Professor Diane Desierto serves as co-counsel in landmark UN ruling for Filipina ‘comfort women’

Author: Denise Wager

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Diane Desierto, law professor and faculty director for the Law School’s LL.M. Program in International Human Rights Law, began her career in 2004 seeking reparations and justice for Filipina women who suffered from the sexual slavery system imposed by the Japanese during World War II.

She originally theorized in the petition she wrote for the Supreme Court of the Philippines that the Republic of the Philippines could not lawfully waive the claims of Filipina ‘comfort women’ and sexual slavery survivors in its 1951 peace treaty with Japan, and as a result of this waiver, these women survivors were condemned to lives of neglect, continuous discrimination, social stigmatization, and the absence of any effective redress.

On March 8, on International Women’s Day, that long-fought battle was won when the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ruled, on a communication (Alonzo et al. v. The Republic of the Philippines, CEDAW/C/84/D/155/2020, Decision of March 3, 2023, released on March 8, 2023), filed by Desierto’s co-counsels in Manila that adopted the same theory, that the Philippines government had indeed violated the rights of these victims and requested the government to provide the women with full reparation.

“This is the very first international decision and it sets a precedent,” said Desierto. “It makes all governments responsible for ensuring redress to their nationals who are victims of gender-based violence, sexual slavery, mass atrocities, and requires them to provide full reparations.”

During World War II, women from the Philippines, South Korea, China, and other occupied countries were abducted, enslaved, and conscripted against their will to be part of the comfort women system established at the time for imperial Japanese military forces.

After the war the comfort women were not provided with any medical assistance or support and condemned to a life of social stigmatization and trauma. Many were never able to physically have children. The women were also perceived as co-conspirators in the war. They were not able to get jobs, were seen as outcasts, and often lived in isolation from their communities.

In her first case as a new lawyer over 20 years ago, Desierto began representing a group of Filipina women who were seeking reparations for the abuse they had endured, and for official recognition that they were not willing participants in the abuse.

At that same time other groups representing comfort women were trying to persuade the Japanese government to provide reparations. However, Japan pleaded sovereign immunity and asserted that the peace treaty has waived them of all claims. Japan prevailed in all lawsuits in the United States and elsewhere which upheld Japan’s sovereign immunity from all claims and invoked the waiver of all claims clause in the peace treaty with Japan.

Desierto provided an alternative theory and filed a suit in the Supreme Court of the Philippines holding the country of Philippines responsible.

“Forget about Japan. The government of the Philippines is responsible for waiving their claims without the consultation and consent of these women, and for abandonment of their constitutional duties to protect the rights of these women,” said Desierto. “They did not do anything to provide any reparative support to the women who have faced and are facing continued discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Those claims were consistently raised at the domestic level requesting that the government of the Philippines support the women’s rights to reparations against Japan. The Philippines did not take action, and the last claim was turned down by theSupreme Court of the Philippines in 2014.

“The Philippines government did not want to pursue any claims to Japan for reparations on behalf of these women because of the clause in the peace treaty that said all claims arising from the war were already settled in this treaty,” said Desierto.

Desierto said they had to exhaust domestic remedies before taking the case internationally. She did not expect the Supreme Court of the Philippines to sit on the case for so many years. In 2019, the complaint was finally filed at the U.N. committee by Desierto’s colleagues in Manila, carrying the same theory seeking to hold the Philippines responsible for failing to protect Filipina comfort women sexual slavery survivors.

During last week’s ruling the committee recommended that the women receive “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 proportionate to the physical, psychological and material damage suffered by them and to the gravity of the violations of their rights.”

The decision not only took the specific reparations for the women that Desierto had asked for in 2004, but it also put in place recommendations for preventative reparations to make sure that this would not happen again.

“When I read the decision, I was very chilled. It quoted word for word what I had asked for in the Supreme Court of the Philippines so many years ago,” said Desierto. Her co-counsels in Manila had called her to let her know that their theory of the case finally prevailed.

Desierto expects that other groups of comfort women will benefit from this international decision because it sets a standard that it is not only the perpetrators' state of the nationality that have obligations to address the lived discrimination and abandonment of these women, but their own government.

“It is tragic that we started with 76 surviving victims. While we waited throughout the years to exhaust domestic remedies, there were far too many funerals of plaintiffs who did not live to see justice,” Desierto said. “Twenty-four out of our original 76 plaintiffs survived to see this official international decision that upholds their narrative, provides reparative redress for the injustices committed against them, and holds the Philippine government responsible for the abandonment of their own women over many decades. No government, in the future, can ever legally waive the human rights and mass atrocity claims of their nationals in any prospective or actual inter-State peace settlement, without such victims’ consent and without addressing the lived consequences of those atrocities for victims. Alonzo et al. v. The Philippines is now the key international judicial precedent against that.”