The fierce “fighting” detailed in the recently disclosed daily activity logs of Self-Defense Forces personnel deployed to South Sudan as part of the United Nations-led peacekeeping mission has been rephrased as “armed clashes.” Officials are concerned that escalation of hostilities between government and rebel forces could force Japan to pull out its troops under the terms of the law for its participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Opposition lawmakers accuse the government of trying to downplay the security situation in South Sudan to justify the deployment of SDF troops there — currently Japan’s sole overseas peacekeeping mission.

Instead of playing with words to legitimize its actions, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should look squarely at the security situation in South Sudan to review its continued deployment of the peacekeepers and its decision last year to add a new mission of rescuing other troops and civilian workers under attack, which brings the SDF personnel closer to possible exchanges of fire.

The 1993 law paving way for Japan to join the U.N. peacekeeping missions calls for a cease-fire agreement among warring parties as a key condition for the deployment of Japanese peacekeepers. Article 9 of the Constitution renounces “use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” and the cease-fire requirement is meant to ensure that the Japanese peacekeeping troops would not use force as a result of getting caught up in the fighting between local warring parties.

In South Sudan, where the SDF peacekeepers have been deployed since 2012 to engage mostly in engineering duties, large-scale clashes erupted between the government forces and rebel fighters in the capital of Juba last July, killing more than 270 people.

The logs by the SDF troops — disclosed last week, two months after the government rejected an initial disclosure request from a journalist, saying that it had been “discarded” — are from the days that immediately followed the large-scale clash and report on the intense fighting there. The escalation of violence in South Sudan raised questions here as to whether the SDF troops should remain there, given the terms of the law on peacekeeping missions.

The Abe administration kept the peacekeepers in place on the grounds that the fighting taking place in South Sudan was not “fighting” under the government’s definition — acts of attacking and killing people and destroying property as part of an international armed conflict, which can only be fought either between states or with quasi-state actors.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada says the rebel forces in South Sudan do not have an organization or territory under their rule to qualify as a “quasi-state” actor, and therefore their clashes with government troops do not qualify as “fighting” as Tokyo sees it — so the legal conditions for the deployment of Japanese peacekeepers remain intact. In describing the hostilities in South Sudan as “armed clashes” in the Diet last week, Inada said the rephrasing is meant to avoid confusion with “fighting” in the Japanese legal sense, which would cause constitutional problems over the SDF deployment.

Whether the Japanese government’s assessment is in keeping with the actual situation in South Sudan is another question. Last week, Adama Dieng, the special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, expressed grave concern over the continued level of violence in several parts of the country, despite President Salva Kiir’s promises to bring peace. “We still see ongoing clashes, and the risk that mass atrocities will be committed remains ever-present,” he said. More than 52,000 people reportedly fled from South Sudan to neighboring Uganda in January alone, many of them giving accounts of killing of civilians, destruction of homes and sexual violence.

Rescuing other troops and civilians under attack was added to the mission parameters of Japanese peacekeepers in South Sudan as the first concrete case of implementation of the Abe administration’s security legislation, enacted in 2015 to significantly expand the scope of SDF’s overseas activities. As the hostilities continued in South Sudan, the government extended the tenure of the peacekeepers in October and added the new mission parameters in November.

It needs to be closely examined whether the reports from the SDF troops deployed in the country were fully taken into account in those decisions — and whether the continued deployment of the Japanese peacekeepers and their missions are appropriate under the ongoing situation in the country.

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