Sat, 09 Dec 2000

Tribunal on sexual slavery opens

SEOUL: The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, which opens in Tokyo on Friday, will possess no punitive powers. But the six-day event, organized by civil societies of nine concerned countries, including Japan as the sole offender and the remaining eight as victims, will bring the issue of "comfort women" to the attention of the international society and accuse Japan of its liability.

It will be a court of conscience, not of legal procedures. Yet, Japan should feel unprecedented pressure to recognize its responsibility, not only moral but legal as well, for its horrendous crimes against humanity.

Non-governmental organizations of the nine countries worked for over two years to set up the court at Tokyo's Kudan Kaikan, and an accompanying symposium on the subject, "Violence against women under armed conflict."

Among some 1,000 participants are a number of human rights activists, lawyers and scholars of international repute.

The court will hear the testimonies by victims and perpetrators of the sexual crimes committed by the Japanese imperial army before and during World War II.

It will "prosecute" the offenders and pass its "verdicts" on them. The victims will come from South and North Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Netherlands.

The governments and leaders of all the countries involved should be ashamed that civil societies had to take the initiative to seek a solution to the issue in their own way.

It's been a half century since the war ended and more than a decade since the first brave woman came out to speak up the truth. Over the last decade or so, many more women had the courage to tell the painful stories that had long been buried in their hearts.

Their accounts of suffering -- daily multiple rapes, beatings, hunger and disease -- surpassed the imagination of most people. It is both surprising and frustrating that, after all these years, the tragic experiences of these women still remain a disputed issue -- an unresolved issue of history.

As is widely known, Japan has consistently refused to recognize its legal responsibility for operating the front line rape camps in various Asian countries and South Pacific islands during the last world war.

After prolonged efforts to conceal the atrocities committed around these facilities, Japan reluctantly admitted its moral obligations in 1993. But most apologies by Japanese leaders sounded absurd and insincere as they were offered with "personal feelings" rather than on behalf of the state.

The Japanese prosecution declined legal charges brought by victims. Compensation was offered from a private fund instead of state coffers, which only made many victims feel humiliated and indignant.

In this context, the Tokyo tribunal is somewhat unusual, considering that it was organized on the initiative of a Japanese journalist and human rights campaigner. Yayoi Matsui, chairperson of Violence Against Women in War Network Japan, has been a stalwart supporter for the rights of former comfort women.

She has asserted that the Japanese government is obliged to compensate not only for the crime of military sexual slavery committed during the war but also for the impunity of perpetrators of the crime after the war.

She hopes the tribunal will also help bring to the global attention similar crimes committed against women in armed conflicts in other countries like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and East Timor.

South Korea has one of the largest delegations at the court. It is natural in view of the fact that over 80 percent of all comfort women, who are estimated to be around 200,000, came from Korea.

The South Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and North Korea's Pacific War Compensation Committee jointly wrote their "indictment." This is a meaningful joint endeavor, in light of the current move by the two Koreas to break the long barriers of division.

At this time when its rightist forces are gaining a stronger voice, Japan should heed the proceedings at the tribunal and make efforts to resolve its dark past.

By so doing, Japan will be able to come to terms with its aggressive past, which inflicted tremendous suffering on its neighbors around East Asia. From a humanitarian point of view, Japan has an obligation to compensate the aging women for their lifetime of suffering, both mental and physical, before they perish.

-- The Korea Herald / Asia News Network