The Constitutional Court made a landmark ruling on Tuesday that it is the government’s duty to settle disputes over Japan’s refusal to compensate former “comfort women.” The decision carries significant implications as the court has expanded the scope of state obligations to better protect the basic rights of the people.
The court said it is unconstitutional for the government to make no tangible efforts to settle the disputes. It also stated that the government violated the rights of the comfort women forced to serve as sexual slaves for frontline Japanese soldiers during World War II. It made the same ruling for the Korean victims of the atom bombs dropped on Japan.
No doubt the court action is in line with an international trend that individuals cannot and should not forfeit their human rights for the sake of the nation. In its 58th session in 2006, the U.N. International Law Commission adopted a draft Convention of Diplomatic Protection stating that basic rights of individuals should not be violated in the name of diplomatic protection.
The comfort women’s disputes stem from the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between Korea and Japan. In compensation for its aggression and colonial rule, Tokyo offered $800 million in grants and soft loans to Seoul under the pact. However, it is still not clear whether the reparations covered individual victims such as ex-comfort women, forced laborers and victims of the atom bombs.
Japan has maintained a position that the compensation for all individual victims was already addressed with the normalization treaty. But the Korean victims of Japan’s wartime atrocities cannot accept the position because they have never seen any compensation from a government in Tokyo or Seoul.
The former sexual slaves have continued to call for Japan’s apology and compensation for their damage and suffering. What’s more heartrending for the victims is that the Seoul government has shown indifference to their demands. The government has done little to solve the compensation disputes with Japan. As the court pointed out, the government has neglected its duty of protecting the victims’ rights.
Now, the Lee Myung-bak administration should humbly accept the ruling. It should do its best to settle the disputes through diplomatic channels. First, it must hold discussions with Japan to clarify if the 1965 treaty ultimately concluded the compensation issue not only for the nation but also for individual victims.
Korea has to make diplomatic efforts to help the victims receive compensation if Japan is responsible for the violation of their human rights. It is important to recognize that the mobilization of comfort women was a crime against humanity. And those victims cannot give up their rights to compensation under any treaty between the two countries or diplomatic protection.