A court has ruled to demand that the Japanese government pay 100 million won (US$91,072) each in damages to victims of wartime sexual slavery. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by 12 plaintiffs, including the late Bae Chun-hee, and victims’ family members.
The first-ever ruling to recognize the Japanese government’s responsibility for the victimization of the so-called “comfort women” is hugely significant in historical terms: It legally establishes where responsibility for this crime against humanity lies, and it opens a path toward real justice for the victims.
The big question in the trial was whether a South Korean court had jurisdiction over acts by the Japanese government. The Japanese government argued “state immunity,” insisting that sovereign acts by a state cannot be subject to judicial decisions in another country. But the court concluded that the comfort women system “not only was in violation of agreements and international regulations ratified by the Japanese empire at the time, but also constituted a ‘crime against humanity’ stipulated as being subject to punishment in the Tokyo Charter after the Second World War.”
“The theory of ‘state immunity’ was not established for states that violate international peremptory norms and cause grave harm to individuals in another country to be provided with an opportunity to hide behind a theory and avoid providing compensation and indemnification,” the court said. This is a very sensible interpretation of the law based on current international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As a system, international law very much tends to represent the victors’ side. In 2004, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that the German government had to pay damages to an Italian citizen who had been kidnapped by the German military and forced to perform labor during World War II. But the International Court of Justice later (ICJ) came out with a more conservative ruling that took Germany’s side. In any case, international law is not impervious to change. Indeed, it needs to change to keep up with values of human rights and justice that humankind has achieved.
There is also no comparison between Germany, which has acknowledged its responsibility for war crimes and worked to provide compensation for the victims, and Japan, which has offered no apology or official compensation whatsoever.
The Japanese government insists that it will not recognize the agreement at all, sticking to its position that the matter was resolved by the 1965 South Korea-Japan claims settlement agreement and the 2015 agreement reached between the two sides’ foreign ministers. Indeed, Tokyo has said that it does not even intend to appeal the decision. Once the ruling is finalized, the next step is execution, which stands to become an even bigger source of diplomatic conflict.
Seoul’s position is that the judiciary’s decision must be respected. The Japanese government needs to clearly recognize that unless it changes course and acknowledges its historical and legal responsibility for these crimes against humanity, it will only be that much more difficult for South Korea and Japan to achieve a future-oriented relationship.
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