Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

During most of his twelve years in office, Mohamed ElBaradei, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was a thorn in the side of President George W. Bush and others in his administration cleaving to a hard line on Iraq and Iran.

Relations sank after ElBaradei publicly questioned Washington’s rationale for going to war with Iraq and they never recovered. He openly criticized U.S. hints that it might go to war with Iran over its uranium enrichment program and deplored Washington’s withholding of information on the suspected Syrian nuclear site until after the Israelis bomb it.

During his three terms as director, the Nobel Laureate ElBaradei turned what was once an obscure UN agency dealing with technical issues relating to non-proliferation and himself into a major international figure playing a role in investigating Iraq and Iran and issuing findings often conflicted with Washington’s own assessments or desires.

In 2005 the U.S. tried unsuccessfully to block ElBaradei’s re-election, but now that he is retiring, it has a far better chance of finding a more amenable director when the 35-member IAEA board of governors meets later this week to choose ElBaradei’s successor. His term ends in November, and he is not seeking a fourth.

The change in leadership comes at a pivotal time in US- Iranian relations After three decades of tension and disputes, the new administration of President Barack Obama is sending clear signals that it is ready to begin “a new day” to end the decades old animosity.

The two candidates are a study in contrasts. Japan has nominated Yukiya Amano, 62, a career civil servant in Japan’s foreign service and well-known among international disarmament and nuclear proliferation experts. The other candidate is South Africa’s Abdul Samad Minty. Both are their respective country’s ambassadors to the IAEA.

Sources close the agency say the Americans are quietly backing Amano on the assumption would be “less political” than his out-spoken predecessor, meaning, presumably, more amenable to the views of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. South Africa’s Minty seems more cut from the Egyptian ElBaradei’s mold.

Minty, who like Amano is a veteran foreign ministry official and international civil servant, was a political activist in his country’s apartheid days and is said to be more in tune with the style and sympathies of the developing world. It is assumed that Minty would, like Elbaradei, be willing to play a more active role in mediating nuclear disputes, whereas Amano would be more of an administrator and a technocrat, not eager to involve the IAEA in the daily fray. Amano says, “I don’t see myself as a mediator.”

Both candidates have been nominated by their respective governments for the post and have been openly lobbying, ie campaigning, for the position in advance of a closed-door vote by the 35-member executive board of governors on March 26-27. The decision will be announced in June and ratified in September; ElBaradei’s term ends in November.

If neither candidate receives the required two-thirds majority, the board can open the polling for additional nominations. ElBaradei himself was a compromise candidate in 1997, when two other candidates failed to achieve the necessary vote tally. Amano is said to be ahead of Minty but possibly short of the required supermajority.

A graduate of Japan’s elite Tokyo University and even more elite law faculty, Amano joined the ministry of foreign affairs in 1972. In a long career as a diplomat, he came to specialize in international disarmament issues nuclear nonproliferation matters.

In addition to normal diplomatic postings, such as consul-general in Marseille, he has served as director of the foreign ministry’s Nuclear Energy Division in 1993, director general for Arms Control and Scientific Affairs in 2002 and director general for the Disarmament Nonproliferation and Science Department in 2004.
He has been involved in negotiations surrounding NPT, extension, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention verification protocol, among others. He serves as Japan’s representative on the board of governors. He chaired the board in 2005-2006

Following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1984 in Ukraine, Amano was instrumental in shutting down Unit 3 as the chairman of the then G-7 Nuclear Safety Group. Perhaps to win some more support from developing nations and burnish his technical credentials, he has also alludes to his work in helping to eradicate the Tsetse Fly on Zanzibar island and in Ethiopia.

Prime Minister Taro Aso announced Amano’s nomination while attending the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, and it is clear the Japanese government puts considerable store in his appointment. Japanese take UN appointments very seriously. Currently only two Japanese occupy top posts in the UN, including Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency.

Though not explicitly stated, certainly in the back of the minds of the governors in choosing Amano would be an anticipation of a significant increase in Tokyo’s contribution to the agency. The IAEA has been suffering from budget woes for several years and the difficulty to getting members to provide more, funds especially in difficult economic times.

Japan currently contributes about 19 per cent of the IAEA’s annual operating budget second only to the United States, which picks up about 25 per cent. The ratios are roughly the same as the two nations’ payments to the UN’s overall operating budget. President Obama’s pledged to double the U.S. contribution to the running of the agency to during his 2008 campaign.

Amano points to the fact that he comes from a country that experienced two atomic bombings, and pledged that he would be firm against the spread of nuclear weapons. His opponent, of course, can boast that he represents a country that actually disabled its own nuclear weapons stockpile.

Japan is solidly in the Western camp on such issues as Iran. The partnership of Amano-Obama would certainly be a marked departure the tense ElBaradei-Bush relationship. Amano has already told Reuters news agency that Iran should be treated with respect through fruitful dialogue
Meanwhile, President Obama made a direct overture in a videotaped address to Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz spring holiday. He urged Iran and the U.S. to discuss the issues that divide them with “mutual respect”, echoing words that Amano has used on the same subject. Sounds like the two men are on the same wave length.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In Megumi's Footsteps

It has been more than 30 years since Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old junior high school girl, was snatched by North Korean agents as she was walking home from school in the west coast Japanese city of Niigata and spirited away. Yet for many Japanese it might as well have happened yesterday.

Although most of the kidnappings occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Japanese are more obsessed with determining their true fate than ever before. It complicates Japan’s diplomacy and the six-party talks, of which Japan is apart, aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The abduction issue was very much in the news this week when Koichiro Iizuka, son of Yaeko Taguchi, kidnapped in 1977, flew to Pusan, South Korea, to meet with former North Korean agent Kim Hyon-hui. Now 47, Kim was convicted of the terror bombing of a Korean Airlines passenger jet in 1987, which killed 115 people.

Kim was apprehended along with co-conspirator sent to South Korea, convicted and sentenced to death, only to receive a pardon on the grounds that she had been, in effect, brain-washed into committing the act. Her connection to the kidnapping issue comes from her claim that the abductee Taguchi taught her Japanese in Pyongyang.

The Japanese believe that its citizens were snatched from Japan against their will in order to provide training in Japanese language and customs for secret agents. Pyongyang denies that Taguchi was Kim’s teacher, who taught under the name Lee Un-hae.

It should be noted that there is no dispute that these kidnappings occurred. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il admitted the abductions and apologized to former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, when he visited Pyongyang in 2002. Leader Kim said that 12 people were kidnapped.
Of these, five were returned to Japan; the other eight died. Case closed.

Japan says it has identified 17 of its citizens as being confirmed kidnap victims. Five were returned leaving 12 unaccounted for. All of them may still be living, Tokyo maintains, including Megumi and Ms. Taguchi (some would be in advanced age; Yutaka Kume, the first abduction victim, was 52 in 1977).

In 2004 North Korea handed over what it said were the cremated remains of Megumi Yokota, whom Pyongyang asserts committed suicide in 1994 at around the age of 30, but Tokyo says that the North literally cooked the evidence.

The remains, Japan alleges, were cremated at an unusually high temperature in the mistaken belief that it would make DNA identification difficult or impossible. Japanese technicians, however, did manage to make the DNA matchups and say the remains belonged to other people, not Megumi. The North stands by its claim.

To understand how the kidnappings, especially that of Megumi Yokota, are so important to Japanese, it helps to walk in her footsteps on that fateful night November 15, 1977. To do so, I joined Niigata Police Superintendent Shouzaburou Tamura at Yorii Junior High School who explained how Megumi had stayed after school hours with her badminton club. Around 6:30 p.m. she and a couple of her school chums left for home.

Tamura and I walked along the road up the hill past another school yard, houses and apartments. He showed me where Megumi’s friends peeled off one by one and how she continued walking up the hill alone until she came to a T intersection, where she would have turned left toward her home, almost in sight 100 meters or so away.

It was here, Tamura believes, that she was kidnapped. It is surmised that North Korean agents were returning from an unsuccessful mission (the Sea of Japan coastline is only about 300 meters further along the road). They spotted Megumi walking alone and fearing they had been recognized or worried about returning empty-handed, they snatched her. She tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One can’t help but be struck by the sheer ordinariness of the circumstances. Megumi was just a typical Japanese school girl, doing typical Japanese school girl activities with her friends living in a typical Japanese neighborhood .No wonder her plight tugs at the country’s heart.

Initially, the police pursued the usual suspicions – that she had run away, was kidnapped for ransom or sex, but soon all of the leads (such as they were) turned cold. It was as if she had “disappeared in a puff of smoke,” says her mother Sakie. It would be twenty years before the Yokotas suspected her true fate through information obtained by the debriefing North Korean defectors.

It is no exaggeration to say that resolution of the kidnappings has become the most important foreign policy issue for Japan and the main obstacle to normalization of relations with North Korea. The number of organizations pushing their cause is proliferating wildly.

The families of the abductees have become celebrities. The Yokotas appear on television, at press conferences and are interviewed for their opinions on politics, nuclear weapons and North Korea (the latter not complimentary). Many politicians, including Prime Minister Taro Aso himself, wear the little blue ribbon in their lapel to show solidarity, much as Americans used to wear bracelets with POW names.
But it is a tricky issue for the US, as former president George W. Bush discovered. Bush met in 2008 with the Yokotas at the White House, which the Japanese applauded. Then, as part of the nuclear negotiations, he took North Korea off the list of terror states, which infuriated many Japanese.

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton treaded cautiously when she visited Japan in late February on her first Asian tour. She met for 30 minutes with the Yokotas and other abductee families, listened sympathetically to their stories but made no commitments.

Washington would probably be happy to see the matter disappear. It is a distraction from the main task of disarming North Korea of its nuclear weapons in the six–party talks that may soon get underway with Washington’s new negotiator Stephen Bosworth.

However, it may be that the abduction issue is not as tangential to the main subject of the negotiations as one might think. As they say in television court room dramas, it goes to credibility. After all, establishing a protocol to verify the status of the North’s weapons is the nub of the exercise. If the North Koreans can cook the evidence of the cremated remains of Megumi Yokota, as Tokyo alleges, what else are they cooking up?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Can Christians Pray to Allah?

For most Christians it must be inconceivable that the word “Allah”, that is commonly associated with Islam, can be found in Christian Bibles, but a surprising number of Christians in Southeast Asia use Allah as a generic term for the Supreme Being when they pray.

The Bible in Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia), widely used in Malay-speaking countries, uses Allah for “God” as do the bibles widely printed and distributed in Malaysia. Both are Muslim majority countries, though Malaysia is barely so.

The use of Allah in the Bible is a legacy of translations stretching back nearly 400 years. The very first Malay translation of a portion of the Bible in 1612 – the first translation of God’s word into a non-European language – used the word Allah for God.

But the use of Allah by Christians has burgeoned into a serious issue of religious freedom in Malaysia, where the government has banned the use of the word in Christian publications and threatened to withdraw the publishing license for a Roman Catholic newspaper. The Home Ministry asserts that “Allah” is the preserve of Islam.

The tussle began more than a year ago, when the Malaysian government threatened to withdraw the publishing license for the Catholic Herald, which is the newspaper of the diocese of Kuala Lumpur. The paper, with a circulation of about 14,000, prints articles in English and several vernacular languages including Malaysian.

The government relented in February by allowing the Herald and presumably other Christian publications to use the word Allah so long as the publications are labeled “For Christians”, which can lead to the absurd situation of the imported Indonesian Bibles having the label “for Christians” on the cover. Who else are they for?

Then it turned around and re-imposed the ban, saying the earlier action had been a mistake. The Herald has taken the case to the High Court, claiming that the government’s actions violate Malaysia’s Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, and has said it will continue to press its case in the face of government and popular opposition..

The Herald got some welcome public support from a member of the governing coalition, when a minister in the prime minister’s office, Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, said “[Allah] is a universal terminology used in the Christian world when they are praying in their vernacular language. There is no reason to continue harassing the Catholic Herald.”

Mr. Dompok represents a small party from Sabah a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, which has a large population of Christians among its indigenous Dayak population among whom Christian evangelicals are active.

The issue in part reflects the increasing nervousness that government has toward Christian proselytizing in Malaysia. They see the use of the word Allah as a subtle way of spreading Christianity. The Catholic Herald, a newspaper which has circulates only among the country’s estimated 850,000 Catholics, says its publication is not a religious tract.

The Herald’s editor, Father Lawrence Andrew argues that Allah, as a common reference for God, predates Islam, and is, indeed, used in Bibles written in Arabic. The government’s ban on use of Allah also extends to other words from Arabic that now have Islamic implications, such as solat for prayer or kaaba for a Holy Place.

On the other hand, Muslims have some legitimate reasons for concern about Christian use of Allah. Christians may argue that Allah and God are one in the same. But how does one defend the phrase that appears in Indonesian Bibles, anak Allah or Son of God? That puts Allah in the triune tradition that is anathema the supreme oneness of Allah.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Malaysia have been rising in recent years, many of them concerning conversion controversies, complicated by the fact that Malaysia has two judicial systems, a federal, secular court system and a Shariah law court system.

Where is one to turn to if you are, say a Christian convert from Islam and believe that your rights are being trampled under Malaysia’s constitution? As a (former) Muslim your case may be shunted to a Shariah court, which would not even recognize your complaint.

The tensions are compounded by the insecurity that many Malaysian Muslims feel that they might be relegated to a minority in their own country. Of the country’s 27 million people, only about 60 per cent are Muslim Malays. The rest are Chinese, Indian or indigenous peoples, most of whom live in Sabah or Sarawak, Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.

The current government is weak, having suffered an historic defeat in the general election held a year ago, and faces increasing heat from an opposition coalition that includes the fundamentalist party Pas. The country is also entering the season of by-elections to parliament.

The use of Allah in Indonesian Bibles does not seem to have raised the same concerns there. It may be because Muslims, with nearly 80 percent of the population, feel more secure. Christians and Muslims have their conflicts, sometime very bloody ones, but usually the issues revolve around land and migration disputes, not theology.