Observations from a Seasoned UN Diplomat (March 30, 2005)
Trends in Japan: We'd like to ask you first about your United Nations career as a whole. In 1957 you became the first Japanese citizen to join the UN Secretariat, and you've been with the organization for decades since then.
Akashi Yasushi: I was in the UN Secretariat for thirty-five years, with eighteen of those years spent as Under-Secretary-General. I also worked in the Japanese mission to the United Nations for five years. I'm not sure whether this can be considered an impressive resume; my abilities were somewhat limited, and I think I may have ended up being good only for the United Nations, and for nothing else!
Trends: During your time with the organization, what sort of change did you see there?
Akashi: During the Cold War period, the UN was always overshadowed by the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. This often led to paralysis in the organization. Even during this time, though, the UN was able to accomplish a number of things, making steady progress in decolonization, bridging the North-South divide, and human rights promotion. The General Assembly was still able to make decisions with a two-thirds majority, as it did in 1956 during the Suez crisis.
After the end of the Cold War the UN was revived, and it became quite active in the resolution of international conflicts. I was the head of peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, which were very successful in putting an end to twenty years of conflict there. The UN was instrumental in helping bring the situation under control, and Cambodia today is increasingly democratic as a result.
We were faced with more difficult situations in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Rwanda, where a host of complex ethnic problems confronted us. Classical peacekeeping wasn't effective in coping with these violent internal conflicts.
Now the UN seeks a variety of means to resolve conflicts. Traditional peacekeeping operations can be useful, but sometimes we have to call upon more muscular multinational coalitions to do the job. The UN also does a lot of things for social development, for the eradication of diseases, to cope with the emergence of terrorism, and so on. So we are really expanding into new areas to cope with new threats and challenges.
Trends: Does this mean that the UN is moving away from military means and toward these newer methods of tackling problems?
Akashi: The UN is not moving away from military activities. Since 2000 the UN has launched more peacekeeping operations in Africa than ever before. More than fifty percent of the PKO activities are now carried out there. This is difficult, dangerous work. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, recent clashes have led to the deaths of over fifty local militia members and nine UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh.
In May this year the UN will review the NPT - the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This will be a difficult task; we will have to face both the successes and the disappointments in the UN record in the area of nonproliferation. This is another serious matter of concern to all of humanity.
Trends: As you say, the 1990s were a time of difficulty, with the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Did the UN learn from these experiences? Is it doing better now?
Akashi: I think so. A report compiled in 2000 under Lakdar Brahimi was a serious study of the shortcomings and strengths of UN PKO. This kind of serious reappraisal of UN operations is extremely useful in pointing out what the organization can and cannot do.
We need to make full use of the great potential of the United Nations. At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the unwillingness of major powers to dedicate resources to the body.
Trends: In that connection, how do you feel about the events of the past few years: the split between the United States and Europe over the role of the United Nations, especially in relation to Iraq. Is this a setback for the UN?
Akashi: I think the cleavage between Europe and America is unfortunate. President George Bush's recent visit to Europe has helped to bridge some of those gaps, though. The European Union is likely to assert itself more and more from now on, and this has been clear in the case of Iraq. In Afghanistan, though, America and Europe, the NATO forces, are working hand in hand.
It's too much to expect Europe and America to agree on all matters. But when it comes to the Middle East - Syria, and particularly the Israel-Palestine issue - the rapprochement between the United States and Europe is quite encouraging.
Getting back to the United States and United Nations, the relationship has always been difficult. It has been a curious mix of love and hate. But on the whole, Americans see more merits than demerits in working through international organizations, and the government has made good use of the UN in the Korean War, the Gulf War, and so on. The US and the UN are not at loggerheads on essential matters - indeed, the UN is fundamentally the creation of the United States.
Trends: What are your thoughts on Japan's relationship with the United Nations, and particularly at its recent efforts to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council?
Akashi: I am in favor of Japan becoming a permanent member of the UNSC. In this position the nation will be able to make far-reaching contributions, playing a constructive role in maintaining international peace and security and working on other issues like human welfare, development, and preservation of the global environment. Japan has to play a major role in international affairs. It would be a loss for the UN if Japan were to be alienated from major UN activities. Many Japanese people feel that despite their country's contributions to the organization, they are deprived of a voice in it. This is not good.
The Security Council is the most prominent organ in the UN, and I hope medium-sized and smaller states will play a larger role in it, as well as in other UN organs. But significant powers like Japan and India are fully qualified to be permanent members and to take on key responsibilities in the UNSC.
Trends: Last autumn Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi addressed the UN and gained mutual support from a group of nations for Japan's bid for a permanent seat.
Akashi: This was a very positive development. The group of four major and emerging powers - Japan, India, Germany, and Brazil - are joining forces to seek UNSC reform, and they should become permanent members of the council. This will of course alienate some other nations, but the contributions that these four powers can make, along with other African powers that are joining this campaign, are most significant.
I hope that countries like the United States and China, which have not been explicit in their support for this expansion plan, will give deep thought to the merits of having these nations in a revitalized Security Council.
Trends: Japan has been playing a considerable role on the international stage through its peacekeeping operations and its Official Development Assistance. Will Japan continue to work through both of these policy channels?
Akashi: I believe so. Japan will continue to be active, expanding its PKO and other peacebuilding efforts. If you look at what we've been doing in Afghanistan, in East Timor, and in Sri Lanka, you can see that the nation is active not only in traditional development areas but in using its ODA for the consolidation of peace. I think these efforts are appreciated.
The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have been active in Cambodia, East Timor, Mozambique, the Golan Heights, and elsewhere. I hope to see Japan become more active in this respect, especially in Africa, where more than half of the UN peacekeeping activities take place. I would like to see not just SDF members but Japanese police officers and civilians taking part in these activities. These operations have become multidimensional ones requiring the help of law enforcement officers, administrators - all kinds of people. We need also to place more emphasis on the training of young Japanese in these spheres.
NGOs have a large role to play in these civilian activities. In Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Japanese groups have been providing medical assistance and social services. They are working with other local and international NGOs, as well as UN agencies. Many of these groups are small and inexperienced, though. I consider it an urgent task to train more young people to take part in these important activities.
Trends: What are your thoughts on the number of Japanese working in the United Nations?
Akashi: It's encouraging to see more and more Japanese working at the UN. But we have not reached a desirable level of Japanese staffing there. There's a lack of qualified people to fill UN posts, despite this recent growth there; many Japanese leave posts there even as new ones arrive at the organization, and the total number isn't changing that much.
More Japanese women than men are joining the UN. I welcome this great interest among Japanese women in the organization, of course, but I'd like to see more Japanese men join as well. I hope we can maintain a proper balance in this ratio.
Trends: You're now serving as the representative of the Japanese government for peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka. Has your work there been made more difficult by the recent tsunami disaster?
Akashi: No. In fact, although the tsunami was a calamity for everyone there, we saw heartwarming examples of cooperations between different ethnic groups in its wake. It was a unique opportunity for people to learn how to work together against a common challenge. We need to capitalize on the possibilities that the disaster opened up for us in this way.
We've been working to cement the new friendships that have formed in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. In cooperation with the United States, Norway, and the EU, we're trying to encourage the parties to the Sri Lankan internal conflict to improve the situation there. Although deep distrust remains, there are encouraging signs. We'll keep working on it.
Representative of the Government of Japan. Graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1954 and studied at the University of Virginia and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Joined the United Nations Secretariat in 1957. Served as ambassador at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations and as UN Under-Secretary-General. After leaving the United Nations, he led the Hiroshima Peace Institute and the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention. Now active as a lecturer and commentator and as Japan's representative for Sri Lankan reconstruction.
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