Sunday, April 1, 2012

Japan on human rights

Not so Shared Values: Japan distances itself from the US on Human Rights

The Sri Lankan government welcomed the Japanese declaration on March 13th (see video) that "no country has a perfect record on human rights." Although only an observer to the UN Human Rights Council, the Japanese government felt it important to speak out against the US-sponsored resolution "Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka" (A/HRC/19/L.2/Rev1).

The US introduced the resolution by saying that it "is not intended to condemn....[however] the government has not yet promulgated a credible action plan for implementation of those recommendations [toward peace]  nor has it taken the additional needed steps since the war to foster national reconciliation....[the objective of the resolution is] to ensure accountability for actions taken during the war."

The resolution, opposed by Russia and China*, presses the Sri Lankan government to investigate the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the final stages of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers. Passed March 22, it requires the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to report back next year on whether the government followed the council’s recommendation, which many see as crucial to healing the divide between Sri Lanka and its minority Tamils.

For those interested in resolving lingering wartime justice and peace issues with Japan, the Japanese UNHRC statement is a stunning slap at contemporary efforts toward post-conflict reconciliation. Japan rejects essentially rejects today's norms of recognition of and accountability for war crimes. This is particularly troubling to the American POWs of Japan who are pressing on Japan and its companies to respect their human rights and to do more to show the sincerity of their apology.

In contrast, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released released a strong statement hours after the vote that the United States and the international community “had sent a strong signal that Sri Lanka will only achieve lasting peace through real reconciliation and accountability.” More interesting, Secretary Clinton noted that Sri Lanka's commitment to the reconciliation process cements the "shared values" between the two countries.
Today’s action by the UN Human Rights Council encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to continue on the path toward reconciliation following 27 years of civil war. The United States, together with the international community, sent a strong signal that Sri Lanka will only achieve lasting peace through real reconciliation and accountability, and the international community stands ready to help. The next steps are clear. We look to the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and take the necessary measures to address accountability. We are committed to working with the Sri Lankan Government to help realize this goal, and I look forward to discussing future actions with Foreign Minister Peiris soon. We will continue the productive working relationship we have with the Sri Lankan Government based on shared values, respect and constructive dialogue. Most important, we seek to strengthen our partnership with all the people of Sri Lanka.
The White House followed by saying: 
The United States Government applauds today's passage of the UN Human Rights Council's resolution on "Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka." The resolution, which received broad support from around the world, calls for a range of critical steps that would go a long away to advancing the rights and dignity of the Sri Lankan people. The United States urges the Sri Lankan government to develop a comprehensive action plan for implementing steps on reconciliation and accountability, as called for in today's resolution, and to work with UN experts and its partners in the international community to take meaningful action to achieve these important goals, which will be a critical part of Sri Lanka's efforts to provide a bright, peaceful, and stable future for all of its people. We stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka in this important effort.
For their part, Sri Lankan officials retorted that "We hope those human rights champions will take note of the Japanese sentiment as laid out by Minister Sakashita Osamu of the Japanese Permanent Mission in Geneva:
No country has a perfect record on human rights, and countries need to be given time, space, encouragement, advice, and where appropriate, concrete assistance in order to overcome existing challenges. The political, socio-economic and cultural contexts of each country duly need to be considered when addressing human rights issues. Too often a false dichotomy is constructed between the universality of human rights per se and the particularity of specific human rights situations. Discussions, including those by this council, need to combine the two essential facets of human rights issues in a constructive manner. 
Of the four Co-chairs to the failed Norway-led peace process for Sri Lanka, only Japan had objected to intervention. The other Co-chairs, the US, Norway and EU lambasted Sri Lanka, with UK's human rights minister, Jeremy Browne calling for UN intervention in Sri Lanka. With the exception of Japan, the allies believed it important to compel Sri Lanka to live up to its commitments to postwar reconciliation.

For those who say that the US-Japan Alliance is based on shared values, the Japanese objection to UN pressure on Sri Lanka to pursue meaningful postwar reconciliation is a contradiction, if not a set back. As with Sri Lanka, it is also important to the US that Japan develops a comprehensive action plan for implementing steps on postwar reconciliation and accountability. For the American POWs of Japan it is fundamental.

As Eileen Donahoe, the United States ambassador to the Human Rights Council, told the press after the vote:
Our view is that if there isn’t some form of truth and accounting of these kind of mass-scale atrocities and casualties, you can’t have lasting peace. You will sow the seeds of future violence. So we think it’s important that they take steps to show there will be some form of truth and accountability. 
This is true for any conflict, any country, and even any time. Seventy years later, Japan still has a lot to account for.

*Against (15): Bangladesh, China, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Uganda.

Mindy Kotler
Director, Asia Policy Point
This essay first appeared in the Asia Policy Calendar of March 26th.

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