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Japan's peculiar silence on rights abuses

Exclusive Focus on Abductees

Published in: The Japan Times

Japan observed "Korea Human Rights Week," a new occasion stipulated by the June 2006 North Korean Human Rights Act. The act, which built on Japan's cosponsorship of the 2005 United Nations General Assembly resolution, is supposed to increase public awareness of, and prevent, a variety of human rights abuses in North Korea, including torture, abuse of repatriated refugees, constraints on freedom of thought, expression and religion, and trafficking of women in China.

Throughout the week, nongovernmental organizations held a series of thought-provoking conferences, and the government produced posters about abuses and hosted a rally against North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens.

While these were positive steps, Japan can and must do more to promote human rights in North Korea -- and elsewhere -- if its commitments are to be meaningful rather than merely rhetorical. Although the rights of abducted Japanese and their family members remain a serious concern, the Japanese government's exclusive focus on these few dozen people -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has established a new desk in his office to track the problem -- is counterproductive.

In December 2005, Japan appointed an ambassador for human rights, yet despite her broad mandate, the ambassador has focused solely on the abduction issue. Japanese officials rarely mention the gross and chronic human rights violations committed daily against 23 million North Koreans -- not in relation to the famine of the 1990s or the current food crisis or in relation to North Korean refugees.

This stunning silence suggests that Japanese politicians care more about playing on popular anti-North Korean sentiment than they do about constructively helping victims of abuse.

If Japan is going to fulfill its commitments under the act, it must first urgently resume its food aid through the World Food Program (WFP) and press North Korea to let WFP and other aid organizations apply internationally accepted standards for monitoring aid distribution.

Second, Japan must take steps to protect and assist those who flee human rights abuses in North Korea. Japan should press China to stop arresting and forcibly repatriating them, and to allow humanitarian nongovernment organizations to operate along its border with North Korea.

Japan should provide asylum to North Korean asylum seekers and start taking steps to allow resettlement of refugees. Unlike other developed countries, the world's second-largest economy does not accept refugee resettlement.

Finally, Japanese officials must start making a clear distinction in their remarks between the North Korean government and ordinary citizens. Their failure to date to do so has only helped to deepen suspicion among Japanese of all North Koreans, even those who have been abused by the government.

The Japanese government's shallow approach to North Korean Human Rights Week is emblematic of Japan's generally flawed approach to promoting human rights globally. Numerous Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Abe, have trumpeted their commitment to upholding human rights globally. But a look at Japan's ties to just a few countries shows how weak those words are, particularly given Japan's financial leverage.

Japan's ongoing relationship with the Burmese military government is probably the most glaring example. Tokyo has tried to claim a principled policy by suspending some nonhumanitarian aid, yet its ongoing business interests and political engagement sustain a crucial financial and political lifeline for the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

The reality is that those funds and the political engagement enable the SPDC to evade international sanctions and continue to restrict basic rights, wage brutal counterinsurgency operations against ethnic minorities (thousands killed, millions displaced) and keep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political activists detained or imprisoned -- though you will never hear Japanese officials publicly discuss those realities.

At a minimum, Japan needs to raise those realities publicly in unilateral and multilateral settings.

Similarly, Japan's ties with Uzbekistan call into question Tokyo's commitment to global human rights. In 2005, Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister ever to visit Uzbekistan. On that visit, he signed an agreement with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to increase Japan's already substantial financial support. But Koizumi made no real mention of the Uzbek government's atrocious human rights record, including its May 2005 massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration in the city of Andijan.

As is the case with Burma, Japan's failure to condemn Uzbek human rights abuses or to encourage offenders who have been brought to justice sends the message to these governments that Japan cares more about business interests than human rights. It tells these populations that Japan is indifferent to their circumstances. In a Nov. 30 speech, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso talked about Japan's qualifications and determination to promote human rights. "My friends," he said, "What Japanese diplomacy needs is a vision."

In fact, the vision isn't lacking -- the commitment is.

Japan must stand with victims and activists as well as challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and to respect international human rights law -- without selectivity.

Otherwise, Japanese rhetoric about the importance of human rights will remain imperceptible to starving North Koreans seeking shelter, victims of Burmese and Uzbek government atrocities who look to other countries for assistance, and, indeed, probably even to abducted Japanese.

Sophie Richardson is deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States.

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