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Japan's confrontational approach to UN rapporteurs' reports sparks criticism

A letter sent by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Click the image for the full letter. (From the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights homepage)

The Japanese government has been quick to refute criticism by United Nations special rapporteurs over Japan's so-called "anti-conspiracy" bill and the state secrecy law, creating a rift between the country and the world body.

On May 18, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci released a letter stating the anti-conspiracy bill -- which would criminalize preparations for terrorism and other crimes by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy -- might "lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression." In response, the Japanese government swiftly filed a protest, saying, "The letter was released unilaterally without the Japanese government or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs having had the opportunity to directly explain the legislation (to Cannataci)."

In a report released on May 30, another U.N. special rapporteur, David Kaye, rapped Japan's controversial Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, calling for legal revision so as not to curtail the activities of journalists. The Japanese government, once again, wasted no time to bite back, claiming the report contained inaccurate statements.

U.N. special rapporteurs are experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council and are tasked with investigating human rights situations in countries and regions over such issues as human trafficking and freedom of expression. The special rapporteurs are independent from the United Nations and their reports do not reflect the world body's consensus opinion. The Japanese government is desperate to hit back at special rapporteurs' reports out of concern that they could spread what the government views as "misunderstandings" across the international community.

On May 12, an expert panel set up based on the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment released a report advising the South Korean government to review the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement on the wartime "comfort women" issue. In response, the Japanese government released a statement arguing for the legitimacy of the accord. It is extremely unusual for a country to counter a U.N. recommendation directed at a third country.

At a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on May 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored the significance of the 2015 Japan-South Korea accord, and the Japanese government later announced that the U.N. head expressed support for the bilateral pact. However, the United Nations disputed the claim, stating that Guterres "did not pronounce himself on the content of a specific agreement." The discrepancy further highlighted the rift between Japan and the United Nations.

In 2015, a U.N. special rapporteur "effectively retracted," as the Japanese government described it, her statement that 13 percent of schoolgirls in Japan had engaged in compensated dating, or "enjo kosai." On the other hand, the Japanese government has been working in collaboration with a U.N. special rapporteur investigating human rights situations in North Korea toward the resolution of the North's abduction of Japanese nationals.

Opposition parties in Japan are highly critical of the government's confrontational stance toward the United Nations, with Democratic Party Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda noting, "The government used to accept what it should accept from among U.N. special rapporteurs' reports. I feel discomfort with the current situation in which the government rebuts special rapporteurs' reports, like slamming the door in their faces."

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