Experts gather, discuss Japan’s colonial liability

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Experts gather, discuss Japan’s colonial liability

A group of legal experts at an international symposium in Seoul offered examples of successful cases abroad concerning accountability for colonial rule, as Korea struggles for the Japanese government to apologize and compensate victims of colonization.

British solicitor Modi Kavita referred to the 2013 victory in the Mau Mau litigation, in which Kenyan torture victims managed to win compensation for damages incurred under colonial rule, as a significant example.

A group of 5,228 people during the Mau Mau Uprising against British colonial rule in Kenya during the 1950s was awarded a total of £19.9 million ($33.8 million) by the British government.

Kavita spoke at an international academic symposium on Friday hosted by the Northeast Asian History Foundation and the Korean Branch of the International Law Association, as historical and legal scholars and experts discussed Japan’s legal liabilities for compensating its victims during its colonial rule of Korea.

“In the 2011 liability hearing, the British government claimed they were not liable and that the colonial government was a separate entity from the British government,” said Kavita, a solicitor at Leigh Day and Co. that supported thousands of Kenyan victims. She said during the Mau Mau case, “They claimed that liability had been passed on to the Kenyan government upon its independence, which is kind of bizarre, since the Kenyan government was involved.”

The plaintiffs also pointed out the negligence on the part of the British government during the situation, claiming there was “plenty of evidence of the systematic torture of detainees” and that “they knew what was happening but did not take steps to stop the violence.”

One year ago, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed for the first time “sincere regret” that thousands of Kenyans had been tortured and mistreated under the British colonial government during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. The British government also pledged to build a memorial in Nairobi to the victims.

But while there are marked differences between Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula and the British government over Kenya, Kavita emphasized the importance of historians and experts, documented evidence, the media, collaborative efforts from civilian organizations and the strong human rights climate in the UK, which ultimately aided victory in the Mau Mau case.

On Friday, about 150 people gathered for the symposium on the “Legal Policy Challenges with Compensation for Victims of Japanese Colonial Rule.”

The sessions, led by experts from Japan, China, the United Kingdom and Korea, touched upon the damages incurred from Japanese colonial rule, international law practices concerning accountability for colonial rule and the legal policy challenges ahead in seeking compensation.

While Korea and Japan reach 50 years of diplomatic ties next year, tension remains between the two neighbors due to unresolved issues stemming from colonialism.

Japan has yet to take up state responsibility and apologize for forcibly mobilizing women into sexual slavery and conscripting laborers during World War II.

The women who were forced into military brothels by the Japanese government, commonly known as “comfort women,” also demand an official apology from the Japanese government, compensation and a memorial to the victims to promote awareness, as in the Mau Mau case.

Other scholars spoke about the compensation claims against the Netherlands in reparation for its colonial rule over Indonesia, and the 2009 Nishimatsu Construction Company settlement, that effectively apologized to and awarded a group of five Chinese forced laborers during World War II approximately $2.7 million.

But the scholars also pointed out the difficulties the Japanese government faced in accepting legal liability for its colonial victims.

Japan claims that the Japan-Korea 1965 normalization treaty concluded all issues regarding compensation, though many scholars point out the flaw in this logic.

“Forced mobilization and forced labor has become a well-known issue,” said Ken Arimitsu, the executive director of the Postwar Compensation Network in Japan, “and since 1992 there was a series of lawsuits filed by the victims, but unfortunately, for 15 years, those plaintiffs usually lost the lawsuits and Japanese companies were victorious.”

“During the administrations of Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, there was a joint communique [in 1998] between Korea and Japan that urged a future-oriented attitude,” he said.

“In retrospect, this is a failed message. Diplomatic relations are just a formality, and I think it is because of the unresolved issues between the two countries. The future of these nations will be decided by their leaders, who need to focus on the past as well as the future.”

Arimitsu, a key advocate for postwar compensation who has worked with Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese lawyers, added, “The 1965 agreement was not sufficient to resolve the comfort women issue and cultural heritage issues. There is a need to reexamine this agreement.”

“Under the 1965 [normalization treaty], there is a clause that states that all problems of the war were resolved in full. Some people might think this is excessive, and that we come up with new agreements when it comes to comfort women, forced labor.”

He urged Japan to take heed of Germany’s example following World War II.

“When we have an unresolved past,” he said, “new problems cannot be resolved.”


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