May 22, 2024

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Japan Foreign Minister’s Three Tests In Mauritius Oil Spill Visit

Japan’s Foreign Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, arrives in Mauritius this weekend for the senior most visit by a Japanese official to the site of the Wakashio oil spill.

He faces several stern important questions that will test the ability of Japan to take a strong leadership position, as the standing of Japan has fallen in the public opinion of Mauritius and other island nations who have been closely monitoring Japan’s actions.

Amid ongoing controversy surrounding the clean up operations, widespread protests in Mauritius against a Government whose election is disputed, corruption scandals involving the subsidiary of one of Japan’s largest business and a broadening clampdown on the rights of environmental activists, this will be far from easy visit for Motegi, and a test of his and Japan’s international leadership.

Here are the three tests for his visit.

1. Democracy in Mauritius: a disputed election

The general election in Mauritius is still disputed amid strong evidence of electoral fraud. This is the first time such an event ever happened in the country, and is a reflection of the rise of authoritarian Governments around the world who have been able to use similar techniques to undermine electoral institutions.

The results of the election are currently subject to a judicial review (i.e., within a month of the November election, the evidence of fraud was passed to the law courts of Mauritius to review). Using a range of administrative tactics – including extraordinary laws under COVID-19 and the National Environmental Emergency powers from the Wakashio oil spill – this judicial review has now been extended by over a year.

In that time, several highly controversial decisions have been taken by the current Jugnauth Government.

These include the depletion of the Central Bank’s reserves (13% of the GDP of the country), the voluntary administration of Air Mauritius, a series of opaque public procurement contracts such as the one surrounding the controversial railway project in Mauritius and COVID-19 supplies, and the mishandling of the Wakashio oil spill.

EU calls for swift judicial hearing

The European Union Ambassador to Mauritius, Vincent Degert, said on November 13, that “The EU followed with attention the electoral process and the implementation of recommendations formulated by national and international observers, the UN and the Mauritian Electoral Commissioner.”

He went on to say, “In general, the EU agrees that it is important that the filed judicial cases are heard swiftly, for the sake of democratic legitimacy. It is therefore unfortunate that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted since March the courts’ ability to function adequately; this also resulted in an important backlog.”

The EU Ambassador also expressed a firm intent to ensure human rights and the rule of law are respected in Mauritius.

“I had the opportunity to discuss these matters a few weeks ago with the Chief Judge, who confirmed that it was a priority for the judiciary to address the judicial reviews. Indeed, you will have observed that cases are currently being judged and decisions rendered. Please rest assured of the EU remains fully committed to the principle of democracy promotion worldwide. EU cooperation with partner countries is guided by support for the consolidation of democracy, the rule of law and promotion of human rights in the framework of a regular and structured dialogue with institutional counterparts and civil society.”

UK observes that legal challenges to election ‘remain unresolved’

A spokesperson for the British High Commission said in response to questions from Forbes on November 13, “The elections took place last year on 7 November 2019 and that petitions were entered by various parties to challenge the results. Most of these challenges remain unresolved at the moment.”

In terms of the delays to the judicial process, which had been complicated by the Covid-19 lockdowns in March, the British High Commissioner spokesperson went on to say, “The fact that opposition candidates are able to enter petitions to challenge results is a very good sign that democratic institutions work in Mauritius, but it is not for us to provide a judgement on the length of time taken by the courts.”

Questions about Japan’s silence

With Japan having such a strong presence in Mauritius, including opening an Embassy in 2017, the silence from foreign ministry officials has been startling.

At the very least, it will be interesting to see whether Japan’s Foreign Minister urges the rapid acceleration of the cases in the judicial process so the cases of electoral fraud can be heard in Court.

It will also be important to see whether the Minister of Foreign Affairs meets with the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the civil society movements who led the protests against the Wakahsio oil spill that galvanized over 100,000 onto the streets.

When President Macron visited Beirut following the August 4 port explosion, he was confronted by mass uprising over years of corruption and poor management of public institutions including the port. Motegi finds himself in a similar situation with an unpopular Government clinging to power and calling for change and transparency. Macron learnt his lessons by meeting with all member of civil society and the opposition to understand the full situation taking place in the country.

The question is whether Japan can show a similar level of leadership.

This would demonstrate that Japan intends to meet with all democratic institutions in the country, and not just the elected officials it has become close to over the past two years.

2. Statement from Japan on Human Rights

The Wakashio oil spill has become an excuse for the Mauritian Government to clamp down on environmental activists. Many journalists, environmental activists, lawyers and politicians have had their personal rights infringed upon, as the Government has used a variety of police intimidation, threats of lawsuits and mass surveillance methods to attempt to disrupt the protestors.

This has all happened under the guise of a disputed election and the emergency powers afforded by the National Environmental Emergency triggered by the Japanese vessel, the Wakashio.

Japan is the second largest funder of the United Nations. If Japan truly expects to uphold the values of the United Nations, it must also take a stand for human rights.

This includes the freedom of the press, not using the police as a tool for harassment, ending the fear and intimidation of the population digitally and physically.

The usually peaceful, stable and democratic Mauritius has never gone through a period like this. The population have been calling for strong international oversight to ensure the rule of law is upheld.

With Japan’s large influence internationally and also within Mauritius recently, it will be important to showcase the sort of values Japan expects to see around the world.

3. Transparency from Japan about the Wakashio oil spill

The Wakashio oil spill has broken all trust with the citizens of Mauritius. Japanese companies have repeatedly changed their account of what occurred or have been caught making statements that do not fit the facts.

Japanese scientists were also found to have ignored the independent Mauritian scientists who have worked on oil spills, and who were deliberately been prevented from supporting their country with the Wakashio oil spill.

Will this be the moment that Japan’s Foreign Minister calls for transparency and orders a full investigation into the circumstances of the oil spill, including the conduct of all the Japanese entities involved both before the grounding, during the oil spill and with the cleanup.

Mauritians remain angry with the conduct of the various entities brought in by Japanese owners and insurers in a way to suppress local efforts. The Mauritian diaspora and environmental groups on the ground had built strong international partnerships for a full investigation, and yet these were deliberately undermined by the Japanese interests.

As a result, a highly controversial decision was taken to dump the front section of the Wakashio, potentially in breach of several international laws. This was not a unilateral decision by the Government of Mauritius, and full transparency is being demanded.

Here are some of the other outstanding questions that the Japanese shipowners, insurers or Japanese scientists have failed to answer:

  • How much oil was actually spilled into the lagoon (so far, Mauritians have been relying on estimates after no accurate details were disclosed since August 11)?
  • What was the composition of the oil and why has oil fingerprinting of the samples on board the Wakashio not been conducted yet (U.S. scientists from Woods Hole have been calling for this and are highly surprised this has not been conducted)?
  • What was the results from the necropsies of the 52 dead whales and dolphins found around the site of the Wakashio oil spill? What caused their death, and what are the risks to the marine environment and population?
  • Where are the details for who was operating the Wakashio and what was the cause of the grounding? It is incredible that four months after the largest ecological disaster in Mauritius, no explanation has been given. Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) is one of Japan’s largest shipping companies, the owner Nagashiki Shipping has attempted to hide behind a veil of commercial secrecy and the Japan P&I Club have not responded to any media inquiry.
  • Why was Japanese aid of $3 million being offered for COVID-19 response to the Government of Mauritius when the oil spill was occurring and there was no COVID-19 cases in Mauritius? Until now, no comprehensive health monitoring of the population had been conducted by any of the Japanese groups in the country.

The opacity of response is unacceptable for a major power to be hiding behind in the year 2020, when assistance had been offered from all around the world.

Justice not handouts

Amid rumors that Japan may be seeking to avoid any expensive legal proceedings by seeking an out of court settlement, many Mauritian environmental groups will be keeping a close eye on statements by Foreign Minister Motegi.

From statements early in the oil spill claiming that Mauritius can only claim $18 million, rumors reported in the Japanese media of a backdoor deal of $34 million for 100 fishing boats, and now new loopholes being revealed in international law, it will be important for Japan to conduct itself with transparency to show it stands on the side of international law and not backroom deals.

If there is nothing to hide from the Japanese state and large corporate interests, then justice should be allowed to take place in Mauritius, including a full independent international enquiry and hearing in the relevant courts of law. That is the very purpose for why those bodies of laws were written in the first place, was it not?

A major environmental crime has taken place. Four Mauritians involved in supporting the salvage operation have lost their lives, over 35,000 have been exposed to toxic shup fuel, some of Mauritius’ most endangered species in a series of national parks have been impacted.

Health of Mauritius’ 1000 year old Brain Coral

Since the start of the Wakashio oil spill, there has been growing concern about the health of the 7 meter wide, 1000 year old brain coral that formed the centerpiece of the Blue Bay Marine Park. This is a critical feature of Mauritius’ ecotourism and marine biodiversity.

Blue Bay Marine Park has been out of bounds from any tourist, and so no independent verification could be made about the health of the coral. Authorities have repeatedly issued statements that the brain coral has not been impacted, which has been met with scepticism following the disruption of Mauritius annual coral breeding event last month due to the oil spill.

With dozens of Glass Bottom Boats available in Blue Bay, it will be interesting to see whether Japan’s Foreign Minister will be accompanied by members of the press to see for himself the state of Mauritius’ famous Brain Coral.

Japan’s role in the world

The oil spill was not just an industrial disaster. It shines a light on the conduct of large Japanese interests around the world, as well as the stance that Japan has taken at the United Nations.

In particular, Japan’s stance at the UN’s International Maritime Organization, that governs global shipping.

Japan chairs the influential environment committee. However, in a set of controversial decisions last month, it pushed forward targets that would break the Paris Climate agreement and lead to emissions rising almost 15% over the next decade rather than declining 45% to keep the planet at a safe operating level.

Japan’s stance at the IMO is incompatible with the new Japanese Prime Minister’s promise for Japan to reduce its emissions to zero by 2050. Global shipping emits as much carbon dioxide as Japan does. The decision at the IMO benefits Japan’s three largest shipping companies (which combined are the largest in the world) as well as a complex set of industrial interests with large holdings to provide harmful ship fuel around the world

Japan has a new Prime Minister after a decade of influence from Shinzo Abe. It also faces rises tension with China in Asia. Diplomatic allies – not just with the political elites, but the populations in the countries it seeks to win over – will be important.

However, the battle in Mauritius is around the Mauritian values surrounding the environment and recent human rights abuses since the disputed election.

Will Japan seek to put its short term corporate and military interests first, or seek to establish deeper roots in the country, by rebuilding trust with the population, not just one political party.

Motegi’s visit will be closely watched indeed.