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Editorial: Caution needed over new GSDF mission abroad

A Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) unit is set to launch a difficult mission in South Sudan under harsh security circumstances there.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has approved a plan to send the GSDF engineering unit, which will shortly be deployed for U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, on a "rush and rescue" mission. Under such an operation, GSDF members are supposed to rush to rescue U.N. and NGO members and foreign military personnel who come under attack.

The new mission is based on security-related legislation that was enacted in September last year and came into force in March this year. The Mainichi Shimbun has recognized the significance of the GSDF's involvement in international cooperation activities while voicing opposition to allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense as well as to the law on responses to situations that could threaten Japan's peace and security even though Japan is not under direct military attack.

However, the security situation of South Sudan is quite severe and the country is said to be effectively in a state of civil war. Adama Dieng, U.N. secretary-general's special adviser for the prevention of genocide, has warned that "there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide." U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also expressed concerns in a report that the situation could fall into chaos.

The Japanese government has maintained that the situation in Juba, South Sudan's capital, and its vicinity where the GSDF is operating, is relatively stable. Tokyo has emphasized that five conditions for Japan participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations are being met on the grounds that South Sudan has agreed to GSDF activities in the country and that no armed conflict has broken out there.

However, regardless of the interpretation of the Act on Cooperation with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations, the situations of Juba and surrounding areas, which are relatively peaceful now, are volatile and unstable.

Such being the case, it is highly dangerous for GSDF personnel to perform rush and rescue missions in South Sudan. Government and rebel forces have clashed and even government forces have attacked U.N. members in South Sudan. In a rush and rescue mission, GSDF personnel are allowed to use weapons and attack only in legitimate self-defense situations and other strictly limited circumstances. However, there is no denying that GSDF members could be dragged into a battle once they use their weapons.

About 20 Japanese people are living in Juba. There may be instances in which GSDF personnel armed with weapons must rush to rescue Japanese nationals living there or U.N. workers if these people were to be attacked, or if no other country's troops could swiftly respond to such an incident and the GSDF engineering unit were near the scene.

A rush and rescue mission involves risks. However, it is true that only GSDF personnel who have undergone special training can perform such duties. Considering the need to protect people's lives, Japan should perform rush and rescue missions while placing strict restrictions on such activities and exercising the maximum caution in evaluating such situations.

Even if the GSDF has been sent on a rush and rescue mission, it is not true that the unit must perform such operations. The head of the unit is supposed to make a final decision after evaluating the situation. If such a mission is deemed to exceed the GSDF unit's capacity, Japan will have no choice but to refuse to perform the mission.

Prime Minister Abe said the government would not hesitate to pull GSDF personnel out of South Sudan if it were to be deemed difficult for the force to conduct fruitful activities while ensuring its personnel's safety, even in cases where the five conditions for participating in peacekeeping operations are met. The government should accurately grasp information on the safety in South Sudan and be prepared to withdraw GSDF personnel depending on the situation.

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