ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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OnAsian Wars, Reparations, Reconciliation

The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery offers a unique perspective for posing issues pertaining not only to Japanese war crimes, but also to those committed by other nations.

The diminutive witness struggled un-steadily to gain her feet and then launched into a story that had been seared into her memory over the six decades since the events: Wan Aihua was eleven when Japanese soldiers stormed her north China village, killing her parents, raping her, and beginning her enslavement as a ‘comfort woman’ to Japanese forces. Under the repeated prodding of the tough young Chinese prosecutor, her story crescendoed to an emotional peak and she collapsed on the stage, requiring emergency hospitalisation. Her testimony was among many presented by 75 former comfort women to the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery. A Japanese and international audience of more than 1,300 attended the Tribunal convened by the Japan-based NGO – Violence Against Women in War Network from December 8 to 12, 2000. The tribunal offers a unique perspective for posing issues pertaining not only to Japanese war crimes, but also to those committed by other nations. In the docket, charged with personal responsibility for crimes against humanity, were emperor Hirohito, prime minister Tojo Hideki and Japan’s leading wartime field commanders. More important perhaps, the tribunal presented charges of crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery and systemic rape, against the Japanese colonial state. An international team of chief prosecutors headed by Patricia Viseur-Sellers, an American legal advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavian nations and Australian legal scholar, Ustinia Dolgopol, joined prosecutorial teams from a joint North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia and the Netherlands. Chief judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an American who had served as president of the Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal, was joined on the bench by Carmen Maria Argibay, the Argentine president of the International Association of Women Judges, Christine Chinkin, a London university expert on gender and international law and Willy Mutunga, chair of Kenya’s Commission on Human Rights.

As Hobsbawm and others have observed, the twentieth century is likely to be remembered above all for the destructiveness of its wars. In a century in which efforts were made to develop universal protocols to restrict the scope of war and hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity through international law, the reality has been the unbridled expansion of the targets of war to non-combatants including unprecedented levels of sexual violence against women. As the tribunal’s charter observed, the twentieth century came to an end ‘without any justice done to women victims and survivors of sexual slavery committed by the Japanese military in various Asian countries under its colonial domination’. More than half a century after the commission of these crimes, including the enslavement of perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 Asian comfort women and mass military rape, ‘the survivors do not receive a word of acknowledgment of the crimes by the perpetrators, nor is there any genuine apology made or reparations provided by those responsible for the crimes committed against them while one survivor after another is passing away without any redress’.

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