Following the recent agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea regarding compensation toward World War II’s comfort women, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, met with survivor, Ms. Gil Won-ok last week. He highlighted the importance of involving the victims in any process toward resolution and ending the long history of silence.
It was not until the start of 1990 (45 years after the war had ended) that the victims themselves began to conduct demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. They called these protests Wednesday Demonstrations and would wait another four years for the Japanese government to finally admit its role in the sexual violence perpetrated by its military. Over an estimated 200,000 girls and women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, many from South Korea, but also other neighbouring Asian nations. Of these hundreds of thousands of brave women, only 46 are still alive today.
The new deal, brokered in December of 2015 agreed to commit 1 billion ysen ($8.3 million) in reparations and an official apology from Japan. UN Human Rights experts are concerned that the deal still falls short of recognising the demands of the victims, who were not involved in the process. UN Chief Ban Ki-moon recognises how important it is for these women to be part of the dialogue, “It is crucial that the voices of victims and survivors are head.”
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women said the deal failed to use a ‘victim-centred approach’. The body were also concerned that the Republic of Korea would remove a statue that commemorates ‘not only the historical issue and legacy of the comfort women but also symbolising the survivors’ long search for justice.’
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan, upon announcement of the deal recognised that the crimes were a ‘grave affront to the honour and dignity’ of the women who ‘suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women’.
The silence surrounding sexual violence in armed conflict not only omitted women from the historical war narrative, but relegated them to a soldier’s commodity, little more than incidental collateral. This was particularly true for women victims of WWII. Rape had been omitted from the Nuremburg Trials, as there was concern that victims would have brought too much emotion into the courtroom.
At the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, landmark strides in international law achieved recognition, prosecutions and even convictions for rape such as the mass atrocity committed in the village of Nanjing. This would later set precedence for the further development of laws governing the protection of civilians from sexual violence.
While international legal systems like the International Criminal Court are making good headway with increased victim participation, the process of victim reparation generally cannot occur until many years after the conflict has ended and the rule of law has once again been established.
Victim support in armed conflict relies heavily on international human rights organisations to offer rehabilitation while war continues to destabilise domestic justice systems. As UN Human Rights experts say of the Japan, Republic of Korea deal, it is now a ‘race against time’ since the survivors are now aged in their 80s and 90s.
As is seen from the agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea, peaceful relations can take years to finally reach resolution. What is most important is the participation of victims and ensuring that both governments will meet their needs.