Will Japan Play Key ICC Recruiting Role in Asia?

Japan’s recent membership of the ICC prompts debate on whether other Asian countries will now sign up.

Will Japan Play Key ICC Recruiting Role in Asia?

Japan’s recent membership of the ICC prompts debate on whether other Asian countries will now sign up.

Wednesday, 7 November, 2007
Following its ratification of the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute in July after nearly a decade of deliberation, Japan is attending its first meeting of the 104 countries which actively support the ICC later this month, with analysts wondering whether other Asian countries will now follow in its footsteps.

For Japan, ratifying the Rome Statute lends credence to its campaign to get a highly-prized seat at the UN Security Council, at a time of vigorous competition among Asian countries for representation in international organisations, said Dr John Swenson-Wright, an expert in Japanese politics at Chatham House.

Japanese politics and nationalism expert from the UK-based think tank Chatham House Christopher Hood said Tokyo needs to display its authority and influence on the international stage “before it gets completely muscled out” by other Asian countries, particularly China. South Korea blazed the ICC trail in Asia - joining the court in 2002 - and has since grabbed the coveted position of UN Secretary General.

Now it has become a fully paid-up member of the world's first permanent war crimes court, analysts say Tokyo - which will meet other ICC supporters for the first time at the sixth session of the Assembly of States Parties in New York between November 30 and December 14 - is already taking seriously its responsibility to advocate on behalf of the ICC.

One day after signing the Rome Statute, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines encouraged the government there to ratify. Ambassador Ryuichiro Yamazaki said that once the Philippines becomes a member of the ICC, Japan will "work even more closely with your government, and the same will hold true for other Asian nations that will join the ICC".

Hood says that the mere fact that Japan, as a leading Asian nation, has signed up and is prepared to pay a large financial contribution to the court “is a significant endorsement” in itself. Swenson-Wright agrees that it sends an important signal to other Asian states by demonstrating that Japan is doing something tangible to “underlie the importance of having an international criminal court to try war crimes”.

Although Japan was active in early discussions on the court and was one of the 120 states that voted in favour of the founding statute at the Rome Conference in 1998, it took the Tokyo authorities nearly a decade to finally come on board.

One reason for the delay may have been the country’s unresolved wartime past, in particular the issue of the estimated 200,000 “comfort women” from Japan, Korea and China who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels between 1937 and 1945.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International claim the government was responsible for the sexual enslavement of women and demand official apologies and compensation for victims.

This has not been forthcoming.

In 1993, Japan acknowledged women had been used as sexual slaves but did not admit responsibility for the practice, and no one was ever held accountable before the Tokyo Tribunal set up in 1946, or in any subsequent court of law.

In March this year, former premier Shinzo Abe said there was an element of voluntarism to the comfort women phenomenon.

Victims were outraged, and the gaffe prompted the US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte to comment that “what happened during the war was deplorable” and the House of Representatives to pass a resolution calling on Japan to formally acknowledge and apologise for the women’s suffering.

Abe was forced to backtrack and reiterate the official position: that the use of comfort women as an abuse of human rights.

Lawyers like Yasushi Higashizawa from the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations say that Japan encouraging other Asian states to ratify the ICC, while failing to deal with unresolved war crimes, is contradictory.

He says the government “must solve the issue of the war time responsibility”.

If it fails to do so, Higashizawa warns that other Asian states might be “very cautious about Japan’s [backing of the] the ICC”.

Notwithstanding these concerns, it’s clear that the ICC requires more Asian supporters, as the region is noticeably under-represented with just 13 countries signed up. That compares with 29 members from Africa, 22 from Latin America and 25 from Western Europe.

Hood believes Asian nations will likely remain hesitant about membership until they see how the court works in practice. So far, there have been no trials in its Hague courtrooms, though this will change next year with the beginning of the case against an accused Congolese militia leader.

Nonetheless, Evelyn Serrano, from the Coalition for the ICC in Asia, believes Japan’s decision to join will influence Asian countries which have been waiting for the heavyweights to make up their minds.

Over the last few years, Nepal and the Philippines have said they would like to be members, while Indonesia said in 2004 it would sign by 2008.

Tadashi Inuzuka, a Democratic Party senator in Japan, says Asian states are “seriously interested in the process of Japan´s ratification” and even see the ICC as a vehicle for regional cooperation. He says when he speaks to other Asian politicians about the court, the conversations are quite positive. “If we talk about the ICC and possible alliances...to prevent crimes against humanity, lines of communication are opened up immediately,” he said.

Beatrice le Fraper du Hellen, head of the Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division of the ICC, said, “Japan will be very important in terms of cooperation.”

She stressed that when the Tokyo government makes a commitment to an international treaty, “it shows extreme consistency with its commitments”.

Marije Van Der Werff and Katy Glassborow are IWPR international justice reporters in The Hague.

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