Prospects of Western–Japanese Coordination on Human Rights Sanctions

Japan has become the latest country to pursue the introduction of a human rights-focused sanctions regime. Will the arrival of a new player in the human rights sanctions field lead to closer coordination with existing regimes?

Japan has become the latest country to propose establishing a sanctions regime to address serious infringements of human rights. While human rights sanctions are already pursued by the UK, the US, Canada and the EU, with targets ranging from Myanmar to North Korea and Russia, coordination has remained firmly within and between Western countries.

Japan’s nascent human rights sanctions proposal represents an opportunity for Western countries to partner with a non-Western regime. This has a clear advantage: by being closer to a target country and having regional influence, non-Western countries can potentially strengthen existing human rights sanctions regimes and provide additional economic and political sway.

However, coordination also comes with its challenges. Japan’s historical reluctance to speak out on regional problems may prove challenging, but in finding consensus on shared issues, the West has the chance to expand its human rights sanctions alliances. Some countries may be reluctant to employ sanctions in regions which have historically been averse to using them.

In balancing sanctions with other foreign policy tools, such as diplomacy and trade, and seeking collaboration on mutual issues, the West could see significant advances to the human rights sanctions initiative, while establishing sanctions relationships with non-Western allies. Japan, in this case, serves as a crucial starting point for this agenda.

What do we know so far?

In July 2020, cross-party discussions began between legislators and ministers of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, and the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, on the prospect of creating a sanctions regime that would target human rights violators. Both parties created a multiparty parliamentary group in January 2021 focused on the creation of a human rights sanctions regime.

The cross-party grouping will hold a series of meetings to further this sanctions proposal and gain broader bipartisan support for the initiative. With Japan’s current parliamentary session concluding on 16 June 2021, it is hoped that the necessary consensus for passing and enacting this legislation can be achieved during this period.

If the proposed legislation passes, the sanctioning process would involve investigations by executive parliamentarians of suspected human rights abuses. The Japanese government, following such investigations, would subsequently impose sanctions on the basis of these proving true. Sanctions would include asset freezes and travel bans.

Separately, these developments have been supplemented by the workings of the Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China (JPAC), a cross-party coalition between the ruling and opposition parties, established in July 2020 and which, on 3 February, created a task force on human rights diplomacy. The task force aims to use sanctions, among other tools, as a means to respond to developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with a particular focus on China’s National Security Bill in Hong Kong. It will present these conclusions at the G7 Summit this June.

While the focus has remained on China, efforts are underway in Japan to broaden the scope of human rights sanctions to regional and global infringements. This strategy is being pursued so that the proposed legislation appeals across party lines, and to assuage those that do not wish to overtly offend China.

Sanctions focused on targeting the most egregious human rights violations are not a new phenomenon. The UK, the USCanada and, most recently, the EU have already adopted legislation to impose targeted financial sanctions against external parties on the basis of human rights infringements. Japan could become the first Asian country to do so.

Japan’s current sanctions policy operates within the broader regimes agreed at the UN. Human rights sanctions would therefore be a departure from Japan’s sanctioning tradition. Given the focus of these potential sanctions on China, which has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council with veto power, Japanese consensus remains focused on creating a domestic human rights sanctions bill that would bypass the need for a UN resolution.

Within the UN-based structure, however, Japan has eagerly embraced the prospect of sanctions, particularly relating to North Korea. Existing UN measures pertaining to North Korea allow individual member states to extend UN sanctions beyond their current basis and strengthen these – usually by creating domestic sanctions lists – within their own territories. In this case, Japan has created a domestic sanctions list with some designations that are not replicated on other countries’ lists.

Japan represents one of the few Asian countries, alongside South Korea, that have extended mandatory sanctions from the UN level, and remains one of the few countries regionally – and globally – to do so. Nonetheless, the country does still exist within a sanctions-sceptic region (for example, regional organisations such as ASEAN historically have not pursued sanctions), and thus the prospect of a domestic human rights sanctions list – independent of the UN – is a novel development.

Why do Japanese human rights sanctions matter?

The Japanese financial system is global and sophisticated, bolstered by considerable anti-money laundering and anti-corruption laws. It is generally perceived as stable and competent, with Transparency International ranking Japan 19th out of 180 countries surveyed for public sector corruption.

The yen, too, is an important currency in Asia. A 2015 study by SWIFT identified the yen as the world’s fourth largest currency, representing 3.3% of total international transactions. Accordingly, denying access to it would have significant financial and economic consequences for any designated entity. It would be impossible for a sanctioned entity to pursue business with a Japanese financial institution or company.

Economic restrictions coordinated between the US, the UK, Canada, the EU and Japan would represent 30% of global GDP, and shut off sanctioned targets from significant financial markets. The US dollar, the euro, the British pound, the Canadian dollar and the yen are used in 89.6% of global financial transactions (as of 2014).

In the past, Japan has been an important trading and economic partner for Myanmar, especially after Western sanctions prior to 2015-16 caused Myanmar to diversify its trade links to rely more on Asian partners including Japan, South Korea, China and ASEAN countries.  Previous Western sanctions imposed from 2006–2012 by the EU, and from 2003–2016 by the US, saw the continued use of the Japanese market by Myanmar to avoid sanctions.

While current Western sanctions imposed upon Myanmar are less severe, access to the Japanese (and broader Southeast and Northeast Asian) market remains an opportunity that designated individuals and entities may use to diversify sources of trade and income. If Japan were to coordinate sanctions with Western countries, they would have more direct impact.

A sanctions partnership with G7 countries is an endeavour the EU recently alluded to. As G7 members, these countries already share many priorities in wider foreign policy. Translating these norms and initiatives into sanctions would, therefore, be less challenging than pursuing this endeavour at other forums – such as the UN, where divergent national agendas may dominate.

Moreover, UN consensus has become increasingly difficult to gain. At the UN Security Council level, relations are fraught and often divided, frequently hampering its ability to agree on a joint sanctions response: Myanmar is a recent case in point. Considering potential opportunities for collaboration with sanctioning partners beyond the West and outside of the UN structure would enable Western human rights sanctions to carry significantly more punch.

Limitations of a Western–Japanese partnership

Japan, despite sharing liberal values with other G7 partners, has been slow to speak out on key ongoing human rights issues in the broader region – particularly those relating to violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Russia – alongside sustained authoritarian rule in Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia. However, the response to the February 2021 coup in Myanmar was different.

Sanctions, under various country-specific regimes, have been imposed by Canada, the US, the EU and the UK. In Japan, on 14 February, up to 4,000 protestors took to the streets in Tokyo to protest the coup. The Japanese government has deemed the events in Myanmar a coup and is in the process of halting development assistance and aid projects to Myanmar.

Through the G7 mechanism, moreover, Japan and the remaining member states issued a statement condemning the coup and called for the release of those detained, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Calls by Japan for the restoration of democratic rule, alongside Australia, the US and India, were also issued.

But Japan has not joined the cohort of countries condemning Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong – the only G7 member state not to do so. Indeed, existing Japanese attitudes towards the human rights situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are, at best, ambivalent – as captured in the inaction on the part of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last summer following widespread protests in Hong Kong.

While Japanese views of China have become significantly more negative in recent years (largely due to the increasing economic might of China and its accompanying autocratic policies), public condemnation of its neighbour is minimal. In Suga’s New Year’s Address, no references to the situation in Hong Kong or Xinjiang were made. This was despite the mass arrests of Hong Kong lawmakers carried out the previous day, and despite the establishment of the JPAC and its commitment to addressing human rights violations by China.

Furthermore, members of Suga’s own party condemned Japanese policy regarding Hong Kong and Xinjiang. On the one hand, therefore, Japan has shown itself willing to adopt the G7 line on Myanmar, and taken steps short of sanctions. On the other hand, with China, there is still some reluctance.

This reluctance extends to Japanese policy towards Russia. While the last decade has seen Western relations with Russia sour, Japan–Russia relations have strengthened. Given Russia’s human rights record, most recently including the attempted poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Japanese attempts to pursue a special relationship with Russia are controversial for a country that aligns itself with liberal democratic principles.

Nonetheless, this approach can be explained based on underlying domestic political reasons: in forging closer bilateral ties, Japan aims to recover the islands annexed by the Soviet Union following the Second World War. Moreover, in pursuing closer ties with Russia, Tokyo aims to deter Russian–Chinese cooperation, thereby challenging Chinese regional leadership.

This tactic has been pursued both by former prime minister Shinzo Abe and the incumbent Suga, and, while it has not yielded any tangible results, the pursuit of it has seen a Japanese reluctance to comment on, or adopt corresponding coercive responses to, Russian human rights violations – distinguishing Japan from Western countries.

Indeed, while other G7 members balked at former US President Donald Trump’s idea of Russia re-joining the G7 following its annexation of Crimea and subsequent expulsion, Japan did not overtly oppose this suggestion.

Japan has also been hesitant to advocate for more democratic measures in Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. Southeast Asia is a region which, historically, has resisted the use of sanctions. Particularly in the case of ASEAN, the regional economic organisation of states, sanctions as a tool have been discouraged.

Member states have favoured the use of negotiation and prioritise state sovereignty. ASEAN has continuously rejected the use of sanctions against Myanmar. While Japan is not an ASEAN member, the impact of any Japanese designation would be contingent to an extent upon how it is taken up and conceived of in the surrounding neighbourhood of states.

In this regard, Japan’s lack of response to regional human rights violations is reminiscent of broader regional attitudes to external interference. Japan will not respond strongly to violations by countries that are economically and strategically important to it. Political priorities will supersede any value-based decisions. This is not surprising, nor is it endemic to Japan.

Next steps

Coordination will be dependent on political will and consensus. The West will not be able to partner with Japan in every case, and should do so when it is politically viable for both sides. Myanmar and North Korea are good starting points. While there is still some reluctance within Japan to address underlying issues with China, the fact remains that the JPAC grouping has been developed: this can further advance Japanese responses to China.

On Japan’s reluctance to address human rights abuses in Southeast Asia, regional attitudes to sanctions and non-interference are important to consider. Japan can, however, play a key role in balancing sanctioning measures with diplomacy. For sanctions to be effective, coordination with other tools of foreign policy – diplomacy and trade – is critical.

Indeed, not relying on a sanctions-only response to human rights infringements in Asia may serve to benefit Western sanctions too. Japan and ASEAN’s reluctance to impose sanctions on Myanmar enabled them to establish unparalleled clout with the military junta. Access to these diplomatic backchannels can be strategically beneficial for negotiation, which the West should endorse.

This is more urgent when one considers the likely outcomes of a (once again) isolated Myanmar: closer coordination with China, and sanctions which lack clout due to the use of alternative financial systems, such as those of Russia and China. A dual and blended trajectory embracing dialogue and economic responses where coordination is possible would likely allow Western countries to achieve key human rights gains.

Looking beyond Western sanctions

Sanctions, particularly human rights sanctions, have thus far been a Western-led effort. This Western-led approach has been further evident in the UK’s suggestion to the Five Eyes security body (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK) that they work together on sanctions, although recent indications show that New Zealand may be reluctant to join such an initiative. The UK has also proposed coordinating sanctions with Australia bilaterally were it to establish a domestic human rights sanctions regime, and the EU has alluded to sanctioning through the G7.

In embracing partners beyond the West, existing Western sanctions not only gain greater legitimacy, but are also bolstered by regional countries and blocs that may wield more influence over a geographically closer target country. For the UK in particular, as it sets out to identify sanctions partners now that it has established a sanctions regime outside the EU, it would do well to look to Japan and consider strategic alignment premised upon shared liberal values, as well as the prospect of upholding human rights and having regional impact beyond the influence of the British pound.

Advancing human rights sanctions

In adopting a human rights sanctions regime, Japan will set itself apart as an active sanctioning partner in Asia – a region which has historically been sceptical of the use and effectiveness of such responses. It will further boost the global effort to combat human rights violations, as coordinated responses to infringements boost not only the legitimacy of sanctions, but also the number of restricted markets. In balancing leveraged diplomatic responses with the imposition of sanctions, there is a key opportunity for Japan to make a difference.

Sanctions coordination is not necessarily straightforward, and while some countries may favour the imposition of sanctions against a human rights-violating state, it may be against the national interest of a partner country. Japan’s relations with Russia and concerns about China – and lack of action against either – are evidence of this. Seeking consensus and coordination on human rights – where it is possible – is the way forward for the West.

Sasha Erskine is a Research Analyst in the Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies at RUSI. This commentary was first published on RUSI’s website. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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