The Violence Against Women in War Network, Japan (VAWW-NET) created a tribunal to acknowledge and seek justice for victims of sexual war crimes. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese government created a system of sexual slavery through a network of “comfort stations,” brothel facilities controlled by the military. An estimated 400,000 women and girls were forced into the system. For close to 50 years, the atrocity remained behind a veil of silence.
In 1998, VAWW-NET proposed the establishment of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal. An International Organizing Committee (the IOC) was formed, including representatives from nongovernmental organizations in victims’ home countries, Japan and the international community. The IOC created a charter, set the procedures and rules for the tribunal and prepared for proceedings in Tokyo in December 2000. At the tribunal, prosecution teams from ten countries presented indictments, including a joint indictment from North and South Korea. A four-judge panel representing a balanced geographic and legal spectrum presided over the proceedings. The tribunal heard live and videotaped testimony from survivors, euphemistically called “comfort women," as well as from two former soldiers. Experts also testified about Japanese military structure. The judges reviewed official documents, memoirs, diaries and legal briefs. The tribunal hall was packed throughout the proceedings with up to 1,000 observers and members of the international media. After three days, the tribunal issued preliminary findings of fact and law and recommended reparations.
The tribunal created a historical record and raised awareness in the international community about sexual war crimes. The government of Japan, with the citizens of Japan, set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) in 1995 to express its apologies and remorse, and to provide compensation to victims. Although the fund has raised 483 million yen (approximately US$4 million) for victims, many survivors and supporters view the AWF as a means for the Japanese government to avoid paying direct compensation; some of the victims have declined compensation from this private fund.
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A network in Asia organized an international tribunal to preserve the memory of abuses that occurred decades before, and to demand compensation.
This tribunal broke decades of silence surrounding a subject taboo in Japan and difficult for the international community to face. It brought worldwide attention to the suffering of the “comfort women,” and even prompted private donations for the victims. It did not, however, succeed in holding the Japanese government to its responsibility to provide direct compensation.
A tribunal like this might be used on its own to break the silence around other issues — whether of this magnitude or on a much smaller scale — or to build momentum toward other international efforts, such as creating a fund for victims or building a powerful international movement.
Mock judicial procedures like these can also be used outside the country where the abuse occurred. In the United States, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights organized a mock tribunal of the Khmer Rouge at which members of the local Cambodian community testified about the genocide in Cambodia. This gave Cambodians a chance to tell their stories, and local residents in the state of Minnesota a chance to learn about the new people arriving in their communities and what these people had survived. As part of the project a videotaped oral history was created that is now part of the permanent collection of the Minnesota History Center.