Japan and the Transformation of the United Nations - Catalyzing a Comprehensive Collective Security for Our Common Future

Toshiya Hoshino (Professor, Osaka University)
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*Series: Trajectory of Heisei, way forward to Reiwa (No.7)


On the occasion of his first formal General Debate address at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 in Reiwa era (2019), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe openly called for the audience to "recall" that "Japan, upholding the principles of the United Nations, has walked a path that has been steadfast, always intending to realize the goals of the United Nations." He further added that "(F)or the UN, which has now come three quarters of a century since its founding, structural reform, especially that of the Security Council, is absolutely imperative. We aim for the early realization of such reform." It was Japan's latest call to "transform" the UN, in terms of its agenda, governance model and performance to be more relevant and effective in building a better world for our common sustainable future.

Certainly without its dynamic reform, the 15-member UN Security Council, whose permanent members with powerful veto power are still limited to the 5 victors of the World War II - the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Federation and China, who are also nuclear weapon states - would not be able to encompass all the progress of the post-war world as well as enhancing the legitimacy of its decisions. Thus, Japan's new permanent membership to this body, once approved, together with other eligible countries, will signify not just the true departure from the historical baggage but its much anticipated update to reflect the reality of contemporary world.

1. Japan's transformative role in the transformation of the UN

The UN today needs transformation well beyond the Security Council reform, too. Japan can play a unique catalytic role in that process. Recalling the entire history of Japan's engagement with the UN, one will find a total role reversal from wartime enemy to indispensable member of this world body. Indeed over the past 75 years, spanning from Showa to Heisei to current Reiwa eras, Japan also has transformed itself to a leading advanced democratic and industrial power, playing highly responsible roles in the UN.

On the diplomatic front, the Abe Administration has put forward the policy of "Proactive Contribution to Peace" based on the principles of international cooperation and pursued to ensuring the peace, stability and prosperity of the international community. In this regard, today's UN proves to be an important policy instrument for Japan as it advances its national interests as well as multilateral initiatives for global issues ranging from peace and security (North Korea, UN PKOs <Peacekeeping Operations> and Peacebuilding, disarmament and non-proliferation to list just a few) to development (SDGs <Sustainable Development Goals>, UHC <Universal Health Coverage>, DRR <Disaster Risk Reduction> and environment, particularly climate action, for example) and human rights and humanitarian affairs. Japan has actively engaged in the UN reform process, so as it becomes more efficient, effective and fit for purpose within available resources. Tokyo therefore is fully engaged in supporting the UN Secretary-General's initiative of management and sustainable development system reforms in highly constructive and balanced manners.

2. The UN's Four Governance Models and Japan

As it enters the third decade of the new millennium and Japan enters the Reiwa era, the world is faced with the chain of mutually intertwined challenges: Protracted conflicts across and within borders, terrorism and violent extremism, devastating environmental and natural disasters, which are growingly exacerbated by climate change, economic inequalities, migration, and global health, to list the least. Nothing is more apparent than that, in this globalized world, a crisis in a remote corner of the world can spread across the globe much faster and deadlier that we imagine, just as evident in the ongoing pandemic of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Gender equality and women's empowerment still need to be highlighted while making determined efforts to tackling sexual and gender based violence cases. The rapid game-changing progress in science, technology and innovation should be properly managed so as to avoid any negative repercussions.

Under these circumstances, we will realize that "collective security" today would no longer be confined to national political and defense perspective alone but encapsulate the measures to protect and empower people on the ground from social, economic and environmental challenges as well as taking actions against global and trans-border security agenda. In this comprehensive way, every nation can ensure its pathway to achieve SDGs by combining national efforts and international partnership and by bring both public and private stakeholders together. Then how do we proceed? This is the test we face today. And for the UN to be relevant and effective enough to provide a much needed catalytic role, it requires yet another, the fourth, transformation of its governance model. The model I propose to introduce here is "comprehensive collective security" - and I believe that Japan is rightly positioned to help promote the UN to perform its expected role.

Before jumping to the blueprint of the comprehensive collective security model, however, let us quickly review the previous three reincarnations of the United Nations: mechanisms for collective self-defense, collective (national) security and collective (human) security. The UN, as today's most universal inter-governmental organization, has already incorporated these functions in its mandates over the years as it expands its scope of activities. And the process was intrinsically linked to the Japan's history in Showa and Heisei eras.

The first governance model of the UN is collective self-defense. While it is often overlooked, the UN was originally formed as an alliance during World War II broght together by the "Declaration by United Nations" of January 1942. The "United Nations" here meant two things: One was to join forces to "complete victory" over Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis and the other was to unite against "mak(ing) a separate armistice or peace with the enemies." Then-Showa Imperial Japan was clearly an enemy to the UN. This right of self-defense, both individual and collective, was subsequently enshrined in Article 51 of the current UN Charter.

The UN's second governance model is collective (national) security. It was embodied in the vision of President Franklin Roosevelt, turning the war-time alliance into a general international organization to maintain post-war world order. This world body succeeded the name "The United Nations." And the heart of its mandate was to "maintain international peace and security" and "to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace." No wonder that Showa Imperial Japan, which announced its surrender after the UN Charter was signed in June 1945, was initially slated as one of the "enemy" states who were suspected to pose threats to the international community.

This is a classic ramification of collective security among sovereign nations in international community, in theory at least, to deem an aggression to one country the concern of all. The international community is to join in a collective response in the event when threats to, and breaches of, peace were posed by aggressor(s). Here, the Security Council was tasked to decide on actions including coercive military, as well as non-military, measures to countries to maintain or restore international peace and security. This procedure was incorporated in the UN Charter in its Chapter VII. And the UN-authorized coalition against the first post-Cold War crisis of Iraqi invasion to Kuwait - the Gulf War of 1991 - was one such case in point.

In fact, the end of Cold War coincides with the start of Heisei Japan in 1989. And Japan's renewed spirit was clearly articulated by then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. In his historic speech in London in May 1988, he proclaimed a new foreign policy of "Japan contributing to the world," which had three elements: namely, furthering cooperation for international peace, strengthening international cultural exchange, and the expansion and deepening of official development assistance (ODA). It was a precursor for subsequent adoption, though after a traumatic experience of international criticism of "too little, too late" in spite of its massive financial contribution of $13 billion to the multinational force in the Gulf, of the International Peace Cooperation Act of 1992. It has opened the avenue for over 12,000 Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) members to contribute to 14 peacekeeping and humanitarian support operations to date in such places like Cambodia, Timor Leste, Haiti and South Sudan.

Then came the third model in the 1990s which captured a paradigm shift in the UN, starting to focus more directly on human dimension through collective actions - what I call the "collective (human) security" model - to safeguard the lives of people and communities in complex conflict, humanitarian and developmental challenges. There are two trends here: One is an approach, by employing the doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect (R2P)," to protect populations from the following four extremely atrocious situations: namely, genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The other is a variety of peace-development-humanitarian nexus projects based on the concept of human security, which is defined in the UN context as "an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people" (UNGA Resolution A/RES/66/290). Heisei Japan has been a main proponent of the latter by establishing the UN Trust Fund for Human Security in 1999 and supporting its mandated roles ever since to protect and empower people, including women and youth, who are in vulnerable economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political situations.

3. Japan and the UN in Reiwa Era - Catalyzing a Comprehensive Collective Security for Our Common Future

It was Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who rightly analyzed that "(H)uman security, national security and global security are indivisible," in his speech in Geneva in May 2018. Indeed, the world today needs a governance model to make this indivisibility of security a reality. The proposed "comprehensive collective security" model is intended to achieve exactly this indivisibility of security interests of people, nations, and the planet by consolidating the available tools of the UN.

Random mix of tools and expertise and resources, however, do not work. A comprehensive collective security perspective should be introduced to better address the issues comprehensively in three dimensions: One is to identify the local context by examining the inter-linkages among affected populations, relevant state actors, and the global/trans-border environments involved with evidence, two is to define "security" beyond the traditional political-military sense and to incorporate specific socio-economic-environmental lenses, and three is to form a "coalition" of collectively gathered actors, local and international combined, including UN organs with expertise, bilateral donors, and other relevant actors, both public and private. Civil society and business are important. By so doing, we can design the set of specific projects to comprehensively improve the security of a group of people or community, governments, and the planet under vulnerable situations, raise and allocate the necessary resources, and collaborate among a like-minded "coalition" to provide the solution to the issues at stake.

The set of global consensus we reached in 2015 under the UN auspices are the key foundation of our policy planning to build on: Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate action, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, among others.

The High-level Segment of the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019, or Reiwa 1, was exceptionally rich in agenda to discuss issues of high profile that ranged from SDGs, Climate Actions, and Universal Health Coverage to Financing for Development on top of annual General Debates by heads of states and governments. Taking a podium at the SDGs Summit, Prime Minister Abe stated, by laying out his recent leadership roles: "Japan will contribute to nation-building and human resources development all over the world, founded on the philosophy of human security to realize a society where no one is left behind, which is what the SDGs stand for. With this strong resolve at heart, at G20 Osaka Summit and TICAD7 which were held in Japan this year, as the chair presiding over the meetings, I led the debate to address issues such as environment, education, health, quality infrastructure investment, science technology innovation." This remark exemplified Japan's willingness and capabilities to exert leadership and partnership roles that the world of today anticipates.

In Reiwa era, it is my expectation that Japan will lead a constructive and creative role, when appropriate, in designing and implementing "comprehensive collective security" initiatives to improve specific cases on the ground in the way we can collectively save and empower people, promote national SDGs implementation plan and improve transborder environmental challenges through national ownership and international partnership. And Japan's role would be more impactful as it becomes the new permanent member of the UN Security Council at the earliest possible timing.