Global Justice Center Blog

GJC Burma Researcher Phyu Phyu Sann quoted in Southeast Asia Globe article on Burma's War on Women

Global Justice Center's Phyu Phyu Sann states:

"The judiciary has been firmly entrenched as a key tool of the military in Burma since 1988 when the military junta suspended the 1974 constitution and declared martial law, taking for itself all legislative, administrative and judicial powers," said Phyu Phyu Sann, a Myanmar researcher at the Global Justice Centre. "Like Stalin, sergeant-general Than Shwe perfected using judges as a weapon of choice for purging the population and those deemed a threat to his regime. The judiciary remains the same under the current civilian government."

She continues further:

"Changing the military's policy of discrimination and sexual violence against women is one of the most important reforms that need to be taken if we ever want to see real progress in Burma." However, Phyu Phyu Sann said the chances of the ruling elite championing women's issues as part of the current wave of legislative and administrative reform are slim to none, as it would involve far deeper, fundamental changes to the system. "Since the constitution was purposefully crafted to be difficult to amend, moving towards true democratic reform is unlikely," she said.

Click here to read the full article.

Malawi Upholds International Law for the Sake of Economic Interests

Under the leadership of newly appointed president Joyce Banda, Malawi has refused to host the upcoming African Union summit due to its unwillingness to condone the ongoing impunity of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and human rights atrocities committed in Darfur under his command. Although an ICC arrest warrant has been out for Bashir since 2010, he has repeatedly attended meetings and summits in a number of African countries over the past two years, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Chad. Even the former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika welcomed Bashir at a regional economic summit last year. As the ICC has no law enforcement mechanism of its own, it relies on the local officials of member nations to apprehend individuals accused of crimes by the Court.

Bashir is wanted by the ICC for multiple international legal offenses as a result of his major role as Sudanese President in the atrocities in Darfur, which began in 2003 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300,000 people and the displacement of almost 4 million. In 2009, a warrant was issued for his arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape) and two counts of war crimes (intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities and pillaging). While the Court stopped short of issuing a warrant on charges of genocide, upon further investigation of the evidence, such a warrant was issued just a year later in July 2010. The effect of charging Bashir with the crime of genocide was to oblige all states party to the UN Genocide Convention (all UN member states) to arrest the accused upon entry into the country or stand in violation of the Convention by condoning impunity for genocide, a significant violation of the convention which could plausibly (and should) result in serious political, diplomatic, or economic consequences.

The July AU summit was set to be held in Lilongwe next month, but will now be moved to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The decision came after President Joyce Banda threatened to arrest Omar al-Bashir upon his entry into Malawi, in accordance with the ICC warrant currently issued for his arrest. She has also declared her intention not to attend the meeting and to send Malawi’s vice president as the country’s representative at the summit. Banda has avoided questions as to whether her absence at the meeting is in protest of Bashir’s attendance, and she has repeatedly stated that her first concern is maintaining the health of the Malawian economy and ensuring continued revenue from foreign donors.

While Banda’s move is clearly a step in the right direction in terms of the ICC’s international legal effort to apprehend Bashir, the President’s actions were likely motivated more by the desire to protect Malawi’s economic interests than as an expression of righteous indignance at al-Bashir’s continued impunity in the face of international condemnation. Banda has indicated that her boycott of the summit was intended to placate western governments and organizations which contribute significant sums of foreign aid to Malawi, donations which comprise an estimated 40% of the country’s annual GDP. She has noted that a visit from Bashir would be frowned upon by international donors and said in a statement, “My main agenda is to put Malawi on an economic recovery path and that’s what I am trying to do.”

Many have argued that we should be concerned by the way aid conditionality is being used under the ruse of “Malawi’s best interest” – is that to remain under donor colonization? It’s always more powerful to know choices are made from conviction rather than under threat.  It would of course be ideal if countries were motivated to comply with ICC mandates—to which they are already signatories—simply on the basis of justice and respect for the rule of law. However, in the current international political climate such idealism is unfortunately not the reality. The truth is that state actions are motivated by a multitude of economic, social, and political factors, and it’s important to take all of these into account when assessing government action.

In addition, while it is legitimate to point out the flaws in the conditionality of foreign aid, it is also important to consider the alternative. Should governments and institutions contribute significant sums of aid money to countries whose governments openly flout the international legal mandates with which they have officially agreed to comply? Should there be no circumstances under which foreign aid contributions are denied to a government that openly supports the impunity of accused war criminals and perpetrators of genocide such as Omar al-Bashir? In response to allegations of “donor colonization,” international legal experts have responded by contending that continuing and reverberating voices and pressure from the CICC, various NGOs, activists, and political leaders are essential pieces of the puzzle to ensure compliance with the ICC. In other words, these institutions and actors have a unique power to influence government to take the right steps towards compliance with the ICC.

The international community has a legal obligation to ensure that human rights violations and crimes against humanity are not condoned by any state. In order to achieve this end, governments often resort to economic sanctions and the (sometimes limited) political tools at their disposal. While criticism of the use and distribution of foreign aid is a vital aspect of non-governmental oversight, it is important to consider each situation from multiple perspectives. Perhaps President Banda’s actions were motivated by economic and political interests rather than strong personal conviction, but the refusal to welcome Bashir into the country was an obligation Malawi had already assumed as a member of the UN and an official supporter of the ICC. In addition, the resulting discussion over international legal compliance and respect for international norms is a valuable opportunity to highlight the continued impunity of accused war criminals such as Omar al-Bashir and the legal obligation of the international community of states not to tolerate or condone the failure of governments to comply with international law.

Children of War

The conversation about the importance of providing abortion services to victims of rape in armed conflicts would be incomplete without looking at the impact on children born to rape victims. The international community has already recognized forced pregnancy as a crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) but it has a limited application since it requires all three elements of the crime to be satisfied. Article 7, paragraph 2 (f) requires–(1) unlawful confinement of a woman (2) forcibly made pregnant (3) with the intent of carrying out other grave violations of the international law. It is unclear what exactly falls under other grave violations of international law and means that women who were forcibly made pregnant but escaped or forcibly made pregnant without the requisite intent are not protected under the Statute.

As a result of rape or forced impregnation, these unwanted children whose mothers were forced to carry them to term due to lack of abortion services are often subject to stigma, discrimination, abandonment, abuse, neglect, and even infanticide, especially in cases of boys who are seen as potential enemy combatants. These children are commonly rejected not only by their mothers who seek to avoid shame but also by the entire community- they are seen as illegitimate, “enemy” children and may be denied citizenship rights, effectively rendering them stateless. In Rwanda, children born out of rape are often referred to as “children of hate” or “children of bad memories.”Lacking necessary support from their mothers and communities, rape children are caught up in a vicious cycle and end up getting exploited, becoming child soldiers or turning to prostitution and crime. They are more likely to suffer psychological and physical trauma as a result of unsuccessful abortion attempts by their mothers or nonexistent neonatal care, and are at a higher risk to contract HIV. They also often have attachment and trust issues even later in life and are unable to maintain familial relationships. Even children who are kept by their mothers are often raised in extreme poverty resulting from societal stigma that prevents rape victims from finding a job given lack family support or alternative childcare options.

Currently there are no specific initiatives by the international community that would protect and provide assistance to rape babies. The ICRC, WHO, and UNFPA merely issued recommendations recognizing the need to combat stigma associated with rape children. Readily available access to safe abortion services could provide an immediate solution for rape victims who are now forced to carry to term an unwanted pregnancy and later abandon or even murder their unwanted children.

How Women in Power Can Help Change Society

“Sisters in Law”, a documentary following State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba in the small Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, is a wonderful example of how women in government can help transform the lives of women.  These women used their positions to help eliminate injustice towards women and to fight against Cameroon’s patriarchal society, where traditional attitudes ignored violence against women and even silenced them.  The documentary follows Ngassa and Ntuba as they prosecute a man for beating his wife and successfully convict him (the first time a man has been successfully convicted for spousal abuse in Kumba in over 17 years), in addition to helping a young girl get justice after being raped by an adult neighbor.

This documentary is a shining example of how women in positions of power can truly help achieve social change and improve situations for women.  Women in the small village of Kumba began to feel more confident and secure under Ngassa and Ntuba’s lead, and began to stand up against their abusers and against the male-dominated structure of their society to enforce their rights.  Women are severely underrepresented in the political world, despite making up about half of the population in any given country.  Currently, women only make up 19.6 percent of the membership of parliaments around the world.  In the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 23, it is suggested that countries implement gender neutral quotas requiring that neither sex constitute less than 40% of a public body, quotas for women in public office, and rules giving preference to women nominees.  The Committee also noted that “research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized.”  Gender quotas do not have to apply only to the public sphere, as shown by Norway’s gender quota for “market-listed companies to fill 40 percent of the seats on their corporate supervisory boards with women.”

In order to boost political participation, and improve basic human rights and women’s rights, countries should consider implementing gender quotas for both legislative and judicial bodies.  If more women like Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba were put into positions of power, whether by being elected or being placed through a quota, it is almost certain that the situation for women around the world would improve greatly.