The Japanese legislature has been working since early 2002 to enact a law for the protection of human rights. The Human Rights Protection Bill establishes a national human rights commission. The bill however has met opposition not only from members of the legislature but also from the media, law and human rights sectors. Objections to the bill are numerous and well-publicized. The Japanese legislature was forced as a result to postpone the early enactment of the bill into law.
The media sector objects to the power of the proposed national institution to rule on right to privacy complaints against its members. This is seen as an unwarranted censorship thus violating freedom of the press. In addition, the bill is criticized for a number of serious flaws. The Japanese human rights community believes that the bill fails to subscribe to the Paris Principles governing national institutions. It points to some of the major defects, as follows:
Undefined meaning of human rights
The bill does not define what human rights mean. Without a clear definition, human rights may be interpreted in a narrow sense, and below international standards.1 Human rights should therefore be defined with reference to the Constitution as well as to international human rights instruments.
Views of the victims and vulnerable sectors ignored
The bill does not provide a mechanism for considering the concerns and ideas of victims of human rights violations as well as vulnerable sectors. Their views are important in the appointment of members of the proposed national institution and in the exercise of the proposed national institution's functions.
The bill likewise has no provision regarding the relationship between the proposed national institution and human rights groups and other NGOs. There is, for example, no provision for consultation between them.
The proposed national institution therefore is a patronizing entity that will 'bring down' the remedy to the victims of human rights violations. This system will not create trust and confidence between the proposed national institution and the victims and vulnerable sectors.
Lack of independence
While the bill states that the proposed national institution will operate independently, there are no corresponding provisions that will ensure that this happens. On the contrary, the structure of the proposed national institution lacks independence. The proposed national institution is subject to the jurisdiction of the Minister of Justice. The existing Civil Liberties Bureau of the Ministry of Justice will become the secretariat of the proposed national institution. Considering the way Japanese bureaucracy operates, the proposed national institution cannot be shielded from the influence of the offices/officials in the Ministry of Justice, nor freely deal with cases related to the jurisdiction of the ministry.
With three part-time members out of five, the operation of the proposed national institution will depend much on its secretariat. This means that a secretariat, whose staff members belong to the Ministry of Justice, will operate more likely in line with the ministry's views.
Thus it is suggested that the proposed national institution be placed under the Office of the Cabinet so that it can exercise its function on a level higher than that of the ministries. It is likewise suggested that the proposed national institution be given the power to hire its own staff for the secretariat.
The proposed national institution, tasked to deal with cases from all over the country, will have only one office in Tokyo. It has the power to delegate its authority to the District Legal Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice. In other words, it has a highly centralized system of operation.
A centralized system is not compatible with the trend toward government decentralization as well as with the nature of human rights issues. There are local conditions (customs and history) affecting human rights issues which are difficult to appreciate when viewed from a distance. Thus it is suggested that there be local human rights commissions within each prefecture and chartered city with the authority to provide appropriate and effective remedies to human rights violations.
Violations by public officials
The bill relatively minimizes the seriousness of human rights violations by public officials. It lumps the violations committed by private persons together with those of the public officials. There are no special procedures that deal with cases involving the latter. A separate treatment of cases involving public officials is necessary considering that they exercise power and lack a high degree of transparency in their operation. In other words, their human rights violations should be seen as serious cases requiring a different treatment.
Human Rights Forum 21 is a network of human rights organizations in Japan. It has been focusing primarily on the establishment of national human rights institution in the country.
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