GENEVA (8 March 2023) – The UN women’s rights committee has found that the Philippines violated the rights of victims of sexual slavery perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War by failing to provide reparation, social support and recognition commensurate with the harm suffered.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) today issued its Decision after examining a complaint filed by 24 Filipina nationals, members of the Malaya Lolas (“Free Grandmothers”), a non-profit organisation established to provide 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. They asserted that the Philippines’ failure to fight for their cause had essentially resulted in ongoing discrimination against them that continues to this day.
“This is a symbolic moment of victory for these victims who were previously silenced, ignored, written off and erased from history in the Philippines,” said Committee member Marion Bethel. “The Committee’s Views pave the way for restoring their dignity, integrity, reputation and honour,” she added.
On 23 November 1944, complainants of this case, Natalia Alonzo and 23 other victims, were forcibly taken to the Bahay na Pula (Red House), the Japanese headquarters in San Ildefonso, Pampanga. They were detained in the Red House for one day to three weeks, 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.
They asserted that they had consistently raised their claims at the domestic level, requesting that the Government of the Philippines espouse their claims and their right to reparations against the Government of Japan. 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.
The victims then brought their case to the Committee 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. The Committee observed that the Philippine Commission on Women had not addressed the institutionalised system of wartime sexual slavery, its consequences for victims and survivors or their protection needs. In contrast, Philippine war veterans, who are mostly men, are entitled to special and esteemed treatment from the Government, such as educational benefits, health-care benefits, old age, disability and death pensions.
Given the extreme severity of gender-based violence suffered by the victims, and the continuing discrimination against them regarding restitution, compensation and rehabilitation, the Committee concluded that the Philippines had breached its obligations under the Convention. In particular, the Committee found that the State party had failed to adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to prohibit all discrimination against women and protect women's rights on an equal basis with men.
The Committee requested that the Philippines provide the victims full reparation, including material compensation and an official apology for the continuing discrimination.
“This case demonstrates that minimising 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 said.
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The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors States parties’ adherence to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which to date has 189 States parties. The Committee is made up of 23 members who are independent human rights experts in women’s rights drawn from around the world, who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of States parties. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women allows the Committee to receive and examine complaints by individuals or groups of individuals under the jurisdiction of a State party to the Optional Protocol, claiming to be victims of a violation of any of the rights set forth in the Convention. To date, 115 States have ratified or acceded to the Optional Protocol. The Committee’s views and decisions on individual communications are an independent assessment of States’ compliance with their human rights obligations under the Convention.