Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once stood before given the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and declared that “Women’s rights are human rights.”
At first glance, it would appear as though the mayor of Brookhaven, Atlanta, John Ernst, is trying to live up to the standard set by Hillary Clinton. After a vote by the city council on May 23, Brookhaven made the decision to memorialize so-called “comfort women” — women and girls who were allegedly trafficked by the former Japanese Army more than 70 years ago during World War II – by installing a statue in a yet-to-be-determined city park. “By establishing this memorial, we are raising awareness of the ongoing problems of sexual and human trafficking taking place in metro Atlanta and the world today," said Ernst. However, the issue is not so black and white, and the statue’s installation is a grave mistake by Ernst and the Brookhaven city council.
Many Americans might not be familiar with the issue of so-called “comfort women,” a disagreement rooted in the long history between South Korea and Japan. Regardless of what happened several decades ago, the successive Prime Ministers of Japan have already acknowledged and issued numerous official apologies for what happened doing the war. At the end of 2015, South Korea and Japan officially put the comfort women issue to rest, putting an end to the rift that separated the two countries. This historic agreement still stands today, and remains important to U.S. foreign policy as we seek to unite American allies in the Asia-Pacific region as we face a belligerent North Korea.
Although the installation of the comfort women statue appears good-natured on the surface, there are serious issues with permitting its installation. First, the Brookhaven statue undermines the delicate agreement reached between South Korea and Japan in 2015. Establishing the comfort women statue within the city effectively undermines the delicate international agreement reached by South Korea and Japan, and re-opens a rift in the thawing relationship between the two countries. It is uncertain whether Ernst or the city council is aware that it was in fact the United States that acted as the mediator for this historic agreement between the two countries. Put simply, this is a bad foreign policy move, and could have severe consequences in the international arena.
Perhaps more troubling, the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, a Korean advocacy group, actually approached the Brookhaven local government with the idea to establish this controversial statue, and they’ve spearheaded its installation. As State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) said:
“This is a small group of Korean-American activists pushing this [memorial] all across Georgia and [they] finally got a city to take the bait. This is a political group that basically wants to drive a wedge between Japan and Korea.”
By focusing on a decades-old issue between two foreign countries that has no relevance to the citizens of Brookhaven, the town is failing to address the issue of human trafficking at the grassroots level. If Brookhaven is truly an advocate of "raising awareness of the ongoing problems of sexual and human trafficking,” and if they truly want to live up to Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s standards, then the town must prioritize the resolution of human rights issues that exist in our own country before meddling in foreign affairs. The fight against human trafficking is largely carried out at the local level, and the town would be wise to focus on the human trafficking issues in our own communities rather than capitulating to the requests of advocacy groups with a clear agenda.
It is clear how Brookhaven must live up to former Secretary of State Clinton’s standards: They must work to rescue the victims that are right in front of us today. In this case, action should trump mere symbolism. Women’s rights are human rights, and the people of Brookhaven need to confront the challenges in our own communities first and foremost.