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Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Self-Defense Mission Abroad: Enhancing Japanese peacekeeping forces in South Sudan and beyond

Atsuko Tsuda, MPA

This January, about 300 Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF) will arrive in South Sudan to join the ongoing United Nations Peacekeeping Operation (PKO) there. Security challenges are mounting in this newborn country; accordingly, local leaders as well as their international friends face daunting tasks. Stepping up to face these challenges head-on, Japan can turn this PKO mission into a pivotal opportunity to further advance its commitment to peace and stability in the region and to make headway in synergizing the 3Ds – diplomacy, development, and defense – in its foreign policy.

Two months after Japan established diplomatic relations with South Sudan on July 9th, newly-minted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced Japan’s new commitments to South Sudan at his debut at the UN General Assembly. As a start, Japan sent two JGSDF personnel as staff officers of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) Headquarters in November at the UN’s request. Japan is now preparing to dispatch JGSDF’s engineering unit to Juba, the capital, next year. These efforts are commendable and the government should continue to expand its defense commitment in South Sudan and around the world.

Dispatching more defense forces is an excellent opportunity for Japan to further contribute internationally by combining two areas in which it already excels – Official Development Assistance (ODA) and PKOs. JICA, Japan’s aid implementation organization, has an outstanding presence in South Sudan and has long been contributing to nation-building in the country. But as impressive as Japanese diplomacy and development currently is, expanding its defense efforts could create true co-equal synergies across these components of international assistance.

Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) has a high reputation both inside and outside Japan. Domestically, SDF increased its public support through its work following the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, and it played a critical role during this year’s natural disaster in the Tohoku area. Regarding international cooperation, the SDF is renowned for its fine-tuned and local-oriented approach, and its engineering units in particular have received special commendation. The technical training provided by Japan’s engineering units is highly regarded and the units are well-known for their diligence and politeness. SDF units have been sent to PKOs in Cambodia, Timor-Leste (East Timor), the Golan Heights, Haiti, and Mozambique.

Granted, in Japan there are legitimate concerns about sending an expanded contingent of SDF to South Sudan. SDF’s operations are constrained by the Constitution – which renounces the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes – and other relevant laws. The 1992 law on Peacekeeping Operations prohibits “the use of force” and constrains the use of small weapons to the minimum: Self-Defense officials may use stipulated weapons “within the limits judged reasonably necessary according to the circumstances, when reasonable grounds are found for the unavoidable necessity to protect the lives of others or prevent bodily harm to themselves, other SDF Personnel or Corps Personnel who are with them on the scene, or individuals who have come under their control during the performance of duties” (emphasis mine).

Let me paint you a picture as to what this truly means at the operational level. Suppose SDF personnel are facing a heavily-armed group. There is an imminent threat, but they are not allowed to fire immediately. Instead, they have to follow a four-level procedure: oral warning, warning shots, point-blank shots, and only then, finally, sharpshooting.

Yet despite the constraints that the SDF bears, Japan has been seeking to extend its support in the areas of nation-building and PKOs wherever possible. This is a welcome development and should be continued. On the whole, the Japanese public supports Japan’s contribution to PKOs; a public opinion poll conducted last year shows more than 85% of respondents supported the idea that Japan’s cooperation to PKOs should increase or at least remain at the current level. The international community also expects further contributions from Japan, not only because it is the third largest economy but also because of its good work.

There are three UN peacekeeping operations between the two Sudanese republics: UNAMID in Darfur, UNISFA in Abyei, and UNMISS in South Sudan. This not only represents the war-torn history of the two countries but also the attention granted to it by the international community. Although Juba is relatively calm, the border area is still haunted by a possibility of a full-scale war. Therefore, while an ever-growing presence of SDF may be good both for Japan and South Sudan, given the security concerns and the Japanese forces’ severe restrictions, a careful examination of some clauses of the Japanese PKO Act may be necessary to truly fulfill its higher mission.

Atsuko Tsuda is a foreign service officer for the government of Japan. This piece represents the personal observations and opinions of the author. It does not reflect the views, nor represent an official position, of the government of Japan.

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