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Editorial: Deep debate needed to clarify new duties for SDF troops in S. Sudan

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada was recently in the South Sudanese capital of Juba to inspect the area and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) unit taking part in a United Nations peacekeeping operation there. Based on her observations, the government is considering assigning "rush and rescue" and joint camp defense duties -- both made possible by security-related laws passed last year -- to the GSDF unit scheduled to rotate into South Sudan in mid-November or later.

However, even after Inada gave a mostly positive evaluation of the situation on the ground, it is highly questionable whether she got a real grasp of the security conditions in Juba.

According to Reuters, on Oct. 8 -- the same day Inada was there -- an attack on a truck carrying civilians along a main road in Juba's outskirts claimed the lives of 21 people, with about 20 more wounded. In July this year, a major clash between forces supporting South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and those backing former Vice President Riek Machar left some 300 people dead.

"There are accidental and sporadic clashes in various places," Inada commented. However, she went on to say, "Based on what I saw with my own eyes, I felt that there is a strong impression of comparative calm in Juba itself." Inada was in the city for just seven hours, give or take, so we wonder if she can really make that judgment.

Diet debate on the new duties has centered on whether South Sudan meets the legal "five principles" for deploying the SDF on peacekeeping missions, including "there must be a cease-fire agreement in place," and "The host country and other parties must agree (to accept the peacekeepers)."

During recent Diet deliberations, the government and the largest opposition Democratic Party tangled over whether the July incident constituted a "combat action." Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Inada argued that it was, "legally speaking, not a 'combat action,' but a clash," and insisted that, by their understanding, the South Sudan deployment met the five peacekeeping mission principles.

There are high expectations of the activities of the GSDF unit in South Sudan, which is tasked with road repairs and similar duties. However, Japan's forces are bound by the Constitution's Article 9 forbidding the use of military force. As such, if the requirement for an effective cease-fire or others of the five principles are not in place on the ground, SDF troops could end up using their weapons, and thus potentially violating the constitutional ban on exercising military force.

Debate related to the five principles is important. However, peacekeeping operations themselves can transform over time, from keeping tabs on a cease-fire to nation-building or protecting civilians, for example. That is, the main goal of peacekeeping forces can and does shift to more complex, higher risk tasks. Some experts have said that the five principles are "out of date" and unsuited to the real world.

If there is indeed a gap between international expectations and domestic legal restrictions regarding Japan's peacekeeping forces, the government and political parties of all stripes should debate ways of filling that gap in rather than grappling over purely conceptual questions.

The SDF's standards for using weapons were loosened under the recent security legislation, but not to the point that Japanese troops can do just anything. The SDF can only do harm to an opponent under strict conditions, such as legitimate cases of self-defense.

Discussion regarding peacekeeping remained insufficient during last year's Diet debate on the security laws. We ask that debate on the SDF's new duties be debated deeply, such that the coming South Sudan deployment does not become a breeding ground for future problems.

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