My name is Kanae Doi, Japan Director of Human Rights Watch. On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I thank Japan’s Upper House Commission of Inquiry on Diplomacy and Security for hearing testimony today on the subtheme of "Disarmament and Non-proliferation (2)" under the inquiry on "Building a new international order – war, peace, and solution in the 21st century."
Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that investigates allegations of human rights violations in more than 90 countries around the world. We document these violations, issue detailed reports, and advocate for changes in law, policy, and practice to prevent and remedy human rights abuses. We work to protect the most at risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees and children in need.
The magnitude, scale, and frequency of human rights crises across the globe – such as in Ukraine/Russia, Ethiopia, China, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, South Sudan, Iran, and Yemen - show the urgency of a new framing and new model for action. Viewing our greatest challenges and threats to the modern world through a human rights lens, at war and peace, reveals the root causes of these crises, and also offers guidance to address them.
Advancing Humanitarian Disarmament in the 21st Century
Human Rights Watch prioritizes the “humanitarian disarmament” approach to dealing with weapons that cause unacceptable harm, including weapons that are invariably indiscriminate. This framing contrasts with traditional arms control and non-proliferation initiatives, which are driven by national security interests.
Humanitarian disarmament puts assisting people and dealing with humanitarian impact above all else. It is characterized by close cooperation and partnership among governments, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and civil society. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including my own, typically play a prominent role, working close collaboration through global NGO coalitions.
The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty pioneered this approach and is considered as the cornerstone of humanitarian disarmament. The treaty comprehensively bans antipersonnel landmines and requires destruction of stockpiles. Its humanitarian provisions require the clearance of mined areas and assistance to landmine victims.
Without question, the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and limbs. A total of 164 countries have joined the treaty, including Japan. Under the Mine Ban Treaty these countries have destroyed a collective total of more than 55 million antipersonnel landmines from their stocks; Japan completed the destruction of its nearly one million stockpiled antipersonnel mines in February 2003.
Japan provides financial support to mine clearance efforts and often reiterates its call for all states that have not yet done so to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty “at the earliest opportunity.” Such actions are crucial if we are to reach our common goal of a landmine-free world.
To defend the norm established by the treaty, Japan should use its voice to condemn new use of antipersonnel landmines. The years of antipersonnel mines in Myanmar by government is deeply troubling. So too is Russia’s extensive use of these weapons in Ukraine since its full-scale invasion of the country one year ago. In the spirit of cooperative compliance, Japan should also encourage Ukraine to investigate its apparent use of antipersonnel mines, as Human Rights Watch reported last month.
The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions is another crucial humanitarian disarmament standard-bearer. Cluster munitions pose an immediate threat to civilians in conflict by randomly scattering submunitions over a wide area. Many fail to detonate on impact and pose a danger until they are cleared and destroyed, sometimes years and even decades after.
In 2009, Japan became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Japan completed the destruction of more than 14,000 stockpiled cluster munitions in 2015, meeting a key legal obligation. We appreciate the support that Japan continues to show for the convention as this work is far from complete.
Currently 110 countries have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but not China, Russia or the United States. Over the past decade, my organization has issued dozens of reports detailing civilian harm from the Syrian government’s extensive use of these weapons, with Russia’s active support.
It’s therefore deeply dismaying to see Russia’s widespread use of cluster munitions rockets in the conflict in Ukraine. Japan should condemn any use of cluster munitions in Ukraine by any actor and intensify its promotion of the convention’s universalization and implementation.
Another feature of humanitarian disarmament treaties is that they strive to establish the strongest possible standard in international humanitarian and human rights law. This can be seen in the comprehensive prohibition on the use of biological agents and toxins as a weapon as provided by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.
It is also evident in the strict prohibition provided by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. With 193 members, including Japan, the convention is one of the most widely endorsed arms treaties. The convention requires the destruction of stockpiled chemical weapons and facilities that produced them. It is heartening that 99 percent of chemical weapons stockpiles declared by possessor states have now been destroyed.
A vast majority of countries are abiding by the convention’s provisions. However, serious challenges remain. Human Rights Watch documented several incidents involving the Syrian government’s use of prohibited chemical weapons, as has the convention’s oversight body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Yet efforts to hold Syrian government officials responsible for these attacks accountable have proven elusive. The convention’s May 2023 Review Conference provides Japan with an important opportunity to defend the norm established by the Chemical Weapons Convention and to support efforts aimed at ensuring accountability for this use of these weapons.
Incendiary weapons are sometimes mistaken for chemical weapons as they produce fire through a chemical reaction. However, they contain a flammable substance such as napalm or thermite that can inflict excruciating burn injuries and start fires that destroy civilian homes, businesses, and infrastructure.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from the use of incendiary weapons in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. The use of these weapons dates back to World War II and the horrific firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945.
Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) governs the use of incendiary weapons, but it has failed to provide adequate protections for civilians. The protocol prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas yet allows for the use of ground-launched incendiary weapons in certain circumstances. Any use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas should be prohibited, regardless of whether the weapons are dropped from the air or launched from the ground.
As a CCW state party, Japan should help address the shortcomings of Protocol III, which have curbed its effectiveness. Japan should support dedicated discussions on incendiary weapons in 2023, either at or outside CCW auspices.
Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
Humanitarian disarmament norms are not limited to legally binding instruments. Last November, Japan and 82 other countries endorsed an important political declaration on protecting civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
This declaration calls on countries to adopt and implement national policies and practices that strive to avoid civilian harm by “restricting and refraining from” the use of explosive weapons in populated towns and cities.
Upon endorsing the declaration, Japan’s Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Yoshikawa Yumi, affirmed “the importance of civilian protection, and compliance with international law, under the situation of armed conflict.”
Japan can demonstrate its commitment to the declaration’s objectives by interpreting and implementing the declaration in the way that is most protective of civilians, and contribute to the declaration’s universalization efforts.
A growing number of countries are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies to develop air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems. There are well-founded concerns that will result in the development of weapon systems that, once activated, would select and engage targets without further human intervention.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for “internationally agreed limits” on weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, describing them as “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.” More than 70 countries as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Stop Killer Robots campaign co-founded by Human Rights Watch regard a new treaty with prohibitions and restrictions as necessary, urgent, and achievable.
Japan has repeatedly stated that it has no intention to develop weapons systems that operate without meaningful human control. Yet it does not support calls to negotiate a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems.
Voluntary commitments such as a code of conduct or a political declaration to guide development of autonomous weapons systems are not the answer. These weapons are likely to fundamentally change the nature of warfare and potentially lower the threshold for the use of force.
The current diplomatic stalemate at the Convention on Conventional Weapons talks on killer robots should not continue. As our most recent report found, the record of past humanitarian disarmament treaties shows how a more efficient and effective response is possible. To protect humanity, Japan should get behind the proposals to negotiate a new treaty to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons systems through an alternative process.
A key lesson from humanitarian disarmament is that flawed consensus-based forums generally do not deliver. Therefore, the goal needs to be to address arms-inflicted human suffering through the establishment and implementation of norms-governing treaties that are achieved through alternative processes. After all, the humanitarian disarmament approach has proven to be more efficient, inclusive, and successful.
Toward a New International Embrace of Human Rights
Global Impacts of Human Rights Crises
Violations of fundamental rights and freedoms, deprivations of economic and social rights, mass violations against minority populations, and widespread impunity for such abuses are all precursors to human rights crises. The result may be crimes against humanity, the creation of internally displaced persons and refugees and ensuing hardship, and armed conflicts and civil wars that result in countless atrocities against civilians.
The horrors of World War II left us with this lesson, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."
Governments that fail to live up to their legal obligations to protect human rights at home sow the seeds of discontent, instability, and ultimately crisis. Left unchecked, the egregious actions of abusive governments escalate, cementing the belief of those in power that corruption, censorship, impunity, and violence are the most effective tools to achieve their aims. Ignoring human rights violations carries a heavy cost, and the ripple effects should not be underestimated.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine: Governments should reflect on where the situation would be if the international community had made a concerted effort to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin to account much earlier—in 2014, at the onset of the war in eastern Ukraine; in 2015, for abuses in Syria; or for the escalating human rights crackdown within Russia over the last decade.
China: China poses the greatest security threat to Japan today. Imagine where the situation would be if, from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Japan’s GDP was more than six times that of China, Japan had led international efforts to hold the Chinese government to account for its rights abuses and pressed for the rule of law, instead of opposing sanctions imposed by Western governments.
Respect for Rights as a Prescription for Stability
The challenge going forward is for governments to replicate the best of the international response in Ukraine and scale up the political will to address other crises around the world until there is meaningful human rights improvement.
Rights-respecting governments, such as Japan, need to lend their political stamina and attention to ensure that needed human rights change comes to fruition. Japan can do this, if they want, as in the case of North Korea in 2013, when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered Japanese diplomats to take the lead at the UN Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to collect evidence of North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Many other governments were lukewarm about a commission of inquiry for North Korea, but because of Japan’s leadership at that time, North Korean leaders are now on notice that they may face possible future international trials for crimes against humanity.
A 10-point Plan
Taking this opportunity, we would like to present a 10-point plan to make Japan a global leader on human rights.
- Adopt a substantive and robust human rights action plan at the political level that guides Japanese foreign policy. Use this plan to adopt concrete actions with specific time frames for countries with serious human rights situations.
- Improve MOFA’s structure and increase resources to enable it to carry out more effective human rights diplomacy under the strong leadership of dedicated high-level personnel.
- Adopt a Magnitsky-style sanctions law against human rights abusers abroad.
- Publish an annual human rights report on key country situations, such as those prepared by the US and UK.
- Establish and fund a program to support human rights defenders and open civic space.
- Support and lead international efforts to advance humanitarian disarmament and make it a pillar of Japanese foreign policy.
- Support legal action for serious crimes in violation of international law under the concept of “universal jurisdiction.”
- Institute trade policy reforms: withdraw tariff preferences for serious and systemic human rights violators and make it mandatory to include human rights provisions in trade agreements. Address supply chain problems by instituting reforms, including legislating companies’ mandatory human rights due diligence and import bans on goods produced through means involving forced labor and other rights violations.
- Reform current policies and structures to enable Japan to respond to crises by suspending development aid to rights-abusing governments (while continuing to support humanitarian aid).
- Accept shared responsibility for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees, including through resettlement to Japan.
Despite Japan being a vibrant democracy, Japanese diplomats have developed an unfortunate reputation for being unwilling to speak out on key human rights issues abroad. Japan should live up to its global human rights responsibilities, and take action alone or with other countries to promote rights, particularly to address the world’s worst situations. The Japanese government should recognize that focusing on human rights is not high-minded and unrealistic, but is at the core of a realpolitik foreign policy. This was evident with respect to Japan’s leadership on North Korea at the UN in 2013. Japan’s role then should not be treated as an historical example, but as a model for future policy.