Human Rights Council 32nd Session – Side Panel on the “Comfort Women” Issue

Human Rights Council 32nd Session, June 2016:  Joint WHRI-Korean Council Side Panel on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery

Photo:  90-year old survivor Kim Bok-dong speaking at the HRC32 side panel, Geneva, June 2016

In June 2016, WHRI Executive Director Angela Lytle travelled to the Human Rights Council session with survivor Kim Bok-dong and the representatives of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council), further to our joint communication to the UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice regarding the flawed bilateral agreement on the issue made by the ROK and Japanese governments in December 2015.   Find more information about this agreement and its flaws here:

As well as meeting with various UN experts and State Representatives, the two organizations co-convened a side panel to explore the problems with the agreement and the ongoing impunity for these crimes against humanity.   Speakers included survivor and activist Kim Bok-dong, Korean Council representative Yoon Meehyang, UNWGDAW Chair Frances Raday, and WHRI Executive Director Angela Lytle.

The text of the statement given by Angela Lytle at the HRC32 side event on the flawed bilateral agreement between ROK and Japanese governments follows:

I am here today representing the Women’s Human Rights Institute, an organization that conducts education, advocacy and research in the area of women’s human rights, with a particular focus on the CEDAW Convention and other human rights mechanisms.  Our international team at the WHRI has a long history of supporting the movement of survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery in various capacities, including through education and advocacy, and I personally have been engaged with the movement for the last ten years.

I had the great fortune to get to know several of the survivors personally while living in South Korea, through spending time with them informally as well as in public settings, and am honoured to carry their testimonies, the gift and responsibility of historical knowledge that continues to be marginalized and undermined, as are women’s voices on sexualized violence in all spheres. The bilateral agreement between ROK and Japan flagrantly ignores and undermines human rights standards, and contributes to the ongoing invisibilization of CW survivors in particular as well as supporting the ongoing trend of denying women’s experiences as valid forms of knowledge.  The experience of the survivors calls us to face squarely the manner in which colonization, patriarchy and discrimination against women, racism, war and militarization, poverty, and social marginalization intersect to render some bodies dispensable, perpetuating a situation of impunity in which survivors of gross human rights violations have no access to justice.  Truly, this agreement does not represent progress on this issue, but several steps back in the struggle for the recognition of survivors as human rights holders.  It is our position that this bilateral agreement is not only an affront to the dignity of the survivors of military sexual slavery, but that it has much wider implications for the health and vitality of the human rights system as a whole.  Let us take a closer look at the multiple layers of problems highlighted by this bilateral agreement.  We would like to highlight two areas of fundamental concern:  the undermining of the human rights system and the chilling effect on civil society advocacy and activism.

  1. Undermining of the Human Rights System

Since the mid-1990s, when the movement of survivors of military sexual slavery by Japan began to gain momentum transnationally, very specific recommendations have been made to the Japanese government regarding how to reconcile the issue from a human rights framework.  Two comprehensive reports on the issue were undertaken by Special Rapporteurs in the mid-1990s, and specific recommendations have been made by five UN human rights treaty bodies as well as by the Human Rights Council. Other statements of support and/or recommendations have been made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and multiple special rapporteurs and working groups on human rights.  The recommendations have been based in a human rights framework and on understandings of the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law, based on the recognition that ample proof is available to demonstrate that the Japanese government of the time was directly involved in the creation and maintenance of systematized sexual slavery for their military and have a legal and moral imperative to make formal reparations for these gross human rights violations in a spirit of openness and reconciliation.

These recommendations have included:  investigation of human rights violations and prosecutions of perpetrators; full reparations to victims and their families; disclosure of all available evidence; education of students and the general public about this issue, including in textbooks; expression of a public apology and official recognition of responsibility by the State party; and condemnation of attempts to defame victims or deny the events.

The most recent recommendations were issued by the CEDAW Committee in March 2016, which reiterated earlier recommendations as well as calling for the State to ensure victim-survivors views be taken into account in regard to the Dec 2015 agreement, and to ensure their rights to truth, justice and reparations.

Given what we have already heard about the bilateral agreement between ROK and Japan, it is clear that not only did the agreement fail to adopt a victim-centred approach, which is a core human rights tenet for providing redress for human rights violations, it did not fully integrate any of the recommendations made by the human rights system.  As shared by my colleagues, the funds provided through the agreement are not official reparations, no apology was made by the Prime Minister in his official capacity, and not only were provisions for investigation, disclosure and education left out of the agreement entirely, the promise of the ROK government to negotiate for the possible removal of the CW memorial statue at the request of the Japanese government indicates the intention to invisibilize rather than disclose.  It is our position that the complete absence of a human rights framework renders this agreement invalid.

By extension, we also feel compelled to express a great level of concern for the implications of this agreement for the human rights system on the whole.  What message are these two States, both key and powerful players at the UN and on a global scale, sending about their commitment to human rights implementation by brokering a bilateral agreement that violates their international human rights obligations?  What kind of commitment can be expected towards implementation of women’s human rights treaties, or the UN Women, Peace and Security framework that seeks to comprehensively address WHR violations in situations of conflict, if this agreement moves forward?  What justice can there be for victims of sexualized violence in war today, if an issue more than 70 years old cannot be squarely faced and rectified?  It is our position that the Human Rights Council must take a strong and united stand to ensure that this agreement is not considered the end of the issue, but that the States in question must be convinced to revisit the agreement to bring it fully in line with their human rights obligations.  This would indicate a commitment not only to this particular issue, but support for the vitality of the human rights system on the whole.

  1. Chilling Effect on Civil Society Activism

The backlash against civil society activism on a global scale is well-documented and attested to in the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented at this 32nd session of the Human Rights Council on “recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society.” (A/HRC/32/20)  Several factors that support civil society’s active participation in promoting good governance are explored in the report, including the need for a conducive public and political environment.  This agreement is having the opposite effect on the movement, for between the lines can be read a clear intention to stifle civil society engagement on this issue.  The proposed removal of the public memorial statue has created an adversarial environment for survivors and their supporters.  Just a few weeks ago, the memorial statue in Seoul was attacked with a hammer while a group of students stood vigil to protect the statue from harm or removal in the wake of the agreement.  In addition, the assertion that this agreement “finally and irreversibly” ends dialogue on the issue by these governments creates an atmosphere in which backlash and repression of contradictory opinions renders activists vulnerable to attack.  Advocates for the survivors are experiencing a great deal of personal harassment and targeting by right-wing groups and media groups in both countries.  Their faces and personal details have been widely disseminated, and slanderous allegations are being spread widely.  In addition, the Japanese government has squarely ignored the human rights bodies’ recommendation to condemn defamation of victims or denials.  Since the agreement passed, several Japanese government officials have made statements denying that the “comfort stations” represented sexual slavery, terminology which has been reinforced by the human rights system to describe these human rights violations.  Survivors are suffering greatly, lingering effects of trauma revisited by the repeated insults and denials.  When they visit Japan for advocacy, right-wing protestors hurl insults at them, such as “Korean prostitutes, go home!” This conduct of Japanese government officials alone, whether directly making statements or ignoring this ongoing defamation, indicates that the agreement, even in its limited frame, was not entered into in good faith.

We also feel compelled to share our strong concerns about the chilling effect of this agreement on civil society activism and engagement with the human rights system.  For 20 years, the survivors of sexual slavery by the Japanese military have put strong faith in the UN human rights system, going to great effort to fundraise and travel to the UN on a regular basis, in the belief that their testimonies as survivors would be heard by human rights bodies, and that using a human rights framework was essential to their pursuit of justice.  While there is no question that human rights experts have heard the survivors and rendered excellent recommendations, the impunity with which those recommendations are ignored is profoundly concerning, and raises the question of the efficacy of this form of advocacy, and of the ability of the human rights system to respond.  Certainly, human rights bodies do not have the role or ability to force their will upon States:  States enter into these agreements willingly and must apply their own political will to human rights implementation.  However, in the wake of the agreement, both governments received praise and recognition for their efforts, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and key State allies such as Canada and the US.  We have to ask: where is the commitment to developing a culture of human rights, when two States receive praise for an agreement with the complete absence of a human rights framework, that failed to take victim-survivors and civil society into account?  Today 91-year old survivor Kim Bok-dong has travelled halfway around the world to keep telling her story at great personal cost, and to share her view on this agreement, in the belief that the human rights system will continue to amplify her voice and value her as a rights-holder.  It is up to all of us, including the States of the Human Rights Council, to ensure that her journey is not in vain.

By way of closing, I would like to reiterate that as a women’s human rights organization, we stand with survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery in calling for a human rights-based approach to reconciling this issue, and express our strong dismay about the bilateral agreement between the ROK and Japan.  In order to continue the promotion of human rights as the foundation for a world in which social justice is an attainable reality, we cannot afford to be silent, and allow this agreement to stand. The promise that women’s rights are human rights and not subsidiary issues that come secondary to geopolitical concerns must be upheld. We must stand together to say with conviction that conduct which indicates that certain women or groups of people marginal to the axis of power are less valuable human beings than others is not acceptable.   The survivors and their advocates need our strong calls for the agreement to be revisited from a human rights perspective, with a clear message that this way of undermining the rights of survivors and the human rights system will not be tolerated.


Photo:  Kim Bok-dong, Korean Council representative Yoon Meehyang and Angela Lytle meeting with the OHCHR staff supporting the UNWGDAW at the Palais Wilson, Geneva.