The Japanese government recently came under pressure in a United Nations human rights forum over the adequacy of its support for people who fled the disaster zone – and faced scrutiny about radiation levels in places where evacuees have returned. At the same time, Japanese diplomats have been waging a long battle to persuade other countries to ease import restrictions on food from the surrounding areas.
The Fukushima prefectural government says that the number of evacuees peaked at 164,865 in 2012, the year after the disaster, but that figure has now fallen to about 50,000 with decontamination work progressing and the lifting of evacuation orders in a number of towns.
Several countries took up the issue of the rights of Fukushima residents and evacuees as part of the UN’s universal periodic review of Japan. Austria, for example, urged the government to continue to provide housing support to so-called voluntary evacuees. These are people who had been living outside officially designated evacuation zones but fled because of their fears about radiation. Their housing aid ended about a year ago. Portugal, meanwhile, called on Japan to ensure women and men had equal participation in decision-making processes about their resettlement and Mexico urged the government to guarantee access to health services.
Germany’s representatives focused on radiation levels. Under Japanese government policies, evacuation orders can be lifted if the level of exposure for residents is estimated to be below 20 millisievert (mSv) per year. Germany called on the government to “respect the rights of persons living in the area of Fukushima, in particular of pregnant women and children, to the highest level of physical and mental health, notably by restoring the allowable dose of radiation to the 1 mSv/year limit, and by a continuing support to the evacuees and residents.” Incidentally, the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that the level for people in contaminated areas should be in the lower part of the 1 to 20 mSv/year range, with a long-term post-accident target of 1 mSv/year.
In a response dated March 1, the Japanese government said it accepted these four recommendations for follow-up, while arguing that it was providing necessary support to affected people under the relevant laws. The minister for reconstruction, Masayoshi Yoshino, subsequently told foreign journalists and diplomats that the government was effectively already committed to the long-term target advocated by Germany. “We have proceeded with decontamination efforts and as a long-term goal the government has indicated 1 mSv per annum,” he said during a briefing at the Foreign Press Center Japan on March 7.
The problem, according to environmental activists, is that the time-frame for achieving that goal is vague. Shaun Burnie, a nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, said the raising of the issue in the UN process was important for evacuees as the recommendations could not simply be ignored. “The German government’s intervention on behalf of tens of thousands of Japanese citizens is absolutely welcome,” he said during a visit to Tokyo. Burnie and others plan to closely monitor how the recommendations are implemented.