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Challenges remain with ‘rescue missions’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Hiromichi Kawamata

The Yomiuri ShimbunOver two months have gone by since the Ground Self-Defense Force personnel deployed in South Sudan as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation were assigned the new duty of “kaketsuke keigo” (rescue mission, see below). The 11th unit — the GSDF engineering unit given the new mandate — has begun coordinating on the ground with units from other countries. How do experts familiar with the state of affairs see this new mandate? We asked retired Lt. Gen. Hiromichi Kawamata, a former commander of the Central Readiness Force, whose extensive overseas experience includes command of SDF units during past peacekeeping operations, to assess the situation and point out issues.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 2, 2017)

The Yomiuri Shimbun: The SDF can now carry out “rescue missions.” What do you think is the significance of that?

Kawamata: The concept of “rescue mission” is not understood by the international community. The term is used only in Japan. Japan dispatched the SDF on a peacekeeping mission for the first time in 1992 to Cambodia, based on the U.N. Peacekeeping Activities Cooperation Law. However, the troops were not authorized to use their weapons unless in self-defense, and were not permitted to carry out rescue missions. Units that took part in peacekeeping operations raised issues, saying things like, “It’s tough to think that although units from other countries can come to our aid when we’re in trouble, we can’t come to theirs,” and “We can’t respond when civilians in remote locations call for help, even when they include Japanese nationals.” Many constraints and issues remain, but now our troops are finally allowed to take action in a normal way.

Q: The troops are now authorized to use their weapons against anyone who hinders them while they fulfill their rescue missions. Is this still inadequate compared to what other countries can do?

A: The SDF troops’ mandate is not a standard U.N. mandate, but one that has been adjusted for Japan, so to speak. At a minimum, the U.N. permits peacekeeping forces to use “any means necessary” to protect civilians. If the aim is to protect civilians, peacekeeping forces are even allowed to engage militarily with government troops. If the SDF were to engage militarily with a party directly involved in a conflict, however, that would amount to using military force overseas, something that is forbidden by the Constitution. We need to be keenly aware of the differences between the Japanese and U.N. standards.

Q: If the SDF carries out rescue missions in South Sudan, is it conceivable that they will use their weapons against government troops that are a party to a conflict?

A: I was a commanding officer during the peacekeeping operation in East Timor. On the ground, you are inevitably confronted with some extremely difficult problems, such as whether to turn a blind eye to something that is happening in front of you, and let people die, because interfering would mean violating the constraints presented in the Constitution. Imagine that a commanding officer of the peacekeeping operation in South Sudan says: “There are women and children in a dangerous situation in that elementary school over there. Go help them.” If South Sudanese government troops are involved to a significant degree, the SDF would have to refuse. However, that could expose us to intense international criticism. Think of what happened in 1994, when the Belgian army withdrew from Rwanda and abandoned 2,000 civilians to mass slaughter. The Diet talked only about risks to SDF troops, but this mandate also comes with diplomatic risks.

Q: Of the 350 members of the 11th unit, around 60 are part of the security platoon.

A: If you ask me, that is too many. Normally, U.N. infantry units protect engineering units. Engineering units from other countries in South Sudan have security platoons of no more than 20 members. The environment in East Timor was different, but the engineering unit that I commanded there had a security platoon of only about 10 members out of 400. If your engineering unit has a large security platoon, it begins to look like an infantry unit, and the U.N. infantry units may be less diligent in protecting you. As a result, the SDF troops may actually be less safe.

Q: How should the SDF act in South Sudan?

A: From the viewpoint of the right to use their weapons, the SDF cannot respond if a party to the conflict is involved. Very often, it only becomes clear over time that a party to the conflict is involved in a situation. There can be cases where you begin to engage, and then discover that you cannot do so after all. If you act in a coordinated fashion with infantry units from other countries who have jurisdiction in that area, you can leave the matter to those other units if it becomes clear that a party to the conflict is involved. In this way, you can avoid abandoning the people who need protection in the middle of a mission. This kind of approach is the most realistic in South Sudan.

Q: What is important if the SDF is to fulfill its mandate?

A: There are four issues I want to raise. One, to make it easier to get U.N. support for security, the security platoon of the SDF needs to be brought down to whatever power and equipment is strictly necessary in emergencies. Two, the SDF needs to contact and coordinate intensively with U.N. infantry units. Three, the security platoon of the SDF needs to be given sophisticated capabilities to, for instance, deal with rescuing hostages. Four, a hotline needs to be established between the top leader — the prime minister — and the commanding officer of the engineering unit. That way, if a party to the conflict shows up during a rescue mission, the troops on the ground have someone to turn to for a decision on whether or not they should continue the mission.

■ kaketsuke keigo

Rescue missions task SDF units dispatched overseas with engaging in rescue and protection operations when armed groups attack U.N. personnel, nongovernmental organization members or similar parties in a remote location. When an urgent call for aid comes and an SDF unit is in position to respond faster than local authorities or U.N. infantry units, the SDF unit carries out the mission within its abilities. SDF units are also authorized to use their weapons in order to carry out the mission.

Hiromichi Kawamata / Retired lieutenant general

Kawamata graduated from the National Defense Academy in 1981. As a member of the GSDF, he held positions such as chief commander of the 4th Engineering unit dispatched to East Timor from October 2003 to July 2004 and commanding general of the Central Readiness Force from August 2014 to July 2016 before his retirement.

Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tatsuya Fukumoto conducted this interview.

Coordination with units from other countries vital

Tatsuya Fukumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer

In November last year, the government decided that based on security-related laws, the GSDF unit taking part in the peacekeeping mission to South Sudan would be given a mandate to engage in rescue missions and joint protection of billeting areas. Kawamata’s assessment of the size of the 11th unit’s security platoon as “excessive” may be a minority view in the government. That is because the government claims it necessary to deal with changes in the security situation on the ground. In any case, the government must make further efforts to obtain understanding for Japan’s position, in order to ensure that no inflated expectations or misunderstandings arise inside the U.N. about the new mandate.

The 11th unit is carrying out activities such as road repair work under the protection of infantry units from other countries participating in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). At present, the SDF unit is working not only inside the capital city of Juba but also on road repair as far away as Mangalla, about 80 kilometers to the northeast.

Regarding the realization of the rescue missions, an official at the Defense Ministry said: “The troops can be sent out after they train for all imaginable scenarios. The commanding officers will be able to make decisions without any hesitation, and the troops will be able to act confidently.”

It is unlikely the SDF will actually carry out many rescue missions. Yet, it is possible the SDF will be called upon to fulfill such a mission. As Kawamata says, increasing day-to-day cooperation with other countries’ units will be essential.Speech

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