Fact Sheet: Structural Barriers To Accountability For Human Rights Abuses In Burma

Recent reports detailing the heinous human rights abuses committed in Rakhine State in Burma have triggered calls for perpetrators to be held accountable, both domestically and internationally. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) has opened a preliminary examination1 and the UN Human Rights Council has established an investigative mechanism to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of crimes.2 International action is not only justified but absolutely necessary given the impossibility of holding perpetrators to account using domestic justice mechanisms. Decades of unchecked human rights abuses against ethnic groups in other areas of Burma and deeply-entrenched domestic structural barriers preventing accountability have emboldened the military and contributed to the current crisis. Without international action to address and tackle Burma’s culture of impunity and the structural barriers that underpin them, this pattern will likely continue unabated.

This Fact Sheet details the domestic structural barriers that impede accountability for perpetrators and preclude justice for victims of human rights abuses in Burma. These obstacles, formalized with the “adoption” by a spurious referendum of a new Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (the “Constitution”) in 2008, prevent any full accounting for human rights violations committed by the military (the “Tatmadaw” or “Defense Forces”) in Burma. Obstacles outlined in this Fact Sheet include: (1) constitutional supremacy and autonomy of the military; (2) constitutional guarantees of impunity; (3) military emergency powers; and (4) lack of an independent and accountable judicial system.

Understanding the domestic structural impediments to accountability for the military is crucial to understanding the circumstances that give rise to these offenses and lead to the inevitable conclusion that unless these barriers are dismantled, human rights abuses will go unpunished and a true democracy will not take hold in Burma. Moreover, a situation of national unrest gives the military great powers under the Constitution capable of emboldening and further empowering the military. 

While the increasingly volatile situation and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State highlight military abuses and impunity, the Tatmadaw has for decades engaged in armed conflict with multiple ethnic groups in Burma. These long-running conflicts are characterized by human rights abuses perpetrated by the military that have gone unpunished and continue today in multiple regions, including Shan and Kachin states. The situation in Rakhine State must be understood not in isolation but as part of a continuum, and as another example of how impunity for human rights abuses committed by the military is the rule, not the exception, in Burma.

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Letter to The Honourable Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor, "Re: Preliminary Examination into the Situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar"

Dear Prosecutor Bensouda,

The Global Justice Center writes to congratulate the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) on the decision to open a preliminary examination into the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Since impunity has long been the rule and not the exception in Myanmar, this examination offers a glimmer of hope that those who have long been oppressed by Myanmar’s military will see some measure of justice. We write to the OTP today with respect to three key issues related to this preliminary examination: (1) to emphasize the need to place the gendered experiences of these crimes at the center of the examination; (2) to urge the OTP to take a broad view to the crimes over which the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction; and (3) to provide information with respect to any analysis of positive complementarity.

On the first point, we were pleased to attend a recent event with you at the UNGA in New York “Prosecuting Sexual and Gender-based Crimes at the International Criminal Court.” We applaud the OTP’s commitment to applying a gender analysis in all areas of its work, which has been reinforced by its strong policy on sexual and gender-based crimes. We agree that consideration of the complete nature of the crimes is necessary in order to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions. We urge that this be made a priority in the preliminary examination at hand.

Statement on the Creation of the IIIM for Myanmar

The Global Justice Center applauds the Human Rights Council for acting where others have not in creating an International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Myanmar. This is an important step towards addressing the total impunity for the decades of crimes committed by the military.

While it is imperative to collect evidence, without a court where such evidence can be analyzed and prosecuted, justice and accountability for these crimes cannot be delivered. As such, the creation of the Mechanism without the establishment of an avenue for justice is insufficient. The Security Council should still refer the situation to the International Criminal Court so that the Court has jurisdiction over all crimes committed in the course of these attacks. Structural barriers to accountability in Burma, including those enshrined in the Constitution, must also be addressed.

The Mechanism also must ensure that gender is at the center of the investigation, and that the Mechanism has sufficient gender expertise. “Burmese Security Forces have long used rape as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities,” says Global Justice Center President Akila Radhakrishnan. “The attacks on the Rohingya were gendered in their conception, commission, and consequences. Women were specifically targeted for crimes against humanity and genocide, and they must not be left behind in these accountability efforts.”

Gender Crimes Require Gender Justice for Burma's Rohingya

Rohingya women and girls have suffered targeted atrocities at the hands of Burma’s security forces. Amounting to crimes against humanity and genocide, these attacks were gendered in their conception, commission, and consequences. Accordingly, gender must be central to any and all efforts aimed at justice and accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingya.

For an in-depth analysis of the sexual and gender-based crimes perpetrated by Burma’s security forces against Rohingya women and girls, see the Global Justice Center’s (GJC) legal brief: Discrimination to Destruction: A Legal Analysis of the Gender Crimes Against the Rohingya.

Groundbreaking Legal Analysis of Gender-Based Crimes in Rakhine State

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – September 17, 2018

[New York] – The Global Justice Center (GJC) released a report today providing the first comprehensive legal analysis of the gender-based crimes committed against Rohingya women and girls in Rakhine State, amounting to crimes against humanity and genocide. 

Too often, the female victims of atrocity crimes are overlooked, their experiences lost in a narrative of violence centered around mass killings. This report highlights the central role that gender played in the design and commission of the atrocities carried out against the Rohingya. The Burmese military has a long history of using rape as a weapon against ethnic minorities, and the assault on the Rohingya was no exception—women and girls were systematically singled out for brutal rape and sexual violence. As one survivor testified, “I was lucky I was only raped by three men.” Accountability proceedings—whether at the domestic or international level—must take into account these gendered experiences.

Discrimination to Destruction: A Legal Analysis of Gender Crimes Against the Rohingya

Since August 2016, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), Border Guard, and police forces have conducted a systematic campaign of brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s northern Rakhine State. These attacks come in the midst of a decades-long campaign of persecution of the Rohingya through discriminatory measures to police and control the group, including denying citizenship rights, restricting movement and access to healthcare, and limiting marriage and the number of children in families. While all members of the Rohingya population were targeted for violence, gender was integral to how the atrocities were perpetrated.

This brief seeks to bring to light the international crimes—crimes against humanity and genocide—committed against Rohingya women and girls since 2016 by Burmese Security Forces and highlight the role gender played in the design and commission of these atrocities. The military has long used rape as a weapon of war and oppression in its conflicts with ethnic groups, and in the recent attacks, Rohingya women and girls were targeted for particularly brutal manners of killing, rape and sexual violence, and torture. 

Statement on the ICC Ruling in Burma

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 6, 2018

[New York]– The Global Justice Center applauds the International Criminal Court (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber I for recognizing the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed by Burma’s security forces that were continued into Bangladesh—including the crimes against humanity of deportation, persecution and other inhumane acts. The ICC’s decision provides the opportunity to see real accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingya.

Since the commencement of “clearance operations” by Burma’s security forces last August, over 700,000 Rohingya have been forcibly displaced to Bangladesh. The ICC’s ruling potentially opens the door to other ongoing crimes, elements of which have occurred in Bangladesh or as a result of their displacement to Bangladesh. Forcible displacement has been found by international courts to not only be a crime against humanity itself, but also a constitutive element of genocidal acts.

Statement on the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - August 27, 2018

[New York]– The Global Justice Center (GJC) welcomes the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s report on the crimes against minority groups, including the crime of genocide against the Rohingya committed by Myanmar’s security forces. In particular, GJC commends the Fact-Finding Mission for highlighting the military’s use of sexual violence as a tactic against all minority groups and recognizing the structural barriers to accountability in Myanmar.

For decades, the Myanmar army has targeted ethnic minority groups with impunity—burning villages, killing indiscriminately, and raping and sexually assaulting women and girls. These systematic and brutal attacks against civilians have been used to intimidate and terrorize local populations. Years of impunity for these atrocities have emboldened the military to escalate their policies of violence and repression, creating an opening for the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s civilian government has neither the will nor the demonstrated capacity to end these horrific crimes and hold those responsible accountable. It is essential that the international community act expeditiously to address the situation in Myanmar, including the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya, and take action in line with the obligations to prevent, suppress and punish genocide.

Call the crimes against the Rohingya what they are: Genocide

GJC's Deputy Legal Director, Grant Shubin, published a letter to the editor in the Washington Post, in response to UN Secretary-General António Guterres' article "The Rohingya are victims of ethnic cleansing. The world has failed them."

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was right in his July 11 op-ed, “The chilling stories of the Rohingya,” to indict the international community for failing the Rohingya. His plea for more concerted international action could not be more timely or necessary. However, his appeal did not go as far as it should have. He failed to name the crimes against the Rohingya for what they are: genocide.

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Global Justice Center Report Quoted in Myanmar Times

The Global Justice Center's joint report with Gender Equality Network (GEN),  “Facing Barriers to Gender Equality in Myanmar”, was quoted in a Myanmar Times article, "Culture to blame for violence against women: Yangon official". 

The Myanmar Times notes that, 

According to a 2016 report titled “Facing Barriers to Gender Equality in Myanmar” by the Global Justice Center and Gender Equality Network, out of all ASEAN countries, only two lack laws against domestic violence - Myanmar is one of them. It also has no laws against physical or sexual abuse of women or to protect victims from attackers.

Listen to the seventh episode of "That's Illegal"

In this episode of That's Illegal, we sat down with our partners Naw Hser Hser and Mu Gloria from the Women's League of Burma to talk about their work on the ground and their recent experience attending the UN's Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Enjoy this episode? Follow us on iTunes and Soundcloud!

USAID FOIA re: Burma

March 3, 2015 – January 10, 2017
Case F-00127-15

GJC petitioned USAID for information on “all USAID contracts, grants and awards related to the funding of the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thai-Burma border to cover operational and support costs since 2008.” This request was part of the August 12th Campaign, dealing specifically with the services available to rape victims in Burma and those who are displaced to the Thai-Burma border.

Abortion-related sections of USAID contracts (emphasis added):

(1) Ineligible Goods and Services. Under no circumstances shall the recipient procure any of the following under this award:

            (i) Military equipment,

            (ii) Surveillance equipment,

(iii) Commodities and services for support of police or other law enforcement activities,

(iv) Abortion equipment and services,

(v) Luxury goods and gambling equipment, or

(vi) Weather modification equipment

Timeline:

  • March 3, 2015– Initial request sent
  • January 10, 2017 – Responsive documents received

Janet Benshoof Featured in PassBlue

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.

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GJC’s statement on the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 9, 2017

[NEW YORK, NY] - In light of ongoing violence in Rakhine State, the Global Justice Center issues the following statement: 

The Global Justice Center calls for the immediate cessation of all acts of violence and the protection of civilian populations in Rakhine State. The Myanmar government must swiftly investigate credible reports of horrific crimes and human rights abuses against civilians in Rakhine State, including acts by its own military and security forces, and provide meaningful punishment, redress and reparations for violations. The government must allow investigators access to Rakhine State and cooperate fully with international investigations, including the UN Fact-finding Mission authorized by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017. Further, the government must ensure the safety of all civilians, including the Rohingya population, and facilitate humanitarian access and aid to affected communities.