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
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
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
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
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: [email protected]
Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center FAX: 81-3-3463-9752 e-mail: [email protected]
Human Rights Watch 485 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10017 U.S.A. phone: (212)972-8400