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March 10, 2014

Indonesian Comfort Women Seek Justice as Time Runs Out

The term Jugun Ianfu (Comfort Women) refers to those women who were forced into sexual slavery to fulfill the sexual needs of Japanese military personnel and civil officers at ianjo or comfort stations during the Asian Pacific War in 1931-1945.  Most people in the U.S. think about this era as World War II, which included the European Theater as well as Asia, but the U.S. did not enter the war until 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The sexual slavery system was created by the Japanese military to operate in the areas they occupied and was part of the Japanese logistical war strategy during the Asia Pacific War of 1931-1945.

The total number of wartime Jugun Ianfu will never be known for sure. The estimate is at least 200,000 women from Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, The Philippines, The Netherlands, Malaysia, Timor Leste, and Indonesia.  In Indonesia, there are around 22,000 former Jugun Ianfu as reported by Ex-Heiho Forum, and 1,156 as reported by Legal Aid Institute-Jogjakarta (Hartono & Juliantoro 1997). This does not include unreported cases because some former Jugun Ianfu are ashamed or have passed away.

Sixty-nine years have passed since the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces in 1945. The official silence about Jugun Ianfu was broken 23 years ago with the testimony of South Korean survivor, Kim Hak Soon in 1991 at the “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery,” convened first in Tokyo, Japan, in 2000, and again at The Hague, Netherlands in 2001. These tribunals were significant in their decision to hold Emperor Hirohito, high military officers, and staff responsible for the crimes. However, as a main perpetrator, the Japanese government has yet to take responsibility for these actions during the war.

Hence, many of the survivors have been faced with new forms of violence. The wounds of Japanese colonialism and war still fester in several nations in East and Southeast Asia. In a number of countries, in particular South and North Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, the Philippines, Timor Leste, the Netherlands, and Taiwan, “…the plight of Jugun Ianfu in particular has come to symbolize imperial Japan’s war crimes.” (Soh 2008:1) In general, attitudes regarding the proper place of the Jugun Ianfu in the social landscape both nationally (South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) and internationally have not changed significantly. Today, these Jugun Ianfu survivors, who are now in their late eighties and nineties, still live with terrifying memories of their captivity and sexual enslavement. Many suffer from irreparable psychological and physical wounds.

Time is Running Out for Justice

The need to address justice for Indonesian Jugun Ianfu survivors is now at a critical juncture.  While most Jugun Ianfu survivors in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines have courageously stepped forward and are telling the truth of what happened to them, only a small number of Jugun Ianfu survivors in Indonesia have emerged from the shadows to tell their stories to the public.  This reluctance to be heard is the result of a great sense of guilt, shame, fear, insecurity, and social depression that is embedded within Indonesian society regarding Jugun Ianfu survivors. Indonesian and Japanese societies have stigmatized and marginalized these tragic victims who allege that they continue to suffer with the ongoing outrage of being denounced as prostitutes or “gross humans” within their own communities.

Justice for the Indonesian Jugun Ianfu can only become a reality if survivors step forward and tell the truth. By telling the truth, the terrible psychological damage of stigmatization can be erased and the deep physical and psychological wounds of the Indonesian Jugun Ianfu can begin to heal. The truth about the systematic use of women as sexual slaves describes a criminal act, one that is further compounded by governments that continue to deny that these women were unwilling victims.  This false version of history requires legal remedies and the recanting of decades of false testimony.

The Jugun Ianfu in Indonesia need to tell the truth about how they suffered in the past, not only from sexual violence, but also from the loss of family during a brutal conflict that occurred over many years. Truth-telling is the only way in which Jugun Ianfu survivors have any chance at all to even begin the process of lessening the physical and psychological trauma they endured. Truth is oriented toward creating a transparent history, and it is from this orientation that I propose truth-telling as a way to heal the wounds and lessen the effects of the trauma suffered by these victims.  If there is any hope for these women who have suffered so terribly to develop even a small element of trust, it will be through truth-telling.  It remains to be seen if it is even realistic to expect the Jugun Ianfu to be able to find any way to forgive those who perpetrated these horrific crimes against them during their enslavement.

The concept of truth-telling requires that there be full confessions from the perpetrators. However, in the case of the Jugun Ianfu in Indonesia, the truth-telling process will focus only on the voices of the victims. Time is of the essence as survivors are growing older.  Those survivors still alive today may die before they receive the justice they deserve for the great suffering they endured which has effectively taken their entire lives from them.

Lessons from South Africa

There are four important initiatives based on truth-telling that are recommended in order to achieve justice for Indonesia’s Jugun Ianfu survivors. These important are adapted from the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Chaired by Desmond Tutu who was appointed by Nelson Mandela.  I have summarized the adaptation of each of the four truth-telling initiatives below:

1)  Factual or forensic truth which refers to “the familiar legal or scientific notion of bringing to light corroborated evidence in obtaining accurate information through reliable (impartial, objective) procedures” (Fisher 2000:133). This Commission will try to identify the building and locations for the ianjo in the areas of Japanese military deployment and look for the eyewitnesses in order to collect testimony and evidence. This Commission will also search for a village of ianjo and will look for buildings which were used as ianjo.  The testimony of victims and eyewitnesses will help to confirm the location where the ianjo was established.

2)  Personal narrative truth which calls for the stories of victims: These narratives “tell the history of the lives of women” (Personal Narratives Group 1989:4). In a situation wherein the victim may find it difficult to tell her personal narrative, the life story is told to a second person through presentation, discussion and exhibition. The second person then records every necessary document such as pictures, videos, diaries, journals and letters. I recommend four different forms of personal narrative, these are: first, non-verbal literature such as books – biography and autobiographies, journals, letters and diaries; second, art performance such as theater, short/long cinema and documentary; third, art exhibition such as paintings and photographs; and fourth, personal narrative taught by second person such as presentations and discussion at conferences and symposiums. The publication of the life histories of survivors must be coupled with press conferences through credible media to awaken the senses of the public about the said issue.

3)  Social truth targets to establish bridges between individuals in the process of education: Meaning, the truth can be realized during social mutual interaction between the survivors and the second persons. The objective of social truth as a truth-telling method through education is based on the paradigm that “peace can be educated by emphasizing the role of individual’s attitude and change of behavior for the attainment of peace” (Galtung 1975). Truth Commission or other actors can call this program Education for Reconciliation or it can create other related names.

Here are the Education for Reconciliation programs I recommend:

  • Establish and maintain a Survivors House to serve as a place to do historical research and that includes an education center.  It should also be a temporary shelter for the survivors.
  • Organize the “Friendship” program that aims to build a network between survivors, academia, and individuals.
  • Establish an integration program by organizations or other actors for survivors and the families of survivors, aiming to provide important mechanisms to assist the survivors in their quest for reconciliation.
  • Establish an historical museum and memorial monument.
  • To be workable, organizations or other actors must organize Education for Reconciliation with Information, Education, and Media Relations advocacy programs. Besides those programs, the           Education for Reconciliation programs must be aligned with other assistance programs such as the welfare assistance programs, campaign and advocacy work, lawsuit support action, a monthly general meeting for the survivors and families, and finally, the establishment of an international networking program.

4)   Restorative truth refers to “the macro level of analysis in finding facts and meaning in human relationships such as between survivors and the society or between survivors and the state” (Fisher 2000:133). The process of holding public hearings can be one clear example of this procedure.

Truth-telling is just one tool in reconciliation’s toolkit, but it is the tool that serves as the foundation for eventual reconciliation. The other tools that complete the picture and make reconciliation possible include healing, retributive justice, and reparation.  In Indonesia, where the issue of Jugun Ianfu is not acknowledged by the public and the Indonesian government refuses to address the issue, truth-telling by the victims is critical in order to get all of the information into the hands of the public.  It is at this point that other contributors to achieving full justice for the Jugun Ianfu of Indonesia enter the effort.  These important players would include local, national, and international news outlets covering the Jugun Ianfu story from beginning to end.


Although truth-telling can be a strong, effective way for the voices of Jugun Ianfu survivors to be heard, it is almost invariably extremely difficult in many cultural contexts.  Few cultures in the world encourage exposing stories of severe mistreatment by governments.  It is rare to find cultures where people approve of their fellow citizens talking openly about very private matters. In the case of Indonesian Jugun Ianfu survivors, they stand alone against a government that denies the historical facts.

Imagine these now elderly women being questioned as if they were veteran prostitutes, with decades of their lives lived in the dangerous world of crime on the edges of cities and towns.  Try to feel as they would sitting across from interrogators in a badly lit, mostly barren room.  Hear these frail survivors as they bear the entire burden of telling the truth about the life of “comfort women” who serviced the sexual needs of military men of all ranks, as well as civil servants and others who were deemed deserving of having their physiological sexual needs satisfied by young women who were captured from mostly Asian countries and held against their wills with no chance of escape.

The Jugun Ianfu women, now in their eighties and nineties, are telling the truth about how they were rounded up and transported to areas called ianjo, or comfort stations, where they began decades of sexual slavery and the unimaginable trauma that resulted from their imprisonment.  Japan established the Jugun Ianfu as part of their strategic planning for conflict starting in 1931.  The services of these enslaved women were treated as a vital element contributing to the welfare of military personnel on a par with as food, clothing, and medical care.

The truth-telling by these brave Indonesian Jugun Ianfu will inspire the others who have hidden in the shadows for many reasons, not the least of which is the psychological trauma and damage they suffered at the hands of their captors. This foundation of truth-telling can be joined by the justice of reparation in order to achieve complete reconciliation. When the Indonesian Jugun Ianfu receive reparation and the offenders are made to pay, through legal channels, for the physical and psychological trauma they caused these women, reconciliation will be within reach as will the final chapter in this shameful, horrific, inhumane treatment endured by the Indonesian Jugun Ianfu.

Some of the text in this post appears on the author’s blog entries at: http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/

Some of the text in this post appears in the author’s master’s thesis:
“Truth-telling as a Foundation for Reconciliation for the Jugun Ianfu in Indonesia” http://rotaryicu.wordpress.com/rotary-fellows/

March 8, 2014

The International Criminal Court – Mammoth or White Elephant?

I first heard about the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2000 as a student, when I was introduced to the world of international human rights of women. The subject was new and exciting for me. I was enthusiastic about grasping all that I could about international mandates. As a women’s rights activist from India, I was thrilled about gaining new insights about mechanisms and institutions that could be tapped at the international level for protecting women’s rights. At that point in time, there was also hope and jubilation among women’s groups globally since by then the International Criminal Tribunal of Yugoslavia (ICTY) had declared that sexual crimes and rapes carried out during armed conflict were a weapon of war and had to be prosecuted as such. The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda had set similar precedents. Both of these courts have to be credited with bringing sexual crimes committed during conflict into the realm of international jurisprudence.

The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials held after World War II did deal with the rape of women, but there was no punishment meted out to the perpetrators. While there was substantial evidence on record to demonstrate that sexual crimes and violence against women had taken place as a systematic and planned strategy of war, the courts refrained from acting in that direction [1].

So sexual crimes and violence directed at women during conflict remained untouched or was ignored until the late 1990’s when it began to be mentioned and taken seriously as part of international law [2]. There was hope among women’s rights groups when the United Nations Rome statute was signed in 1998, which would give birth to the International Criminal Court. The statute required ratification by 60 countries before it could become operational. The ICC was born four years later in 2002, a long gestation period indeed!

Today the court stands tall at The Hague, a place that has become symbolic of truth and justice. At present 122 countries are parties to the Rome Statute. The ICC has jurisdiction over four serious crimes to the international community namely genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed after July 1, 2002, as well as crimes of aggression.

So finally after all these years, when I had an opportunity to visit the ICC, I was ecstatic and thrilled! I got to attend a criminal defense proceeding of Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo.

Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo was the leader of the militant group Movement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) which committed atrocities and war crimes from October 26, 2002, to March 15, 2003, in the Central African Republic (CAR). Bemba was arrested as a war criminal and  has been held at the ICC detention center in The Hague since July 2008. He has been charged with crimes against humanity – rape and murder, and war crimes of rape, murder and pillaging towns. The pretrial chamber of the court believed that based on the evidence  presented there were sufficient grounds to bring him to trial for these charges.

The witness testifying that day was a rebel fighter from the MLC. He was reliving stories of how his platoon went about robbing individuals, raping women and girls, and looting towns and villages causing absolute mayhem. While it was unsettling for me to hear all of this, it was difficult to tell whether he felt any remorse or guilt because his voice modulation was continuously changed to ensure confidentiality as part of the witness protection program. Also, it had been almost 10 years since the events occurred, and perhaps he was clinical and detached about it.

The British Defense counsel patiently probed in his clipped English, inquiring about the modus operandi of the platoon. The witness responded in meticulous French (simultaneously translated into English) about the platoon’s actions between 2002 – 2003. The defense was failing in its attempt to establish any alliance between the head of the national forces of the then ruling government of the CAR and the MLC at the time of the conflict. Needless to say, the process was slow, tedious, and time consuming. Interestingly, we could not see the witness.  He was not present in the trial chambers but was instead seated elsewhere with his disguised image being displayed on a TV screen. His voice was also frequently changed so that it would be unrecognizable at a later date.

It was ironic that while the ICC proceedings are supposed to be open and public, there were several times during the trial when the defense counsel asked for a closed session, at which point the shutters were drawn between those of us sitting in the gallery and the trial chamber. At another point, the counsel requested a private session.  In this case, the shutters remained open and, while we could see the judges, the speakers were muted and we could not hear the questions or the responses of the witnesses. This one-day hearing left me wondering about the efficacy of all the previous trial cases.

The court is faced with innumerable challenges. To begin with, it is currently prosecuting only 8 cases and these are all from Africa. In an attempt to provide a fair trial, it is bogged down with providing interpreters and translators for remote Africa languages, which most often do not have a written script. All the accused wants to have their trials conducted in their local languages and the ICC has to honor that provision. So, for instance, languages such as Lingala, Zaghawa, etc., have to be adhered to and finding translators who speak these languages along with English or French poses a huge challenge. Interestingly, some of these languages do not have more than 5,000 words making it difficult to translate sentences in English or French, the working languages of the ICC.

The ICC has an annual budget of 115 million euros. Countries that have ratified the Rome statute fund the court in proportion to their per capita income and population. Sadly, the court has handled only 13 cases since its inception in 2002, out of which four cases were thrown out at the pretrial stage as the prosecution did not build a strong case against the accused.  Only one case has led to conviction at the trial stage and that, too, has gone into appeal.

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is a convicted war criminal from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the first person ever to be convicted by the International Criminal Court. Regrettably, the prosecutor’s office did not include charges of sexual crimes despite there being enough evidence on the ground to support that. Lubanga was convicted only for child recruitment. The reason given for dropping these charges was that his trial had already been quite lengthy, putting the ICC was under pressure to finish it at the earliest date. The fact that sexual crimes were the first charges to be dropped in light of the long tedious proceedings, highlights the low level of relevance attached to these crimes even by the international court.

Further criticisms of the court include accusations of ‘race hunting’ by the African Union since all the cases presented before the court to date have been from Africa. It is a valid criticism since there are far more individuals who would fit the bill of a war criminal from other parts of the world but who go unscathed. And what about countries like Syria and Afghanistan, which are in flames, and where crimes against humanity and war crimes are being carried out daily?

The manner in which the ICC can take up cases is itself limiting. Member states to the ICC can refer cases.  The UN Secretary Council, through a resolution, can refer the case of a UN member state even if that state has not ratified the Roman Statute [3].  Also, the Prosecutor’s office can take on a case proprio motu i.e. the Prosecutor may decide on his own motion that there is reasonable basis to initiate an investigation into a situation in a State Party on the basis of information received. However, to date there have been no proprio motu investigations initiated. In the light of these constrained powers, it is highly unlikely that the ICC would ever extend its tentacles to capture world powers like the USA or the UK who have been responsible for initiating wars, invasions and gross human rights violations on civilian populations as was evidenced in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, the African nations have to bear the brunt of this western hegemony to keep the ICC functional and moving.

The African Union is now proclaiming that since the ICC is only prosecuting criminals from Africa, they would set up their own human rights court on African soil. This thinking has an interesting facet as well. The ICC indicted Ahmad Al Bashir of Sudan during the pretrial stage and issued warrants for his arrest. He has been charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, which also include charges of torture, rape and sexual violence. However despite two warrants being issued against him by the ICC, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, no African nation is willing to arrest him and send him to Hague, hence disallowing the prosecution to move forward [4]. The argument offered is that if he is arrested, then the ongoing peace process in Sudan will break down. While this theory might hold ground and throw up dilemmas of prosecution versus peace building, to me the more realistic argument is that a coterie of African nations protecting each other is the sole reason to push for a Human Rights court in Africa. It is unlikely though that Africa would be able to afford a structure like the ICC.  But if it were to happen then it would indeed be a hilarious reflection of the chaotic state of affairs in the world with respect to international law. Incidentally, I had a chance to interact with the President of the ICC, Mr. Sang Hyun Song. I asked him what opportunities were available to the judiciary at the ICC to engage in judicial activism with specific reference to sexual crimes. Not surprisingly, Song evaded my question and politically resorted to highlighting the gender parity at the court. The fact that there are more women judges are more than male judges (the ratio being 11:8) is proudly proclaimed. But how has it helped advance women’s rights by having more women judges at the ICC? Sexual crimes and crimes against women have been ignored. The court’s first conviction of Lubanga did not charge him with the offense of sexual crimes despite weighty evidence. When the prosecution office ignored/ sidetracked these charges, the judiciary (including the women judges) did not rise to the occasion. What then is the guarantee that future cases will try to include sexual crimes?

Has the ICC become extinct even before it could start performing?  Or is it such an expensive experiment that it should be shelved before it consumes more funds? Considering that the existence, jurisdiction, sustainability and efficacy of the ICC today are itself a burning question, the women’s movement that had so ecstatically welcomed the birth of ICC are now left stoic and demotivated. While interacting with women’s groups here in The Hague, I was told that the negotiating room for NGOs and civil society at the international level has been reduced and there has been a drop in the energy levels of the once enthusiastic and vibrant women NGO coalitions.

India is not a member of the ICC. In fact it opposed its formation vehemently [5]. Nevertheless, even if India had ratified the Rome statute, it is highly unlikely that mass murderers from India would have ever made it to the ICC as war criminals, courtesy the economic clout that India wields internationally. So at least the Indian exchequer has  saved a few million rupees every year.

As for me, while I fulfilled my aspiration, which I had harbored for 13 years, to visit the International Criminal Court and attend a hearing there, the experience left me feeling despondent about the accountability and relevance of international mechanisms in furthering and protecting women’s rights. But as the old adage goes, never say never, so hopefully the judgment day will come.


[1] Evidence shows that in one instance Japanese troops had raped close to 20,000 Chinese women during the first week of their occupation of China, and there were innumerable cases of ‘comfort women’ during the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II; entire conflict from 1931-1945 is also referred to as the Asia Pacific War.

[2] The thinking had started in 1945 but was solidified in February 2001 with the verdict of the Foca Rape Case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

[3] The case of Darfur in Sudan was referred to the ICC by the Security Council.

[4] The ICC has now left the matter to be dealt by the UN Security Council.

[5] India had concerns about the definition of ‘war crimes’ and ‘Crimes against Humanity’ in the Rome Statute. It was mainly concerned about the inclusion of non-international conflicts like Kashmir and other internal disputes in the category of war crimes. It also expressed strong reservations to the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction not being explicitly outlawed and to the right given to the Security Council to refer cases, delay investigations and bind non-State Parties, and to the power of the prosecutor to initiate prosecutions.