The unfolding crisis in Sudan has drawn attention to the only overseas Japanese base and some of the problems surrounding the facility.
The consequences of a power struggle in the Sudanese military ranks have triggered an armed conflict that is turning into a humanitarian disaster for the local population and endangering the lives of foreign citizens.
Some nations, fearing for their own people’s safety, have announced the closure of their embassies in Sudan or the dispatch of rescue teams to the country.
Japan, one of many nations alarmed by the situation in Sudan, has announced that its Self-Defense Forces (ADF) will send its own aircraft to the East African nation of Djibouti, which is home to Japan’s only overseas base, to help to evacuate diplomatic personnel and natives.
While Japanese media are starting to cover the unrest in Sudan, the Self-Defense Forces’ response begs a more fundamental question: why is Japan maintaining a military presence in the Republic of Djibouti?
Japanese troops were first stationed in Djibouti in response to pirate raids. When the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden increased in 2008, they caught the attention of the Japanese government and others around the world for the first time.
Almost all of the world’s oil and trade passes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is located directly across from the Gulf of Aden.
The United Nations General Assembly approved repeated resolutions advocating to prevent piracy after realizing that an increase in piracy in this area would have serious ramifications for the global economy. As a result, various countries have headed to Djibouti to build up bases for their anti-piracy operations.
Japan’s national security was directly tied to the peace in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, where piracy had eventually spread.
According to a government report on anti-piracy efforts, some 1,700 Japanese commercial ships and 18% of exported cars – Japan’s economic engine – transit the Gulf of Aden. In addition, Japan’s heavy dependence on Middle Eastern oil – which supplies about 90% of Japan’s oil – multiplies the need for Japan to engage more in the region.
Faced with this security concern, Japan took an unprecedented step by acquiring a base on Djiboutian territory, using it as a center to ensure the safety of Japanese maritime trade navigation.
In 2009, Japan and Djibouti signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which provided the legal basis for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to station troops in Djibouti.
Two years later, the first overseas Japanese military base was opened on Djiboutian soil. Since then, the number of hacking incidents has plummeted, indicating that international collaboration – including Japan’s efforts – has had a chilling effect on hacking.
Nonetheless, the Japanese populace hardly notices that Japan is now deploying troops to a foreign country in East Africa. Even less acknowledged in Japan is the unequal nature of the SOFA between Japan and Djibouti.
SOFA’s critics accuse it of being an unequal deal, as it renders the Japanese military immune from any kind of criminal prosecution under Djibouti’s domestic law, exactly the same situation many Japanese claims applies to troops. Americans in Japan.
The SOFA with Djibouti states that Japan has the right to exercise “all criminal jurisdiction and disciplinary powers vested in it by the laws and regulations of Japan” within the territory of Djibouti.
Even the Japan-US SOFA, which some Japanese say protects US military personnel who commit crimes from prosecution, acknowledges that there are circumstances in which the host nation – in this case, Japan – can exercise criminal jurisdiction. In contrast, the language of the Japan-Djibouti SOFA appears excessive, as Japan assumes jurisdiction over “all” criminal cases involving its military personnel.
Outside observers have taken note of Djibouti’s unusual treatment of Japan in criminal jurisdiction issues. In light of Japan’s incarceration of a US Navy officer in Japan who, in Senator Mike Lee’s opinion, was wrongfully convicted, Lee has attacked the Japan-Djibouti SOFA for providing “immunity from criminal prosecution” to Japanese service members.
The legal immunity granted by the Djiboutian government to Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel could be seen as a reflection of the trust the former places in the latter. The problem, however, is that Japan itself lacks laws dealing with the misconduct of military personnel on overseas missions.
In other words, Japan, for the time being, has no way to hold members of the Self-Defense Forces accountable should the need to do so arise under the SOFA.
The Japanese government also recognizes these circumstances. Former Defense Minister Kono Taro has previously stressed that crimes committed abroad by members of the Self-Defense Forces cannot be punished under the current Japanese legal system.
The role that the Japanese base in Djibouti is playing in the midst of the conflict in Sudan has demonstrated its importance not only in ensuring freedom of navigation, which is vital to Japan’s national interests, but also in protecting the lives of Japanese citizens who they are in danger due to instability on the African continent, and possibly also in the Middle East.
However, the relationship with Djibouti could be jeopardized if the Japanese forces involved did not accept full responsibility for their actions. Public discontent could break out if a member of the Self-Defense Forces damages a local without facing punishment.
Japan needs to develop a legal framework that can hold members of the Overseas Self-Defense Forces accountable in order to rectify the lack of legal sufficiency in the SOFA with Djibouti.