Skip to main content

Human Rights Should Be Kan's Foreign Policy Priority

Now that the Upper House elections are over, Prime Minister Kan Naoto can at last concentrate on governing and making good on his pledge to build a "society with the minimum level of unhappiness." One way Prime Minister Kan could carry out this pledge would be to declare a commitment to "human rights diplomacy" and begin by formulating a vision for eliminating "unhappiness" not just in Japan, but also elsewhere in Asia and around the world.

Looking at only our nearest neighbors in Asia, it is easy to find many people suffering horrendous "unhappiness" - massacres, rape as a weapon of war, arbitrary arrest and torture in detention, the criminalization of free expression, association and assembly, and other forms of political oppression. While non-state actors such as armed insurgents are responsible for some of these horrors, many others are caused by abusive governments.

As a major aid donor to many Asian countries, the Japanese government is in a unique position to assert its leadership to stop these governments from inflicting "grave unhappiness." Japan should be using its membership on various important international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council to raise its voice against these rights abuses. Instead, Japan has been reticent to speak out publicly on behalf of victims of human rights abuses.

China's fast rise presents a special challenge to the world in this area. China claims to be a "responsible power," yet it is also a major human rights abuser. It censors its own people, oppresses ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, and imprisons many people for exercising their rights to free expression.

China also faces strong international criticism for its core policy of "non-interference" in the internal affairs of other states. That approach translates into providing considerable quantities of unconditional economic aid to governments regardless of their rights records, and maintaining close bilateral relations with abusive governments such as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Since our neighbor China is making such strides in its efforts to emerge as a world power, it becomes all the more important for Japan to revive its profile in the world as a leader, not only in terms of its "hard" power of economic might but also its "soft" power, by strongly promoting a diplomacy based on human rights and the rule of law. However, in reality, Japan has been extremely hesitant in publicly raising human rights issues with its counterparts, including China. Defending its position, Japanese diplomats refer to variety of obstacles including Japan's past abuses in China and elsewhere during the Second World War. While it goes without saying that the Kan administration must be mindful of Japan's past with China, the past abuses should not be a reason to be less vigorous in its support for universal human rights standards. Rather, as a past abuser, Japan has a moral responsibility to protect the victims of on-going abuses.

Further, promoting and protecting human rights in Asia is necessary from a pragmatic standpoint, and consistent with Japan's national interests. In its Manifesto, the Kan administration promised that, "for the creation of an East Asian Community, we will make our best efforts to forge relationships of trust with China, Korea and other Asian countries." But being able to truly trust China should mean pressing it to demonstrate its respect for human rights, instead of borrowing a page from China's strategy of turning a blind eye to abuse.

An independent judiciary and free media can help monitor and ultimately prevent corruption and injustice by government and corporations. Judges and reporters focused on accountability and upholding the rule of law can function as a self-cleansing mechanism for governance, such as doctors who drain the pus before a festering boil of corruption gets out of hand. However, there is neither an independent judiciary nor free media in today's China, leading to a creeping accumulation of dissatisfaction among its people that may explode at any time.

From a long-term strategic perspective, Japan should gradually press China to expand respect for human rights and political freedoms if we are to create an "East Asian Community" with genuine prosperity and stability. This is not only necessary for Japan, but would benefit China as well.

The fight against impunity is another issue on which Japan's principles are being tested. When there is evidence that a war crime may have been committed and the state concerned fails to fulfill its international obligation to investigate, an independent international inquiry is called for, led by a respected body such as the United Nations. Will Japan raise a principled voice in support of justice for the civilian victims of a conflict, or will it tolerate impunity for senior government officials and rebel leaders who abuse human rights? This issue confronts Japan at this very moment over Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Sri Lanka, and Burma.

Ending impunity is essential to prevent future atrocities. As a leading democracy in Asia, Japan should firmly uphold the principle of justice and accountability in its relations with other governments.

Human Rights diplomacy also comes into play with Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA). It has been two decades since Japan pledged to pay full attention to "the situation regarding the protection of basic human rights and freedoms in the recipient country" as one of the four principles of its ODA Charter, but implementation of these principles has lacked transparency, and at times, disregarded the substance of the principles altogether. We have to remember that China is not the only country criticized for its unconditional financial support to abusive governments. Japan has been a long time major financial supporter to some of the governments with notorious human rights record, including countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Burma.

Japan should clearly state that non-humanitarian aid is conditional on the efforts of the recipient government to protect and promote basic human rights, as measured by a concrete set of indicators. If the government is found to be violating basic human rights, based on the indicators, Japan should postpone extending financial aid until the country meets the standards.

With its declining birthrate and aging population, Japan today is feeling increasingly that it is being eclipsed by China and is in need of a positive future vision. Precisely because Japan finds itself in this state, the Kan administration should present a vision of a Japan as a nation that used its diplomatic influence to put a stop to the serious human rights violations around the world. This is Japan's responsibility as a major Asian democracy and a sign that it truly has reached maturity.

Kanae Doi is Japan Director of Human Rights Watch.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country