JIN-434 -- Human Rights and Japan

J@pan Inc Newsletter

The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 434 Wednesday October 3, 2007, Tokyo

Human Rights in Japan

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The concept of 'universal human rights' is problematic to say
the least. Each word is liable to a variety of interpretations
and, the 1948 UN Declaration that has become the baseline for
most global human rights education, is also a troubled text upon
which to build morality. Does it matter that the UN declaration
was written in the aftermath of a war? Does it matter that
although theoretically applicable to all, it was written by a
relatively small group of people with strong similarities in
terms of their racial heritage, religion, intellectual tradition
and cultural experiences? Does it matter that the document was
written almost 60 years ago? Most probably it does. Indeed, it
might explain why there are academics and activists in one
country, with horrific human rights abuses going on around the
corner, who instead look 4,000 miles across the globe to point
the finger at an incompetent government who they know very
little about.

On the other hand, without that UN document and rights activists,
would innocent prisoners with no hope be receiving letters
of comfort or media attention? Would there be any coherent
resistance against governments that have apparently no concern
for the well-being of their citizens? It is hard to damn the
whole human rights project entirely. It is much harder to figure
out how--with a general acceptance that the tenets of the
philosophy could help the world along the path to becoming a
happier place (like most religions)--human rights should be a part
of government policy. The US for example has struggled with this.
During the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Nixon
administration made moves towards normalizing relations and
welcoming China into the UN. On the other hand, when
comparatively speaking, China had made great strides in terms of
improving the lives of its citizens in the 1990s, Clinton and
others started to make noise about Beijing's human rights
violations. Realists might point to the play of politics and
power behind human rights diplomacy but this also perhaps a
manifestation of the complexity of the key philosophical problem:
how far does one go to ensure the protection of rights? Or on a
practical level, how do governments successfully practice human
rights diplomacy?

Japan is often criticized for not taking more of a lead on human
rights issues. For instance, Sophie Richardson, Deputy Asia
Director for Human Rights Watch, published an article last year
( http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/01/08/japan15098.htm) in which
she argues that '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 theoretical. She refers to
grandiose statements made by the government going alongside what
she perceives as a lack of action on such issues as political
asylum for North Koreans. Richardson goes on to attack Japan's
deepening of relations with Uzbekistan and of course, its soft
approach concerning Myanmar. Makoto Teranaka, Secretary General
of Amnesty International Japan (AIJ) told us that Japan also
fails internally on a number of human rights issues; AIJ run
campaigns concerning the death penalty, treatment of the buraku
('untouchables') and protection of women from domestic violence.
Teranaka claims that many problems arise from the attitude of
Japanese society towards the concept of human rights--sometimes
viewed as a Western credential or something that doesn't concern
Japan. He argues that by allowing regimes such as the military
junta in Myanmar to continue, Japan is not fulfilling its
international moral obligations, and that through their
consumerist tendencies, ordinary Japanese citizens are giving
passive support to the diamond trade--which Teranaka sees the
root of major human rights violations in Africa.(For Amnesty's
Japan campaigns see http://secure.amnesty.or.jp/index_e.html )

The current debate over whether to impose sanctions on Myanmar
is symptomatic of the contradictory and volatile nature of the
concept of universal human rights and its relationship to
international diplomacy (for different Japanese scholarly
opinions see http://search.japantimes.co.jp/
cgi-bin/nn20070929a2.html). Many are urging Japan to
withdraw its ambassador and impose sanctions, while others
are concerned that this might irrevocably reduce Japanese
influence and make them appear no different from the US in the
eyes of not only the military junta, but also Myanmar's
citizens. While it is easy to believe from current media reports
that the people of Myanmar are calling out for the world to
rescue them, the reality might be that although some may be happy
to be 'liberated,' the inorganic rescuing by an outside force
taints domestic movements for reform with 'foreignness' and
makes more moderate domestic activists liable to increased
persecution. Not to mention the potentially devastating affect of
economic sanctions. That said, it is hard to argue against
Teranaka's point that at the very least the Japanese government
should impose an arms embargo. And then, there is the experience
of the holocaust or Bosnia to consider where it may have been
very wrong to have taken a soft approach. Perhaps the lesson to
be learned from historical with comparisons is that they only
have a limited usefulness and each case should be considered
on its own merits--the problem with a universal concept is the
lack of practical guidance it gives in particular situations.

The complexities of the debate over what Japan should do with
regards to Myanmar perhaps requires more complex conceptual
thinking than the simplistic notion of universal rights. In his
paper 'Why does Japan downplay human rights in Southeast Asia?'
( http://irap.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/lci139v1)
Hiro Katsumata argues that Japan's prioritization of economic
relations as well as its self-identification as an Asian country
are key reasons why Japan has favoured a less confrontational
stance over human rights abuses in the region. In the process of
engaging with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
Japan has pursued a 'non-intrusive and accommodative approach'
which is the result of the lobbying of the business community as
well its regional identity; thus Japan has asked Yangon to
release Suu Kyi on a number of occasions, but it has not taken
the Europe or US line of not meeting with junta members until
she is actually released. For Katsumata, Japan should foster the
idea of East Asian community to transfuse human rights values,
and actively encourage any local initiatives through ASEAN.

While there are very good reasons for Japan to take more of a
lead in dealing with human rights in Southeast Asia,
strategically, Katsumata's point is a valid one that where
possible, pressure would be best through ASEAN and the idea of
community--not to mention that this would also silence critics who
claim ASEAN to be nothing more than a talking shop. Given
Fukuda's close personal relationship with ASEAN (see JIN 434
www.japaninc.com/jin434) the firm but measured response to the
shooting of a Japanese national in Yangon, is characteristic. For
Amnesty's Teranaka, Japan, having had strong influence over Burma
during the war, should not see itself as so disconnected and needs
to take more responsibility. First however, it might be better
for Japan to look internally and deal with domestic human rights
issues such as the maintenance, even today, of an isolated colony
of people suffering from Hansen's disease (leprosy).
http://www.dinf.ne.jp/doc/english/other/wz_hansen_e.htm

Conclusively, looking at Japan's international human rights
diplomacy, its domestic issues and evolving concept of universal
rights, it is difficult to find any clear guidance. However, if
Japan does decide to take a tougher policy towards Myanmar it
should also probably look inwards as well.

By Peter Harris
Chief Editor

Want to comment? It is now even easier to voice your opinion
than ever before! Simply visit www.japaninc.com/jin434 and
post a comment below the article. Alternatively, you can email
it directly to the author at peter.harris@japaninc.com

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