Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

Pulling the wool

Japan's pitch for the U.N Human Rights Council was disingenuous at best, says Debito Arudou


I s the world's second-largest economy, Japan feels it deserves the respect and privilege accorded the club of rich countries.

It certainly mouths money. Japan has been a major (if not the biggest) donor to the WHO, UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNDP, and UNICEF, not to mention the second-largest contributor to the entire U.N. regular budget.

Quid pro quo: Japan periodically campaigns for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. In 2003, foreign ministry representative Takashima Hatsuhisa called Japan's absence from the UNSC "taxation without representation."

But it is not all bankrolling. Japan has signed many U.N. treaties safeguarding economic, civil, political, cultural, social, and human rights. After all, Japan told the United Nations this year, it desires "an honored place in an international society," as it strives for "the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance."

Unfortunately, a common practice in the international law arena is that countries say and do different things. Japan is no exception.

But Japan's shameless deception sometimes goes beyond unbecoming -- into beggaring belief. I have written on this page before on international covenants left unkept. The news is that even after years of exposure, Japan's tack is still not changing. It continues to pull the wool over the U.N.'s eyes with false promises.

Here is an illustration: Big news recently in human-rights circles has been the reformation of one of the U.N.'s oldest institutions: The Commission on Human Rights. For around 60 years, the Commission dealt with human rights violations under international treaties.

Cases passing through a country's judiciary without effective redress were given a hearing in Geneva. If there were treaty violations, countries got a public scolding. However, the Commission eventually came under fire because some of the world's most flagrant offenders became members. Think Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus, and Myanmar. Committee membership blunted criticism.

Since of the key mandates of the U.N. is to clarify and promote universal human rights, this created a crisis of legitimacy, and even Secretary General Kofi Annan called for a new organization. And thus, in June 2006, the "Human Rights Council" was inaugurated to replace the Commission.

The HRC would start afresh, with more mandate, more frequent meetings, and a clearer framework to hold members accountable. Its 47 members, elected by the General Assembly, would have a "universal periodic review" of their own human rights record, with expulsion possible from the HRC for egregious cases.

Japan, through its Permanent Mission to the U.N., applied for one of the 13 HRC slots allotted to Asia. Citing its "human-rights Constitution," Japan's mission gave a sweet sales pitch about all the good things it does for its people, and for the world in general. It worked. Japan got elected. Unfortunately, the sales pitch wilts under scrutiny.

I refer to "Japan's Voluntary Pledges and Commitments" (SC/06/177 April 14, 2006, available at www.un.org/ga/60/elect/hrc/japan.pdf ). It mentions, for example, the Ministry of Justice's "Human Rights Organs" ("Jinken Yougobu"). These offer "appropriate relief measures, such as accusation, warning, conciliation. . . ." Sadly, this is not the whole truth. As the Community Page has reported ("Watching the Detectives," July 8, 2003), and the U.N. has acknowledged (CCPR/C/79/Add.102 1998), the Jinken Yougobu is meaningless.

It has no power of arrest or sanction, as organ representatives will caution you at the start of any consultation. All it can do is frown at discriminators.

Japan's Mission also wrote that its government "has consistently made efforts and implemented concrete measures to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms in Japan." They cited laws "introduced" (as opposed to "promulgated") to protect children against pornography and abuse, and to stop human trafficking.

However, it's not as if Japan did so on its own initiative. Japan only started taking action after June 2004, when the U.S. State Department embarrassingly put it on its "Tier 2" human trafficking watch list. Before that, the infamous "Entertainer Visa" was a convenient way to officially sponsor hundreds of thousands of sex- trade workers.

In addition, Japan's mission mentioned revisions to laws governing prison inmate treatment. However, these do not cover people who are not convicted felons (i.e. not yet in prison), such as those undergoing interrogation or "temporary voluntary incarceration" ("ryuuchi") -- especially visible in the legal gray-zone foreigner holding tanks at the Immigration Bureau.

Worse yet, police "questionings" are still are not recorded or monitored, essential to stem abuses of authority and forced confessions.

Finally, Japan pledged to avoid the sins of the previous Commission. It would "address gross and systematic violations of human rights," promote an "effective and efficient universal periodic review mechanism," and maintain "the highest standards of impartiality, objectivity, independence, and expertise" in the fulfillment of reforms. Conveniently, it also proposed doubling the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Japan would even promote Conventions on International Disappearances and Persons with Disabilities.

This is certainly to be welcomed, but before Japan goes signing any more treaties, shouldn't it enforce the ones it's already signed?

The shining example is Japan's effecting the U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1996, where it promised to take all effective measures, including legislation, to eliminate racism in Japan. More than a decade later, we still have no law in Japan outlawing racial discrimination, and a consequent spread of signs on businesses nationwide saying that "Japanese Only" are allowed inside.

No matter. Japan's government has already claimed to the U.N., in 2001, that it doesn't need a law because it has a court system for redress. However, that's neither what Japan promised, nor how the CERD works. Meanwhile, Japan is now five years late filing its biennial CERD report, even though it wasted no time in applying for a HRC seat.

One wonders what would happen if Japan was subjected to its own "efficient universal periodic review mechanism." Not much. Japan has plausible deniability through omission. Nowhere mentioned in Japan's pledge is "racial discrimination," or improving treatment of foreign residents.

No commitment whatsoever is present regarding foreign workers or refugees, international child abductions (Japan remains the only G-7 country not a party to the Hague Convention), or the economic, social or cultural rights of residents and citizens with international roots.

This is, alas, within character. Japan was on the old Human Rights Commission from 1982 onwards. During its tenure it took its time signing those treaties, and made motions when it wanted a Security Council seat.

Now Japan is on the new Human Rights Council, with a new and improved mandate. But how seriously can one take Japan's future promises when its past ones remain so unfulfilled?

Send comments to: community@japantimes.co.jp



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.