The Cable

Japan Just Passed a ‘Brutal,’ ‘Defective’ Anti-Terror Law

It’s the latest country accused of sacrificing civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JUNE 15:  People protest outside the National Diet on June 15, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. Japan's controversial anti-conspiracy bill, to crack down on people planning terrorism and other organised crimes, is under debate in the upper house while there are concerns that it threatens civil rights.  Prime Minister Abe's LDP and its allies have a two-thirds majority in both the upper house, and the lower house, where the bill was passed in late May.  (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JUNE 15: People protest outside the National Diet on June 15, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. Japan's controversial anti-conspiracy bill, to crack down on people planning terrorism and other organised crimes, is under debate in the upper house while there are concerns that it threatens civil rights. Prime Minister Abe's LDP and its allies have a two-thirds majority in both the upper house, and the lower house, where the bill was passed in late May. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the specter of terrorism has driven democracies from the United States to France to Britain to pass laws expanding government surveillance, detention, and other powers. Now, after three failed attempts, Japanese lawmakers have heeded those same instincts — while civil liberties advocates and opposition leaders cry foul.

Thousands protested in Tokyo on Thursday as lawmakers used a rare bypass mechanism to force an anti-terror bill through parliament. The new law lists hundreds of actions considered criminal, such as plotting and conspiracy. But some of the actions on the list don’t seem related to terrorism, according to the Guardian, including certain kinds of public protest.

The bill’s supporters offer a panoply of justifications. The measures, they say, are intended to target organized crime, fulfill Japan’s obligation to ratify a 2000 U.N. agreement, and are needed to secure the 2020 Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo.

“It’s only three years until the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after the law’s passage. “So I’d like to ratify the treaty on organized crime as soon as possible so we can firmly cooperate with international society to prevent terrorism.”

But resistance has been strong. Opposition leader Renho Murata decried the law as “brutal.” Some fear it could lead to widespread wire-tapping and other surveillance.

“There will be more self-censorship in a country where there is already not a very vibrant civil society,” Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told the New York Times in May.

The law has garnered international criticism as well. It could result in “undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” warned Joseph Cannataci, U.N. special rapporteur for the right to privacy, in a May letter to Abe. Cannataci also deemed it “defective legislation.”

Nikos Passas, a Boston-based criminology professor who helped draft the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime — the treaty Abe claims the law is intended to ratify — told the Japan Times in a June 13 interview that the convention did not require tighter laws to fight terrorism. In fact, said Passas, the treaty was meant to “exclude ideologically motivated crime.”

This isn’t the first sign of shrinking speech freedoms in the East Asian democracy. David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, issued a report on Tuesday warning that open public debate and press freedom had deteriorated in the country. Kaye cited self-censorship in the media and the lack of discussion of Japan’s wartime atrocities in history textbooks.

Since 2010, Abe has expanded the mission of Japan’s traditionally defensive military forces. He has also sought, thus far unsuccessfully, to revise the country’s pacifist constitution.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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