Algeria siege fuels calls for greater SDF role in protecting Japanese overseas

January 22, 2013


The ruling coalition is to consider deploying Self-Defense Forces personnel more actively overseas to protect Japanese nationals in situations such as the deadly siege last week at a gas plant in Algeria.

The only operation currently possible is the repatriation of Japanese nationals from ports and airports. But troops cannot be deployed for this if there is a risk of being drawn into conflict.

On Jan. 20 the Liberal Democratic Party proposed to coalition partner New Komeito that a project team be set up to consider revisions to the SDF Law. It is understood that New Komeito will agree.

The following day, senior LDP and government figures spoke of the need for greater SDF involvement.

"Our party will coordinate with the government and consult with New Komeito," said Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP secretary-general.

Japan's defense minister echoed that view.

"The time may come for the government to review its future response," Itsunori Onodera said.

Later that day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said seven Japanese individuals were confirmed dead after Islamic militants took hostages at a natural gas complex in In Amenas, southeastern Algeria, and troops stormed the site.

The government was to dispatch an SDF aircraft to Algeria on Jan. 22 to bring home the bodies and seven Japanese survivors.

Current legislation restricts the SDF's role in protecting Japanese nationals abroad to evacuating them by air or sea. Ishiba said Japanese working and living overseas need more than this in a crisis.

"As they flee for their lives to an airport or to a port, who will protect them?" Ishiba said in a Jan. 21 speech.

Moreover, SDF aircraft and ships can be deployed only after the government investigates the local environment--and confirms that troops will not be drawn into conflict.

The LDP has already sought changes to the SDF Law. In 2010 it submitted a bill to the Diet when it was in opposition.

If passed, the bill would enable the SDF to protect Japanese nationals during evacuation, regardless of the risk of conflict. It would also allow troops to provide passage on land.

The bill also called for easing restrictions on the use of weapons when protecting Japanese nationals. The current legislation allows SDF members to use weapons only in self-defense because the use of force overseas is banned under the Constitution.

This means, for example, Japan would be unable to mount a mission like the 1980 U.S. operation to rescue hostages from its besieged embassy in Tehran.

New Komeito, a party that draws on Buddhist tenets, is fundamentally pacifist and, therefore, cautious about relaxing terms on the use of weapons.

The seven victims in the Algeria siege were employees of engineering contractor JGC Corp.

"It is highly regrettable that innocent Japanese working on the front lines should become victims," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting convened to address the crisis late Jan. 21. He told the meeting that seven Japanese nationals had died.

Suga said the loss is felt particularly heavily in Japan because the victims were trying to develop a gas field in distant Algeria.

However, some officials said the prime minister's office, which becomes a central command for protecting Japanese nationals during times of crisis, was insufficiently prepared.

One senior government official complained that there is not even a standard procedure for issuing instructions to the Foreign Ministry and the National Police Agency as a crisis unfolds.

Some officials said Japan should step up its support for anti-poverty programs and democratic causes to help end civil wars and terrorism in Africa, a continent where many Japanese companies are involved in energy and infrastructure projects.

"We have to put more effort into African diplomacy through official development assistance," a Foreign Ministry official said.

The ministry has focused heavily on relations with the Middle East since the 1973 oil crisis and has few experts on Africa.

European nations, by contrast, do have an African focus. The continent is expected to be a key topic at a Group of Eight summit in Britain in June.

A diplomat responsible for European matters said that summit might put Abe on the spot.

"The prime minister will be asked what type of African diplomacy he can present, in addition to measures to protect Japanese nationals," the diplomat said.

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Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking Jan. 21 after news of the deaths of seven Japanese hostages (Mari Endo)

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking Jan. 21 after news of the deaths of seven Japanese hostages (Mari Endo)

  • Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking Jan. 21 after news of the deaths of seven Japanese hostages (Mari Endo)
  • Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel simulate an evacuation of Japanese nationals overseas at the SDF base in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, in February 2011. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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