"We support human rights!"  Just don't scratch the surface.
By ARUDOU Debito
Column 33 for the Japan Times Community Page
Published November 7, 2006

(What follows is the "Director's Cut" of the article, with links to sources, restoring several sentences removed for the print version.  The print version, entitled "Pulling the Wool", is available at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20061107zg.html)

As the world's second-largest economy, Japan feels it deserves the respect and privilege accorded the club of rich countries.

It certainly mouths money.  Japan has been a major (if not the biggest) donor to the WHO, UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNDP, and UNICEF.  Not to mention the second-largest contributor to the entire UN regular budget. [source]

Quid pro quo.  Japan periodically campaigns for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  In 2003, Foreign Ministry rep Takashima Hatsuhisa called Japan's absence from the UNSC "taxation without representation''. [source]

But is not all bankrolling.  In public displays of moral rectitude, Japan has signed many UN treaties safeguarding economic, civil, political, cultural, social, and human rights.

After all, Japan told the United Nations this year, it desires "an honoured place in an international society", as it strives for "the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth". [source]

Unfortunately, a common practice in the international law arena is that countries say and do different things.  Japan is no exception.

But Japan's shameless deception sometimes goes beyond unbecoming--into beggaring belief.

I have written before ("Japan's Record on Dealing with Racial Discrimination", Community Page June 3, 2003) on international covenants left unkempt.

The news is that even after years of exposure, Japan's tack is still not changing.  It continues to pull the wool over the UN's eyes with false promises.  An illustration:


Big news recently in human-rights circles has been the reformation of one of the UN's oldest institutions:  The Commission on Human Rights.

For around 60 years, the Commission dealt with human-rights violations under international treaties.

Cases passing through a country's judiciary without effective redress were given a hearing in Geneva.  If there were treaty violations, countries got a public scolding.

However, the Commission eventually came under fire because some of the world's most flagrant offenders became members.  Think Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus, and Myanmar.  Committee membership blunted criticism.

Since of the key mandates of the UN is to clarify and promote universal human rights, this created a crisis of legitimacy.  Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a new organization.

In June 2006, the "Human Rights Council" was inaugurated to replace the Commission.

The HRC would start afresh, with more mandate, more frequent meetings, and a clearer framework to hold members accountable.

Its 47 members, elected by the General Assembly, would have a "universal periodic review" of their own human rights record, with expulsion possible from the HRC for egregious cases.

Japan, through its Permanent Mission to the UN, applied for one of the 13 HRC slots allotted to Asia.  Citing its "human-rights Constitution", Japan's Mission gave a sweet sales pitch about all the good things it does for its people, and for the world in general. [source]

It worked.  Japan got elected.

Unfortunately, the sales pitch wilts under scrutiny.


I refer to "Japan's Voluntary Pledges and Commitments" (SC/06/177 April 14, 2006, available at http://www.un.org/ga/60/elect/hrc/japan.pdf ).

It mentions, for example, the Ministry of Justice's "Human Rights Organs" (Jinken Yougobu).  These offer, quote:  "appropriate relief measures, such as accusation, warning, conciliation..."

Sadly, this is not the whole truth.  As the Community Page has reported ("Watching the Detectives", July 8, 2003), and the UN has acknowledged (CCPR/C/79/Add.102 1998), the Jinken Yougobu is meaningless.

It has no power of arrest or sanction, as organ representatives will caution you at the start of any consultation.  All it can do is frown at discriminators.

No matter.  Window dressing has its uses.

Japan's Mission also wrote that its government "has consistently made efforts and implemented concrete measures to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms in Japan."

They cited laws "introduced" (as opposed to "promulgated") to protect children against pornography and abuse, and to stop human trafficking.

But wait a minute.  It's not as if Japan did so on its own initiative.

Japan only started taking action after June 2004, when the US State Department embarrassingly put it on its "Tier 2" human trafficking watch list.  Before that, the infamous "Entertainer Visa" was a convenient way to officially sponsor hundreds of thousands of sex-trade workers.

Moreover, Dr. Donna Hughes, Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island, reports that as recently as 1998 Japan was the world's largest producer of child pornography.  [source] Things have apparently gotten a little better--Kyodo (October 26) reports that a mere 5% of all uncovered child porn sites are hosted in Japan.

The point is that it is uncertain that Japan would be doing anything without outside pressure.  Dr. Hughes notes that Japan refused to outlaw child porn production back then "for business reasons".

In addition, Japan's Mission mentioned revisions to laws governing prison inmate treatment.

Pity these do not cover people who are not convicted felons (i.e. not yet in prison), such as those undergoing interrogation or "temporary voluntary incarceration" (ryuuchi)--especially visible in the legal grey-zone gaijin holding tanks at Immigration.

Worse yet, police "questionings" are still are not recorded or monitored, essential to stem abuses of authority and forced confessions.

Oh well.  The UN need not know.

Finally, Japan pledged to avoid the sins of the previous Commission.  It would "address gross and systematic violations of human rights", promote an "effective and efficient universal periodic review mechanism", and maintain "the highest standards of impartiality, objectivity, independence, and expertise" in the fulfillment of reforms.  Conveniently, it also proposed doubling the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. [source]

Japan would even promote Conventions on International Disappearances and Persons with Disabilities.

How nice.  But before you go signing any more treaties, shouldn't you enforce the ones you already signed?

The shining example is Japan's effecting the UN Convention on Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1996, where it promised to take all effective measures, including legislation, to eliminate racism in Japan.

More than a decade later, we still have no law in Japan outlawing racial discrimination, and a consequent spread of signs on businesses nationwide saying that "JAPANESE ONLY" are allowed inside.

Again, no matter.  We don't need a law after all, Japan's government claimed to the UN in 2001, because we have a court system for redress.

But that's neither what Japan promised, nor how the CERD works.  Meanwhile, Japan is now five years late filing its biennial CERD report.  Even though it wasted no time in applying for a HRC seat.

One wonders what would happen if Japan was subjected to its own "efficient universal periodic review mechanism".


Not to worry.  Japan has plausible deniability through omission.

Nowhere mentioned in Japan's pledge is "racial discrimination", or improving treatment of foreign residents.

No commitment whatsoever regarding foreign workers or refugees, international child abductions (Japan remains the only G7 country not a party to the Hague Convention), or the economic, social or cultural rights of residents and citizens with international roots.

This is, alas, within character.  Japan was on the old Human Rights Commission from 1982 onwards.  During its tenure it took its time signing those treaties, and made motions when it wanted a Security Council seat.

Now Japan is on the new Human Rights Council, with a new and improved mandate?

How seriously can one take Japan's future international promises and human rights commitments when its past ones remain so unfulfilled?

So much for a fresh start for the Human Rights Council, when its richest member can get re-elected despite being so disingenuous.  

1267 words

PS:  Maybe this ability for unqualified candidates to get elected is what's causing writers on the UN, such as James Traub (author, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power) to call the Human Rights Council "a failure" (NPR Fresh Air, October 31, 2006) already, mere months after its birth...

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Copyright 2006, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan