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More than 650 people from 20 countries and 40 activist groups gathered in Tokyo in early November for the International Conference on Violence Against Women in War and Armed Conflict Situations. Meeting in the capital of a nation that is still trying to come to terms with its own history of wartime sexual violence, activists stressed the need for international solidarity networks to support women who have been victims of sexual violence and called for women to back the creation of an international criminal court that could bring perpetrators of gender violence to justice. The conference devoted special attention to the plight of the "comfort women," the euphemistic name for the sex slaves who were forced into serving the Japanese military during the Pacific War from 1931 to 1945.
Sexual violence committed by troops during peacetime, a problem that has received considerable attention in Japan since the September 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen, also was discussed at the conference. Eleanor Conda, a Filipino attorney working with the International Women's Rights Watch, Asia Pacific, said, "In the lull of actual fighting, silent guns are being fired. ... We have to look at how peacekeeping operations as well as U.S. military bases jeopardize the situation of women. ... We must challenge our governments and ask them, what kind of security are we after, and whose security is it?"
In a declaration issued on the last day of the conference, public symposium participants emphasized that "violence occurring during war and armed conflict situations represents the extension of violence against women which occurs on a daily basis even in so-called 'times of peace.'"
With Japan's wartime past providing a backdrop for the conference, speakers at the public symposium returned time and again to the theme of historical continuity. Maria Do Ceu Federer, of the East Timor International Support Center, pointed out that during the Japanese occupation of Timor from 1942 to 1945, at least 45,000 people were killed out of a population of about 650,000. She then discussed Indonesia's invasion of Timor, which by some estimates has led to the deaths of 200,000 people. Noting that Japan today is the main investor and provider of aid to Indonesia and the other countries of Southeast Asia, she argued, "What the Japanese government was doing directly during the Pacific War, they are now doing indirectly through the corrupt governments of Southeast Asia."
Although the Japanese government was harshly criticized for sins past and present, the spirit of the conference was anything but anti-Japanese. One speaker, Mariem Helie Lucas, thanked Japanese activists who helped organize the conference and who are fighting on behalf of the comfort women. Addressing the Japanese participants at the conference, she said, "It's always more difficult to fight from within the aggressor country."
Lepa Mladjenovic, an activist from Belgrade, Serbia, who helped create the Autonomous Women's Center Against Sexual Violence, highlighted the importance of international networking among women's activists. Her group established links with women in Bosnia and Croatia who were victimized by the Serbian military. "This was not easy," she said. "But it was possible because we were explicitly against the Serbian regime's aggression. The women we made contact with in Bosnia and Croatia also became opposed to their governments."
Mladjenovic's group also built a strong support network throughout Western Europe. As a result, the women's center was able to procure medicines for women in the war zones and set up an e-mail service so that women in the war-torn region could communicate with each other and coordinate actions.
Mladjenovic said her group also translated articles by Japanese and Korean women describing their experiences with wartime sexual violence. In addition, former sex slaves from the Philippines visited Bosnian women, providing a source of strength to women who had suffered sexual violence during the war in Bosnia.
The Comfort Women: Seeking Justice and Setting the Record Straight
Inside the conference hall where the public symposium was held, a banner covering one of the walls read: "The Japanese government must apologize and compensate directly each comfort woman."
According to reliable estimates, as many as 200,000 women were held at "comfort stations" set up by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Pacific War. In recent years, former comfort women have come forward with their stories and are pressuring the Japanese government for justice.
Their cause is receiving worldwide support. UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy, following a mission to Asia in April 1996, released a report that called on the Japanese government to acknowledge that its comfort stations system constituted a violation of international law; to issue a public apology in writing to the former comfort women; to ensure full disclosure of all documents and materials in its possession pertaining to comfort stations and related activities; to change the Japanese educational curriculum so that it includes the history of comfort women; and to identify and punish those who were involved in the establishment of comfort stations.
In response to the movement of the former comfort women, the Japanese government has set up the Asian Women's Fund to provide compensation to survivors of the Japanese military's sexual violence and slavery. Money for the fund, however, comes from private sources, not directly from the Japanese government. Most Asian women's activists and former comfort women have rejected this attempt to make amends, seeking direct compensation from the Japanese government and compliance with the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur.
The comfort women issue remains controversial among Japanese. Last year, when junior high school textbooks included for the first time a reference to the comfort women, some Japanese protested, saying there was no proof that the military forced women to provide sexual favors to soldiers of the Imperial Army. Some prefectural and local governments called for the passage on the comfort women to be deleted from textbooks. Meanwhile, one book which challenges the negative accounts of Japan's war past has sold more than 2 million copies. The author of the book, Fujioka Nobukatsu, a Tokyo University professor spearheading a historical revisionist movement which espouses nationalist sentiments, said in an interview, "If the Imperial Army really did forcibly recruit the 'comfort women,' the matter is extremely serious. ... If it is true, then Japan as a country is guilty of enormous sexual crimes. Could this really be so?"
Apparently, it could. The evidence against the revisionist claims is overwhelming, and according to law professor and Japanese war crimes researcher Ustinia Dolgopol, it comes not only from the women who have stepped forth to speak to the world about Japan's wartime atrocities.
Dolgopol explained that the existence of the comfort stations was common knowledge among the Allies during and immediately after the Pacific War. (Some Allied soldiers even are said to have taken advantage of comfort women after moving into areas previously occupied by the Japanese.) Allies collected testimonies from Chinese and Filipino women who had been forced to serve Japanese troops, and Japanese POWs also were interviewed about the existence of wartime brothels. During the Tokyo war crimes trials, numerous references were made to Chinese women who had served in Japanese military brothels.
Dolgopol read from several Japanese POW testimonies that were made to Allied investigators. One POW spoke about brothels in Borneo where Chinese, Japanese and Korean were present. Another POW said that Timorese families were threatened with execution unless they surrendered their daughters.
Dolgopol believes that horrific crimes committed by militaries against women must continue to be described so that people can empathize with survivors. She also says that due to the Japanese government's refusal to acknowledge its guilt in connection with sexual violence and slavery, it may be time to push for war crime trials against those responsible for setting up and administering the comfort stations. "We have documents that list possible war criminals," she says. "The names of the comfort women are now in the public domain. Perhaps now's the time to publish the names of those who committed the war crimes against these women."
An International Criminal Court: What's in it for Women?
One of the main topics at the conference was a UN proposal to establish an international criminal court that could hear war crimes cases, and also cases involving crimes committed during peacetime. Samya Burney, who works with Human Rights Watch and the Coalition for Gender Justice, believes women have a stake in seeing the court become a viable means of achieving justice.
With June 1998 set as the deadline for completion of a treaty establishing the court, there remain crucial questions concerning how the court will operate and whom it ultimately will serve. The court's jurisdiction would be triggered when national judicial mechanisms are found to be "unavailable or ineffective." Burney, raising the obvious question, said, "Who will decide when a nation's judicial mechanisms are 'unavailable or ineffective'? Hopefully not governments."
Another problem concerns the power that some nations would like to wield over the court. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are seeking "near veto power" over the court, says Burney. In addition, some members of the UN want the security council to act as a gatekeeper that decides who gets access to the court. Other members, meanwhile, want to allow only states to be plaintiffs in cases brought before the court. Burney argues that "individuals and NGOs should have direct access to the court, and that prosecutors should be able to initiate a case based on available evidence."
As a permanent court, Burney contends, the international criminal court would be able to develop trained staff and could evolve "appropriate jurisprudence procedures." Still, Burney says, "Crimes against women need to be explicitly mentioned in the treaty, otherwise they will be ignored by the court's judges." Her assertion is borne out by what occurred at the Tokyo tribunal, where no case involving sexual violence was ever tried, in spite of plentiful evidence. More recently, Burney's contention has been confirmed by the performance of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which has yet to hand down a single rape indictment, even though an estimated 250,000 women were victims of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Although the conference focused on the structural dimensions of sexual violence, some participants called attention to the attitudes of individual men and the responsibility they bear for perpetuating gender crime. Serbian activist Mladjenovic recalled asking one man why he was joining the war: "He said, 'For the killing and fucking.'" Indian activist Ritu Menon, in her description of events surrounding a mass rape in Kashmir by Indian soldiers, recounted, "One senior Indian journalist said to me, 'They were only raped. They weren't killed.' This was shocking, but not surprising. This is how men, and militaries, rationalize violence against women." She added, "While it is great that we've built this international solidarity among women, it would also be great if we could get men to join us."
Some contacts for people interested in learning more/getting involved:
Asian Centre for Women's Human Rights (ASCENT) P.O. Box AC 662 Cubao 1135, Quezon City, Philippines e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Asia-Japan Women's Resource Center FAX: 81-3-3463-9752 e-mail: email@example.com
Human Rights Watch 485 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10017 U.S.A. phone: (212)972-8400