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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #114: November 5, 2003

Ratifying the Geneva Convention Protocols: a bold step by Japan

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese Government plans to ratify the two additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva Convention during the ordinary Diet parliamentary session beginning in January. If so, Japan would be joining a list of 150 countries that have ratified these protocols, which were originally drafted in 1977. As to what the protocols demand, the Yomiuri sufficed to explain that the first prohibited attacks on nonmilitary targets in international armed conflicts, including ethnic conflicts for independence, restricted the methods and means of warfare and required protection for ordinary citizens and refuges. The second included guidelines on the transfer of people during civil wars and stipulations regarding military conscription.

That the Japanese government is planning to ratify the protocols now, precisely when it is scheduled to send the Self Defense Forces (SDF) abroad on a non-U.N. mission for the first time since the end of World War II and as an occupying power in Iraq, is reassuring and highly commendable. This is because the additional protocols ask for much more than is evident from the description given by the Yomiuri Shimbun (perhaps in part explaining why the United States has yet to ratify the additional protocols).

News reports indicate (Yomiuri, AFP, Daily Times) that Japan saw no need to ratify the protocols earlier because most lawmakers thought it unlikely that Japan would have to deal with war victims or Prisoners of War (POW) because its constitution prohibited the country from being involved in international disputes. However, these prospects changed when the Japanese government signed up for an occupying mission in Iraq. Beginning next year, the SDF will have to deal with war victims, POWs, and an occupied people/environment.

For a country, such as Japan, whose history as a perpetrator of widespread violent and heinous crimes against humanity remain in recent memory, a formal commitment to abide by, defend and promote the stipulations included in the protocols is fundamental. All efforts must be made to ensure that civilian and military populations be protected from all forms of torture and inhumane treatment. Before the SDF sets out on a new course, Japanese leaders must resolutely demonstrate that massacres of civilians (such as those that took place in China and the Philippines), unnecessary human suffering, (such as that which resulted through human induced starvation in Vietnam), forced prostitution and rape (that was witnessed throughout East and Southeast Asia), and weapons experimentation on humans (the chemical weapons experiments perpetrated by Unit 731 in China), all which took place between 1931-1945, will never be repeated. Japan's signing on to the additional protocols is a step in that direction as it sets a minimum standard for the SDF and proclaims Japan's intention to protect and promote all of the following stipulations included in the first protocol and more.

  1. Respect, protect, provide for and treat all the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, regardless of which party they belong to; (Article 10.1)
  2. Ensure that all protected persons are not subjected to physical mutilations, to medical or scientific experiments, even with their consent. (Article 11.2)
  3. Ensure that the medical needs of the civilian population in occupied territory continue to be satisfied. (Article 14.1)
  4. Search for missing persons and facilitate the gathering of information in pursuit of this objective. (Articles 33.1 and 33.2)
  5. Prohibit the employment of weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare that are indiscriminate, cause unnecessary suffering and long-term damage to the natural environment. (Article 35.2)
  6. Extend prisoner of war rights to all combatants falling under the power of an adverse party (members of armed forces, notified militias, paramilitary or armed law enforcement agencies). (Articles 43, 44, 45)
  7. Treat all parties not protected under prisoner of war status, whether mercenaries, terrorists or civilians, humanely in all circumstances without any adverse distinction and protect their fundamental human rights. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring their physical, mental and legal well-being (Article 75)

In an increasingly hostile environment such as Iraq, Japan's commitment to the protocols, and in particular to those articles mentioned above, will be tested to the full. U.S. occupying forces currently face fierce armed resistance from sources that are largely unidentified. They could include Saddam Hussein loyalists, ex-soldiers, foreign combatants and civilians. As is stipulated in article 75, Japan will have to protect all combatants, regardless of their nature or acts. Japan will also have to speak up for and denounce the treatment of the 4,000 or so Iraqis currently detained without charge, representation or registration in U.S. prison camps. The SDF will also have to do its utmost to guarantee that all medical, physical, mental and religious needs of the civilian population under its control be met and urge other occupying forces to do the same. Furthermore, the SDF will have to condemn the use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium used by U.K. and U.S. forces.

These protocols are to be applied in all circumstances to all persons who are protected by these instruments, without any adverse distinction based on the nature or origin of the armed conflict or on the causes espoused by or attributed to the parties to the conflict. As a result, Japan will not be able to escape from its responsibilities under any circumstances. This is why I argue that, Japan's ratification of the additional protocols will be a bold statement that should be encouraged by all, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the fact that they will first be applied when Japan participates in an occupation that most consider illegal.

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