Barbara Crossette of PassBlue interviewed GJC President Janet Benshoof about her life and her work, including founding of the Global Justice Center and advocating for women in Burma and around the world.
Barbara Crossette of PassBlue interviewed GJC President Janet Benshoof about her life and her work, including founding of the Global Justice Center and advocating for women in Burma and around the world.
By Julia d'Amours
Chile proceeds with the repeal of its total anti-abortion laws. In August, legislation was presented to permit abortion in three cases: if the life of the mother was in danger, if it the fetus would not survive, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape. Lawyers argued that a total abortion ban was inhumane and a violation of women’s rights. Though polls indicate more than 70 percent of the population supports more lenient abortion laws, the Catholic Church and elite upper class staunchly opposed the bill. The repeal is considered a major victory in women’s rights and reproductive rights, and many hope it will lead to similar legislation in the region.
Last Friday, Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the re-election of the sitting president would be revisited after discovery that the vote counts had been irregular. It is the first example in Africa in which a court voided the re-election of an incumbent. Many are at unease considering Kenya’s fragile political landscape—the last disputed election in 2007 resulted in at least 1,300 dead and 600,000 displaced around the country.
On Sunday, Cambodia arrested Kem Sokha, the main opposition leader, accusing him of treason. This follows accounts of government harassment on the free press and expulsion of NGOs, such as the pro-democracy National Democratic Institute. A Human Rights Watch official called the arrest “a disastrous setback” for Cambodia as the country prepares for elections next year.
On Monday, Malala Yousafzi joined an increasing number of human rights activists in publicly criticizing Myanmar’s effective leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. More than 73,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh after they were attacked by Burmese military factions on August 25th. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar has described the situation as “grave.” Widely seen as a champion of democracy, Suu Kyi has remained quiet on the subject of the Rohingya.
On Tuesday, President Trump broke headlines by announcing the end of DACA—the federal program that protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. He claimed DACA’s establishment was an abuse of electoral power and rebuking it would establish rule of law. Many of those enrolled in DACA already have families, started careers, or enrolled in higher education in the US. Permits that are set to expire in the next six months will be renewed, but the Department of Homeland Security will stop processing new applications for the program. Officials say there will be no formal guidance that former DACA recipients are not eligible for deportation.
On Wednesday, the Trump Administration introduced a Security Council resolution that would empower the United States Navy and Airforce to interdict North Korean ships and evaluate if their cargo contains military equipment. It also included a ban on the shipment of crude oil, petroleum, and natural gas, which would have severe results for the North Korean population as winter approaches, and aims to block the assets of Kim Jong-un. The resolution is careful not to encompass a total blockade, which is an act of war, but permits the US and UNSC to “nonconsensual inspections.”
On Thursday, a federal appeals court permitted thousands of refugees who had been blocked by President Trumps’ travel ban to enter the country. Since June, the government has frozen refugee resettlement applications and brought resettlement programs to a standstill. Yesterday’s ruling mandated that the government resume refugee resettlements in the next five days. It also upheld a lower court decision that exempted grandparents and other relatives from the ban. A Justice Department representative remarked that they will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Also on Thursday, the High Court of Australia ruled that a postal survey on the legalization of gay marriage was legitimate, despite the objections of same-sex marriage advocates. The results of the survey could not make same-sex marriage legal or illegal, but it could spark a vote in Parliament. Polls suggest that a “yes” vote in favor of legalizing gay marriage will prevail. The results will be announced the 15th of November.
On the campaign trail and over the course of his life Donald Trump has championed viewpoints and proposed policies, which, if taken by the US government, would violate the US’s obligations under international law. Below is a non-exhaustive list of statements Donald Trump has made and what international legal obligations they would violate if enacted.
In July 2016, GJC staff member Michello Onello and Ma Sabe Phyu, Director of Gender Equality Network, published an article in Mizzima titled, "Status of women’s rights in Myanmar to be reviewed at the UN," on the Myanmar's CEDAW Review taking place in Geneva.
Click here to read the article in Mizzima.
Myanmar’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) provides an ideal venue to question the Government of Myanmar (“Government”) regarding its failure to ensure substantive equality for women as required by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and international treaties including CEDAW. Since 2011, Myanmar’s “democratization” has neither improved women’s status nor dismantled structural barriers preventing women’s equality.
Myanmar’s failure to ensure women’s rights arises from entrenched legacies of inequality that impede genuine reform in all aspects of law. Specifically, ongoing supremacy of the military, gender inequality embedded in the Constitution and other laws, and the lack of adequate justice mechanisms including an independent judiciary serve as structural barriers to equality. No Government reforms have addressed these issues. As a result, women in Myanmar face (1) gender discrimination embedded in law; (2) barriers to access to justice; and (3) exclusion from participation in public and political life.
Akila Radhakrishnan of GJC spoke at the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference, speaking about her work at GJC and the global relevance of sexual violence. She particularly focuses on GJC’s Burma project and the correlation between international law and women’s work on the ground.
“Marital rape is only considered marital rape if your wife is under the age of 13. So these are the provisions that still exist right, so when you talk about Burmese women being able to go to a court and assert their rights, this is the law that they have to assert their rights under. So if you’re 14, you don’t have a right to allege rape by your husband. And they’re working on finally reforming these laws.”
Click here to watch the full video.
In November, the Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School released a legal memorandum,“War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar.” The report was a result of a four-year investigation on the Burma military and examines the conduct of the military during an offensive that cleared and forcibly relocated civilian populations from conflict zones in eastern Burma. Collected evidence demonstrates that the actions of Burma Army personnel during the Offensive constitute crimes under international criminal law: attacking and displacing civilians, murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.
© By Burma Partnership
The Clinic also collected evidence relevant to the war crime of rape. Secondhand accounts of rapes committed by military personnel were recorded. Some interviewees spoke generally of soldiers raping Karen women but provided no specific accounts. Rape is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, according to the Rome Statute. However, it was concluded that more research and analysis are necessary to determine whether these crimes could be included in a criminal case associated with the Offensive.
Rule of law is limited in Burma, and the military enjoys constitutionally-guaranteed impunity for war crimes, including against the use of rape as a weapon of war. Burma’s new Constitution has been fully in place since 2011 and was deliberately designed to preclude democracy by embedding permanent military rule and preventing military officials from being held accountable for their crimes.
GJC calls on the international community to invest in a democratic future for Burma by insisting that the Burmese government dismantle these structural barriers which violate international law and prevent the advancement of true peace and democracy.
In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed a historic resolution as its clarion call for ending sexual violence in conflict. This Resolution, SCR 1325, as well as the succeeding Resolutions, that together form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Resolutions recognized the gender-specific impact of conflict and historic gender discrimination in criminal accountability for sexual violence in conflict, and underscored the need for women to participate in post conflict reconstruction. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence (the Summit) has been convened to create a “sense of irreversible movement to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict” and, therefore, is a time to assess how the WPS Resolutions have translated into protections for women during conflict.
Using the current conflict situation in Burma as a test of the WPS Resolutions demonstrates how ineffective they have been in providing protection and remedy for women on the ground during conflict. Despite the mandates of the WPS Resolutions, credible evidence continues to indicate that the military uses sexual violence against ethnic women in Burma as a means to assert its authority and to destroy ethnic communities. The military continues to operate with Constitutionally-sanctioned impunity for its actions. Moreover, current peace negotiations, intended to end decades of ethnic conflict, have almost completely failed to include women, especially ethnic women.
On the occasion of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Global Justice Center encourages States to exercise global leadership on the protection of women and girls raped in armed conflict by updating their National Action Plans (NAPs) to include explicit language accepting their international humanitarian law obligations to provide non-discriminatory medical care, justice, and reparations to war rape victims.
Women and girls raped in war are among the “war wounded,” therefore protected under international humanitarian law (IHL) by the absolute prohibition on adverse distinction, including on the basis of sex. In reality, however, women and girls raped in war are regularly subjected to discrimination in the medical care they receive and in the justice, accountability, and reparations measures available to them. The prohibition against adverse distinction applies to how all IHL rules are implemented, and it is so fundamental that it constitutes customary international law. Adverse distinction is interchangeable with the term “non-discrimination:” in all cases IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are “less favorable” for women than men.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Syrian government forces and government-controlled militia (Shabiha) have reigned terror over the civilian population. Alma, a victim of this violence, describes being held in a cell where she would kick and scream alongside 20 other women while they were drugged, blindfolded, and gang-raped.
In the worst embodiment of this campaign, rape is used as a weapon of war against Syrian women and girls. Alma continues, “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarettes in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity to my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded everyday by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: ‘You wanted freedom? Well here it is!’” A different victim illustrates the scene at a Syrian detention center in which a doctor visited each woman’s cell to note the dates of her period and to hand out birth control pills: “[w]e lived in filth, in blood, in [feces], with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously.” Still other victims of these crimes against humanity described situations in which their “bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - April 24, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY] - Today, at a side-event to the Security Council’s annual debate on conflict-related sexual violence, the United Nations was presented with a troubling account of continuing sexual violence committed by the military against ethnic women in Burma. On the eve of the April 25 debate, Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, presented compelling reports of heinous crimes committed by the military and called on the United Nations, international donors and governments to investigate these human rights violations, denounce the use of sexual violence in Burma and support women’s groups on the ground who are attempting to combat this pervasive pattern of abuse.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 14, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY] – On the night of April 14th, 2014, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The abduction ignited worldwide outrage, sparked a vigorous social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, and drew condemnation from political leaders around the world.
On November 13th, governments, UN heads, international NGOs and civil society organizations gathered in London to develop a fundamental new approach to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in emergency situations, both man-made and natural disasters. These leading humanitarian agencies met to endorse a global commitment acknowledging that, “prevention and response to VAWG in emergencies is life-saving and should be prioritized from the outset of an emergency, alongside other life-saving interventions.” Nine donor governments (including the UK, US, Australia, Sweden and Japan), six UN agencies, the ICRC, the International Organization for Migration and 21 international NGOs endorsed a communiqué outlining future action and commitments.
When the rule of law crumbles, one of the first things that happen is women become the targets of violence. In times of disaster, such as the recent crisis in the Phillippines, hundreds of thousands of women and girls will become dramatically more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, forced marriage and trafficking. Experience has shown that every single humanitarian crisis puts women and girls at great risk, yet during the first stage of an emergency, targeted interventions for VAWG are not prioritized because the violence is not considered life-threatening, according to UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening. Child sponsorship data collected in Bangladesh in 2012 revealed that 62% of children under 18 who had married in the previous five years did so during the 2007 Cyclone Sidr. 18 months after the earthquake in Haiti, sexual abuse and exploitation were widespread because girls and women could not get the goods and services needed to survive. Furthermore, the rates of unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, disability, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections including HIV, rise during times of displacement and economic hardship. Thus this Call to Action is built around recognizing that the prevention and response to VAWG is life-saving and must be prioritized, not as an afterthought but as standard practice.
These discussions have put forth the political will to take concrete steps to fundamentally influence systemic change while also addressing the root causes of VAWG. According to Julia Drost, policy and advocacy associate in women’s human rights at Amnesty International USA, “addressing gender-based violence can’t just be done in emergencies; it has to occur 24/7 and involve all government entities working overseas.” Which is why the commitments made by UN agencies, governments, donors and NGOs were framed as just the beginning of a process for improving the protection of women and girls in emergencies. These commitments aim to ensure that efforts to prevent and respond to VAWG become standard practice and result in real, positive change through the implementation of an accountability framework.
The humanitarian community has historically not prioritized the protection of women and girls in emergencies claiming lack of funding or lack of trained specialists. In order to reform the humanitarian community’s response to violence against women and girls in emergencies, this Call to Action will involve researching the historical challenges of implementing gender-based violence programs and address them with innovative techniques and sustained commitments.
Responding to VAWG in the first 72 hours of an emergency is a central focus of this initiative as well as sexual and reproductive health services, effective measures to eliminate impunity for the perpetrators of violence, empowering women and girls as a means and an end for tackling VAWG and proactively linking the work being done by the UK government and internationally to ensure commitments made complement existing initiatives. Other important commitments include identifying 20 priority countries that should be adequately stocked with post-rape treatment supplies by 2015; creating new posts in response teams for gender-violence experts; installing solar street lamps in camps and settlements; and increasing funding for gender-based violence initiatives.
UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening.
Another positive aspect of these discussions were that The Department for International Development (DFID) announced £21.6 million in new funding to protect women and girls in emergencies. In comparison to the United States’ Safe from the Start initiative to address gender-based violence in global humanitarian emergencies announced on September 23rd, UK provisions for humanitarian aid are able to provide a life-saving service that the U.S. program is not – access to safe and voluntary abortion for rape victims. Thus, the UK-funded medical care will be able to address the distinct needs of women and children in disasters, providing safe and non-discriminatory access to humanitarian assistance.
Tentative optimism is circulating around this event, with the hopes it can put forth measurable improvements by being prepared rather than reactionary when a disaster strikes. According to Sweden’s International Development Minister and event co-chair Hillevi Engström, “empowerment and protection should go hand in hand.” By focusing on gender inequity, the root causes of violence against women and garnering enough support from donors and humanitarian actors, this Call to Action has the potential make significant progress in filling the gap in disaster planning. Now, where do we go from here? Ms. Engström commented, “We have all the paperwork, polices and resolutions in place. But implementation is the weakest link in the chain. It’s time to stop talking and start acting.” As we are starting to see change and increasing attention to gender-based violence in crisis situations, let’s help give women and girls what they deserve – power, not pity.
The event was hosted by Secretary Hague and Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, and included speakers from 27 member countries who discussed the need to prevent and respond to sexualized violence committed under the cloak of war. They also highlighted the devastating effects that rape and sexualized violence wreak on individuals, families, communities, and entire nations.
By the end of the day, 113 member countries had endorsed what Secretary Hague called the “milestone” Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The declaration holds that sexualized violence in conflict is in direct violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and declares that the perpetrators should be pursued and arrested no matter where they are in the world. The declaration also calls upon signatory member states to do more than raise awareness to the issue and to provide better support not only to the victims but to national and international efforts to prevent and respond to sexualized violence in conflict.
But 80 nations opted not to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. One of them was Burma.
For many, Burma’s refusal to sign the declaration didn’t come as a surprise. Reports of sexualized violence committed by the army and police, particularly in Burma’s ethnic and border regions, have increased over the last two years, according to some advocacy groups. And Burma President Thein Sein has done little to address the issue, preferring to highlight gains made in other sectors, including the opening of the economy to global investment and his periodic release of political prisoners.
The international community, eager to praise these reforms, has neglected to call Burma out on its sexualized violence problem, ignoring the ingrained culture of impunity that has allowed sexualized violence to flourish for decades. The military regime that came to power in a 1962 coup has used rape, particularly against women in the ethnic and border regions, as a way to quell opposition movements and retain control. A weapon of war, the practice is typically employed to keep communities compliant by sowing fear and humiliation and punishing and interrogating those who would support opposition groups. Sadly, the Burmese military junta’s campaign of widespread and systematic sexual violence continues unabated today.
It’s understandable, then, that President Thein Sein and his new admirers would not want to tarnish fragile gains, but how much do these gains really mean in the face of continued sexualized violence toward women and girls in Burmese conflict zones?
Burma President Thein Sein speaks at Chatham House in July. (Chatham House)
This is precisely why Burma’s failure to stand with 113 other nations in signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was such a disappointment. More than just a squandered opportunity for the nation to demonstrate an honest and ongoing desire for social and political reform, it was a chance to turn the tide, to announce an end to the culture of silence and impunity that legitimizes rape and sexual violence in Burma.
Human rights groups in and outside of Burma were quick to condemn the government’s failure to sign on to the Declaration.
Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, said, “The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict in Burma must be stopped. If Thein Sein refuses to cooperate, then international legal action should be taken to prevent these crimes. For many ethnic women, rape by Burmese army soldiers is a daily fear, and justice seems to be just a distant dream.”
“The government should bear the responsibility of crimes perpetrated by its army. They should ensure justice for such crimes in accordance with the law,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, Central Committee member of the Myanmar Women’s Network, told the 2013 Myanmar Women’s Forum prior to the UN event.
The Burmese Diplomatic Mission to the UN in New York declined to comment by telephone and did not reply to email requests for an official statement on their failure to sign the declaration.
But it’s hard to fault the Mission for their non-answer; after all, they’re simply following President Thein Sein’s lead in ignoring the issue. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in Burma’s transition to civilian rule has been the government’s unwillingness to fully divest itself of the privileged status of the previous military junta. In fact, this lack of accountability is hard-wired into the country’s constitution, rendering the nation incapable of enforcing IHL against its military, as the Global Justice Center’s President Janet Benshoof has noted.
Ultimately, last week’s missed opportunity can be seen as less a statement on Burma’s disinterest in ending government-sanctioned sexualized violence and more an appraisal of Burma’s transition to democracy. To assent to the UN’s declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict would be to assent to accountability and to a new era of checks and balances for a government whose members seem more concerned with losing a seat at the table than addressing the issue being discussed at the table.
Perhaps this is only another hiccup on the road to reformation. Perhaps Burma will relent and commit to the mandates of the declaration. But, in the meantime, the girls and women of Burma will continue to be victimized without means of redress or protection, and the body count will continue to rise.
A version of this article was cross-posted with Women Under Siege.
On October 23, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, released the latest report on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar for the General Assembly’s sixty-eighth session. The report had been highly anticipated by civil society groups who are concerned with growing tensions in the turbulent nation.
Mr. Quintana, incidentally, had a closer look at that tension than he’d likely anticipated recently when, during an unpleasant trip to the Rakhine state, the lack of a government security detail led to him being accosted by an angry mob. (Burmese President, Thein Sein’s almost comical response was to insist that the mob had actually been trying to present the UN official with a letter and a t-shirt.)
It was of little surprise, then, that the Special Rapporteur’s update highlighted the urgent need for continued reforms. 2013 has seen a growing chorus of international approval for Burma’s incremental human rights gains but, let’s face it, when the forced relocation of entire ethnic villages into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps ranks among the less distressing human rights events of the year, things really haven’t improved much in Burma.
Accusations of political violence and discrimination have continued to plague the Sein administration; particularly harrowing have been the reports from Burma’s ethnic and border regions, where political opposition groups continue to be victimized by the state’s brutal military and police. Accusations of sexual violence, forced labor, human trafficking, the recruitment of child soldiers, use of prisoners as human mine sweepers, arbitrary arrests, extortion, land confiscation, denial and revocation of citizenship, and restrictions on movement, religion, and marriage, have been lobbed at the Sein administration from all directions.
That these atrocities continue despite 23 years of calls for reform indicates something’s not working. Even 2008’s new national constitution did little more than rebrand the brutal ruling military junta, who have effectively cowed the world into believing that Burma is ever on the brink of becoming overwhelmed with the reform process, prepared to revert to the hermit kingdom they once were. As a result, the timid international community is content to cajole the Burmese government into accepting piecemeal reforms that have done little to change a culture of intimidation, impunity, and deadly violence.
It seems more obvious now than ever, any real solution lies fundamentally deeper than reform at the symptom level. Comprehensive constitutional reform that divests the former military junta of its continuing grip on power in Burma by imposing civilian controls is the only option.
Mr. Quintana appears to agree. This week’s report includes numerous unambiguous statements on the need for constitutional reforms. Alongside calls for quotas to boost women’s participation in state and local decision-making and for an independent judiciary were denunciations of constitutionally-sanctioned impunity and discrimination. That Mr. Quintana, for the first time, pointed out specific enabling constitutional articles hopefully signals the UN has had enough of Burma’s half measures.
The futility of incremental reforms has been noted inside Burma, to be sure. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has seen its calls for an amended or completely redrawn national constitution gain momentum within the country recently and Burma’s multitude of ethnic minorities have begun to demand a seat at the table in an effort to help determine their own fate.
NLD leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has now asked the international community to help democracy activists in Burma to amend the Constitution; she urged world leaders, including the European Union and the United States, to continue to put pressure of the Burmese government saying, “Reform has gone as far as it can without changes to the constitution.”
This push has also been championed by women’s rights groups within Burma and around the world who urge fundamental reforms are needed to address Burma’s constitutional deficiencies, such as the lack of a substantial equality guarantee which effectively excludes ethnic women from political participation. The 2008 document even shockingly includes a provision proclaiming males should be appointed to “positions that are naturally suited for men.”
A multitude of official world bodies have also repeatedly highlighted the need for constitutional reforms. Until recently, though, most have done so with glancing blows, failing to connect on the most fundamental issue, the Burmese military’s constitutionally guaranteed stake in governing the country. Until this metric is fundamentally rewritten, there will be no accountability for a government that routinely eviscerates the basic human rights of its own citizens in order to maintain its grip on power.
With the UN now seemingly on board, the next steps on the human rights situation in Burma are clear: The international community must cease lauding President Thein Sein for plodding political and economic reforms calculated to insulate the ruling regime, and attack the fundamental dynamic that sustains a culture of bloodshed in Burma. They must insist on targeted constitutional reforms that will allow full and robust participation in Burma’s government by all of its peoples. Anything less at this late stage would amount to a tacit approval of the wholesale slaughter of innocent women, children and men.