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Leader wanted: Japan's agenda on Human Rights

By Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

During my visit to Japan this week, I will be delivering a key message on behalf of the international human rights community: we need Japan to draw on its economic prowess, ingenuity and global influence to become an ever more influential champion of human rights everywhere.

Japan is a heavy hitter on the international scene. It is currently on the UN Security Council and is a key player in the G8/G20. It is a major contributor to UN peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations. Japan has also long been active in UN human rights bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, where it plays a constructive role helping the Western group and the other regional groupings to overcome real or perceived rivalries, and sometimes parochial interests. Japan often demonstrates how the universality of human rights can both transcend and be enriched by cultural specificity.

Yet there is a feeling in the human rights community that Japan has the potential to show more sustained and consistent leadership when it comes to human rights. The new Government came to power on a manifesto which spelled out significant human rights commitments both at home and abroad. Among its pledges was the establishment of an national human rights institution (NHRI) – an internationally supported system of official institutions that work independently from governments to protect and promote human rights at the national level . More than 100 states have now created a national human rights institution, and 65 of them have attained ‘A status' under an international rating system. I look forward to the creation of a Japanese NHRI, which should – as in other states – become an indispensable bridge between Japan 's own human rights protection system and the highly developed international mechanisms and resources.

Japan is already a party to all the major international human rights treaties, and is now committed to signing additional protocols that would allow individuals to have their cases considered by the international Committees that monitor the implementation of treaties.

Steps such as these would help fulfil many of the recommendations made to Japan over the years by various UN mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) -- the new system under which all 192 UN member states have their human rights record examined by their peers. Japan was evaluated under the UPR in 2009, and received 26 recommendations, of which it accepted 14. These will form the basis of its review when it next comes up before the UPR, most probably in 2012.

I am hopeful that there can, in the near future, be greater public debate about the possibility of doing away with the death penalty in Japan, as has happened in so many other countries around the world. One of the most compelling arguments for abolishing the death penalty is the impossibility of rectifying a judicial mistake, a point underlined by recent exposures of miscarriages of justice in Japan and elsewhere. When the state executes an innocent person, it undermines the credibility of the whole criminal justice system. As a judge on the UN Rwanda Tribunal, I sentenced a number of people who had been found guilty of genocide to life imprisonment, and I firmly believe this is a suitably severe punishment, but – importantly – it is also one that can be rectified or compensated, if it turns out the person in question was wrongly convicted. I would warmly welcome steps towards the abolition of the death penalty in Japan, or at the very least – as announced by a number of governments including, most recently, Mongolia – the adoption of a moratorium.

I hope the government, in consultation with civil society, will press ahead with reforms that would leave an enduring legacy for the protection of human rights at home, to complement its commitment to economic and institutional development assistance abroad.

Much can be learned, for example, from Japan 's approach to people affected by leprosy, including the sponsoring of an important UN study on this neglected subject which will hopefully lead to new international standards to tackle an age-old scourge. In the same vein, Japan's experience in combating forms of work- and descent-based discrimination, such as those faced by the Burakumin, could be of great benefit to international discussion and action on similar issues.

Japan has doubled its already generous aid to Afghanistan , pledging five billion dollars over the next five years. But poverty in Afghanistan is exacerbated by corrupt power structures that fuel human rights abuses and undermine efforts to improve life for the average Afghan. Donors such as Japan can help by stimulating greater transparency and accountability from those who wield power in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In a globalized world, Japan is increasingly integrated into migrant labor flows, and exposed to the problems of human trafficking. As a major humanitarian actor, there are high expectations that Japan will become more welcoming to refugees in need of protection. The Government has an opportunity to bring a fresh, human rights-centred approach to migration issues, and to promote an international system more responsive to the realities of an increasingly mobile world.

Such interventions would reflect an ambitious human rights agenda. But I am confident that Japan can, and I hope will, respond to these calls for action and use the capacity for innovation, hard work, and commitment that are the hallmark of its people to become a true global leader on human rights.