Piracy and the Constitution

(Initially published in the Japan Times, March 26, 2009)

Once again the issue of Japanese contributions to international security efforts is the subject of tortured debate. And once again the proposed government policy, and aspects of the debate itself, reveals fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Article 9 of the Constitution and the relevant principles of international law.

This time, the issue relates to maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia, and the proposed deployment of Japanese naval vessels to the area. Predictably, the issue has triggered debate over the effect of the war-renouncing provision of the Constitution. A careful analysis, however, would suggest that the Article 9 prohibition on the use of force would not apply to the deployment of naval forces, or their use of weapons, to protect shipping from pirates in international waters.

Yet, it is clear that the government policy is being formulated under the shadow of Article 9. While the ships are initially being deployed under the authority of Article 82 of the Self-Defense Forces Law, the government has drafted and submitted to the Diet a permanent anti-piracy law, and it is around this bill that debate has focused.

Opposition to the bill has centered on questions of whether the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessels would be permitted to assist foreign ships, what degree of relationship with Japan would be necessary to justify MSDF intervention and under what circumstances weapons could be employed against pirates.

This is quite clearly due to the influence of the government interpretation of Article 9 as prohibiting any use of force by Japan except for the purposes of “individual self-defense” — meaning the direct defense of Japan. Similarly, the opposition to the policy is being shaped by Article 9.

The criticism is that any use of force by the MSDF to defend ships of other nations would somehow constitute “collective self-defense,” which is understood to be prohibited by Article 9. Similarly, it is argued that any use of weapons for purposes other than strict self-defense would be prima facie illegitimate.

But these concerns fail to consider the true nature of the prohibition in Article 9. Paragraph 1 of Article 9 states (in part) that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

The words “as a means of settling international disputes” qualify and limit the scope of the prohibition. The provision does not purport to prohibit the use of force of any kind whatsoever by the organs of the state. For instance, it clearly does not prohibit the use of force for ensuring internal security, and the Japanese police can legally use force to break up riots or armed insurrections.

The language and the drafting history of the provision clearly suggest that it was aimed at prohibiting participation in armed conflict, principally with other sovereign nations, as a means of furthering the foreign policy of the state and resolving disputes with or between other nation states. In short, the use of force contemplated by the provision is the use of military force employed against the territory and people, and the armed forces or other agents, of another state.

So the question then, is whether the deployment of the MSDF, and the possible use of armed force by the MSDF, to help prevent piracy in the Gulf of Aden, falls within the scope of this constitutional prohibition of the use of force. To answer that question, one has to understand the concept of “piracy” in international law.

Piracy has been an international crime under the Law of Nations for several centuries. The prohibition of piracy under international law is generally understood to have risen to the level of jus cogens (compelling law), meaning that it is one of the few peremptory norms from which no country may derogate.

The International Court of Justice has confirmed that pirates are to be considered the enemy of all mankind, and that any nation may, in the interest of the entire world, capture and punish those engaged in piracy.

Piracy, under most generally accepted definitions, constitutes illegal acts of violence or any other act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew of a private ship (or aircraft), that is directed against another ship (or aircraft) on the high seas or in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state.

The key elements of this definition are that it is a criminal act, perpetrated by private individuals for personal ends, outside of the jurisdiction of any state (which, incidentally, is quite different from non-state actors engaged in terrorism, a quintessentially political activity, typically conducted within the jurisdiction of a state, and often supported or harbored in another state).

Any use of force against pirates in international waters, either to defend private shipping from their attacks or even to apprehend them and bring them to justice, cannot be construed as a use of military force for the purpose of settling international disputes. Such action does not involve the application of force against the agents of another state, the engagement in armed conflict with the forces of another state, or any other act of war. The laws of war under international law would not be triggered by the use of force against pirates, and it would not apply to such conduct.

In short, such use of force against pirates, in international waters, cannot fall within the scope of the prohibition in Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Now, to be sure, the MSDF would have to take care that the target of their activity legitimately fell within the definition of “pirates,” and that they were in international waters. Conducting activities in the territorial waters or on the shores of Somalia, for instance, would raise entirely different issues.

In the past, failure to sufficiently understand the applicable international law, and the relationship between such principles of international law and the proper interpretation of Article 9, has resulted in Japanese participation in international military operations that arguably violated the Constitution.

It may be understandable, therefore, that some in Japan will be apprehensive that the deployment of the military for any reason may open the door to further unconstitutional activity. And, indeed, there is a real and significant risk that such deployments of the military could be used cynically by the government to undermine the powerful norms within Japan against the use of military force.

Those concerned about this risk may be tempted in these circumstances to invoke the Constitution as a bar against the deployment against pirates. But that would be dangerously counterproductive. It would simply contribute to a process in which political forces exploit constitutional arguments for instrumentalist purposes, whether they be cynical or benign, leading to confusion and disagreement over the meaning of the Constitution, and the overall weakening of its authority.

There may be room for debate over the wisdom of deploying naval forces to defend against pirates on the high seas. The Constitution should not be part of that debate. One of the key defenses against government infringement of the actual constitutional principles is to ensure that the scope and meaning of the principles remain clearly understood and widely shared. And the government ought to ensure the integrity of the Constitution by applying its provisions consistently, and in accordance with that understanding, in the shaping of national policy.