Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during his first news conference at the premier’s official residence in Tokyo in September 2006.

© 2006 Reuters

Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:

We are writing on the occasion of your election as Prime Minister of Japan. We welcome the government of Japan’s commitment to prioritizing human rights in its foreign policy at the United Nations in the coming year. We also welcome your September 26 press conference speech stressing the value Japan places on fundamental human rights and your intention to pursue more proactive diplomacy in support of such goals. By continuing to support human rights through considerable official development aid (ODA) and the appointment of an Ambassador in charge of Human Rights in December 2005, Japan has indicated that it takes seriously its role as an international power and as a party to numerous international human rights treaties.

However, Japan’s reticence to publicly address specific countries’ human rights records, its pursuit of business interests with abusive governments, such as Burma, and the Human Rights Ambassador’s decision to focus on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, despite a mandate to address all human rights violations, fundamentally compromise its rhetorical commitments. If Japan is to be a world leader in the human rights movement and a “beautiful nation” respected by others, it is imperative that these inconsistencies be reconciled.

Human Rights Watch believes that your new diplomatic strategy should include frank exchanges with rights-abusing governments, in bilateral and multilateral forums, to address violations. The Ambassador for Human Rights’ focus should be broadened beyond the abductee issue, and the development and implementation of ODA should begin with a comprehensive and systematic assessment of the recipient country’s human rights situation. We recognize that Japan’s ODA Charter calls in principle for aid decisions to be made in part on the recipient country’s protection of basic human rights. Yet Japan has only invoked this principle in its decisions on aid to Burma and Zimbabwe— and not in relation to ongoing Japanese aid to other abusive governments.

Human Rights Watch would like to draw your attention to several critical countries and institutions in which we believe Japan can play a key role in promoting human rights during your term as Prime Minister.

1. North Korea: Comprehensively press for human rights for its vulnerable population

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states. Virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is controlled by the government. In the mid to late 1990s North Koreans experienced a famine that killed an estimated one million people and hundreds of thousands of others fled to China to find food. There are serious indications that another food crisis is looming.

We welcome Japan taking a lead in the United Nations on a resolution addressing the human rights situation in North Korea. In keeping with this approach, Japan should broaden its focus on North Korea’s human rights record beyond the rights of those abducted from Japan. While that remains a serious issue, Japan must also press vigorously for the protection of North Koreans’ human rights. Japan’s agenda should focus on basic rights, such as the right to food. Japan suspended its food aid in December 2004, following a determination that human remains repatriated to Japan from North Korea were not those of abducted Japanese citizens. Yet ordinary North Koreans’ lives cannot be put at risk as a consequence of its abusive government’s actions. Japan should offer food aid to assist the citizens of North Korea and press North Korea to accept food assistance from the World Food Program and other aid organizations, while allowing such organizations to apply internationally acceptable monitoring standards.

Japan should also focus on the human rights of North Korean refugees by pressing China to stop arresting and repatriating North Koreans, and to allow humanitarian NGOs to operate along its border with North Korea. We welcome Japan’s new provisions in the North Korea Human Rights Act, to take steps to protect and assist North Korean escapees. Japan should act quickly to provide asylum to North Korean asylum seekers and begin discussing how escapees can be admitted for resettlement in Japan.

2. Burma: Change policy to unilateral and multilateral public criticism

In Burma, violence and repression by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) are the norm, not the exception. The SPDC continues to restrict basic rights, wage brutal counterinsurgency operations against ethnic minorities, and keep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political activists detained or imprisoned.

Japan describes its strategy of engaging the SPDC as “working patiently and persistently for improvements through ongoing dialogue with the present regime.” Yet the SPDC’s human rights violations have become so severe that the situation will soon be discussed by the UN Security Council. And while we welcome Japan’s contribution in placing Burma on that agenda, its ongoing bilateral engagement with such a government also suggests approval of the SPDC. At a minimum, Japan should publicly raise Burma’s human rights record in all its bilateral and multilateral discussions.

Rather than provide new aid to the Burmese military junta, Japan’s aid should focus on meeting the needs of Burma's people and should be channeled through the UN and international nongovernmental organizations until there is substantial progress by the government to improve human rights and engage in political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the democratic opposition. A clearer statement on aid policy for Burma should be delivered by your new administration.

3. Afghanistan: Prioritize human rights for Afghan people in Japan’s aid policy

A combination of resurgent Taliban forces, record-high drug production, ineffective local governance, and re-armed warlords is threatening the well-being and rights of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Afghanistan. Women and girls have been particularly affected by the insecurity and have seen a significant erosion of the few rights they had regained after the fall of the Taliban.

The Government of Japan has concentrated its assistance on the peace process, domestic security reform assistance and reconstruction assistance. But human rights must also be prioritized in its aid policy in order to protect the rights of ordinary Afghanistan people, and Japanese assistance programs should be designed to address these. We welcome Japan’s focus on human security and gender, among other issues, but hope that Japanese aid could also help support justice for victims of human rights abuses and human rights training for police.

As a major donor to Afghanistan, Japan should also press President Karzai to act to regain the public legitimacy he has squandered by failing to provide good governance and the rule of law. Your government could also lead an international effort to provide substantially higher levels of financial and political assistance in order to protect the rights of the Afghan people—Afghanistan is simply not getting sufficient international attention. Reconstruction budgets in Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor were up to 50 times greater on a per capita basis.

4. Uzbekistan: Use engagement to promote concrete progress in human rights

As you no doubt are aware, the Uzbek government has a longstanding record of repression and widespread human rights abuse which has been extensively documented by a range of international bodies. Its atrocious human rights record reached crisis levels following a government massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration in the city of Andijan in May 2005. A year and a half after the massacre, no one has been held accountable for the killings. Instead of fostering a genuine accountability process, the government has persistently defied the international community’s calls for an independent, international inquiry into the Andijan events, and unleashed a fierce crackdown on civil society.

We note the visit to Tashkent undertaken by your predecessor in August – the first ever prime ministerial-level visit to the country – indicating a renewed interest on the part of Japan in furthering relations. Japan’s longstanding bilateral relationship with Uzbekistan makes it well-placed to use its influence to promote human rights and democracy in that country. We welcome the principled position Japan has taken as a shareholder in international financial institutions, not least the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development which has suspended all public sector lending to Uzbekistan over human rights concerns. We are also heartened to know about the concerns expressed by senior officials of the Japanese government in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, and the support Japan has lent to international accountability efforts in that context.

We hope to see Japan use any intensification of its dialogue with the Uzbek leadership as an opportunity to help end the unrelenting cycle of abuse there. Any financial assistance should be tied to specific progress in human rights, and implementation of projects supported by Japan monitored closely, to ensure that they reach their intended target audience. We believe such an approach would be fully consistent with Japan’s guiding principles for ODA.

5. Turkmenistan: Stress necessity of human rights reforms as a pre-condition for any deepening engagement

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world. The government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms, and has driven into exile or imprisoned political opposition, human rights defenders and independent journalists. The Turkmen leadership is sending the country backwards in social and economic development. The country is rich in natural gas, but most of the population lives in grinding poverty.

Last month, a European Parliament committee adopted a resolution rejecting a proposed interim trade agreement between the EU and Turkmenistan due to the government’s abysmal human rights record. The resolution made clear that an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan should be envisaged only if “clear, tangible, and sustained progress on the human rights situation is achieved.” It called on the Turkmen government to release all political prisoners, allow the registration and free functioning of nongovernmental organizations, permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to work freely in the country, and grant United Nations human rights monitors “timely” access to Turkmenistan to monitor the situation.

We hope that in your dialogues with the Turkmen leadership you will reinforce this welcome message of principle by making clear that Japan, too, considers concrete reform steps to be a pre-condition for any deepening of engagement with the Turkmen government.

6. UN Human Rights Council: Reach out to Asian States and help create a cross-regional coalition of human rights supporters

The Human Rights Council, which was established in June 2006, is still struggling to distinguish itself from its discredited predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. The council has failed to take concrete action on serious human rights abuses in places like Darfur, Burma, Uzbekistan or Colombia; to date its only measures have been three one-sided resolutions condemning Israeli human rights violations.

States with poor human rights records, particularly some members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, are undermining the new body by seeking to shield all states (except Israel) from any criticism. States ordinarily supportive of human rights have been slow to react, and have failed to put forward their own agenda for this new body.

Despite the council’s disappointing record to date, there is still an opportunity to turn it into a success. Japan is uniquely positioned to reach out to other Asian states and to help create a cross-regional coalition of human rights supporters with the council. Through such a coalition, Japan should rally support to confront violators of human rights and expose obstruction of efforts to do so. By doing so, Japan could help build an institution which lives up to its noble intentions, and provides real protection for victims of human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch looks forward to working with you and your administration in Japan’s promotion of human rights around the world. We would be welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your administration to discuss this agenda.

Thank you for your kind consideration.

Yours truly,

Brad Adams
Executive Director,
Asia Division