The latest issue to divide the party’s ranks is the Protection of Human Rights bill. The bill, originally submitted to the Diet in 2002 before being rejected in 2003, was equally divisive then — and the current debate seems to be occurring along the same lines.
The earlier bill called for a system for investigating cases of human rights violations, especially cases of discrimination, and punishing perpetrators, embodied in a Human Rights Commission, which would be an external bureau under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry. The Human Rights Commission would oversee a network of Human Rights Protection Commissions at the city, town, and village level. The commission, upon receiving complaints, would investigate and recommend appropriate measures, legal or otherwise. Controversially, Articles 42 and 43 of the bill contained “special relief procedures” that included provisions restricting what the press could publish about an individual’s private life, leading the media to oppose the bill, seeing it as a potential threat to the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression.
The bill now under consideration is a resurrected version of the earlier rejected bill, although Hatoyama Kunio, the justice minister, claims that the government “wants to begin again from a blank paper.”
Many of the critics of the bill — the so-called “cautious” faction — are conservative ideologues. According to the Hokkaido Shimbun, Nakagawa Shoichi, with the backing of Hiranuma Takeo (who was one of the leading “cautionaries” in the original battle), is at the vanguard of the opposition in the LDP’s investigatory committee on human rights problems. Their objections are (mostly) reasonable: (1) The definition of “human rights violation” is vague; (2) the commission itself could lead to the misuse of government power, as it can issues summons and conduct investigations without court-issued warrants; (3) there is no provision banning foreigners from participating in the local Human Rights Protection Commissions.
The Mainichi Shimbun has also voiced its opposition in an editorial, pointing once again to potential restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of the press. The editorial concludes:
Why is it important for this bill to be passed? From now on we wish for the debate to return to this starting point. Above all else, it is essential that maximum priority be given to the question of how to relieve human rights violations by public authorities.
According to the Justice Ministry, in a 2006 investigation by regional legal affairs bureaus of human rights violations, among 21,000 cases, only nine were related to the press, while 2,289 cases were related to civil servants, indicating just how many human rights violations were committed by public authorities. However, excluding the pursuit of a quite small number of criminal cases, concerned people should recognize that in the status quo, no relief whatsoever is provided.
The concerns voiced by both LDP backbenchers and Mainichi are valid. This bill strikes me as a blatant attempt to curry favor with the public, to show the people that the government is doing something, even if that something is done shoddily. Citizens do need protection from human rights abuses by ostensibly “public” servants. They do need recourse to the law. But is it worth it to trample on civil liberties to protect “human rights”? The vagueness of the bill and the wide-reaching powers the commission would wield are worth questioning.
The dispute within the LDP appears to be between pragmatists — the party elders, concerned with holding power — and the idealists. I don’t know how sincere Mr. Nakagawa and his comrades in their opposition to this bill. Frankly, their concerns about “foreigners” (i.e., North Koreans) serving on local commissions strike me as overblown. There is also apparently an abductions angle to this dispute, as Sakurai Yoshiko, Nishio Kanji, and other conservatives have opposed this measure because it will somehow obstruct resolution of the abductions issue.
Whatever their reasons, they’re not alone in opposing this measure, which is also opposed by the media and the Japanese left (or what’s left of it). The DPJ also submitted its own version of a human rights bill that sought to emphasize the independence of the commissions from the Justice Ministry and correct the perceived threat to the freedom of the press.
This is one instance in which I cannot agree with the LDP’s pragmatists. The unintended consequences of this bill are fairly clear. No matter how good the intentions of this bill’s proponents, they must reconsider their approach to this issue.