Japan is Failing in Sri Lanka

(Initially published as a blog-post at Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice, Nov. 10, 2010)

Since the end of the Cold War, and through the era of the so-called “Global War on Terror,” Japan has struggled to define and develop a meaningful role for itself in the world of international politics. Constitutionally constrained from participating in collective security operations that involve the use of force, it has sought to cast itself as something of a “power for peace.”(1) In its handling of the crisis in Sri Lanka, however, it appears to be losing its way. While providing a great deal of aid to Sri Lanka, Japan is failing to exercise its considerable influence to help reduce the causes of further conflict, and risks not only undermining its own ambitions but also significantly harming the chances for peace and justice in Sri Lanka.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 created a major crisis within Japan that has had an enduring impact on the country’s politics and policy. The Japanese government came under enormous pressure to contribute to the international effort to resist the aggression of Iraq, in a region from which Japan obtained most of its energy supply. But Japan was constrained by its Constitution from any involvement in the military operations. It ended up providing support in other ways, including giving US $13 billion to the effort, more than any other country. Yet it was scorned (unfairly) for its “cheque book diplomacy,” received little gratitude for its help, and came out of the crisis with a deep sense that it would have to find more meaningful ways to contribute to the international community – particularly given that it continued to nurture ambitions to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Japan turned to limited involvement in U.N. peacekeeping, participation in the development of such concepts as “human security” (2), and perhaps most important, the use of foreign aid, particularly in areas of ongoing or potential conflict, to increase its influence and shape its identity as a “power for peace.” With respect to Sri Lanka, in 2003 Japan tried to take a leading role by hosting the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development in Sri Lanka and it played an important role in the Norway-led peace talks that continued in the period that followed. Japan’s foreign aid to Sri Lanka, in the form of loans, grants, and the provision of technical assistance, has been part of that effort, and Japan has given far more foreign aid in the last ten years than any other country (3). In the 2007-2008 period alone, Japan provided US $ 288 million, more than three times the amount given by each of the U.S. and the E.U. (4), and Sri Lanka was tenth on the list of Japan’s top aid recipients (5). The benefits to Sri Lanka from such aid should not be minimized, and it will no doubt contribute to the economic growth and stability essential to (while of course not sufficient for) the post-war peace process in Sri Lanka.

Nonetheless, precisely because Japan is by far the largest aid donor to Sri Lanka, it is in a position to exercise considerable influence over the policies of the government in respect of ongoing humanitarian and human rights issues. These include the continued need for reintegration of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) into their home areas, ending the indefinite and completely unmonitored continued detention of thousands of suspected members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents, the requirement for an independent investigation into war crimes allegations, taking meaningful steps to restore the rule of law, and generally moving to ensure that Tamil grievances are addressed (6). There is widespread consensus that a failure by the government to take these steps, as a means to resolving some of the underlying root-causes of the conflict will likely result in a resurgence of violence down the road (7).

There is little evidence, however, that Japan has used its unique position to meaningfully influence the government of Sri Lanka to develop policies that would address these issues and thus significantly enhance the chances for lasting peace. Back in 2008 when the ceasefire between the government and the LTTE broke down, Japan went so far as to announce that it was “considering” a review of its aid policy, but since then it has been conspicuously reluctant to criticize Sri Lanka government policy and conduct(8).

In the closing months of the conflict, when the world press was full of dire reports about hundreds of thousands of civilians having been trapped between opposing forces in the North, Japan did little publicly beyond issuing anodyne statements of concern and reaffirming its continued commitments to provide humanitarian assistance. In May 2009 the inaction of the Japanese government prompted the heads of Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, to issue a joint letter to then-prime minister Taro Aso, asserting that Japan must shoulder its responsibilities to help prevent a humanitarian disaster in Sri Lanka (9). Japan did little in response. In October, 2009, five international and Japanese human rights groups wrote to the newly elected DPJ government urging it to follow the lead of Western governments in demanding the release of thousands of detainees (10). The government remained largely silent.

What is more, in the post-conflict period, Japan has sent mixed messages. In June 2010, Yasushi Akashi, Japan’s special envoy to Sri Lanka, visited the country and addressed the issue of proposed U.N. investigations into war crimes committed during the final months of the conflict. Upon his arrival in Sri Lanka Akashi stated that the rest of the world ought not to dictate to Sri Lanka how to resolve war crimes issues or develop the post-conflict reconciliation process, and said that it was up to Sri Lanka to define any role to be played by a panel recently established by the U.N. Secretary General. Yet four days later, to a wider international audience, Akashi stated that Japan in fact backed efforts by the U.N. to investigate alleged war crimes, and said that he had actually pressed Colombo to allow the U.N. to participate in the reconciliation process (11).

Japan can and should do much more in pressing the government of Sri Lanka to address the ongoing humanitarian, human rights, and rule of law issues in the post-conflict period. What is more, aside from its significant leverage as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and debt-holder, Japan could draw upon its own experience as a credible source of some historical lessons and moral authority in advising the government of Sri Lanka. For while the analogies are of course very imperfect, with the nature of the conflict being very different, Japan’s experience in the aftermath of World War II could nonetheless offer some insights.

The strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the depth and warmth of that bi-lateral relationship speaks to the possibilities for peace between former enemies when the defeated are treated with magnanimity and respect. The manner in which Japan itself, in the wake of the utterly devastating destruction of World War II, managed to evolve from a militarist regime into a pacifist liberal democracy with a hugely successful economy, is powerful evidence of the possibilities for peaceful change in the aftermath of conflict. We should also remember that the prosecution of Japanese war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East served an important role in restoring the legitimacy of the new post-war Japanese regime, and accelerating the return of Japanese sovereignty. This historical experience is not without its relevance for how Colombo might want to think about how to deal with the war crimes issues (12).

Instead of exercising leadership in some of these ways, however, Japan not only looks ineffective but indeed runs the risk of appearing cynical and unprincipled in its pursuit of strategic and geopolitical interests at the expense of both the “power for peace” image it aspires to develop and the peace process in Sri Lanka itself. This is because Japan’s studied refusal to join in criticism of the Sri Lankan government, while it continues to pour money into infrastructure development, could be construed as not simply more ineffectual cheque-book diplomacy but in fact an investment in the regime — no matter what. The reasons for both looking the other way and actively supporting the Sri Lankan government could range from securing Japan’s sea-lanes to its primary energy sources in the Middle East to precluding China from muscling in on Japan’s perceived sphere of influence. Not only does this undermine Japan’s efforts to define itself as a state with the ability and commitment to work for the high ideals of peace and security in post-conflict regions, but also its continued unconditional and uncritical support for the Sri Lankan government could cause real harm to the peace process in Sri Lanka.

Protestations about “quiet diplomacy” notwithstanding, the failure Sri Lanka’s most significant development assistance partner to support U.N., EU, and other governmental and NGO pressure upon the Sri Lankan government to address the many significant humanitarian and human rights issues, and respond meaningfully to other Tamil grievances, provides the government of Sri Lanka with the necessary space to evade and withstand international pressure. This not only raises the risk of perpetuating the human tragedy that continues to unfold in Sri Lanka notwithstanding the end of warfare but in the longer run it contributes to the possibility of a resumption of the conflict in the future. Quite apart from the moral implications, such a consequence is not in Japan’s interests, from the perspective of either its strategic and geopolitical concerns, or its efforts to become a “power for peace” with U.N. Security Council aspirations.

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1. Takashima Hatsuhisa, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, quoted in the “Japanese Wage Peace with Talks and Money, Pleasing Asians,” The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2002. For more on the effort, see Peng Er-Lam, “Japan’s Peace Building Diplomacy in Sri Lanka,” 21:2 East Asia 3-17 (2004).

2. The most recent iteration of this effort was a symposium on the subject of Human Security sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2010. See http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/human_secu

3. OECD data. It should also be noted that the motives for Japan’s foreign aid are mixed, and there is a body of scholarship that argues that Japanese ODA has during some periods been at least partially motivated by a desire to create markets and provide opportunities for Japanese companies. See, e.g., Bruce M. Koppel and Robert M. Orr Jr., eds., Japan’s Foreign Aid: Power and Policy in a New Era (1993).

4. OECD, World Bank, available on-line at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/0/7/1878751.gif

5. OECD, available on-line at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/42/5/44285062.gif

6. On the current conditions of IDPs within Sri Lanka, see reports available at Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, available on-line at http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/srilanka; for more on the status and treatment of detainees, see International Commission of Jurists, Beyond Lawful Constraints: Sri Lanka’s Mass Detention of LTTE Suspects, September 2010, available for download at
http://www.icj.org/default.asp?nodeID=349&sessID=&langage=1&myPage=Legal_Documentation&id=23159 ; on the breakdown of the rule of law since the end of the conflict, see James Yap and Craig Scott, “The Breakdown of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka: An Overview”, unpublished paper prepared for the Sri Lanka Campaign on Peace and Justice, posted on SSRN athttp://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1682133

7. See, e.g., “Victory’s Rotten Fruit: The Government’s Unpleasant Triumphalism is Sowing the Seeds of Renewed Conflict,” The Economist, Jun. 11, 2009; and see generally, Paul Collier et al., Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy (2003);

8. See BBC News, “Japan ‘reviews’ aid to Sri Lanka,” January 15, 2008, available on line athttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7189002.stm

9. “Joint Letter to Japanese Prime Minister on Sri Lanka,” Human Rights Watch, May 10, 2009, available on-line athttp://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/05/10/joint-letter-japanese-prime-minister-sri-lanka

10. “Japan: Break the Silence on Sri Lanka Rights Abuses,” Human Rights Watch, October 22, 2009, available on-line athttp://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/22/japan-break-silence-sri-lanka-rights-abuses

11. See “Japan Urges World Not to Dictate to Post-War Sri Lanka,” Reuters, June 16, 2010, available on-line at:http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE65F23320100616; and “Japan Backs UN War Crimes Probe into Sri Lanka,” AFP, June 20, 2010, available on-line at: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jY8mJYN7CrKTNKobNadHD1RvLiGQ

12. There is, of course, continued debate over the legitimacy and fairness of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, with many conservatives in Japan being strongly critical of the entire process. Perhaps ironically, given the point I am advancing, the Indian Judge, Radhabinod Pal, who was the only Judge to have dissented in holding that all the defendants should be found not guilty of all charges due to the illegitimacy of the tribunal process, continues to be revered by such conservatives today.