Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said Friday she will visit South Sudan on Saturday before Tokyo decides whether to continue sending Japan’s Self-Defense Forces on U.N. peacekeeping operations there and assign them to controversial new missions.
Inada had been forced to cancel a planned visit to the country in September, about a month after she assumed the ministerial post, due to an allergic reaction to antimalarial medication.
As the government considers assigning the SDF new, and possibly riskier, missions during U.N. peacekeeping operations under new security legislation, the unstable security situation in South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan in 2011, has been drawing attention.
“It is important to see whether the (SDF) members are in a situation in which safety is ensured and they can engage in meaningful activities,” Inada said at a press conference.
While SDF activities overseas have hitherto been strictly restricted under the war-renouncing Constitution, the new legislation, which came into force in March, loosens some constraints, including the use of weapons, so Japan can contribute more to global peace-building efforts.
New roles the SDF can perform during U.N. peacekeeping missions include going to rescue U.N. staff and others under attack and to jointly defend peacekeepers’ camps with troops from other nations.
Those assignments could be given to the next batch of SDF troops slated to replace the current 350-member engineer unit engaging in a U.N. mission in South Sudan from November. The deployment period for the current unit is set to end Oct. 31.
Inada said the upcoming visit to the South Sudan capital of Juba will “be of some help” in making a decision on giving the SDF members fresh tasks.
“This issue will be considered by the government as a whole, carefully assessing the local situation and the progress in training,” she added.
Inada is expected to hold talks with her South Sudanese counterpart Kuol Manyang Juuk and get a firsthand look at the activities the SDF members are undertaking, according to a Defense Ministry official. She will return to Japan on Sunday.
Japan began sending SDF troops to South Sudan in 2012 for the U.N. mission called UNMISS to help develop infrastructure.
But South Sudan has been mired in conflict between government and opposition forces. Although a peace deal was signed in 2015, renewed fighting in Juba in early July killed more than 270 people.
In Japan, opposition parties have questioned whether UNMISS still satisfies the five principles Japan upholds for its participation in peacekeeping operations, which include the existence of a cease-fire agreement among the parties to armed conflicts.
The Japanese government has said it is aware of the fighting in Juba in July, including an exchange of fire just beside the SDF camp, but has maintained that the situation has “relatively quieted down,” thus satisfying the five principles.