Editorials

New SDF mandate in South Sudan

The expanded mission parameters for Self-Defense Forces personnel dispatched to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan — coming to the rescue of others under attack — takes the SDF’s overseas activities into new territory where the chance of engaging in combat will increase. It is the first concrete example of increasing the SDF’s role in accordance with the security legislation rammed through the Diet last year by the Abe administration. The new mandate also comes at a time when it is increasingly in doubt whether the local situation in South Sudan warrants the deployment of SDF troops under the conditions spelled out in the law that paved the way for Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping duties.

Government officials take pains to downplay the added risk, restricting the scope of the new mission parameters and repeating that the peacekeepers will be pulled out if local conditions grow so bad that it becomes difficult for them to carry out their duties in safe and meaningful ways. Questions abound, however, over the government’s very decision to maintain the dispatch amid a surge in fighting between the South Sudan government and anti-government forces — even though the 1992 law lists a cease-fire agreement being in place between warring parties as one of the conditions for Japan to contribute to a peacekeeping mission.

South Sudan is currently the only country where Japanese troops are taking part in a U.N. peacekeeping mission. It would be unwise if the government is keeping SDF units in the country as a showcase example of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touts as Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace” and expanding their mission parameters for the sake of taking the first concrete action under the security laws, which significantly expanded the scope of overseas SDF activities.

SDF personnel sent to U.N.-led peacekeeping missions since the 1990s have engaged mainly in engineering duties to help rebuild war-scarred countries, such as the mission of road construction and building local refugee camps in South Sudan since 2012. Their use of weapons had been restricted to purely self-defense and during emergency evacuations. But the security legislation that took effect in March amended the 1992 law to expand the scope of their duties, including coming to the rescue of other parties that are under armed attack.

After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan descended into a state of civil war in late 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup. Attempts to shore up an elusive truce between the warring parties suffered a major setback in July when fierce clashes between the president’s guards and forces loyal to Machar killed more than 270 people in the capital of Juba. Last month, Machar said the peace agreement with government forces had collapsed and vowed to stage an offensive against the capital. The U.N. mission in South Sudan has expressed deep concern over “continuing deterioration in the security situation” in many parts of the country.

Still, the Japanese government insists that the situation in South Sudan does not warrant withdrawing the SDF, saying the fighting between the government and rebel forces are not to be considered a military conflict as defined under Japan’s peacekeeping law — because the forces led by Machar are not systematically organized enough to qualify as a “quasi-state organization” that can legally be party to a conflict. One wonders if that makes much practical difference as to the security condition on the ground.

The government believes that the security situation in and around Juba, where the SDF personnel are stationed, is “relatively stable.” The peacekeepers will engage in rescue missions in “extremely limited cases” only in the capital and its environs when troops from no other country are available to help the people under attack, the government says. They would be mobilized to rescue U.N. and other civilian personnel, but it is not “assumed” that they would be deployed for a more riskier mission of helping other troops under attack, which would be undertaken either by local government forces or infantry units of other U.N. peacekeepers.

Possible use of weapons by the SDF troops in rescuing civilians under attack might trigger counterattacks by enemy forces, which could erupt into unexpected fighting. The chance of such developments cannot be ruled out in the extremely fluid security situation in South Sudan. The Abe administration may think that the new mandate, which will be given to the 350 Ground Self-Defense Force personnel to be dispatched there next month, will bring Japan’s peacekeeping mission closer to international standards. But the government should also be aware of, and be accountable for, what it could possibly entail.