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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Human Rights Should Be Kan's Foreign Policy Priority

August 5, 2010

Kanae Doi
English-Speaking Union of Japan
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
August 2, 2010

Now that the Upper House elections are over,
Prime Minister Kan Naoto can at last concentrate
on governing and making good on his pledge to
build a "society with the minimum level of
unhappiness." One way Prime Minister Kan could
carry out this pledge would be to declare a
commitment to "human rights diplomacy" and begin
by formulating a vision for eliminating
"unhappiness" not just in Japan, but also
elsewhere in Asia and around the world.

Looking at only our nearest neighbors in Asia, it
is easy to find many people suffering horrendous
"unhappiness" - massacres, rape as a weapon of
war, arbitrary arrest and torture in detention,
the criminalization of free expression,
association and assembly, and other forms of
political oppression. While non-state actors such
as armed insurgents are responsible for some of
these horrors, many others are caused by abusive governments.

As a major aid donor to many Asian countries, the
Japanese government is in a unique position to
assert its leadership to stop these governments
from inflicting "grave unhappiness." Japan should
be using its membership on various important
international bodies such as the United Nations
Security Council to raise its voice against these
rights abuses. Instead, Japan has been reticent
to speak out publicly on behalf of victims of human rights abuses.

China's fast rise presents a special challenge to
the world in this area. China claims to be a
"responsible power," yet it is also a major human
rights abuser. It censors its own people,
oppresses ethnic minorities in Tibet and
Xinjiang, and imprisons many people for
exercising their rights to free expression.

China also faces strong international criticism
for its core policy of "non-interference" in the
internal affairs of other states. That approach
translates into providing considerable quantities
of unconditional economic aid to governments
regardless of their rights records, and
maintaining close bilateral relations with
abusive governments such as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Since our neighbor China is making such strides
in its efforts to emerge as a world power, it
becomes all the more important for Japan to
revive its profile in the world as a leader, not
only in terms of its "hard" power of economic
might but also its "soft" power, by strongly
promoting a diplomacy based on human rights and
the rule of law. However, in reality, Japan has
been extremely hesitant in publicly raising human
rights issues with its counterparts, including
China. Defending its position, Japanese diplomats
refer to variety of obstacles including Japan's
past abuses in China and elsewhere during the
Second World War. While it goes without saying
that the Kan administration must be mindful of
Japan's past with China, the past abuses should
not be a reason to be less vigorous in its
support for universal human rights standards.
Rather, as a past abuser, Japan has a moral
responsibility to protect the victims of on-going abuses.

Further, promoting and protecting human rights in
Asia is necessary from a pragmatic standpoint,
and consistent with Japan's national interests.
In its Manifesto, the Kan administration promised
that, "for the creation of an East Asian
Community, we will make our best efforts to forge
relationships of trust with China, Korea and
other Asian countries." But being able to truly
trust China should mean pressing it to
demonstrate its respect for human rights, instead
of borrowing a page from China's strategy of turning a blind eye to abuse.

An independent judiciary and free media can help
monitor and ultimately prevent corruption and
injustice by government and corporations. Judges
and reporters focused on accountability and
upholding the rule of law can function as a
self-cleansing mechanism for governance, such as
doctors who drain the pus before a festering boil
of corruption gets out of hand. However, there is
neither an independent judiciary nor free media
in today's China, leading to a creeping
accumulation of dissatisfaction among its people that may explode at any time.

 From a long-term strategic perspective, Japan
should gradually press China to expand respect
for human rights and political freedoms if we are
to create an "East Asian Community" with genuine
prosperity and stability. This is not only
necessary for Japan, but would benefit China as well.

The fight against impunity is another issue on
which Japan's principles are being tested. When
there is evidence that a war crime may have been
committed and the state concerned fails to
fulfill its international obligation to
investigate, an independent international inquiry
is called for, led by a respected body such as
the United Nations. Will Japan raise a principled
voice in support of justice for the civilian
victims of a conflict, or will it tolerate
impunity for senior government officials and
rebel leaders who abuse human rights? This issue
confronts Japan at this very moment over Israel
and the Palestinians, as well as Sri Lanka, and Burma.

Ending impunity is essential to prevent future
atrocities. As a leading democracy in Asia, Japan
should firmly uphold the principle of justice and
accountability in its relations with other governments.

Human Rights diplomacy also comes into play with
Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA). It
has been two decades since Japan pledged to pay
full attention to "the situation regarding the
protection of basic human rights and freedoms in
the recipient country" as one of the four
principles of its ODA Charter, but implementation
of these principles has lacked transparency, and
at times, disregarded the substance of the
principles altogether. We have to remember that
China is not the only country criticized for its
unconditional financial support to abusive
governments. Japan has been a long time major
financial supporter to some of the governments
with notorious human rights record, including
countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Burma.

Japan should clearly state that non-humanitarian
aid is conditional on the efforts of the
recipient government to protect and promote basic
human rights, as measured by a concrete set of
indicators. If the government is found to be
violating basic human rights, based on the
indicators, Japan should postpone extending
financial aid until the country meets the standards.

With its declining birthrate and aging
population, Japan today is feeling increasingly
that it is being eclipsed by China and is in need
of a positive future vision. Precisely because
Japan finds itself in this state, the Kan
administration should present a vision of a Japan
as a nation that used its diplomatic influence to
put a stop to the serious human rights violations
around the world. This is Japan's responsibility
as a major Asian democracy and a sign that it truly has reached maturity.

* The writer is Japan Director of Human Rights Watch.
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