In a move contradicting its policy and investments of the last several months, Japan took a symbolic step back from Iran when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe postponed his visit to the country in late July. The visit, for which plans had been in place since March of this year, was intended to strengthen economic ties between Japan and Iran. It would have marked a diplomatic milestone; if Abe had taken the trip in August as he was scheduled to, he would have been the first Japanese leader to set foot in Iran since 1978 (1).
Japan’s energy-oriented relations with Iran have long been influenced by the U.S., a key ally that severed diplomatic ties with Iran for decades, first because Washington disapproved of the 1979 revolution that toppled the pro-Western monarchy, more recently because of tensions related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Nonetheless, Japan took steps to maintain bilateral relations with the Shi’ite country and remained on good terms with Iran until 2006, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program (2). These sanctions, along with crippling international sanctions imposed by the U.S., the E.U, and Japan, among others, were lifted in January following the historic 2015 agreement negotiated by the P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S., plus Germany) that effectively put an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves, fourth-largest oil reserves, and 78 million potential consumers (3), and Japan is eager to get ahead in the global rush to establish footholds in the Iranian market that ensued immediately after the lifting of the sanctions. Prior to 2006, Iran was one of Japan’s primary sources of foreign energy, and the island state only stopped importing Iranian oil when the Obama administration increased pressure on its allies to comply with the sanctions regime in 2012 (4). Tokyo’s energy needs have only intensified after its four-year voluntary nuclear moratorium, a consequence of the 2011 nuclear crisis at Fukushima; at the time of the ban, nuclear energy supplied almost a third of Tokyo’s domestic energy (5). In mid-February, the Foreign Ministers of Japan and Iran signed a bilateral pact that promised to give Japanese countries an edge in investing in the resource-rich nation, and Tokyo soon after announced a business facilitation mechanism that will invest $10 billion in different sectors of the Iranian economy (6). These actions are clearly indicative of Japan’s strong desire to resume business with Iran and diversify its dependence on foreign oil imports.
So why would Abe postpone his meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and risk sending signals of reluctance or hesitation, when his country and its businessmen have so much to gain from close economic ties with Iran? Donald Trump.
If the visit does happen, it will likely not occur until after the November U.S. presidential election, when Japan can finally be certain who is calling the shots for its favorite ally. Over the course of his campaign, the anti-establishment and now-official GOP nominee has expressed a number of anti-Japanese sentiments, including resentment toward the fact that Japan relies on America for military protection, disgust with the Trans-Pacific Partnership that benefits Japan, and a proposal for sky-high tariffs on Japanese cars sold in the U.S., and he has even gone so far as to hint at ending the Japanese-American alliance. Any foreign policy expert would be happy to explain that this alliance is of great importance to Washington, and that as host to 50,000 U.S. troops, Japan plays a vital role in the U.S.’s “rebalance” of its economic and security focus to the Asia-Pacific region (7). It is not unlikely that if Trump were to win the election, he would rely on the advice of experienced and rational foreign policy experts, and therefore steer clear of outlandish, almost universally recognized as foolish policy decisions, such as the ones mentioned above. However, his blustering remarks and belligerent behavior are so inconsistent that Trump remains a huge wildcard, leaving other countries such as Japan unable to confidently predict what foreign policy he would pursue and what actions he would take internationally. As Hillary Clinton and Trump remain uncomfortably close in voter polls and the possibility of a Trump-presidency seems more and more like a potential reality, Japan cannot be certain what kind of leader it will face in the Oval Office. And because Clinton has extensive foreign policy experience and spearheaded the rebalancing toward Asia as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term, it stands to reason that Japan and other Asian countries prefer a Clinton administration.
As such, Japan seems unwilling to enact strategic decisions with major global implications before November 2016, with economic activity in Iran being chief among them. The U.S. and Iran have long had strained, if not outright hostile, relations, and though these appear to be improving in recent months with the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, much tension still exists between the two states. Though Clinton supports the deal, Trump has actually condemned it, calling it “disastrous” and saying it would be one of the first agreements he would re-negotiate if he assumes office, in an interview with The Washington Post. The next U.S. president could re-impose sanctions against Iran that would cause trouble for companies doing business there, which may be why Japan wishes to stall its pursuits in the Iranian economy. Tokyo is likely also exercising greater caution to avoid offending the U.S. in its dealings with Iran, an outcome which could have dire consequences for the Asian country if transpiring under a volatile Trump administration.
Because the U.S. is such a powerful player on the global stage, Japan will not be the only country to reevaluate its foreign policy when facing the prospect of a fickle Trump presidency. His confirmation as the official GOP nominee in July provided a reality-check to any observers who still hopefully denied the legitimacy of his campaign, and countries everywhere must take steps to prepare for the possibility of Trump in office. Onlookers can expect to see many other foreign policy decisions put on hold until after the November elections, when the world will finally learn who steers the American ship for the next four years.
(1) "Japan's Abe Looks to Visit Iran This Year." March 7, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Japan-s-Abe-looks-to-visit-Iran-this-year.
(2) “Sanctions eased but Japan Inc. treads warily in return to Iran | The Japan Times.” Japan Times RSS. March 16, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
(3) "Japan's Abe Looks to Visit Iran This Year." March 7, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Japan-s-Abe-looks-to-visit-Iran-this-year.
(4) Berkshire Miller, Jonathan. “Japan’s Strategic Ties with Iran.” Aljazeera Centre for Studies. February 18, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
(6) Obe, Mitsuru. "Japan Set to Resume Business With Iran." WSJ. February 5, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-set-to-resume-business-with-iran-1454654121.
(7) Pennington, Matthew. “Trump’s Positions on Trade, Security Alliances Could Roil U.S.-Asia Ties.” Haaretz. March 10, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2016.
Image: © Bigapplestock | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-japan-united-states-flags-midtown-manhattan-two-allies-embarked-trade-pact-talks-april-president-obama-image39850167#res14972580">Japan and the United States</a>
The body of environmental and indigenous activist Lesbia Yaneth Urquía was discovered on July 6, outside a dump in the town of Marcala, Honduras. Urquía, 49, was working to halt the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the municipality of San José, La Paz, and had been an active member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (1). Her murder is only the most recent in a string of killings of environmental activists in the country. Four months earlier, the high-profile assassination of her colleague Berta Cáceres, 45, cofounder of COPINH and recipient of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, sparked international outrage over the targeting of activists who oppose megaprojects and resource extraction in Central America. (2)
In a statement released on July 7, Honduran judicial officials said that Urquia had suffered a severe head injury and that a possible motive for her murder was “the supposed robbery of her professional bicycle,” which she was planning to ride before her disappearance (3). A week later, Jorge Galindo, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said “three men suspected of the crime have been arrested, including a brother-in-law of the deceased” (4). According to Galindo, Manuel Lopez, the brother-in-law, had threatened to kill Urquía over a family property dispute and was suspected of hiring two other men to execute the crime (5).
A statement issued by COPINH directly contradicts these official accounts and labeled the death of Urquía “an act of political feminicide” and “confirmation that a plan has been set into motion to do away with those who are defending nature and the commons” (6). COPINH held Gladys Aurora López, current Vice President of the Honduran Congress for the ruling Nationalist party, and her husband Arnold Castro, owner of Los Encinos S.A. dam company, responsible for Urquía’s assassination, calling them “a permanent source of threats and conflicts deriving from the hydroelectric construction projects” in La Paz (7). Castro and his company stand to profit from the energy that Aurora I, the dam Urquía fought against, would generate, and the Honduran government’s reluctance to connect Urquía’s death to her activism seems to indicate a conflict of interest that renders it unable to conduct an unbiased and just investigation.
In June, The Guardian published claims made by a former soldier who said that Cáceres, along with dozens of other activists, appeared on a hit list distributed to special forces units of the Honduran military in the months before her death. Honduran officials denied these allegations (8). Cáceres received repeated death threats related to her work, which most recently focused on fighting the construction of Agua Zarca, a proposed hydroelectric dam project which was to be built on the Gualcarque River in the territory of the indigenous Lenca people. These threats were serious enough to prompt the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call on the Honduran government to provide her with protection, which never materialized (9).
Global Witness, an international NGO that works to expose natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses, named Honduras as the most dangerous country per capita for environmental activists in the last five years, with 101 deaths taking place between 2010 and 2014 (10). However, this crisis is not unique to Honduras; environmental activists are being murdered worldwide, with the problem being especially acute in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. According to Global Witness’s report Deadly Environment, which was updated in January 2016, “on average two people are killed every week defending their land, forests and waterways against the expansion of large-scale agriculture, dams, mining, logging and other threats” (11). 2015 became the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, as at least 185 people were killed in what is nearly a 60% increase on the previous year (12). But even these figures are likely greatly underestimated: many environmental defender deaths go unnoticed because of a lack of public records, and there is also significant under-reporting in countries like Myanmar and China, where human rights monitoring is prohibited or restricted (13).
This death toll is rising in tandem with increased pressure on natural resources and demand for commodities like timber, beef, and palm oil (14). As the global economy expands its reach into previously inaccessible rural and unindustrialized areas, large corporations and governments of developing countries are choosing to meet the demands of the growing human population through methods that are convenient rather than sustainable, especially in areas with long histories of corruption and exploitation. This creates both higher need and higher stakes for environmental activists.
Indigenous populations are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially since action in their communities can escalate before their stories receive national or international attention. “Most repression—by the state or wealthy private-sector interests—targets campesino and indigenous communities defending their lands, lives, and environment,” says Grahame Russell of the US- and Canada-based NGO Rights Action (15). Forty percent of activist victims in 2014 were indigenous, with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining, and agribusiness (16). The majority of these people are grass-roots leaders who “become involved because they’re fighting for what’s being taken away from their communities,” says Jane Cohen, an expert in environmental health at Human Rights Watch in New York City (17). According to Billy Kyte, senior campaigner for Global Witness and author of its 2015 report, “Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers” (18).
Honduras became significantly more hospitable to such killers after the 2009 coup d’état that replaced Manuel Zelaya with Roberto Michelietti as president. Zelaya’s administration had introduced moderate land reforms and had successfully blocked many hydroelectric projects, but not only did the coup create a political atmosphere of terror and instability conducive to environmental crime, the new government approved forty contracts for a series of dams in June of 2010 (19). This mentality has been perpetuated by current President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose rallying cry coming into office in 2013 was “Honduras Is Open for Business.” In January of 2015, the Honduran government announced its plans to grant rulings on environmental feasibility within twenty-four hours and similarly expedite granting environmental permits in order to encourage development (20).
These actions, along with the government’s nonexistent reactions to the murders of Urquía and Cáceres, are representative of the ongoing preference of Honduras—as well as Latin America and the world as a whole—to disregard human life and the natural environment in favor of profit. In its Deadly Environment report, Global Witness calls on national governments and the international community to protect the environment and the people who defend it. To stop this cycle of death and destruction, the international community will have to make its perpetrators understand that the consequences of human and environmental devastation far outweigh the monetary benefits—even if doing so must involve creating sanctions or other punishments.
(1) "World Anger over Honduras Activist Lesbia Yaneth Urquia's Death." BBC News. July 10, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36756937.
(2) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016.
(3) Agren, David. "Honduras Confirms Murder of Another Member of Berta Cáceres's Activist Group." The Guardian. July 07, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/07/honduras-murder-lesbia-janeth-urquia-berta-caceres.
(4) "Three Held over Murder of Another Environmental Activist in Honduras." Reuters. July 13, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-honduras-crime-idUSKCN0ZT2MY.
(6) "Cloc-Via Campesina Honduras Statement on Assassination of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía." Cloc-Via Campesina Honduras Statement on Assassination of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía. July 18, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/main-issues-mainmenu-27/human-rights-mainmenu-40/2098-cloc-via-campesina-honduras-statement-on-assassination-of-lesbia-yaneth-urquia.
(8) Lakhani, Nina. "Berta Cáceres's Name Was on Honduran Military Hitlist, Says Former Soldier." The Guardian. June 21, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/21/berta-caceres-name-honduran-military-hitlist-former-soldier.
(9) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/03/11/drugs-dams-and-power-the-murder-of-honduran-activist-berta-caceres/.
(10) “How Many More? | Global Witness." Global Witness. 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/.
(11) "Deadly Environment | Global Witness." Global Witness. April 15, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/deadly-environment/.
(12) "New Report: 2015 Sees Unprecedented Killings of Environmental Activists | Global Witness." Global Witness. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/2015-sees-unprecedented-killings-environmental-activists/.
(13) "Deadly Environment | Global Witness." Global Witness. April 15, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/deadly-environment/.
(15) Holmes, Oliver. "Environmental Activist Murders Set Record as 2015 Became Deadliest Year." The Guardian. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/environmental-activist-murders-global-witness-report.
(16) "How Many More? | Global Witness." Global Witness. 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more
(17) Wallace, Scott. "Why Do Environmentalists Keep Getting Killed Around the World?" Smithsonian. February 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-do-environmentalists-keep-getting-killed-around-world-180949446/?no-ist.
"Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal." Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal. January 7, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/article/home/Honduras_Environmental_Licenses_Accelerated.
(18) Holmes, Oliver. "Environmental Activist Murders Set Record as 2015 Became Deadliest Year." The Guardian. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/environmental-activist-murders-global-witness-report.
(19) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/03/11/drugs-dams-and-power-the-murder-of-honduran-activist-berta-caceres/.
(20) "Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal." Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal. January 7, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/article/home/Honduras_Environmental_Licenses_Accelerated.
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