Weekly News Roundup

By Julia d'Amours

On Thursday, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed the Department of Education would reform how universities handle accusations of sexual assault. Though DeVos did not say what specific changes would be made, she remarked that universities are “ill-served by a quasi-judicial process.” DeVos’s statement focused on the rights of the accused, whom she claimed are mistreated under current systems. Critics from the Right claim DeVos’s proposal grants disproportionate weight to the testimonies of victims, while voices from the Left say it undermines essential changes made during the Obama Administration. 

On Sunday, federal prosecutors in Brazil opened an investigation of ten murdered indigenous tribe members. The altercation arose when the members of the previously uncontacted tribe encountered Brazilian gold miners along a river near the Colombian border. This is the second reported killing of uncontacted indigenous peoples this year. Survival International, an indigenous rights organization, claimed that given the diminished populations of uncontacted tribes, a single armed conflict could carry serious repercussions for the survival of the ethnic group.

On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California will file a law suit against the Trump Administration over the repeal of DACA. This comes after a coalition of 15 states announced joint legal action against the proposed repeal. California is estimated to be home to more than one in every four DACA recipients. 

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the bleak living conditions of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Pakistan. Residents of the Rohingya-populated Arkanabad slum report police brutality, malnutrition, and lack of work and education opportunities. Rohingya in Pakistan wish to see the country taking a more firm stance against military persecution in Burma, as it holds the highest concentration of Rohingya outside of their native lands. 

On Wednesday, it was announced that Burma’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be skipping the UN General Debate, which is scheduled to begin on September 19th. Burma has been under heavy criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya, and the UN has accused it of ethnic cleansing. Spokespeople for Ms. Suu Kyi claimed that she “has more pressing matters to deal with” and she will “speak for national reconciliation and peace” on national television instead.

Photo by Htoo Tay Zar

Justice in Sri Lanka Must Include Investigations of Genocide Allegations

Seven years ago this month, a quarter century of armed conflict in Sri Lanka reached its violent conclusion. The Government of Sri Lanka’s take-no-prisoners approach to defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” was accompanied by massive violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international criminal law. From January to May 2009, the military killed at least 40,000 to 70,000 Tamil civilians and also targeted Tamil women with rape and sexual violence. However, there have been no UN recommendations to investigate this onslaught as genocide, despite evidence of genocidal intent. The silence on both genocide and the crimes unique to women flows from the politicization of genocide and perpetuates gender discrimination and crimes. Next month, the topic of reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka is on the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda. The time is now for the international community to call for investigations into genocide and to use the specific protections and obligations under genocide law to redress the ongoing harms against Tamil women, including rapes and denial of their reproductive rights.

The war started in “Black July” 1983, when the Government of Sri Lanka sponsored violence against Tamils across the country. For about one week, in a classic hallmark of genocide, the Government provided voter registration lists identifying Tamils by ethnicity and incited Sinhalese mobs to kill and rape their Tamil neighbors and to destroy their homes and businesses. Over two decades later, the war ended as it started, with Government forces killing and committing sexual and gender-based violence against the Tamils. All of these crimes were seemingly committed with the intent to destroy the Tamil population, in whole or in part—a crucial component of genocide.

Burma Military Violates International Law

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.

“If they had hope, they would speak”

Burma Army soldiers continue to engage in acts of sexual violence on a widespread scale, and women and human rights defenders in ethnic communities face harassment and persecution, tells a new report “If they had hope, they would speak” released by the Women’s League of Burma (WLB). It reveals ongoing sexual violence by government forces against ethnic women in Burma, and presents troubling evidence of intimidation of those seeking justice for these crimes, by highlighting 118 incidences of gang-rape, rape, and attempted sexual assault that have been documented in Burma since 2010, in both ceasefire and non-ceasefire areas. These cases demonstrate the ongoing de facto impunity for human rights abuses enjoyed by Burma military personnel.

© WLB

WLB’s report expresses strong concerns on developments contributing to a culture of impunity, such as increased military presence in ethnic areas, intimidation of civil society organizations and the continued absence of women in peace negotiations. Despite the Burmese government’s public commitment to advance the status of women – including by developing the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) and issuing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict – few steps have been taken to improve the lives of women in ethnic communities. The absence of concrete and time-bound plans of action has meant that amidst Burma’s ‘transition’, the country’s women continue to be denied their basic human rights.

“The military is sending a clear message that it is willing to use violence and coercion against those brave enough to speak out about human rights abuses”, said Tin Tin Nyo, General Secretary of the WLB. “The Burma Army must be brought under civilian control, and there must be a negotiated settlement to the civil war that will grant ethnic peoples equality under a genuine federal system of government. If these actions are not taken, state-sponsored sexual violence against women of ethnic communities will not stop.”

GJC President Janet Benshoof in Democratic Voice of Burma: "It's Time for the International Community to Address Burma's Constitution"

Here's an excerpt from the article "It's Time for the International Community to Address Burma's Constitution," which was published in Democratic Voice of Burma on February 20, 2013:

The international community acts as if development and engagement alone can secure a democratic future for Burma. The United Nations and donor countries, with staggering rapidity, are investing considerable amounts of international and bilateral aid in Burma, including for “rule of law” projects designed to jettison Burma into the 21st century global legal community. However, this well-intended engagement, touting ideals of democracy and the rule of law, is built on a fallacy, which neither serves the people of Burma nor advances the global security sought by the international community.

This fallacy is that justice, democracy, and rule of law can be established in Burma notwithstanding the fact that the 2008 constitution establishing the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” grants the “Defense Services,” under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, complete and total legal autonomy over its own affairs, as well as immunity for its actions, however criminal or corrupt. The truth is actually quite simple: unless and until the military is placed under civilian control through constitutional amendment, talk of democracy and rule of law in Burma is just that, talk.

Click here to read the full article in English.

Click here to read the full article in Burmese. 

The critical connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions

With the 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals approaching, the United Nations recently issued a report detailing the progress made on each goal.  While some goals have made major gains and will reach their targets by 2015, “Goal 5: Improve maternal health”, is not seeing the gains other goals have made.  The stated target of Goal 5 was to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio”.  Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia account for most of the maternal mortality cases.

The report notes that maternal mortality rates could decrease by ensuring that women receive ante-natal care, give birth in the presence of skilled health professionals, and have unobstructed access to family planning and contraceptives.  Though the report mentions access to family planning and contraceptives, it makes no explicit mention of access to safe abortions.  The connection between maternal mortality rates and lack of access to safe abortions is critical, and cannot be ignored.  The CEDAW Committee has repeatedly made the connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions, noting the “high rates of maternal mortality due to high numbers of abortions among adolescents, and unsafe, clandestine, and illegal abortions”.

July’s summit on family planning in London raised $2.6 billion dollars to improve access to family planning and contraceptives for an additional 120 million women by 2020.  One article suggests that “[w]hat vaccinations are to infant mortality, contraception is to maternal mortality.”  The organizers of the family planning summit claim that the money raised will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy.  While it is important for women to be able to obtain contraceptives wherever they are in the world, it is equally as important that women have access to safe abortions if contraceptives fail, or if a rape victim seeks an abortion to help end the psychological trauma still lingering from her assault.   If women are forced to resort to unsafe abortions because they are illegal, unaffordable, or unobtainable, the maternal mortality rate will stay steady.

When Times Get Tough, Women’s Rights Shouldn’t Suffer

Hard times happen. They can happen anytime and anywhere. They can happen on a scale as small as a community or family or as large as an entire region or country. The causes range from economic crises to armed conflicts and everything in between. In fact, the one thing that seems to be universal about hard times is that they lead to less respect for women’s rights.

In Nepal, girls are essentially sold into slavery when their families are struggling with debt. The ethnic Tharu practice a form of indentured servitude known as “kamlari”. Tharu families struggling with extreme poverty ease their debt burdens by leasing their daughters to higher caste landlords to use as servants for as little as $30 a year. Girls as young as six enter the system and are forced to do menial labor. These girls suffer a wide range of abuses, including beatings and rape, and are not allowed to go to school. Activists have been struggling to free girls from the kamlari system but the system has persisted in isolated parts of Nepal.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are traded as a form of dispute settlement. Daughters are given to rival parties to settle disputes in a practice known as “swara” or “vani”. Swara is used to settle crimes such as murder, adultery, and kidnapping. A daughter from the family of the perpetrator (usually the girl’s father or brother) is forced to marry into the family of the victim. The girls are often quite young and the men they are forced to marry are often significantly older. Swara brides are treated terribly by their in-laws and husbands. They are treated like servants, constantly taunted, frequently beaten, and sometimes even killed.

In Niger, there is a tradition of marrying girls off at a very young age. Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage with approximately 50% of girls marrying before the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven. Girls are married off in exchange for dowries, including livestock and cash, which can be very helpful for families struggling with poverty. The country is currently in the middle of a hunger crisis resulting from a severe drought. Therefore, families that were already poor are now finding it even more difficult to put food on the table and there is a legitimate fear that families will begin marrying off their daughters with greater frequency and at younger ages if the crisis continues. Child brides in Niger lead difficult lives. They are often married to men who are much older, they are unable to attend school, forced to have sexual intercourse, denied freedom, beaten, and often abandoned when their polygamous husbands take younger brides. Additionally, child brides tend to be impregnated long before their bodies are ready to bear children, which often leads to serious health problems and even death.

In Madagascar, girls are frequently forced into prostitution when their families don’t have enough money to survive. In the southern region of the island, they have what is called “tsenan’ampela” (literally girls market). Families send their girls to market towns without money, forcing them to prostitute themselves at the tsenan’ampela until they have enough money to buy food and supplies for the family.

In times of conflict, rape and sexual assault are frequently used against women as weapons of war. This is currently happening in Syria in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces. Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. There is evidence that forces are targeting victims related to the Free Syrian Army as a way to punish the rebels with reports of soldiers going into houses looking for male members of the rebel forces and then raping the women. Many of the women have been killed after being assaulted, which is a tactic used in conflict zones to show complete control over the enemy.

The situations described above are just a handful of examples of how women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of hardship, and the list could go on and on. The list of excuses for these types of discrimination is equally long and includes explanations blaming culture, tradition, inevitability, and ignorance. However, the truth is that there is no excuse for sacrificing women’s rights in hard times. According to Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This broad definition of discrimination against women means that for at least the 187 countries that are a party to CEDAW, there is an obligation to ensure that women’s rights are respected and that women do not suffer disproportionately in any circumstance, including times of hardship. As such, women and girls should never be turned into a commodity and sold off when their families need food and money, and they should never brutalized for crimes they have not committed or battles they have not fought. When times get tough, women should be given an equal say in finding a solution.