Japan & the United Nations

May 16, 2012

Ambassador Tsuneo Nishida
, Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations

Kent E. Calder
, Director, Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, John Hopkins University

Ambassador Tsuneo Nishida visited Japan Society to reflect on Japan's relationship with the UN and to share his perspectives on the work ahead.

Getting used to the workings of the UN as an insider wasn't as easy a task as he'd expected, said Ambassador Nishida, who took up his post not quite two years ago. The days began with breakfast meetings at an early hour. Evenings were crowded with receptions and dinners. Conversations were sprinkled with mysterious allusions to "PRST" and "SRSG." "I thought, 'Oh, my God, my English is not usable here.'"

Yet soon the routine became second nature, and the acronyms as well. PRST is not a new medication, but a presidential statement of the Security Council; SRSG is a Special Representative of the Secretary-General.

One of the most significant areas of Japan's ongoing work at the UN is disaster risk reduction, Ambassador Nishida observed. To share the experiences and insights gained from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Japan has introduced a new resolution titled "Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Natural Disasters." Japan will also host a ministerial conference on the subject in Tohoku.

The community of nations faces not only an array of natural disasters but also "a series of man-made disasters, wars and conflict" in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. "The world is still very much a tough place that we live in. Therefore I would like to work harder so that my kids or the generation to come will at least be given the opportunity to live a better life. I think that is our job," the job of the UN, of governments, "of each and every citizen like you," he said.

The relationship between Japan and the UN is given special depth by virtue of its historical roots in the 1950s, the ambassador said. In 1956 when Japan was accepted as a member of the UN, "then Foreign Minister Shigemitsu stated, 'We desire to occupy an honored place in international society striving for preservation of peace, and banishment of tyranny, and slavery, oppression, intolerance, for all time from the earth.' This phrase sounds a bit familiar to some of you. This is exactly the same language in the preamble of the Japanese constitution."

"This demonstrated very clearly at the time our fathers and mothers were so determined, not only at home, but also abroad, we would like to be a new Japan—open, responsible, and helping each other with the international community." And that same conviction prevails today.

Two of the most important subjects that Japan is addressing at the UN are North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean government agencies. The latter is "not private policy. This is state-sponsored terrorism," Ambassador Nishida said.

Japan's efforts in support of nonproliferation are directed not only towards weapons of mass destruction, but also to small arms and conventional arms such as land mines, the ambassador said. "The land mine is not only a weapon. The land mine is probably the easiest obstacle to stop development. If we are not sure this field or road is safe or not," we won't have the courage to go to work, to open our factories.

Iran is "traditionally a good friend of Japan," and "therefore we are very sorry Iran has been really still struggling with the international community," Ambassador Nishida said. Japan's hope is that the issues can be resolved diplomatically; thus "we should not rush so quickly to a military solution." Even with the idling of most of Japan's nuclear power facilities after the March 11 triple disaster, Japan has cut back severely on its oil imports from Iran, he noted.

The Arab Spring highlights the complexity of the UN's work on human rights. Young people, alienated from their governments and frustrated by high unemployment levels, undertake very serious personal risks because they "want to be part of decision-making in their own country's society." And at the governmental level, these movements compel an examination of "how each government responds to criticism from the rest of the world," and of concepts of the responsibility to protect civilians that have been part of the UN agenda for 20 years or more.

During the first generation of PKOs, peacekeeping operations, "the mission was relatively simple," he continued. In Cyprus or the Golan Heights, parties to a truce who were experiencing continued conflict invited UN troops to step in between the two sides and monitor the truce so that diplomatic efforts could continue.

Once the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the idea of PKO became much more complex. It wasn't peacekeeping alone, but "peace building."

"Again, this is a kind of jargon—peace building, peacekeeping, peace enforcing. Probably almost nobody can understand the difference," the ambassador pointed out. But "one thing is very simple. When you start monitoring the truce, then you have to think about others at the same time."

In many regimes, members of the police force were drawn from the military, and it was difficult for them "to behave properly as policemen," to be nonviolent, "democratized... civil." Japan has offered help with these problems in many areas, including East Timor, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

"We have funded many programs to train policemen," Ambassador Nishida explained. "If you have a chance to visit Japan, you can easily notice in Japanese towns, the big towns especially, you will see a koban. This is a police box. This police box is in a small house or cottage, and it houses a couple of policemen, and they are smiling, and they are working in the communities, and they know everybody. 'Hi, how are you, Tom? How are you doing?'"

"This is not only a security net; this is a social net," the ambassador said. If Tom's dad doesn't feel well, Tom will ask the policemen for help, and they'll call an ambulance. The police box system can be used successfully in almost in every country, and is "the easiest way to install very democratic policemen in the community." Instead of having hostile relations between a security enforcer and the community, you have policemen who are part of the community.

Help of this kind involves more than the transfer of money, he emphasized. "Of course money is very important. But money transfer is always and should be accompanied by knowledge, expertise and people.... To transfer money, you need only an account, but for the transfer of technology, you need people. This makes a big difference."

"I am talking about not only traditional donors like Europe, the United States, like Japan, but I am talking to the emerging donors—new donors: Brazil, India, China and others." Just as with baseball, basketball and other sports, the global community needs to play by the rules. "We have to come back to what the modern society has started from: the rule of law—responsible stakeholders sharing the same objectives."

"Diversity is very much welcomed," Ambassador Nishida concluded. "Without diversity the globe would probably be dying. We need diversity, but we need at the same time fundamental rules to be observed."

Q&A with the audience followed:

How would you describe the imperatives for Security Council reform, and what sort of peacekeeping role would you envision for Japan as a permanent member of the Security Council?

Japan has a unique history in many respects, Ambassador Nishida said. The Second World War was followed by the economic miracle of Japan's postwar development, and then a very long recession. Japan, also uniquely, was small in military terms, medium-sized as a political entity, and "economically a big giant." In the international community, Japan represents diversity—so not a weak point, but a strength.

Japan's contribution to PKO represents "a very unique Japanese way. We are not necessarily good at sending combat forces. We have been traditionally sending engineers." In Haiti, Japanese engineers removed debris, renovated a collapsed hospital and built new roads after the earthquake in Port au Prince.

In Afghanistan, Japan rebuilt the big ring roads, with the goal of creating a more unified country not only in military and economic terms, but in social terms as well.

UN peacekeepers may have to use force to protect civilians, but the Japanese principles may not necessarily allow for that. Will they be revised in the near future?

The UN and the international community face a long list of challenges, and "our resources are very much limited, especially since this crisis in Europe" and elsewhere, the ambassador responded. PKO are mandated by the Security Council, which "is kind of another gap." Among the top 10 troop-contributing countries are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Egypt. They aren't members of the Security Council, yet the Council's decisions are legally binding on member states. This "is another reason why the Security Council should be reformed." Political leaders "have to squarely address this issue and make a decision."

You began your talk with humor, which everyone enjoyed. Is there a role for humor at the UN? Are you and the other ambassadors at the UN sometimes torn between what you might like to propose or suggest or move forward on, and what your countries permit you to present as what they would like to move forward on?

"A great question," answered Ambassador Nishida. "Diplomacy is a serious business, as you understand very well," which involves not only the relationships among member states but also the relationship with the UN secretariat, which is a huge bureaucracy, and between the mission at the UN in New York and the government at home in Tokyo.

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Policy

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