A former Russian military intelligence officer living as a refugee in Britain and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok on March 4 in Salisbury, England. Both lost consciousness and were hospitalized in critical condition.
The assault was, beyond doubt, a grave violation of international law. Russia, however, denies any role in the attack on the 66-year-old former Russian spy and his 33-year-old daughter.
Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Allen, however, said: “[Novichok] is not a weapon which can be manufactured by non-state actors. It is so dangerous that it requires the highest-grade state laboratories and expertise.”
There can be no room for doubt that the assault was either perpetrated directly by the Russian government or due to the failure of Vladimir Putin’s administration to have adequate control over Novichok. Either way, the nerve agent was allowed to get into the hands of an assassin or assassins.
Novichok is a potentially catastrophic chemical weapon prohibited by international law. It is strongly suspected that Russia may have manufactured and used it in an attempt to kill the refugee and a member of his family. It is vital that the international community fully carry out its tasks of elucidating and pursuing responsibility for the nerve-agent assault.
For this reason, about 30 countries and organizations, including the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member nations, have condemned Russia for the attack. More than 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Western countries in connection with the incident.
Japan, however, has thus far failed to join the array of international sanctions against Moscow. This is tantamount to an expression of indifference to the diplomatic crisis, and is counter to Japan’s own national interests.
British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed cooperation from the large number of countries and organizations which joined in condemning Russia in late March. She stated that their actions “clearly demonstrate that we stand shoulder to shoulder in sending the strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law.”
In her March 20 talks over the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, May also requested Japan’s cooperation with Britain’s stance. Thus far, however, Japan has not done enough.
Although Japan has reiterated that it shares a fundamental sense of values, such as freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights with the United States and European nations, it tends to fall short when an urgent problem arises and action is needed. The country’s credibility in the international community is at stake when such a gap persists.
For example, the Japanese government has been seeking other countries’ support for the resolution of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. It has repeatedly stressed the state-sponsored nature of the crime and the flagrant infringement on Japan’s sovereignty. In contrast, treating the nerve agent attack in Britain lightly brings into question the government’s trustworthiness in our own national cause.
On March 26, President Donald Trump decided to expel 60 Russian diplomats from the United States over the nerve agent assault. Trump had consultations separately by phone with leaders of Britain, Germany, and France, confirming a common resolve in their respective expulsion of Russian diplomats. The following day, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declared the March 4 assault on British soil involved the “pretty obvious” use of a chemical agent by Russia.
Japan, though, has done no more than express its view that “elucidation of the facts involved should be the first consideration.” It is as if the Tokyo government has become mute in the face of the international reaction to Russia’s grave violation of international law. If Japan continues this course, the government’s avowed commitment to values-based diplomacy could end up being reduced to an empty slogan.
This incident is not a first. In 2006, a former Russian military intelligence officer in exile in London was assassinated by radioactive material. At that time, too, the British government accused Russia of the incident, plunging the two countries into a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.
In February 2017, North Korea carried out the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, seen as a nuisance by Pyongyang’s regime, by means of VX nerve agent in Malaysia. The latest incident in Britain is of the same nature as this assassination.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, though, focused on a different issue when he met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Tokyo on March 21. He conveyed Japan’s concerns over the Russian development of a new array of nuclear weapons and its military buildup on the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Acrimonious words were reportedly exchanged between the two in the meeting. Such an exchange might have been appropriate, but it is unreasonable that the government failed to make public specifics of the foreign ministerial meeting after the talks.
Preoccupation with trying to read the countenance of the other side when engaging in diplomacy is bound to lead to the other country taking unfair advantage of Japan. It is also another reason why the current incoherent posture of Japan’s diplomacy towards Russia should be revamped from scratch.