Address by Dr. Aaron Rhodes, an expert and authority on human rights, at an information meeting on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Japan at the 42nd Session of the UPR Working Group at the UN Office in Geneva (Palais des Nations), Switzerland 31st January 2023.
Over ten years ago, while taking part in a human rights conference in Tokyo, I had an opportunity to hear directly from members of the Unification Church about how Japanese authorities were ignoring crimes committed against them.
Thorough and impartial investigations by my friend and colleague Mr. Willy Fautré and his associates provided an objective record of the violations of Japan’s international legal human rights obligations, which were presented in reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and other international bodies. And – I’m not as polite as Dr. Figel – I will tell you that the reaction of the Japanese authorities to these documents was basically denial, stonewalling, and dissembling, which means lying.
Nonetheless, these reports had a positive effect. And some of these problems have abated, thank God. As a human rights advocate, I try to concern myself about how the behavior of governments comports with universal standards that define how authorities should protect individual freedom within their jurisdictions. The reasons why local and international authorities violate their obligations is a complex matter of political culture and, with regard to the protection of freedom of religion, religious traditions.
But culture is no excuse for violating basic freedoms. We pay special attention to the freedom of religion, what we consider the first freedom.
But this area of human rights practice is paradoxically one frequently pushed to the sidelines of religious prejudice by religious prejudice itself. I recall vividly how colleagues in the human rights community once resisted defending persecuted members of a religious movement because, as they claimed, “They are crazy.”
We are here to speak now about a new and massive assault on religious freedom in Japan, again concerning the Unification Church, formally speaking the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. I want to use this opportunity to appeal to Japanese leaders in both government and civil society to take positive steps to address obvious and deep-seated prejudice and intolerance, that threatens not only those who are associated with this movement, but members of other minorities.
The assassination of Prime Minister Abe was a terrible tragedy for Japan and for the community of nations committed to democracy, human rights and peace. It has shocked especially all Japanese people who reject violence and seek harmonious relations at home and abroad. Japan stands out among members of the United Nations for its positive contributions to the liberal international order and its generally responsible adherence to human rights principles.
Yet all liberal democracies have their dark spots when it comes to human rights. There is no question that the ugly wave of prejudice against the Unification Church, and discriminatory official actions against that church, constitute such a dark spot. Abe’s assassin blamed him for his cooperation with the Universal Peace Federation, a non-governmental organization established within the framework of the Unification Church.
As Dr. Massimo Introvigne found, in the aftermath of the assassination, the Unification Church has been widely held responsible for it, overshadowing the perpetrator’s personal responsibility. According to Introvigne, a twisted argument was used, and I’m quoting one of his publications now,
“A twisted argument was used that if the assassin’s mother had not donated huge sums to the Unification Church, her son would not have held a grudge against Abe and would not have killed him. A national campaign followed, where the assassin was almost forgotten, and the media and governmental campaigns targeted the Unification Church, culminating in an official investigation that may result in a legal action by the government aimed at legally dissolving the religious organization.”
Blaming and scapegoating and persecuting the Unification Church for Abe’s murder is an example of how religious intolerance can have violent and tragic consequences, and be twisted in public narratives to generate a mob mentality, and even more intolerance.
It is deeply regrettable that Japanese authorities, rather than defending religious freedom, have appeased popular bigotry and propaganda generated by the Communist Party and quasi-legal efforts aimed at delegitimizing the Unification Church, making it impossible to function, and indeed ending its very existence in Japan. They have set up a biased, official so-called expert committee under the influence of a network of activists, whose overt objective is to
“persuade the government to dissolve the church, to restrict its ability to raise donations, and to pass legislation rendering church parents guilty of child abuse for raising their children in the church’s faith.” – According to a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee by the Freedom of Conscience NGO which has sponsored this briefing.
It is clear that these actions violate the principle of non-discrimination, as well as religious freedom standards in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. What is even more alarming, are numerous threats against the physical safety and physical attacks against members of the Unification Church. I am personally skeptical of anti-hate speech legislation, generally speaking, that restricts speech about controversial subjects.
The antidote to hate speech is more speech and moral education in civil society. But it is common sense that clear incitement to violence must be criminalized. It is the hate speech that leads to actual hate crimes. It is intolerable that members of a peaceful and legal religious community are in Japan routinely threatened with expulsion, death and violence. My human rights colleagues have found that death threats were received by Unification Church branches in Aichi, Hokkaido and Osaka. In Nara, threats to kill pastors, reported to the police, led to the precautionary closure of a local church. They have documented physical attacks on members of the church.
And I’m just wondering, having listened to portions of the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) examination of Japan, it appears that most of the participating states have not been paying attention, and have ignored these recent events. Where are Japan’s partners in the international community on this issue? I don’t understand this.
Well, I do understand it, in fact. And the reason is that it’s political and economic interests. Japan is a donor country. And nobody wants to irritate donor countries. Japan is a partner in many important international projects, institutions, etc. Its partners are very loathe to criticize Japan, to interrupt their cooperation with Japan, but this leaves us with a dilemma: Are donor countries not to be criticized for their human rights violations? Because this violates the principle of the rule of law.
Can countries buy impunity for their negligence of human rights? They can. In fact, if these things had been happening in a small, weak country like Moldova, you can be sure that members of the international community would be piling on with criticisms and holding up international aid until the human rights violations were stopped.
This incident reveals something very serious going on with respect to how international institutions fail to protect human rights. I also wonder where the big human rights groups are on this question. They’re not here.
For the same reason, they need Japan. They need, they want to operate within the framework supported by Japan. They don’t want to interrupt their relationship with Japanese authorities by raising this point. That’s all I can figure out, and I think it’s rather hypocritical.
It is disconcerting and painful that these acts are met with impunity in a member state of the United Nations renowned for its democratic culture, humanistic values and positive international contributions to peace and welfare. While bringing this to the attention of international bodies, we also implore Japanese leaders to have the courage to be fair. And to take positive steps to address religious intolerance. And we are ready to help.
Thank you very much.
Featured image above: Dr. Aaron Rhodes at the UN Office in Geneva 31st Jan. 2023. Photo: Screenshot from live transmission.
Dr. Aaron Rhodes is a former executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHFHR). He was a co-founder of The Freedom Rights Project, a human rights research initiative and think tank, which documents and analyzes trends, including the inflation, dilution and politicization of human rights in international law. In 2019, he assumed the position of human rights editor of a dissident magazine, a project of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was formerly associated with the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which he led for 14 years between 1993 and 2007. In 2008, he and colleagues established the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Since 2014, Dr. Rhodes is president of FOREF Europe, Forum for Religious Freedom Europe, an independent Vienna based human rights group with special focus on religious freedom advocacy. He recently published “The Debasement of Human Rights – How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom” Encounter Books, 2018.