Japan Self-Defense Forces Participation in UN Peacekeeping: An Idea Whose Time is Past


Since the early 1990s, the Japanese government has campaigned vigorously to expand participation by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in UN peacekeeping operations—most recently, the mission in volatile, conflict-torn South Sudan. Yet, changes in the United Nations’ own peacekeeping mandates and rules of engagement have made such participation increasingly problematic under the Japanese Constitution, writes international peace-building veteran Isezaki Kenji. Isezaki urges the government to come to grips with these contradictions and explore other avenues for cooperation.

A replacement unit of Ground Self-Defense Force personnel is on its way to South Sudan to assist with the UN peacekeeping effort there, with the last of the 350-member team expected to arrive around mid-December. The government’s decision to extend the SDF’s mission in the fledgling state has sparked intense controversy, given the ongoing tribal and political tensions in the area. Minister of Defense Inada Tomomi’s assurance that “the situation there is stable” rings hollow, given widespread reports of violence since last July.

The UN peacekeeping force charged with protecting civilians in this fraught environment operates on the premise that it could well become a party to the conflict, in clear violation of the Japanese Constitution’s ban on the use of force (Article 9). Japan has gone as far as it can in terms of SDF participation in UN peacekeeping operations under the Constitution.

Growing Contradictions

The 1992 International Peace Cooperation Act, which opened the way for Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping operations, stipulates that any such cooperation must adhere to five principles:

  1. The parties to the conflict must have reached a ceasefire agreement.
  2. The parties to the conflict must consent to Japan’s participation.
  3. Operations must maintain strict neutrality.
  4. Japan can withdraw its troops if any of the basic requirements are not met.
  5. The use of force must be limited to the minimum needed to protect the lives and safety of personnel

In South Sudan, at least 73 people, including several peacekeepers, were killed in an outbreak of fighting in Juba (the nation’s capital) last July. The UN mission’s Kenyan commander was sacked in the midst of criticism over the peacekeeping force’s conduct and handling of the crisis. In August, the UN Security Council authorized the mission’s expansion through the creation of a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force with a mandate to “promptly and effectively engage any actor that is credibly found to be preparing attacks, or engages in attacks, against United Nations protection of civilians sites, other United Nations premises, United Nations personnel, international and national humanitarian actors, or civilians.” This in effect empowers the preemptive use of force to protect civilian lives.

The Security Council resolution also amounts to an acknowledgment that South Sudan is in a state of war, and that the UN peacekeeping force could engage in battle at any time. But Tokyo is unwilling to withdraw the SDF contingent it has already committed. Consequently, it has no choice but to insist that the area of deployment is not a war zone, all evidence to the contrary.

Defense Minister Inada delivered her optimistic assessment last October, after a seven-hour visit to Juba. At that time, all that the GSDF engineering unit could show her was a civilian shelter they were digging inside the UN compound. Construction of base facilities is typically the job of the UN Department of Field Support, not the peacekeeping force per se. The truth is that the security situation in Juba had deteriorated to the point where Japan’s GSDF personnel were unable to leave camp and were obliged to work inside the facility to stay busy.

Risks of Civilian Protection

Thanks to recently passed security legislation, the SDF team now being deployed to South Sudan will have new mission parameters that allow armed operations in certain circumstances, including urgent requests to rescue Japanese nationals or other peacekeeping personnel. In fact, any such request is highly unlikely. The UN force’s senior officers are well aware that the SDF are not a constitutionally sanctioned military organization, and that Japan is not equipped with a legal system that allows it to pursue criminal responsibility for military transgressions overseas. This is precisely the kind of scenario the United Nations is most anxious to avoid. Nor is the UN force’s top command likely to assign an engineering unit to engage in armed rescue operations.

A more serious worry is what could happen if civilians again sought refuge in the UN compound during an eruption of political or tribal strife similar to last July’s—not to mention a more severe outbreak of ethnic violence. Such a situation did, in fact, occur in 2014. One can easily imagine a scenario in which militia members managed to enter the compound and fire shots, leaving the peacekeeping forces (Japan’s contingent included) no choice but to fire back. What would happen if, in the confusion, a civilian were killed by an SDF bullet? The government of South Sudan is already ambivalent about the UN peacekeeping operations in the country.

This is not just idle speculation.

When members of a UN peacekeeping force are accused of military transgressions, the standard response of the United Nations is to send the offending personnel back to their country to face military justice there. Under the UN status-of-forces agreement with the host country, peacekeeping personnel are exempt from prosecution under local law. But there must be accountability in deference to the feelings of the local residents. With this in mind, the United Nations provides its assurances that the perpetrators will be dealt with swiftly by court-martial once they return home. In Japan’s case, no such assurance is possible.

The UN peacekeeping force’s top command would never entrust a critical operation to a unit that poses this kind of diplomatic risk. In this sense, Japan is fundamentally unqualified to send troops to participate in a UN peacekeeping force.

Rwanda and the New Approach to Peacekeeping

When Japan passed the International Peace Cooperation Act in 1992, the United Nations dreaded military engagement almost as much as Japan did. A major turning point for UN peacekeeping came during the Rwandan Civil War. After a ceasefire collapsed in 1994, pro-government forces went on a rampage. As many as a million civilians were slaughtered as the UN peacekeeping forces stood by, bound by the principle of impartiality. This tragedy ultimately led to a sea change in the United Nations’ approach to peacekeeping operations.

In 1999, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a bulletin detailing the “principles and rules of international humanitarian law . . . applicable to United Nations forces when in situations of armed conflict they are actively engaged therein as combatants.” Here “international humanitarian law” refers to the law of war, rules governing the conduct of parties to armed conflicts. This explicit identification of UN forces as potential combatants was a bolt out of the blue for the UN community. Around the same time, the protection of civilians began to feature prominently in the mandates of UN peacekeeping missions.

Not long after Annan’s bulletin, I went to East Timor to serve as a district administrator under the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). My posting was Cova Lima, which borders Indonesia. In July 2000, a peacekeeping unit under my jurisdiction had an encounter with members of a pro-Indonesian militia opposed to East Timor’s secession. Shots were fired, and two peacekeepers (one from New Zealand, the other from Nepal) were killed. With Annan’s guidelines in mind, the peacekeeping unit opted to treat the militia as belligerents and engage in military action with the intent to “take no prisoners.” The unit hunted down and killed 15 members of the militia group. It was not until February 2002, after order had been fully restored, that Japan sent an SDF contingent (an engineering team) to participate in the East Timor peacekeeping mission.

From Welcome Guest to Burden

Back when peacekeeping was still a fairly idyllic sort of mission, everyone was happy to treat SDF units as special guests. UN and local government officials welcomed the participation of SDF personnel because it was a guarantee of Japanese development assistance. They asked only that the Japanese units stay out of trouble.

Those days are gone. Today peacekeeping forces are potential combatants, and the rules of engagement (ROE) governing the use of force in any given mission have changed accordingly. The ROE are quite specific and apply to all peacekeeping contingents—except those dispatched by the SDF, which formally exempts itself from most of them. Under such awkward circumstances, why is the Japanese government still bent on sending SDF units to participate in UN peacekeeping missions overseas?

The original decision to dispatch an SDF engineering unit to South Sudan was made in 2011, when the Democratic Party of Japan controlled the government. At that time, the only perceived military threat was from neighboring Sudan, and the mandate of the UN mission focused on state building. In 2013, however, a fierce power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy Riek Machar, igniting a civil war. In 2014, the Security Council revised the mandate, with primary emphasis on protection of civilians. Despite this change, the Japanese government, now under the Liberal Democratic Party, opted to extend the SDF mission in South Sudan. That was a grievous error, but the DPJ bears equal responsibility for sending SDF troops into a situation where a change in the mandate could automatically make them a party to armed conflict.

Japanese Involvement in UN Peacekeeping Operations

SDF Engineering Unit
Cambodia 1992–93
East Timor 2002–04
Haiti 2010–13
South Sudan 2012–present
Civilian Police Officers
Cambodia 1992–93
Ceasefire Monitors, Military Observers
Cambodia, East Timor, Nepal
PKF Headquarter Staff
Mozambique, Golan Heights (Israel and Syria), East Timor , Sudan, Haiti, South Sudan

Alternative Modes of Cooperation

Now that UN peacekeeping forces are understood to be potential parties to armed conflicts, many of the world’s developed countries have stopped sending troops to assist in the field. Even former imperial powers with an acknowledged moral responsibility toward their erstwhile colonies have found ways to dispatch that responsibility without putting “boots on the ground”—as by providing military observers, command center personnel, or financial support. There was a time when such behavior would have subjected them to criticism, but these days it has become the norm for countries in the immediate region to play the dominant role in UN peacekeeping operations. The trend is toward “African solutions for African problems.”

Despite these trends, Japan has doggedly persisted in sending SDF troops with the primary aim of establishing a track record of overseas operations. This may be good for Japan’s image and standing within the United Nations, particularly given the relatively large size and conspicuous presence of the SDF units. But unless we intend to amend the Constitution, further SDF participation in UN operations is simply unfeasible.

But there are other ways that we can contribute. Peacekeeping missions involve ceasefire monitors, civilian police officers, and civilians, not just military personnel. As a member of the United Nations, Japan can and should provide multisectoral support for UN peacekeeping.

Japan’s National Police Agency has been very reluctant to get involved in peacekeeping since 1993, when Takada Haruyuki was shot by armed guerillas while serving as a civilian police officer in the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia. It is time to reconsider this stance. Civilian police officers do not face the legal constraints that bind SDF personnel. They are permitted to use force in the legitimate exercise of their police authority without inviting the repercussions of military combat. The Japanese government needs to get past its fixation on SDF participation as the be-all and end-all of peace cooperation.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on November 24, 2016. Banner photo: Self-Defense Force troops train at a camp in Iwate Prefecture on October 24, 2016, prior to deployment as part of UN peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. © Jiji.)

United Nations Japan Self-Defense Forces peacekeeping operations