I’ve recently finished my entry for the Guardian’s International Development Competition. I chose the theme Women and conflict, sexual violence as a weapon of war.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been mired in accounts of rape, femicide and brutal discrimination. I thought I would write about how the courts (international and national) treat wartime rape.
Historically, there has been a tendency to dismiss wartime rape as a terrible but unavoidable by-product of war, or to veil it in silence. Although there was widespread evidence of wartime rape at the Nuremberg trials, it was not prosecuted.
hague and jolie honour war victims in Rwanda
More recently, in March, William Hague joined Angelina Jolie in Rwanda to highlight the plight of victims of sexual violence in the ongoing conflict in the DRC. DRC has been daubed the “rape capital of the world.” It’s too easy to sensationalize, but each day 1150 women are raped in the DRC. After being raped, women are often mutilated or shot in the genitals, a message of subjection to their communities.
Given this, it’s hard to understand how or why Jolie and Hague have come in for such a grilling.
OK, maybe I shouldn’t resort to reading the Oldies’ Daily Mail, but I was shocked by some of the comments. Neglecting the Euro crisis? Running away from problems at home? You’d think Hague was lapping it up in Tuscany, or Centre Parcs, rather than visiting a refugee camp.
William Dartmouth, foreign affairs spokesperson for UKIP, accused Hague of “chasing photo ops with Hollywood stars” instead of doing his job “defending Britain’s vital economic and diplomatic interests.” Compared to the latter, the mass rape of civilians is dismissed as an adjunct, “a terrible thing, practised down the centuries.”
As has been the case so often, women’s experiences of war are marginalised.Politicians and historians have often paid more attention to looting and the destruction of buildings than they have to the impact on the lives of women and children.
Today’s announcement by the Mayor of Osaka, Tasha Hashimoto, is a case in point.
artist's impression of nanking massacre
Hashimoto has said that the forced prostitution of Asian women in the Second World War was a wartime necessity.”For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone,” he declared.
What Hashimoto failed to mention was that the so-called comfort women system was based on the abduction and rape of women, mainly from occupied China and Korea. It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 200,000 women were forcibly conscripted in this way. Approximately three-quarters of them died in the camps, or shortly afterwards.
Although the Toyko trials included prosecutions for rape as a crime against humanity, they failed to address the plight of the so-called “comfort women.” Survivors only received acknowledgement and any form of apology from the Japanese authorities in 1993.
The controversy rages, with revisionists denying the extent and culpability of Japan in the detention and rape of women during the war.
Recently, Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Aso fanned the flames further when asked in parliament if the government intended to revoke the 1993 apology.
“The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community,” he replied. “Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.”
It seems trite to point out that rape has been established as a war crime since the Geneva Convention, that imprisoning women in rape camps, and beating them to death if they refuse to comply, constitutes aggression under most definitions.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the images are etched on our collective memories. Over 100,000 women imprisoned, raped and beaten to death hardly feature in our history books. And, if revisionists like Hashimoto and Aso have their way, they wouldn’t feature at all.
memorial to iris chang who did much to reveal massacres
Never again we said after the Holocaust and Yugoslavia. And Rwanda.
Ambitious perhaps, in retrospect. The promise now feels drained of meaning.
However, we can at least expose the lie, It never happened at all.