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Intervention of Dr. Aaron Rhodes, former executive director of the International Helsinki Federation

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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 Mr. Willy Fautré and his associates provided an objective record of the violation of Japan’s international legal human rights obligations, which were presented in reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and other international bodies.

The reaction of the Japanese authorities to these reports was generally one of denial, stonewalling, and dissembling.

As a human rights advocate, I try to concern myself with 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 national authorities violate their obligations is a complex matter of political culture and, with regard to protecting the 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 by religious prejudice itself. I recall vividly how colleagues once resisted defending persecuted members of a religious movement because, as they claimed, “They are crazy.”

We are here to speak about a new, and massive assault on religious freedom in Japan, again concerning the Unification Church, formally speaking the Family Federation for World Peace. 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, and 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 the Church, constitute such a dark spot.

Abe’s assassin blamed him for his cooperation with the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), a nongovernmental 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, that if the assassin’s mother had not donated huge sums to the Unification Church, her son would not have had a grudge against Abe and would not have killed him. A national campaign followed, where the assassin was almost forgotten and 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 – 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 the Japanese authorities, rather than defending religious freedom, have appeased popular bigotry and propaganda generated by the Communist Party with 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 “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. It is clear that these actions violate the principle of nondiscrimination, and well as religious freedom standards in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

What is even more alarming are the numerous threats against the physical safety, and physical attacks against members of the Unification Church.

I am skeptical of anti-hate speech legislation 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 the pastors reported to the police led to the precautionary closure of the local church.” They have documented physical attacks on members of the Church.

Based on what has happened at the Universal Periodical Review, and since this episode began, it seems the Japanese authorities and media have not been held to account. Why have not Japan’s friends and partners raised concerns? Why have not major human rights organizations raised concerns? I am not sure, but I imagine it is because Japan is a partner and donor country. Can rich countries purchase impunity for their human rights violations? If these things had happened in a small, weak country, the international community would have loudly complained. A central principle of the Rule of Law, and of liberalism, is that standards need to be applied evenly and without prejudice.

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 take positive steps to address religious intolerance. We are ready to help.

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