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FOCUS March 1998 Volume 11

Japan and the 50th Anniversary of UDHR

Kenzo Tomonaga - Buraku Liberation Research Institute

Fifty Years of Human Rights Struggle

The 50th anniversary of the UDHR is an opportune time for reviewing the accumulated experience of the past 50 years and setting a new agenda for the future.

The 50 year-long struggle for protection of human rights has brought many achievements, such as:

  1. cases of gross violation of human rights and discrimination are being given attention as "matters of international concern";

  2. at the UN, various human rights bodies, including the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission, are meeting regularly to deal with human rights issues in all parts of the world;

  3. with an aim to concretizing the ideas of the UDHR, the UN has approved as many as 23 international conventions instrumental in eliminating discrimination and promoting human rights;

  4. human rights conventions, commissions and judicial courts are being established at the regional level;

  5. international human rights NGOs, such as Amnesty International and the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), active in the field of human rights are increasing in number;

  6. the apartheid system in South Africa had been abolished.

The achievements made are enormous. But in view of the goals envisioned in the UDHR, many issues remain unsolved. Particularly, with the collapse of the cold war structure and the ongoing process of globalization, the human race is now confronted with new challenges such as:

  1. a tendency toward a laissez faire economy which multiplies the power of hyper-monopolized corporations and international financial capitals resulting in greater influence on world economy;

  2. increasing gap between the rich and the poor nationally and internationally. Indigenous peoples, national minorities, people belonging to outcast groups and migrant workers, in particular, are marginalized;

  3. increase in the number of global trafficking in women and children while racist trends are surging against migrant workers in developed countries;

  4. less national budgets are allocated for Official Development Assistance (ODA) and social welfare in many countries;

  5. ethnic conflicts are intensified in many parts of the world as a result of the above mentioned transformation;

  6. religious fundamentalism and neo-Nazism are intensifying;

  7. the environment is deteriorating globally.

The case of Japan

Japan has a constitution that puts utmost value on peace, democracy and basic human rights. This constitution was drafted in repentance of the wrongs done during the World War II and entered into force on May 3, 1947. Basic ideas embodied in the constitution are identical with the UDHR.

In June 1979, Japan ratified the International Covenants - the world constitution of human rights. In subsequent years the government also acceded to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CERD). The process was slow and delayed but by signing these conventions Japan joined the international human rights community.

Accession to the regime of human rights treaties meant for Japan a great leap forward in a sense that by this the Constitution of Japan was enriched and that the government finally took a course for building a society free from discrimination and human rights violations, in partnership with international organizations. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center was established in Osaka in December 1994, the role of which is to contribute to the improvement of human rights conditions both in Japan and in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, Japan's performance in ratifying human rights treaties is far from satisfactory. For instance, the government has neither accepted the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant which allows individual communication nor the Second Optional Protocol which prohibits capital punishment. In addition, Japan announced reservations with Article 4, Section (a) and (b) of the CERD which stipulated the banning of incitement to racial hatred.

Another shortcoming is the failure to live up to the Provisions of the human rights conventions, including the International Covenants. The Japanese Constitution requires in Section 2 of Article 98 that the international treaties ratified by Japan should be faithfully complied with. They assume second importance to the constitution.

Nevertheless, the article is not fully respected either at national and local government levels, or by the judicial bodies. For instance, in the Sayama Retrial Case, involving an innocent Buraku person, despite the defense lawyers' demand for full disclosure of all evidences possessed by the prosecutors, this plea had been repeatedly turned down. This apparently contradicts the articles stipulated in the International Covenants. Laws incompatible with human rights treaties are not revised or amended in Japan. For example, the existing civil law allows a child born out of wedlock to inherit only half of the fortune inherited by a legitimate child. Obviously this is a violation of the relevant article of the International Covenants. Regarding the prohibition of the propaganda of wars and incitement to racial hatred as stipulated in the International Covenants, Japan has no appropriate laws for this purpose.

Current human rights issues

In the midst of mega-competition, Japan is now witnessing the deterioration of human rights conditions against a background of social problems such as rampant bankruptcy, corporate restructuring, welfare cuts, and the rise of ethnocentrism. Many human rights issues remain unresolved, such as the following:

  1. although the living conditions of Buraku communities are improving, a gap still exists in the fields of employment and education. Discriminatory attitudes toward Buraku people persist, resulting in a number of discriminatory incidents;

  2. foreign residents do not fully enjoy equal treatment, particularly for the Korean residents. They suffer from disadvantageous treatment as far as housing, employment, education, social security and voting are concerned. The right to education on their own culture and language is also not guaranteed;

  3. despite the legislation of the new Ainu Cultural Promotion Law, Ainu people are not given rights as indigenous people and are not treated equally in daily affairs, in the workplace, and in schools;

  4. cases of sexual harassment and violence against women are increasing in number. Discriminatory practices are still prevalent in workplaces and society in general. Women are sometimes excluded in the decision-making processes;

  5. the rights of children are threatened by abuses, corporal punishment, prostitution inflicted by adults, and bullying in schools.

  6. the rights of the elderly population remain seriously threatened due to lack of adequate medical and social welfare services;

  7. full participation and equality of persons with disability have not yet been fulfilled. Discrimination in education and employment is still continuing. Violence against mentally disabled persons and illegal appropriation of their properties are reported in hospitals, residence facilities and workplaces;

  8. biased attitude against persons with Hansen's disease and HIV/AIDS persists; and

  9. cases of forced eviction of street people occur many times.

Possible measures to resolve the problems

On December 15, 1995, the Cabinet decided to set up the Promotion Council for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. The Council is chaired by the Prime Minister, vice-chaired by the Cabinet Chief Secretary and 4 other ministers. It also designated vice-ministers of 22 ministries and government agencies as senior staff. Virtually covering every section of the government, it is an epoch-making experiment in Japan's history on human rights education.

On July 4, 1997, the Council announced the National Plan of Action for Human Rights Education. Under this plan, special attention is given to the promotion of human rights education not only in schools but also in private corporations and in civil society in general, and to the provision of human rights curricula for persons in specific professions such as public servants, teachers, policemen/women, personnel of the Self Defense Forces, persons in medical services, social care workers and journalists.

The plan highlights the rights of women, children, the aged, persons with disability, Buraku people, the Ainu, foreigners, persons with HIV/AIDS and persons who had served prison terms. It also emphasizes the need to contribute to the work of the UN and to provide assistance on the human rights education work in developing countries.

At the prefectural level, the prefectural governments of Osaka, Mie, Fukuoka, Shiga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and other prefectures and cities have also established offices chaired by governors and mayors that will draft their own action plans. Further efforts should be made so that more local governments are encouraged to set up focal points and initiate action plans.

Meanwhile, there is an increasing number of local governments adopting ordinances and declarations relevant to the elimination of Buraku discrimination. As of November 1997, 914 declarations and 529 ordinances have been adopted.

Considering decentralization as a catchword of the time, these declarations and ordinances can contribute to building local communities where human rights are guaranteed. These ordinances and declarations must be put into practice. At the same time, local governments which have not yet adopted such ordinances and declarations are strongly encouraged to do so during the 50th UDHR anniversary year.

In December 1996, the Law on Promotion of Measures for Human Rights Protection was enacted as a direct result of efforts by the Central Executive Committee of the National Movement for the Enactment of the Fundamental Law for Buraku Liberation, and other concerned organizations. This law is an important tool to effectively eradicate the causes of discrimination and to promote human rights. With this law being enforced, the government now bears a clear responsibility for the promotion of human rights education and relief for victims of human rights violations.

The Council for Human Rights Protection was established in May 1997 as mandated by this law. The Council is commissioned to file a report on human rights education in two years, as well as to compile a report for the relief measures for victims of human rights violations within 5 years. As clearly stated in the resolutions passed by the Committees on Judicial affairs of both Houses of the parliament, the government is required to enact the necessary legislation that ensures adequate human rights education and relief measures.

The implementation of this law means the concretization of the ideas embodied in Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution as well as in the relevant human rights conventions ratified by Japan.

In consideration of this, many minority groups, together with leaders from various sectors, agreed to create a new organization named Human Rights Forum 21, which aims to propose policies in relation to this law. Establishing close relations with this Forum is important in meeting the challenges mentioned above.

With the 50th anniversary of the UDHR, more efforts are needed to create and implement imaginative activities to realize a truly humane century.