Main Image Credit Japanese peacekeepers queue up to leave South Sudan in May. Courtesy of Reuters/Jok Solomun.
A political dispute in Japan over an alleged cover-up in a UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan highlights a bigger regional problem with international operations that are no longer about maintaining, but more about imposing, peace.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s resignation late last month, just a few days shy of her first year in office, did not come as a complete surprise.
That the deciding factor in her departure may have been the controversy over the whereabouts of South Sudan peacekeeping activity logs, may, to others, seem a somewhat harsh outcome for a relatively minor transgression.
To presume this, however, would be to fail to understand the heart of the dispute: the debate over Japan’s role in an international security system, and the risks its armed forces will face.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategic ambition for his country to make a bigger contribution to global security as part of Tokyo’s ‘proactive diplomacy’ is not shared by large segments of the country.
And, with an ever growing Asian contribution to peacekeeping personnel, questions have arisen over Japan’s risk appetite in peacekeeping missions.
Japan’s pacifist constitution has not been amended since 1949 following the Second World War. The bar for constitutional reform is very high, and any potential amendment evokes an emotive and strong response among citizens, given Japan’s role in the war.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategic ambition for his country is to make a bigger contribution to global security as part of Tokyo’s ‘proactive diplomacy’
Throughout Japan’s post-war history, the country’s international engagement in defence and security has been strictly guided by Article 9 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Japanese people ‘forever renounce war’ and that ‘land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained’. Self-defence forces are permitted, but the issue of peacekeepers has prompted debate over their deployment on missions where the use of force may be required.
South Sudan, where Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force Engineering troops were stationed for the past five years as part of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), proved too dangerous for many to accept; the troops left at the end of May.
Tokyo likes to present this departure as the logical conclusion from the completion of their mandate. However, it came as the security situation in South Sudan deteriorated, with conflict erupting between the forces of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar in the capital Juba, leaving at least 300 people dead, and prompting the evacuation of Japanese civilians and diplomats.
By classifying these events in their internal record-keeping as ‘clashes’ rather than ‘fighting’, Tokyo’s military commanders and, perhaps, its civilian bosses, tried to present the Japanese peacekeeping mission there as part of its mandate as described in the Peacekeeping Operations Act.
Robust peacekeeping became a vogue term at the UN following failures in Bosnia and Rwanda
This stipulates that an ‘agreement on a cease-fire shall have been reached among the parties to armed conflicts’ if Japanese peacekeeping troops are to be either inserted or remain in a war zone. The rediscovery of the lost Japanese military log-books from the South Sudan operation, which should have documented rising levels of violence in Juba therefore smacked of a government cover-up for a mission that might have violated Japanese law.
While this might appear on the surface to be a peculiarly Japanese matter, it also reflects a broader concern about the ‘robust turn’ in peacekeeping operational demands on key troop-contributing countries, six of the top ten by contribution of which are from the Asia-Pacific. These are Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Pakistan.
Add to that Vietnam, which, since 2014, has contributed twelve officers to UN Missions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), and is set to take over a field hospital in South Sudan from the UK. Given the Japanese experience, what are the risk appetites of other Asian nations?
Robust peacekeeping became a vogue term at the UN following failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. As a concept, it is often perceived in two ways. First, UN troops needed to be more robust in protecting themselves and the mission; the values of impartiality, consent of the host state and non-resort to force that were at the heart of the UN approach could be outmoded in contemporary conflict.
Beyond this narrow definition, there has also been a turn to more robust peacekeeping mandates that have often focused on the protection of civilians. In the cases of the CAR and South Sudan, this has brought peacekeepers into direct confrontation with the host state’s armed forces and police.
This robust turn has been politically controversial from the outset. While Western nations continue to drive this agenda most recently through the so-called High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) Report in 2015, others have expressed concern about the way in which this challenges the traditional approach to peacekeeping.
There is a discrepancy between those calling for robust peacekeeping and those expected to take the risks in delivering it
Part of this concern is that a more robust approach can increase the risk to peacekeepers. In 2009, the former head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, noted the discrepancy between those calling for robust peacekeeping and those expected to take the risks in delivering it. Indeed, during the past few months, peacekeepers have been killed in both Mali and CAR.
So, what might the recent Japanese episode mean for the future of UN peacekeeping? Recent international meetings on peacekeeping have focused on getting pledges of troops and police from UN member states and improving their performance on missions.
However, if the UN seeks to develop an international peacekeeping force equipped to address the nature of conflicts today, then it is critical that it presides over a more active engagement with those nations whose citizens are expected to put their lives on the line.
Until this happens, and the nature of international peacekeeping has been clarified, troop contributions will continue to be in flux and beset by controversies such as missing log-books. Unlike Japan’s military log-books, however, these discussions about peacekeeping are sadly missing.
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the authors, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies