probe will be unable to provide crucial lessons for the government to help guide its responses to future crises.