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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
April 20, 2004

Hostage crisis a matter of reconciling 2 norms

Takashi Shiraishi (Professor, Kyoto University)

On April 9, an armed group calling itself Saraya al-Mujahideen announced through a Qatari satellite television station that it had captured three Japanese in Iraq. It threatened to kill the hostages within three days unless the Japanese government withdrew Self-Defense Forces personnel from Iraq.

In response, the government reiterated its basic policy of not yielding to terrorist threats and said there was no reason for pulling the SDF out of Iraq.

Fortunately, the three Japanese were released on Thursday. On Saturday, two other Japanese who had been taken captive in Iraq were released unhurt.

Nonetheless, the Japanese public was divided during the period over how to deal with the hostage case, with differing news media reactions being good examples. Without exception, the press concurred that the government must not cave in to the threat, and that no effort should be spared to save the three Japanese, but differences arose over the hostage-takers' demand for the withdrawal of the SDF. One group of newspapers maintained that Japan should stand up to terrorist threats, while others argued that the prevailing situation in Iraq was making it increasingly difficult for the SDF contingent to concentrate on reconstruction efforts.

In other words, the latest debates have linked the hostage situation to the advisability of sending the SDF to Iraq.

But the hostage case is not necessarily tied to the issue of dispatching the SDF to Iraq. The latest incident actually poses a deeper question: How can we reconcile the international norm of refusing to yield to terrorism with Japan's domestic social contract that obliges the government to ensure the safety of the Japanese people?

There is reason enough to refrain from linking the hostage case to the issue of dispatching the SDF to Iraq. Consider the following scenarios:

First, Japan, complying with a U.N. request, has stationed SDF personnel in East Timor to engage in an international peacekeeping operation and offer nonmilitary assistance to the populace there. What would Japan have done if the remnants of a pro-Jakarta militia, which had sought to maintain the integration of East Timor with Indonesia, abducted Japanese aid workers and threatened to kill them unless Japan withdrew the SDF peacekeepers?

Second, many Japanese are involved in medical support activities elsewhere in the world. What should Japan do if an Islamic fundamentalist group kidnapped Japanese medical workers in Egypt, for example, and demanded that Japan halt all medical support efforts in Egypt and repatriate Japanese medical specialists?

Common to both scenarios is the seizure of Japanese by political groups to push their political demands by issuing threats to the Japanese government, demanding that it change specific policies in exchange for the lives of the Japanese hostages. Such cases can happen elsewhere and are not unique to the situation in Iraq. Arguing that the presence of the SDF contingent in Iraq triggered the hostage crisis is tantamount to accepting the kidnappers' own justification for taking hostages.

What is the real issue then? The policy of not yielding to terrorist demands is an international norm that exists alongside an equally powerful social contract within Japan that makes it the state's obligation to protect its people. Each norm constrains the other. As a result, neither the government nor the people can expect an easy solution to the problem by simply choosing one norm over the other. At best it can attempt to reconcile these norms, though whether reconciliation is possible at all remains in question.

People agree on two points--"Don't yield to terrorism" and "Do the utmost to save the hostages"--but they clearly disagree over their order of priority. The government's position precisely reflects such a dilemma.

What is happening to Japan can happen to any country--even a superpower cannot guarantee the safety of its people all over the world. But approaches to the issue of reconciling the international norm with the domestic social contract vary from one country to another. For its part, Japan is unlikely to resort to military force to rescue hostages.

What happened during the 1996-97 hostage standoff at the Japanese ambassador's official residence in Peru is a case in point. At the time, police in Japan already had formed a special unit trained to deal with terrorists. But there is no indication that the government seriously considered dispatching the unit to Lima, an option that the public would have strongly opposed.

Former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda declared that "one man's life is more precious than the Earth" to explain his government's decision to give in to the demands of Japanese Red Army hijackers in 1977. Indeed, the cost in political terms would have been too high for the government if a hijacking or hostage crisis resulted in the death of any Japanese involved.

Therefore, the Japanese government has routinely sought to negotiate with the kidnappers. For instance, the government successfully negotiated the release of four Japanese mining engineers in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan from an armed Islamic fundamentalist group in 1999. It remains unknown whether the government paid a ransom.

To put it simply, the Japanese government has tried to maintain a balance between the international norm (do not yield to terrorists) and the domestic social contract (save Japanese lives) by negotiating with kidnappers.

Such an approach is, of course, not the only option. One can imagine what the U.S. government would do in similar circumstances. The lives of Americans are precious to the U.S. government.

What would the U.S. government have done if it were involved in crises such as the standoff at the Japanese Embassy in Lima or the abduction of the four mining engineers? It would immediately have dispatched an interagency special task force to the scene and worked out countermeasures, including the use of military force. It would probably rule out negotiating with the kidnappers.

Why are Japan's approaches so different from those of the United States? The main reason is that unlike the United States, Japan lacks military capabilities, and the only viable option is to negotiate.

As long as the Japanese government remains bound by the two norms it has no choice but to find the best possible compromise between the two positions. This is why it said it would not cave in to terrorists, but at the same time, it would make every effort to save the three hostages in Iraq.

It is fortunate that the hostages were eventually released. But similar hostage situations can happen any time, and should the crisis result in tragedy, the government should turn to the Japanese people and accept their verdict concerning the decisions it made.

It must be emphasized that what is at issue is not which norm takes precedence, but the best way to reconcile the two norms. The issue should therefore not be framed as a question of choosing between the rescue of the three hostages and the withdrawal of the SDF contingent from Iraq.

Obviously, Japan is incapable of protecting its citizens all over the world. Similar hostage crises have happened in the past and will take place in the future. When such cases occur, the government should seek the best possible reconciliation between the international norm and the domestic social contract and, above all, assume responsibility for the outcome.

(This commentary first appeared in The Daily Yomiuri on April 16, 2004)

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