Mikiko Otani has been elected as the first Japanese member of a United Nations committee tasked with monitoring situations in signatory nations to the Convention of the Rights of the Child. She will come up with recommendations for improvement together with 17 members from other countries over the next four years starting next March.
At college, Otani majored in international politics as she had aspired to contribute to the international community as a UN worker. She initially chose to become a lawyer, but came to feel that lawyers can only help people through litigation after the fact. She asked herself to what extent lawyers can really ease people’s pain and was unable to feel satisfied with her career.
Her turning point came when she studied international law on human rights in the U.S. from 1997 to 1999. “I thought hard about how to protect human rights and came to understand that the more people share the pain and respect human rights, the more human rights violations can be prevented,” she recalled. After returning to Japan, she became more involved in educating people on human rights through lectures, and this has become her lifework since then.
Otani is a leading expert on divorce cases involving people of different nationalities. She has met Japanese women who took their children back to Japan and changed their names to break up with their foreign spouses and refused to accept child support money even though they become impoverished. When she handled these cases, she always gave top priority to the best interests of the children. “Through cases involving family affairs, I learned to think from the perspective of children, not for the convenience of parents,” she says.
Members of the UN committee are selected through votes from 196 countries and regions. Nine seats were up for grabs and she earned the highest number of votes among the candidates. “We need to address issues such as poverty and infant mortality at a different level from in Japan. I want to start by studying the situations facing the 196 countries and regions,” she says.