Japan begins to pull troops from South Sudan peacekeeping mission

Japanese peacekeepers in the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)

Japan began withdrawing peacekeeping troops from South Sudan today, a U.N. official announced, amid escalating violence that some are now describing as genocide.

The move is a setback for international support of the South Sudanese government and, symbolically at least, undermines Japan’s pledge to be a “proactive contributor to peace.”

“Some contingents of Japanese troops will begin their pullout Monday, the rest will systematically follow,” Daniel Dickinson, spokesperson for the U.N. mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said on local radio today, according to Andalou Agency. “We appreciate their efforts and their services and dedication to the people of South Sudan.”

The 350-member Japanese contingent based out of Juba is Japan’s only ongoing peacekeeping mission worldwide. It has been working mainly on supporting infrastructure projects over the last five years. The first group of 68 Japanese troops left today, Dickinson told Reuters, while the rest will leave in two batches by May – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announced deadline.

“As South Sudan enters a new phase of nation-building, we have decided that we can now put an end to our infrastructure building efforts,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo on March 10, according to media reports.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was also quick to deny suspicions that the withdrawal had more to do with the escalating violence than successful building projects.

“The decision is a result of our comprehensive considerations and not because of the deteriorating security situation,” he said. “We have reached a certain point in the repair work.”

However, Japanese forces were not only tasked for engineering projects. In December, Japan sent a new batch of Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) troops into South Sudan to assume an additional role – to rescue U.N. staff and other personnel under attack and help defend U.N. peacekeepers’ camps. This was the first time the Abe administration exercised a new security legislation that allowed GSDF to come to the aid of other nations’ peacekeeping troops and civilians under fire.

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Previously, restrictions in Japan’s post-World War II constitution limited military power to a minimum for self-defense. Passage of a law in 1992 has allowed Japan to engage in eight peacekeeping missions, but mainly in logistics- and construction-related capacities.

However, deadly clashes between President Salva Kiir’s forces and former Vice-President Riek Machar’s supporters last July left more than 300 people dead and ended an August 2015 peace deal. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been killed, 3.1 million have fled their homes, an estimated 100,000 people are experiencing famine and 1 million are starving.

Abe and his defense minister refused to describe the situation as “fighting” in order to continue the peacekeeping mission under Japan’s peacekeeping operations law, some have accused the government of covering up the worsening security situation. Now, just four months after sending in troops under the expanded peacekeeping legislation, Japan is withdrawing before fulfilling its new responsibilities.

“If there was a casualty of any kind among the Japanese troops, then that would have spelled doom for Abe’s plans to expand Japan’s role and presence in future U.N. peacekeeping teams,” Jun Okumura, a long-time official for Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry and visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told the South China Morning Post.

“Events in South Sudan now have really forced their hand and it has become increasingly dangerous there,” he added. “But equally, Abe cannot say they are withdrawing for that reason because that dooms his policy just as badly. So this is the only way the administration can play it.”

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Although Japan’s contingent is small, compared to China’s more than 2,500 UNMISS peacekeepers for example, the withdrawal is a setback for international support of the South Sudanese government, which was not aware of Japan’s decision prior to Abe’s announcement, according to Kiir’s spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny. In February, Kiir specifically thanked Abe and Japan for their “continued support to the government and people of South Sudan.

Many are questioning Japan’s ability to be a “proactive contributor to peace” as it withdraws from an escalating security situation, but the U.N. appears willing to keep future missions on the table for Japan. Abe also said that Japan would continue to provide South Sudan humanitarian and food assistance.

“They’ve been in that post for many years and they’ve been performing a very valuable function and have been a key part of the efforts by the U.N. mission there to protect civilians,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told the Associated Press in March. “We appreciate the work that they’ve done, and certainly we’ll continue to engage with the government of Japan to make sure that Japan can contribute usefully to other peacekeeping missions in the future.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.