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Politics

China sanctions inspire push for Japan's own Magnitsky Act

Lawmakers cross party lines to align country with rest of G-7 on human rights law

Japan's parliament building in Tokyo: The country lacks a clear legal basis for sanctioning foreign officials over human rights.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese lawmakers will launch a cross-party alliance to craft legislation to enable sanctions over human rights abuses, pushing Tokyo to follow the lead of the U.S. and Europe in punishing China for its alleged mistreatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

The group -- co-led by former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Shiori Yamao of the opposition Democratic Party for the People -- aims to submit legislation to this end during the current session of parliament.

The initiative comes during a week in which the U.S., Canada and the U.K. joined the European Union in imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Chinese officials over Xinjiang, leaving Japan as the only Group of Seven member not to follow suit.

"The Japanese government has expressed alarm and concern" over the situation in Xinjiang, but "it needs to take action," Nakatani said at a meeting Wednesday to prepare for an official proposal as early as next month.

Japan is the only G-7 country that lacks an explicit legal basis for human rights sanctions along the lines of the U.S. Magnitsky Act.

Gen Nakatani, a former Former Defense Minister and member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, far right, and Shiori Yamao of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, second from right, will co-lead a group of Japanese lawmakers to recommend human-rights-related legislation. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

The effort to fill this gap includes lawmakers from nearly all parties in the lower house, including the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party, Japan's largest opposition group, and the conservative opposition Japan Innovation Party.

The only party not represented is Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner. "We need to think carefully about whether to impose sanctions," Yuzuru Takeuchi, chair of Komeito's Policy Research Council, told reporters Wednesday.

Laws providing for sanctions on foreign officials accused of involvement in human rights violations are sometimes called Magnitsky legislation after the landmark U.S. legislation. The U.S. passed its first Magnitsky Act in 2012 targeting Russia in response to the case of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison after investigating government corruption.

Washington invoked a broader version passed in 2016, known as the Global Magnitsky Act, to impose sanctions Monday on senior officials in Xinjiang in connection with alleged human rights abuses there. The European Union, the U.K. and Canada took similar steps that day using legal frameworks based on the American model. The EU acted under a new human rights sanctions regime adopted in December.

Calls for bolder action by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government are coming from within the political establishment. A project team on human rights within the LDP will discuss sanctions-related legislation, examining the Uyghur issue specifically and looking to issue recommendations before the G-7 summit in June.

Japan can use current legislation to freeze assets or restrict travel for foreign officials, but these measures include no provisions related to human rights. Past steps such as a 2011 freeze on the personal assets of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have largely been based on United Nations Security Council resolutions. Japan has rarely stepped outside those bounds in cases involving human rights.

Tokyo went beyond Security Council resolutions with its sanctions on South Africa in the 1960s over the apartheid regime, citing a provision in Japan's Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act allowing for such measures to maintain "peace and security."

But Japan has less scope to act in cases that are not as clear-cut as apartheid.

Legal factors aside, Japan is reluctant to clash directly with China, its largest trading partner. Some in Tokyo also question whether there is enough reliable information on Xinjiang to serve as a basis for sanctions.

For now the government appears content to wait for lawmakers' discussions to play out. "Constant analysis and consideration is needed from various perspectives," including past Japanese diplomacy and international developments, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Wednesday.

In the past, Tokyo has generally urged voluntary improvement on human rights through bilateral diplomacy. There is concern within the government that a legal framework for sanctions would constrain the government's flexibility.

Washington began imposing economic sanctions including asset freezes last year on senior Chinese Communist Party officials suspected of involvement in human rights violations in Xinjiang. China's treatment of the Uyghurs was designated as "genocide" shortly before then-President Donald Trump left office, and current President Joe Biden's administration has indicated it will stand by this move.

After the BBC in early February reported on systematic rape and torture at Uyghur "reeducation camps" based on victim accounts, the BBC World News was barred from broadcasting in China, stoking European antipathy toward Beijing.

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