Japan's Potential Role as Guardian of Human Rights

IN order to fully assume its role as a global political power, Japan must demonstrate the ability to act on issues beyond those narrowly defined by its economic interests. It can do so by using its enormous financial clout to help fuel the democratization and human-rights reforms that are sweeping the world, but barely reaching Asia's shores.

Throughout Asia, governments flagrantly violate fundamental human rights or, as in Burma, deny democratically elected governments their rightful place in power. Human-rights abuses are the legacy of regional and civil conflicts such as in Cambodia and Afghanistan.

As the post-cold war era begins, Japan is more anxious than ever to play a constructive role in the region, unhampered by its militaristic past and tensions with the Soviet Union. The question is, how?

Tokyo's political leaders and foreignpolicy establishment have begun to grapple with this issue. But in recent months they have taken inconsistent positions that make unclear the impact of human-rights concerns on its huge foreign-assistance program.

In 1989, Japan became the biggest foreign-aid donor in the world. In 1990, its Official Development Assistance (ODA) program doled out over $9 billion in loans and grants, two-thirds of them to Asian governments. Facing widespread criticism that aid decisions were based primarily on Japanese overseas-investment interests, then Prime Minister Kaifu gave a speech last spring outlining new criteria for ODA. A key consideration, he said, would be the recipient countries' efforts to promote democratization an d secure "basic human rights and freedom."

But clear guidelines on how this general principle will be applied have not been developed, and Japan's policymakers are off to a shaky start trying to implement it.

In August 1991, Mr. Kaifu became the first leader of a major industrial power to travel to China since the June 1989 crackdown. Though he vaguely referred to the need for human rights improvements in talks there, Kaifu did not condition Japanese aid on such improvements. In fact, a few weeks later he announced disbursement of a $965 million loan to Beijing, part of a massive $6 billion loan deal made in 1988.

Last month, China's vice-premier visited Tokyo and asked Prime Minister Miyazawa to boost the existing aid agreement by adding low-interest loans for agricultural development. Mr. Miyazawa gave no commitment, but expressed interest in continuing to improve relations with China. He said nothing to hint that prospects of further aid would in any way be affected by Beijing's policy of harsh political repression. Since tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, Japan - like the United States - appears more deter mined to protect the relationship with China's leaders than to defend the human rights of its citizens.

In the case of Indonesia, however, Japan seems to be more willing to consider using its economic leverage on behalf of human rights. Following the massacre of dozens of civilians by Indonesian troops during a protest in East Timor in November, President Suharto's government, which receives more money from Japan than any other aid donor ($867 million in ODA in 1990), was warned that future economic assistance could be in jeopardy.

A foreign ministry spokesman said that Tokyo would assess the results of the Indonesian government's investigation into the killing before making aid decisions. Thus Japan clearly signaled its horror at the Timor shootings and the need for firm action by Jakarta.

Japan's policies towards Burma, another major aid recipient, have been decidedly mixed as it seeks to maintain good relations with Rangoon's pariah government while at the same time exerting some of its economic muscle to press for reform. Following the military take-over in Burma in 1988, Japan suspended any new ODA assistance beyond what was already committed. It has said this policy will remain in effect until Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, is released from house arrest, human rights are res pected, and a transfer to civilian rule takes place. As Burma's military rulers intensify their brutal crackdown, however, Tokyo is facing increasing pressure to go further and stop all aid. But the foreign ministry maintains it will continue assistance on a "case-by-case basis" while leaving open the option of imposing economic sanctions.

Japan should link ODA to human rights as a matter of policy, according to well-defined guidelines utilizing both positive incentives and sanctions. Given Japan's wealth and power, this is a cost-free approach that can only enhance the country's global standing. It would also be the most enduring contribution Japan could make in the 1990s.

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