This May, the Japanese Foreign Ministry published its “2007 Diplomatic Blue Book,” which adds a new goal to Tokyo’s international actions: “value oriented diplomacy.” After five decades of focusing on the United Nations, the United States, and Asia, the book says Japan will now also pursue a foreign policy to realize universal values, such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and rule of law. Foreign Minister Taro Aso insisted that it is “a responsibility for Japan, as a developed democratic nation.”
Human rights violations remain rampant all over the world. Innocent civilians are killed in wars, governments allow people to starve, children are abducted to be made soldiers and tens of millions of people are forced to flee as refugees. Many are jailed only because they have expressed different views from their own governments.
Many of these victims of injustice have maintained their hope, wishing that rights-respecting countries will help them. But with US credibility on human rights in question, and the EU failing to fulfill its potential, there is a growing void in global human rights leadership—a void Japan could fill.
Yet relatively few have been helped by Japan. Tokyo’s official rhetoric suggests that human rights abuses are of concern. However, in practice, Japan rarely speaks out about human rights abuses—other than its criticism of North Korea, though even that rarely speaks about the myriad abuses committed daily against ordinary North Koreans.
Japanese officials have long held that private diplomacy is more effective than “naming and shaming,” even with chronic rights-abusing governments like Burma’s. Yet there is little to suggest that Japan’s strategy has had any effect at all.
If Japan’s new foreign policy priority is to be taken seriously, and for Japan to be a source of hope and strength for those who suffer from human rights abuses, Japan must start to engage in public diplomacy, and must genuinely apply the human rights principle articulated in its Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter.
In 2004, Japan was the largest donor for 20 countries, including ones with human rights crises, such as Burma, Viet Nam, and the Philippines. As the source of one-third to one-half of those countries’ assistance, Japan is in a strong position to insist on the cessation of abuses.
The Burmese military government has more than one thousand political prisoners and continues to grossly abuse ethnic minorities. Yet Japanese businesses in Burma help provide that government a critical stream of revenue.
In May, the single party Vietnamese government has jailed democracy activists on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. Western diplomats asked to attend their trials, and the European Union released a statement expressing concern, yet there was no visible response from Tokyo.
The responses from Tokyo regarding developments in the Philippines --though the human rights were referred in the Summit meetings-- is not sufficient either, where hundreds of people, including human rights defenders and members of left-wing political parties, have been extra-judicially killed.
Quiet diplomacy looks like approval of abusive practices to many. Japan should begin to include human rights concerns in determining foreign assistance. Greater political support for United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka or emergency aid to crisis situations in North Korea, would be critically helpful. Even starting to discuss disappearances worldwide—and not just those of Japanese abducted by North Korea—would signal that Japan really has embraced a new human rights policy.
Tokyo needs to take its new commitment and translate it into concrete, visible action. Doing so may not make Japan as popular with the authoritarian governments but it might make Japan heroic in the eyes of those truly committed to human rights across the globe.
Sophie Richardson is Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch is a human rights organization with its headquarters in the United States. Ms. Richardson received her Ph.D. in political science. Her publications include theses on Chinese democratization.