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Philippines violated rights of 'comfort women,' says UN women's rights panel

The Philippines was found to have violated the rights of victims of sexual slavery committed by the Japanese Army in World War II by the United Nations committee monitoring the elimination of discrimination against women.

In its views after examining the complaint of 24 Filipino women, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) said the Philippines breached its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The committee recommended that the complainants receive from the State party "full reparation, including recognition and redress, an official apology and material and moral damages."

It said that this was for the "continuous discrimination that they suffered and restitution, rehabilitation and satisfaction, including the restoration of their dignity and reputation, which includes financial reparation proportionate to the physical, psychological and material damage suffered by them and to the gravity of the violations of their rights."

"Given the extreme severity of the acts of gender-based violence to which the
authors were subjected and their right not to be continuously discriminated against and to obtain restitution, compensation and rehabilitation, and given the absence of any possibility of enforcing their rights as fully as possible, the Committee concludes that the State party has breached its obligations under articles 1 and 2 (b) and (c) of the Convention," the CEDAW said in its views.

"Acting under article 7 (3) of the Optional Protocol and in the light of the above
considerations, the Committee is of the view that the State party has failed to fulfill its obligations and has thereby violated the authors’ rights under articles 1 and 2 (b) and (c) of the Convention," it added.

The convention is an international legal instrument that requires countries to eliminate discrimination against women and girls in all areas and promotes women's and girls' equal rights.

Article 1 of the convention defined "discrimination against women" to mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

Article 2 stated that the state parties shall condemn discrimination and (b)  adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women; and (c) establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.

According to a press release on the website of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the committee found that the Philippine government violated the rights of the "comfort women" by "failing to provide reparation, social support and recognition commensurate with the harm suffered."

The basis for the decision are the complaints filed by 24 Filipinas, members of the Malaya Lolas (Free Grandmothers), which is a non-profit organization aimed at providing support to sexual slavery survivors.

"These victims, commonly known as 'comfort women' had repeatedly raised their demands in the Philippines, asking their government to support their claims against Japan for reparations for their suffering from the sexual slavery system during World War II," according to the UNHCHR news release.

"They asserted that the Philippines’ failure to fight for their cause had essentially resulted in ongoing discrimination against them that continues to this day," it  added.

Committee member Marion Bethel said, “This is a symbolic moment of victory for these victims who were previously silenced, ignored, written off and erased from history in the Philippines. The Committee’s Views pave the way for restoring their dignity, integrity, reputation and honor.”

“This case demonstrates that minimizing or ignoring sexual violence against women and girls in war and conflict situations is, indeed, another egregious form of violation of women’s rights. We hope that the Committee’s Decision serves to restore human dignity for all of the victims, both deceased and living,” Bethel also said.

The group cited the complainants of the case, Natalia Alonzo and 23 other victims, who were taken to Bahay na Pula (Red House) in San Ildefonso, Pampanga that serves as headquarters of the Japanese army on the 23rd of November 1944.

The women were detained in the Red House "where they were repeatedly subjected to rape, other forms of sexual violence, torture and inhumane detention conditions."

"They have since then endured long-term physical, psychological, social and economic consequences, including physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, permanent damage to their reproductive capacity and harm to their social relationships in their community, marriage and work."

The complainants had requested the Philippine government to raise their claims and right to reparations against the Japanese government.

"Their repeated efforts, however, were dismissed by the authorities, with their last action turned down by the Supreme Court in 2014. The Philippines’ Government has always maintained that it is not in a position to claim compensation from Japan after ratifying the Treaty of Peace with Japan in 1956."

With this, the women brought their case to CEDAW in 2019 "seeking to establish the responsibility of the State party to fulfil its commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in supporting the non-discrimination of women and girls on its territory."

"The Committee noted that the Philippines had waived its right to compensation by signing the Treaty of Peace with Japan. It, however, underlined that it is a case of continuous discrimination," said CEDAW.

The Committee also noted that the Philippine Commission on Women "had not addressed the institutionalized system of wartime sexual slavery, its consequences for victims and survivors or their protection needs."

Philippine war veterans, who are mostly men, CEDAW said are given special treatment by the government through assistance in the form of educational benefits, health-care benefits, old age, disability and death pensions.

The Committee concluded that the Philippine government has breached is obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

It was also noted that there are no appropriate legislation and other measures that would "prohibit all discrimination against women and protect women's rights on an equal basis with men."

Committee recommendations

The Committee recommends the following:

  • Full reparation, including recognition and redress, an official apology and material and moral damages, for the continuous discrimination that they suffered and restitution, rehabilitation and satisfaction, including the restoration of their dignity and reputation, which includes financial reparation.
  • Establish an effective, nationwide reparation scheme to provide all forms of redress to victims of war crimes, including sexual violence, both for war veterans and survivors of wartime sexual slavery
  • Ensure that the authorities remove restrictive and discriminatory provisions from legislation and policies relating to redress
  • Establish a State-sanctioned fund to provide compensation and other forms of reparation to women who are victims of war crimes, in particular the institutionalized system of wartime sexual slavery, to ensure the restoration of their dignity, value and personal liberty.
  • Create a memorial to preserve the site of Bahay na Pula (Red House) or establish another space to commemorate the suffering inflicted to the victims/survivors
  • To mainstream in the curricula of all academic institutions, including secondary university education, the history of Philippian women victims/survivors of wartime sexual slavery

GMA News Online sought the reaction of the Palace on the matter and will post it once available.—BAP/LDF/NB, GMA Integrated News