SDF leave South Sudan without having carried out its new mandate to rescue UN staff and others under attack when there is an urgent request
Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force troops will start leaving South Sudan on Monday as part of the process to end their five-year participation in the ongoing UN peacekeeping mission there.
The first group of troops to head home consists of about 70 personnel of the 350-member GSDF unit that has stayed in South Sudan from around December last year. All members of the unit are expected to return by the end of May.
The Japanese government announced the pullout of the troops from the UN mission in South Sudan in March, saying the construction of roads and other infrastructure by SDF members in the conflict-torn country produced significant results.
The decision to pull out of South Sudan contrasts with China’s ongoing commitment to the UN mission. China has contributed 2,594 peacekeepers – mostly troops but also 150 police and 33 military experts. Some of those peacekeepers paid the ultimate price: two were killed and several wounded by a mortar attack in Juba last July.
The currently deployed Japanese troops have drawn particular attention back home as they are the first to have been assigned new security roles under controversial security legislation that Japan put into force in March last year.
The legislation expands the SDF’s role overseas so that Japan can more actively contribute to regional and global peace, but it has aroused concerns that the changes erode Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution and may embroil Japanese troops in overseas military actions for the first time since the second world war.
During UN peacekeeping missions, SDF members have been given more leeway in their use of weapons, which was previously strictly limited to self-defense purposes. For example, the GSDF unit in South Sudan was given a mandate to go to the rescue of UN staff and others under attack when there is an urgent request.
The SDF personnel are leaving South Sudan without having carried out this new role.
Japan has been sending a civil engineering unit to South Sudan since 2012 as part of the U.N. mission called UNMISS. South Sudan is the newest country in the world, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
Since 2013, the African nation has been mired in conflicts between government forces and rebels. A peace deal was signed in August 2015, but renewed fighting in the capital Juba in July last year killed more than 270 people and led many to flee their homes.
The security situation has been heavily debated in the Japanese parliament as SDF members are not allowed to engage in combat activities as part of what the government calls “an international armed conflict.” They risk violating the Constitution if they do.
The Japanese government still continued the deployment of the troops, saying that the situation was still appropriate for SDF activities. The announcement of the withdrawal on March 10 came just four months after the government decided to assign the SDF personnel the new role of coming to the aid of others in the event of an attack.
The currently deployed unit is composed mainly of members of the GSDF’s 9th Division headquartered in the city of Aomori in northern Japan. The first group of troops to be heading home is expected to arrive at Aomori Airport on Wednesday, according to the Defence Ministry.