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Friday, Nov. 18, 2011

S. Sudan mission prompts safety concerns


The decision to send Self-Defense Forces engineers to South Sudan on a peacekeeping mission may win approval from international allies, but domestically there are concerns about safety in a country rife with conflict.

The dispatch may also rekindle arguments about whether changes are needed to the law restricting the use of force by SDF personnel, which could then entail debate on possible amendments to the pacifist Constitution.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Nov. 1 approved a plan to send a Ground Self-Defense Force engineering unit to South Sudan, which gained independence in July following a long civil war. They will join the U.N. peacekeeping operation, helping to build roads and bridges in the capital, Juba, over a five-year period.

The Noda administration made the decision, critics say, to boost its popularity by making a splash with an international contribution. The decision also was made amid growing interest among Japanese companies in South Sudan's oil and other natural resources.

Noda said in the Diet on Nov. 1 that his government "paid sufficient heed to ensuring the safety of the (SDF) personnel and examined the dispatch from various perspectives until we could feel assured that the unit can operate in an effective way."

But Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, along with his defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, an influential Cabinet member, was reluctant to participate in the U.N. operation out of security concerns.

During a meeting in Tokyo with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in August, Kitazawa said it would be difficult for Japan to respond to his request for an SDF engineering unit.

The situation changed after Noda took over in early September.

According to government sources, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba convinced Kitazawa's successor at the Defense Ministry, Yasuo Ichikawa, to go along with Noda's plan to declare during a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York in late September that he would consider the GSDF dispatch and to send assessment teams to South Sudan.

"The dispatch plan was brought to the prime minister's office immediately after the departure of Mr. Kitazawa," one of the sources said. "Things moved quickly toward the dispatch as the prime minister's office had been looking for some 'gift' for the U.N. assembly."

A senior defense official pointed out that Noda's U.N. speech effectively made the plan "an international pledge" and therefore the Defense Ministry was stripped of any input on whether to send troops.

Since the political decision had already been made, the ministry and SDF changed their stance and focused instead on what they could do to ensure the engineers' safety, the official said.

In a government meeting held prior to the dispatch of an assessment team in late September, the GSDF said it should be sent to Juba, where the situation is relatively stable, in addition to the northern city of Malakal, where the United Nations initially asked Japan to operate.

"The north is not safe and has poor sanitation," a GSDF officer said at the meeting. "We absolutely cannot send our troops there."

Violence continues in South Sudan between rebels and government forces, and with Sudan to the north. The situation appears highly volatile.

Still, an official in charge of international cooperation at the Defense Ministry said, "Juba is about 500 km away (from the north) and should not be affected by such unrest."

In light of the instability of the country as a whole, the security situation in Juba could also change over the course of the five-year commitment.

If the situation worsens and the mission is prolonged, calls may also grow for a revision of Japan's peacekeeping operations cooperation law, which stipulates the use of weapons must be kept to the minimum necessary to protect the lives of the Japanese personnel deployed.

The use of force could contravene the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution as well.

Noda has been stressing that the GSDF's operations will be within the parameters of the law. But his Democratic Party of Japan has already embarked on discussions on a possible revision of the law.

Competition for South Sudan's natural resources also appears to have begun. Oil production in the country ranks sixth among African nations and it is also believed to possess minerals and other natural resources.

As of the end of September, 57 countries have participated in the U.N. peacekeeping mission. These include neighboring African countries, the United States and European nations, but also South Korea and China.

"Their operations have just started and we are not behind," a Foreign Ministry source said.

Japanese companies' interests in South Sudan are also high. In October, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ryuji Yamane organized a delegation to South Sudan comprising officials from both the public and private sectors to look for trade and other investment opportunities.

Way ahead of Japan, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited South Sudan in August in an apparent bid to secure access to the country's resources.

Japan on the other hand has tried to highlight its contributions to South Sudan's nation-building process, with an official close to the prime minister warning that "it isn't wise to underscore our strategy in the area of natural resources," as that would only intensify the international battle over those resources.

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