At the Parallel event on the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (‘Comfort Women’) issue
24th session of the Human Rights Council
11 September 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Kim and other distinguished panellists,
I would like to start my intervention today by expressing my sincere sympathy to all the victims of military sexual slavery and my admiration for their courage and the strength with which they continue to fight for their rights. I wish to thank the civil society advocates who ensure that this issue remains in the international agenda until it is fully settled. Two of the leading organisations working on military sexual slavery are the organizers of today’s important event. I thank them for the invitation.
The issue we have before us today – the issue of military sexual slavery by Japan during wartime known as the issue of ‘comfort women’ - has two important dimensions which make it directly relevant to my mandate concerned with truth-seeking, justice initiatives, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. First, the issue of ‘comfort women’ shows the central importance, or in the specific case at hand, the lack of implementing a victim-centred approach. The second dimension is concerned with the strong commitment by the international community to integrate a gender perspective when dealing with the legacy of past atrocities. Both a victims-centred approach and a gender perspective to justice are core tasks the Human Rights Council has bestowed on the mandate I currently have the honour to hold.
I am, however, not the first Special Rapporteur who is concerned with the issue of military sexual slavery by Japan during wartime. The number of special procedures mandates that have focused on this topic shows the continuing urgency to provide remedy to the victims and their families. The variety of the mandates in question also demonstrates that the violations had and continue to have a severe impact on a great number of human rights. I shall recall here some of my colleagues’ observations as they remain valid points of departure for my analysis.
In the mid-90s, the former Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy first put emphasis on military sexual slavery as a gross human rights violation in the context of her report on the visits to the Republic of Korea and Japan. She recommended to the Japanese authorities to accept legal responsibility, pay compensation to the victims, disclose all documentation regarding the ‘comfort stations’, issue public apologies to the individual victims, raise awareness about military sexual slavery in educational curricula, and punish the perpetrators insofar possible. She also recommended to the governments of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that they seek reparations for the victims.
In 1998, the former Special Rapporteur on systematic rape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict, Gay McDougall, defined Japan’s responsibility under international law for war crimes, crimes against humanity and slavery. McDougall’s second report recalled that the violations remained unremedied.
In 2006, the former Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diéne visited Japan, and placed emphasis on the importance of recognizing Japan’s responsibility for establishing the system of ‘comfort women’ in school books.
In his 2008 thematic report on ‘Strengthening the protection of women from torture’ former Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak underscored how female victims of torture, and in particular victims of sexual violence, including ‘comfort women’, have been ignored. He stressed that Japans failure to provide rehabilitation causes the victims to experience continuing abuse and re-traumatization.
Finally, the current Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, in her 2010 thematic report on reparations to women who have been subjected to violence in contexts of both peace and post-conflict makes reference to the case of the ‘comfort women’ as an example of the ‘traditional neglect of women in the reparations domain’. While pointing out that over the past 15 years there has been an international legal response to violence against women, the attempts by ‘comfort women’ or their representatives to get reparations from Japan have been ‘unsuccessful’. Her report suggests that beyond international criminal courts, other mechanisms of transitional justice should be more inclusive to women. The perspective of transitional justice will be the prism through which I would like to make my intervention today.
As can be seen from the recommendations of the various special procedures, redress to the victims should be comprehensive, and include measures of truth-seeking and reparation, the holding of perpetrators to account and the obligation to put in place effective measures to ensure no-recurrence of such violations. Redress should not be limited to financial compensation. In this respect, I would like to elaborate on four issues, which relate directly to my mandate and to the main objectives and overarching principles of transitional justice.
First, one of the fundamental aims of transitional justice measures is to provide recognition to victims. This does not merely involve acknowledging the victims’ suffering and their capacity to endure. What is indispensable, and what transitional justice measures seek to accomplish is to recognize that the victim is the holder of rights. Recognition means to restore the victim’s rights and affirm her standing as someone who is entitled to make claims on the basis of rights, precisely, and not simply as a matter of empathy or any other type of consideration.
This dimension of recognition, common to all transitional justice measures, has an important implications for defining what counts as reparations to begin with. It is well known that victims do not want economic compensation without an official apology and official recognition of State responsibility. I would like to stress that any public apology must clearly affirm that the victims are holders of rights. Recognition as a rights holder also underscores that nobody is above the law, certainly not perpetrators of sexual crimes – this is one of the basics of the principle of the rule of law. In this connection, I would also clarify that the existence of treaties between or among States cannot be put forward as a justification to simply deny redress to victims, understood as involving acknowledgment of responsibility.
Second, it is important to keep in mind that gross human rights violations, such as those suffered by ‘comfort women’ have an inter-generational impact. As we know, many women who had been forcefully drafted into sexual slavery have passed away. We should do the utmost to provide urgent redress to those who remain among us. But let me clarify that the issue of the ‘comfort women’ will not simply cease to exist with the last direct victim having passed away. As many of the victims will confirm, the aforementioned exclusion and destitution does not stop with the direct victim. Rather, the stigma and committed violations are carried on to future generations in relation to a variety of rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. Not addressing the legacy leaves our societies with a tremendously deepening scar.
I have argued elsewhere, including in my first report to the Human Rights Council that transitional justice measures have the potential of promoting social integration. At the national level this is to say that they contribute to rebuilding social trust in the aftermath of precisely the sort of events that predictably shatter trust both amongst individuals and particularly in state institutions. By the same token, leaving the issue of forced sexual slavery unresolved generates mistrust. I believe in the potential of the measures, when applied cross-nationally, to promote the corresponding form of ‘integration’ in this case at the regional and the international level.
Public education and the writing and teaching of history
Third, I wish to draw your attention to public education and the writing and teaching of history in connection to ‘comfort women’. In their 1993 statement, the Japanese authorities committed themselves to squarely face the historical facts on ‘comfort women’ and take them to heart as lessons of history. This pledge is directly related to guarantees of non-recurrence - one of the aspects under my mandate. Continuing research and analysis of such gross violations is a must. Relevant material needs to be disclosed and victims should be afforded unhindered access to it. The wider society should be informed of the possibility to consult such information, evidently with certain precautions which serve to protect the right of privacy of victims. The call for renewed efforts to research, analyze and disclose information on military sexual slavery is not only addressed to Japanese authorities, but also to other countries in the region and beyond. The objective to obtain redress must not stop at the bilateral front; efforts need to be particularly made at the regional level.
Information has been received that the issue of ‘comfort women’ was removed from school textbooks in Japan – yet, the treatment of military sexual slavery in education manuals was a firm commitment made 20 years ago. I would like to express grave concern in this regard. Such concern must also be expressed in the face of reported attempts to deny the facts by government authorities and public figures, which in turn re-traumatize the victims. Treaty bodies have recently made concrete recommendations in this regard.
Fourth, I want to clarify some aspects concerning reparations, to return to a point I made in the earlier part of my intervention. Reparations differ from, say, crime insurance schemes precisely because they are not simply compensatory mechanisms. The aim of reparations is not merely to ‘make up’ for losses on the side of victims, or to ‘fine’ perpetrators for their transgressions. The fundamental aim of reparations has to do with the establishment of regimes of rights, to signal that the violation of norms does not remain inconsequential. And this, I want to emphasize, inevitably involves clear and unambiguous acknowledgment of responsibility.
In the conclusion of my intervention I want to highlight some positive aspects in relation to the treatment of ‘comfort women’ and some ways forward. In stark contrast to the lack of progress to redress victims is the increasing advocacy and support of ‘comfort women’ coming also from within the Japanese society itself. For instance, Japanese NGOs submitted reports to the Committee Against Torture and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights during the countries latest reviews. As we will be able to hear from Professor Maeda Akira in some minutes, members of academia in Japan have also contributed with thorough analysis to this important subject matter.
International efforts should also be commended. I refer here to Japan’s second Universal Periodic Review in October 2012, which contains several recommendations in relation to ‘comfort women’. What is notable is that those recommendations were put forward from countries of all regions, which is a strong expression that such gross violations cannot remain unaddressed. It is clear from recent developments that the unresolved issue of ‘comfort women’ is no longer seen in isolation but placed in the context of a broad range of topics, which include discrimination and racism, women’s rights, sexual violence, education, peace and security, minorities rights and forced labour, only to mention some of them. As these topics are moving forward, the issue of ‘comfort women’ must not lag behind.
My two concluding thoughts are the following: this is a case that perhaps cannot be properly characterized as unattended, but as under-attended; it calls attention to crucial conditions of sufficiency and appropriateness of responses in order for them to count as justice measures. In this respect I think that therein lies the ground for hope. While what remains to be done in order to satisfy the conditions of appropriate redress is crucial, indeed, fundamental, the fact that we are not starting from zero should make a difference. (Of course this will be of small consolation to those that have already perished, a thought that should also spur action). Second, and again searching for some grounds for optimism, I think that more attention should be given to regional approaches to the issue, given the regional dimension of the problem.
I thank again the organizers for the opportunity to participate and pay my respects to victims.