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Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery

By: Yayori matsui, Chairperson of VAWW-NET Japan
December 8-12, 2000

1) Responding to the cries of "comfort women", victims of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery

The 20th century now coming to its close was a century of war and violence. The Second World War brought to humankind an unprecedented scale of destruction and genocide in which vast number of women were made victims of sexual violence. But the lessons of this experience have not yet been learned. We are now witnessing inter-state wars and internal armed conflicts breaking out one after another around the world.
Japan's military sexual slavery (the so-called "comfort women" system) before and during the Second World War was one of the most horrendous forms of wartime sexual violence against women known to this century. Those Japanese women who believe we cannot create a 21st century free of violence against women without responding to the cries for justice and dignity of "comfort women" proposed to hold the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in Tokyo in December 2000, the last month of this century. Our main purpose was to clarify that the "comfort women" system constituted war crimes against humanity and to pressure the Japanese government to take legal responsibility. We also hope that one day our effort will help to end the cycle of impunity of wartime sexual violence against women.

2) Breaking their silence: "comfort women" open a new page of history

It was in the early 1990s that Korean "comfort women", victims of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery broke their silence and came forward after nearly half a century, followed by survivors from other areas of Asia including China, Taiwan, North Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and also of the Netherlands. We, women of the offending country, were deeply moved by their courage and considered it our moral responsibility to respond to the appeal from survivors. We began to form groups which support groups "comfort women" all over the country. It cannot be overemphasized that those victimized women who spoke up about their painful experience as sex slaves for the Japanese military played an important historical role in exposing the horror of war time sexual violence and in so doing, encouraging women of the world who are currently suffering from sexual violence in armed conflicts (including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Algeria and other countries) to come forward. Thus, the issue of violence against women in war and armed conflicts surfaced as an agenda of global women's and human rights movements.

3) International support for demands from victimized women

Much of the international community has supported the demands of "comfort women" for a formal apology, compensation and the prosecution of. At the Fourth UN World Women's Conference in Beijing, the Platform for Action was adopted which clearly stated that systematic rape, sexual slavery and other forms of violence against women in armed conflicts are war crimes and crimes against humanity; and that governments and international organizations should investigate, and prosecute alleged war criminals to the end of offering full redress to victimized women. 

In 1996, Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special on Violence Against Women recommended the Japanese government take legal responsibility for Japan's "comfort women" system during Word War II. In 1998, Ms. Gay McDougall, the UN Special Reporter on Systematic Rape and Sexual Slavery submitted her final report to the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of Commission on Human Rights which found the Japanese government legally liable for "rape centers" (as she named so-called "comfort stations") and made the recommendation of setting up mechanisms to ensure criminal prosecution as well as to provide legal compensation to victims.

Nearly ten years have passed since the issue of "comfort women" surfaced, and in spite of repeated calls for justice within the international community, the demands of "comfort women" have hardly met by the Japanese government. Though a statement made in 1993 by the Prime Minister's Office officially acknowledged Japan's moral responsibility for military sexual slavery, the Japanese government continues to deny legal responsibility, claiming that all war compensation issues were settled by the San Francisco Peace Treaty and in bilateral agreements between Japan and victimized countries.

4) Compensation has been the main focus of the movement to support "comfort women"

Eight lawsuits have been filed by "comfort women" in Japanese courts (three from Korea, including one Korean in Japan, two from China, one from the Philippines, one from Taiwan and one from Netherlands), demanding that the Japanese government pay state reparation. In three out of the four cases which have reached judgment, the courts have dismissed claims of the plaintiff, citing primarily the following three reasons:

1. International law during the period in which the crimes were committed did not recognize an individual victim's right to claim compensation against the state 

2. The case was filed after more than twenty years after World War II, allowing the case to be dismissed on the grounds of statutory limitations 

3. According to Japanese law, the State had not held liable for compensation until the end of World War II. 

These parallel the official position of the Japanese government; and as they were upheld in court, there seems to be little hope for survivors to be compensated in this venue. Furthermore, the prosecution of war criminals could be seen as a social taboo in Japan.

Another attempt to get compensation is the campaign by Japanese lawyers and NGOs for war compensation legislature. In reality, however, there is little hope forsuch a bill to be passed in the Diet, because the majority of members belong to the conservative parties which are against the very idea of war compensation. 

5) The prosecution of war criminals is a social taboo

In 1994, twenty-seven Korean "comfort women" brought a letter of complaint to the Tokyo Prosecutor's Office. Based on the principals of a universal human conscience and a sense of justice, they demanded the Japanese government investigate their allegations, seek out perpetrators and bring them to justice. However, the Prosecutor's Office refused to even accept the letter. In fact, it is not only the Japanese government, but also some of those involved in the "comfort women" movement who oppose criminal prosecution, on the ground that such action might antagonize the Japanese public and jeopardize the safety of the survivors in Japan at the hands of right-wing extremists. Thus, the "comfort women" advocacy movement has focused primarily on the issue of compensation, with little action in the area of prosecution.

6) Japan's failure to fulfill their legal obligation to punish of war criminals

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, it accepted the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded that all individual war criminals should be prosecuted and brought to justice. Thus, the Allies lead by the US established the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trial) where twenty-eight Japanese war criminals were prosecuted and found guilty. Seven were given the death penalty. However, after the Tokyo Trial, the prosecution of war criminals became a target of attack from the right wing, and not a single Japanese war criminal has since been prosecuted in a Japanese court. Furthermore, the growing right wing revisionists' campaign has condemned the Tokyo Trial as mere revenge by the Allies, a demonstration of power by the victors of World War II against the defeated. The breadth of such right-wing sentiment is evident in the popularity of the 1998 film "Pride", which touts Tojo, the wartime Prime Minister and militarist leader, as a hero, and which is deeply critical of the Tokyo Trial.

7) Prosecution of war criminals has continued to the present historical moment in Western countries

In sharp contrast to impunity of war criminals in Japan, the German government, before and after the Nuremberg Trial, has continued to prosecute Nazi criminals.

It is reported that both West and East Germany have investigated more than 100,000 war criminals and more than 6,000 cases have been sentenced guilty and executed or jailed.

In France, Maurice Papon, 87 year-old former French official of the Vichy government was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in February 1998 for the deportation of French Jews to Nazi concentration camps. It is important to note that the French court punished not only German nationals, but a French national as well for crimes against humanity more than a half century after World War II.

In England, a former Gestapo member was sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1999 for war crimes committed in Nazi-occupied Belarus.
The US government has a war crime unit which keeps a list of German and Japanese war criminals whom it gives sanction such as deportation or refusal of entry. It is clear from the above that the Japanese government is still required to meet its obligation to prosecute suspected war criminals, including those responsible for military sexual slavery.

8) The UN and international community move on the issue of impunity and prosecution of human rights violators

According to a report submitted to a UN Sub-Commission of the Human Rights Commission by Mr. Theo van Boven, Special Reporteur on the Right to Compensation for Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights, victims of slavery have the right to demand direct reparation and compensation from the offending state, not only for the crime of slavery, but also for the failure of a state to meet its obligation to punish perpetrators after war. That is to say, the Japanese government has the obligation of compensation not only for the crime of Military Sexual Slavery committed before and during World War II, but also for the impunity of perpetrators during the post-war era.
The Principles to Combat Impunity submitted by Mr. Louis Joinet, the Special Rapporteur on Impunity, suggested the victims of serious crimes under international law have three rights which must not be ignored: the right to know the truth, the right to justice and the right to reparation. The international community has realized it is vitally important to end impunity in order to prevent war crimes, including sexual slavery.

9) Historical progress in overcoming impunity of wartime sexual violence

In recent years female scholars of international law and history have revealed several reasons why such a large-scale war crime as the systematic sexual slavery committed by Japanese Imperial Army evaded prosecution at the Tokyo Trial. Firstly, post-war military trials were conducted by the Allies (composed primarily of former or concurrent colonial powers), whose Orientalist and colonialist ideologies superseded the meaningful consideration of crimes against Asians, and in particular Asian women. The Dutch military tribunal in Indonesia was the only post-war military trial which prosecuted members of the Japanese military for sexual slavery, at which only offenses against Dutch women - despite the countless offenses against their Indonesian sisters - were brought to court. Secondly, all judges and prosecutors of military trial were men who, in this era before feminism had made significant, widespread social impact, minimized the seriousness of war crimes against women. Thirdly, wartime rape was not classified in international law as a violation of a victim's human rights, but as an issue of dishonor to a victim's community or family.

However, in the early 1990, at the very time so many "comfort women" came forward, thousands of women were suffering from mass-rape and other forms of sexual violence in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other areas. The growing global women's movement launched a worldwide campaign for women's human rights and in particular in cases of violence against women, at the 1993 UN World Human Rights conference in Vienna. As a result, sexual violence was prosecuted as a crime against humanity for the first time at the Internnational War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The global women's campaign also had a significant impact in the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court at the Rome Conference in July 1998. This statute clearly defined rape, sexual slavery and enforced prostitution as war crimes against women and crimes against humanity.

10) The necessity of holding the Women's Tribunal 2000 through women's initiative

Unfortunately, the International Criminal Court, even in the event that the Statute is ultimately ratified, will have no jurisdiction over crimes committed before its establishment. As mentioned before, Japanese courts can hardly be expected to prosecute perpetrators. In such a situation, what should and can be done to address the issue of prosecution for the sake of victimized women who are one by one, dying without seeing justice done?

This serious and urgent question was answered by VAWW-NET Japan (Violence Against Women in War Network, Japan) an organization formed in 1998 as an outcome of the International Conference on Violence Against Women in War and Armed Conflict Situation in Tokyo, in 1997. VAWW-NET Japan proposed to hold a Women's International War Crimes Tribunal at the Asian Women's Solidarity Conference in Seoul, 1998, an idea which was supported by delegates from Korea and other victimized countries. Our Tribunal will be an international, non-governmental, women's effort to end the impunity of those responsible for Japan's Military Sexual Slavery.

Though we are not invested with the legal power to punish those found responsible, we hope to very clearly establish that the system of Military Sexual Slavery conducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II constitutes a war crime against women and a crime against humanity, to define appropriate punishment, and to document the complete proceedings, including the evidence submitted at the Tribunal, for a more complete history. It is important to recognize the "comfort women" system as explicitly criminal, because the growing right wing force in Japan is campaigning vigorously to convince the younger generation of Japan that World War II Military Sexual Slavery was not a war crime, but rather "legitimate" prostitution.

11) Drafting the Charter of the Tribunal --Who will be tried? 

We are now drafting the Charter of the Tribunal in such a way that our rules and procedures parallel those of a legal court. The Tribunal's prosecutors will have jurisdiction over issues relating to Japan's military sexual slavery and other forms of wartime sexual violence. The Tribunal will have jurisdiction over both individuals and states, and shall identify those responsible for crimes with an emphasis on perpetrators in the high military and governmental position with command responsibility including the Emperor. It shall clarify not only crimes committed before and during WWII, but also negligence to prosecute war criminals and to compensate victims during the post-war era.

The Tribunal shall reveal the failure and negligence of not only the Japanese government to fulfill its responsibility to investigate the system of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery throughout the post war period, but also that of other governments, including the US government, which refrained from prosecuting the Emperor to protect its own interests in the post-war military occupation of Japan. The responsibilities of the governments of those nations whose nationals were victimized by the Sexual Slavery during the war will also be addressed, as many countries have not applied significant pressure to the Japanese government out of their interest in receiving economic aid from Japan, and because of the lack of a democratic venue in which victims can raise their voices.

In addition to victims who will testify at the Tribunal, internationally well known eminent persons and experts on international law will be invited to the Tribunal as judges, prosecutors and expert witnesses. It was agreed that each nation will nominate a prosecutor to have jurisdiction over cases from that nation and who will prepare an indictment by the summer of 2000. The chief prosecutors will write a general indictment, drawing from the indictments submitted by the prosecutors of participating nations. The panel of judges consisted of world known eminent persons legal experts, will be requested to review documents and indictments before the Trial in order that they might reach a judgment during the three days of the Trial.

12) Expected results of the Tribunal

The objectives of the Tribunal are as follows: first, to restore justice and dignity to victims and to pressure the Japanese government to take responsibility for crimes committed during World War II and the postwar era; second, to promote women's human rights, including in the realm of international law, and to prevent sexual war crimes against women in future; third, to cultivate the ground for a shared future in Asia based on reconciliation.

It should be mentioned the preparatory process for the Tribunal has already had remarkable educational effects for the public (and in particular, for women) on issues of human rights, violence against women, war crimes, international law, the role of documentation, the problematic perspectives of dominant histories, etc. Thus, women are becoming more confident that they can rewrite history and effect a more just society.

13) International solidarity in the preparatory process for the Tribunal

From the time the proposal for the Tribunal surfaced in Seoul in April of 1998, the preparatory process has been an international effort centered in the participating nations. The first international preparatory conference and that of research and investigation were held in Tokyo in December 1998. The second conference was held in Seoul in February 1999, where the International Organizing Committee for the Tribunal (WTIOC) was formed.
The WTIOC consists of three groups: (1) the organizations of victimized countries (China, Taiwan; the Philippines, Indonesia, and South and North Korea), represented by Yun Chung-ok; (2) the organization of the offending country, Japan (VAWW-NET Japan), represented by Yayori Matsui; (3) the International Advisory Committee, represented by Indai Lourdes Sajor.
The IAC members are as follows: Ariane Brunet (Canada), Charlotte Bunch (USA), Florence Butegwa (Uganda), Ustina Dolgopol (Australia), Alda Facio (Costa Rica), Eugenia Piza Lopez (Argentina/UK), Marieme Helie Lucas (Algeria/France), Lepa Mladjenovic (Serbia), and Vahida Nainar (India).

The Tribunal has two legal advisors: Theo van Boven (of the Netherlands) and Rhonga Copelon (USA).

The first IAC meeting was held in May in the Hague during the Hague Appeal for Peace 1999, and was attended by its seven members and Rhonda Copelon. The second meeting was in Washington in November 1999, where it was agreed to hold an international public hearing on violence against women following the Tribunal.

The International Seminar was held in Seoul in June 1999 and the International Symposium will be held in Shanghai in March 2000, where the prosecutors will meet and discuss the Tribunal.

14) VAWW-NET Japan's campaign

VAWW-NET Japan, an organization composed of volunteers with a sense of obligation to victims of our nation's military sexual slavery system, is working hard to prepare for the Tribunal. Our research team is currently searching for military documents concerning military sexual slavery, surveying the consciousness of this issue among former members of the imperial army through interviews and questionnaires, and making fact finding missions in various countries. Our video team has produced several documentaries: about a Korean "comfort woman" who passed away in 1997, Chinese "comfort women" in Xianxhi province and Hainan Island, and "comfort stations" in Burma. Films about a Malaysian "comfort woman" and about the mass rape that took place in Philippine village are now being made. VAWW-NET Japan has launched the "Ten-thousand Supporters' Campaign" with the goal of raising 20 million yen ( about US $200.000) by asking 10.000 people to give \2,000 (US $20) for the Tribunal 2000 along with a message card to be displayed at the Tribunal hall. The five founding princiles of VAWW-NET Japan and the Tribunal are to make the Triubnal a women's initiative, in internaitonal solidarity, in partnership with specialists, as a grass-roots movement, and from the perspective of women's human rights. We at VAWW-NET have been working dilligently to create a Tribunal that will reflect these principles.

15) Growing challenges and the need for international support

We hope to make the Tribunal meaningful and effective event that will help to create a 21st century of peace and a future where women's human rights are respected. For that purpose, we have to solve a number of difficult questions and challenges. On what authority is the Tribunal founded? What justice should be restored? What methodologies will be most useful and effective at the Tribunal? How can we do our best to effect due process without presence of the accused? How will the Tribunal reflect the recent progress of international law? Can we uncover more military or historical documents to prove the criminal responsibility of the Japanese state and of individuals? How should we address the issue of the Emperor's responsibility for military sexual slavery? It is vitally important to get support from the international community, in particular from experts in international law, history, human rights, and gender issues. I want to conclude my presentation by asking for your cooperation in the preparato

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