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Editorial: 25 years after enactment of PKO law, Japan's aid still vital

Twenty-five years have passed since Japan enacted the Act on Cooperation for United Nations Peace-keeping Operations (PKOs) and Other Operations, a law supporting nation-building overseas in the wake of conflicts. The law opened the way for Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to be dispatched abroad, and represented a turning point in the nation's postwar security policy.

    Under the law, Japanese forces built roads in deserted landscapes, and provided support to enable elections to be held smoothly, among other tasks. However, the scope of U.N. activities has now changed, with a focus on protecting residents in conflict zones.

    A total of 16 U.N. PKO programs are underway across the world, and over 10,000 personnel are taking part in them. Following the return of Japan's SDF members from an operation in South Sudan, no SDF personnel are currently dispatched overseas on peacekeeping missions. So what form should Japan's international contributions take in the future?

    Twenty-five years ago, with the conclusion of the Cold War, the fear of conflicts between major countries declined. At the same time, there were many regional conflicts occurring against a background of religious opposition and people who had lost freedom under the Cold War, and such conflicts continue today.

    Japan has taken part in 14 peacekeeping and humanitarian support operations to date, dispatching over 12,000 SDF members. Helping to rebuild democratic nations, it has continued its activities backed up by pacifism.

    The SDF dispatched engineering unit members to Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti and South Sudan. Through their duty of infrastructure improvement, they played a major role in nation-building. Members made efforts to achieve mutual understanding with local residents, and carried out their missions without firing a single shot. Japan's "soft power," departing from an emphasis on military might, was welcomed, and this benefitted the country.

    When the peacekeeping cooperation law was enacted, it stirred great debate in Japan about the dispatch of SDF members overseas. Nevertheless, the perception that peacebuilding participation is in line with the principles of the Constitution has taken root. A Cabinet Office public opinion poll found that over 70 percent of respondents were in favor of the SDF taking part in peacekeeping operations.

    Still, U.N. peacekeeping missions have changed over the past quarter of a century. Immediately after the Cold War, activities centered on helping to rebuild such developing countries as Cambodia that had been ravaged by civil war. But then there was an increase in peacekeeping operations countering the slaughter of civilians and violent "ethnic cleansing" campaigns that were actually taking place. As a result of this, peacekeeping forces got caught up in armed conflicts, and were unable to sufficiently pursue their duties.

    A turning point came at the 2005 U.N. Leaders' Summit on peacekeeping operations, with the summit declaration stating that protection of civilians was a "solemn responsibility" of participants.

    The responsibility for protecting a country's citizens from slaughter and war crimes unequivocally lies within that country, but if this process isn't functioning, then international society can rise above that country's sovereignty to protect them, the leaders decided. They allowed force to be used with the consent of the U.N. Security Council, and this change was incorporated into peacekeeping missions.

    We are now seeing the emergence of "powerful peacekeeping operations" handling everything from preventing conflicts to rebuilding nations. The duties of PKO personnel are also wide-ranging, extending from classical monitoring of cease-fire agreements to the new realm of protecting civilians.

    Duties accompanied by an aspect of danger have increased, and a sizeable degree of military power is necessary, but it has been pointed out that there has been a lack of military equipment and personnel with a high level of technology.

    Japan has five principles for taking part in peacekeeping operations. Building on the three U.N. principles of consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defense, it added the principles of parties to the armed conflict having agreed on a cease-fire, and a stipulation on withdrawing from operations should the necessary requirements cease to be satisfied.

    Under U.N. peacekeeping operations, it is accepted that parties can depart from a stance of neutrality to carry out their duties and can use force to protect victims. However, the neutrality sought by Japan's five principles does not permit duties to be carried out while positioned on the side of a specific party involved. As activities in unstable security environments increase, there are accordingly fewer chances for Japan to take part in peacekeeping operations.

    Infrastructure improvement, transport and medical treatment are among the SDF areas of expertise. It goes against Japan's national interests to nip such activities in the bud just simply due to a change in PKO duties. Japan should probably consider reviewing its five principles or making them more flexible to leave room for the country to take part in operations.

    The U.N. makes a clear distinction between multinational forces, which undertake military enforcement measures, and peacekeeping operations, whose purpose is to maintain peace.

    Article 9 of Japan's Constitution prohibits the use of force overseas, but peacekeeping operations do not involve meddling in wars between countries. Moreover, such missions are not examples of Japan exercising its sovereignty.

    If Japan's own rules aren't in pace with changes in global peacekeeping operations, then the country should discuss in depth how far it can go in its activities in light of constitutional principles.

    In a corner of the U.N. headquarters is a meditation room referred to as "a room of quiet." It is a place where one can console the souls of some 3,500 PKO personnel who died during operations. One of them is Haruyuki Takata, who was deployed as a civilian police officer and died in Cambodia.

    Achieving peace is a national goal for Japan, enshrined in its Constitution. To achieve that, we hope Japan will continue on a path of international contributions.

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