Dubious peacekeeping law revision

The Abe administration’s security bills to lift the ban on Japan engaging in acts of collective self-defense and significantly expand the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions would also amend the 1992 law on Japan’s participation in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations.

The revision, to which little attention has been paid in Diet deliberations, would pave the way for SDF units deployed in peacekeeping missions to use weapons for the protection of civilians and other nations’ troops — in addition to self-defense as allowed under the current law — and also allow the SDF to join peace cooperation activities carried out by international organizations other than the U.N. or by groups of nations.

The amendment would have an immediate impact on the safety of SDF personnel currently deployed on a mission in South Sudan. The U.N. nowadays gives top priority to protection of civilians — local residents in most cases — in which exchanges of fire with armed elements would be inevitable for peacekeepers if civilians are being attacked.

The amendment would allow the SDF to use weapons to protect other peacekeeping troops and civilians such as U.N. and aid workers under attack at a location away from the SDF unit’s base. It also envisages patrolling, inspections at checkpoints and escorting as new duties for SDF troops in peacekeeping missions — activities that would increase their exposure to attack by combatants. The Diet should scrutinize the concrete situations that SDF personnel would likely face in the course of carrying out these new duties.

In view of the fact that civilians account for the vast majority of casualties in conflicts, the U.N. decided in 1999 to have peacekeepers comply with international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, which are designed to protect people who do not take part in fighting, such as civilians, aid workers and medics. Behind the decision were the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which an estimated 1 million people were killed in about 100 days, and the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 people in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. In both cases, local U.N. peacekeepers did not move to stop the killings due to the constraints placed on their activities.

The first peacekeeping operation to have received a protection of civilians (POC) mandate was in Sierra Leone in 1999. The ongoing operation in South Sudan, for which Japan currently deploys some 350 SDF members to build infrastructure in the capital of Juba, is among the many peacekeeping missions that have received such mandates.

In South Sudan, according to a news report, armed soldiers of the governmental Sudan People’s Liberation Army, in an offensive against the rebels, repeatedly forced their way into the U.N. POC site or into an adjacent area at a peacekeeping base in Bentiu in the northern part of the country, near the border with the Republic of Sudan, in April and May, and committed assaults, robberies, rapes, kidnappings and murders. On July 1, anti-government rebels opened fire on a peacekeeping base sheltering thousands of local residents in the northeastern town of Malakal, killing one person and injuring six. U.N. experts reported in late August that South Sudanese soldiers committed rampant killings, rapes, abductions, looting, arson, forced displacement and burned people alive inside their homes from April to July in Unity State, where Bentiu is located.

Events similar to what happened in Bentiu and Malakal could take place in the Juba area where the SDF camp is located. If local residents run toward or into the camp to escape an attack by armed elements, the SDF personnel would be bound to use their weapons because of the POC mandate. If the armed elements are mixed up with the local residents, the civilians could be harmed in the exchange of fire. In a peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, armed elements often do not wear military uniforms or don police uniforms to hide their identity.

Under the 1992 law, Japan can contribute SDF units to a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation only when an armistice exists among parties to the conflict and the parties have agreed to Japanese participation. If armed elements attacking local residents are from the parties that agreed to the Japanese deployment, it means that the truce, the key condition for the SDF dispatch, has been broken. Japan could then be confronted with the difficult decision of whether to end the mission and pull the SDF out. If the Japanese personnel continue the operation despite the breakdown of the truce, it would mean that the peacekeeping law is being violated.

The government will also need to take into account the possibility that groups not a party to the truce will carry out problematic activities, such as attacks on local civilians.

Another problem may emerge. SDF personnel who improperly harm local residents while executing their duties would have to be tried by a Japanese court, but it is uncertain whether the government is prepared to cope with this kind of legal situation.

The law now prohibits the use of weapons by SDF members for executing peacekeeping missions except in self-defense, in view of the possibility that such a use of weapons could constitute the use of force, which Article 9 of the Constitution renounces as a means of settling international disputes. In proposing the revisions of the law and relaxing the conditions for the use of weapons, the government appears to be abandoning its earlier prudence on this constitutional issue.

Not only should the Diet scrutinize the amendment in a detailed way, but the government should also rethink expanding the SDF’s role in peacekeeping and similar operations that would likely entail the use of weapons. Japan has so far contributed to U.N. peacekeeping activities mainly in areas of post-conflict reconstruction and infrastructure building.

The government should explore specific ways in which the SDF can contribute to restoring peace to a conflict area without relying on the use of weapons, such as preventing a resurgence of violence or disarming opposing groups by negotiating with and mediating between the groups and monitoring and supervising truce agreements. This would require a great deal of education and training on the part of SDF personnel, such as thorough study of the situation in question and improving communications skills.