What Success Looks Like for Women on the Ground

Yesterday in the inspiring and informative event, “What Success Looks Like on the Ground,” women leaders from Burma, Haiti, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo gathered to discuss their personal experiences in combating sexual violence in conflict. The panel was a side event to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

It was moving to hear directly from local women leaders who battle everyday with their governments, militaries, other institutions, and social mores. Together they painted a stark picture of the very real difficulties women face in armed conflict zones around the world, as well as lessons they have learned in working against sexual violence and in supporting survivors.

Panel speaker Julia Marip, from the Women’s League of Burma, noted that “when women have been raped, they suffer twice: once at the rape and again when they become pregnant.” Ms. Marip then pointed out that not only is abortion illegal in Burma, but also that reforming laws – including those criminalizing abortion – is overly difficult due to the constitution’s discrimination against women and the military’s embedded position within the government. She also emphasized the importance of having women at the political table in order to improve the lives of women, including by ending rape and increasing accountability. Ms. Marip and her organization, the Women’s League of Burma, recently launched a report on sexual violence in their country,Same Impunity, Same Pattern: Report of Systematic Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Areas, about which the Global Justice Center hosted an event and wrote an article.

Similarly, Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa, an activist working with women survivors of sexual violence in Congo, spoke of the power of women to end sexual violence in conflict. She called for solidarity, saying that women around the world “must band together as survivors if we want to fix this on a global level rather than go case by case.” She further urged the world to end the crisis in Congo – one of the world’s longest running conflicts – saying that the Congolese “are begging the people who are bringing war to us to take it away.” Without this step, she explained, sexual violence would continue.

Leonie then described the consequences of the ongoing sexual violence in her country, including the suffering of women with unwanted pregnancies from rape, who are often shunned by their families, and the dangers and difficulties that face children born of rape. An audience member from the Congo, Justine Masika Bihamba, of Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence, echoed Leonie’s point, reporting that “every day we are losing women to suicide who have become pregnant from rape.”

Zeinab Blandia, of the Vision Association in Sudan, shared her experiences advocating against sexual violence in her country, and explained that where peace has been established in areas of Sudan, the situation for women has improved. Like her fellow panelists, Zeinab called on the international community to help bring the conflict in her country to an end. She said that if the war and its associated violence against women were to continue, it would be a “shame on the international community and on CSW.”

The panel also touched upon successes combating sexual violence in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake left women and girls increasingly vulnerable to sexual attacks. The event highlighted the work of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a grassroots organization run by women survivors of sexual violence that supports other women survivors in Haiti. Marie Eramithe Delva, executive secretary of KOFAVIV, recounted the success of their campaign distributing whistles to women and girls in the displaced person camps of Port-au-Prince, noting that in at least one camp it had led to a drastic reduction in the number of reported rapes.

The Global Justice Center (GJC) is grateful to have heard these women leaders speak of their experiences and advice for combating sexual violence and supporting survivors. We believe our vision of success on the ground mirrors their calls for justice and accountability for rape in armed conflict, for increased participation of women in government and peace negotiations, and for expanded and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health services. GJC is eager to partner with women leaders such as these, as it has done with Ms. Bihamba, whose organization sent a letter to President Obama as part of GJC’s August 12th Campaign, urging him to lift the ban on abortions attached to U.S. humanitarian aid. For further information on GJC and its projects, please visit:http://www.globaljusticecenter.net.

Launch of WLB Report, "Same Pattern, Same Impunity" - Sexual Violence in Burma

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 13:15 - 14:30

At 866 United Nations Plaza, New York

Women's League of Burma Report Launch: "Same Pattern, Same Impunity," hosted by the Nobel Women's Inititave and the Global Justice Center.

Speakers:

Julia Marip, Joint General-Secretary, Women's League of Burma

Janet Benshoof, President, Global Justice Center

Pablo Castillo-Diaz, Protection Specialist, UN Women

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Systematic Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Areas: New Report

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - January 13, 2014

[RANGOON, CHIANG MAI/ NEW YORK, NY] - Today marks the launch of an important new report documenting ongoing crimes of sexual violence—over 100 cases documented since 2010, including 47 gang rapes—perpetrated by the Burmese military in ethnic regions of Burma.

New Report Details Ongoing Sexualized Violence in Burma

On January 13, 2014, GJC staff members Akila Radhakrishnan and Michelle Onello published an article on the Women Under Siege project blog, titled on new reports detailing ongoing sexualized violence in Burma.

Click here to read the full article. 

Burma Refuses to Relinquish Rape as Weapon of War

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.

Justice in Syria

All the talk this week will be whether the United States will launch air strikes on Syria, in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has committed egregious human rights violations, including the violation of one of the most important norms of international law: the ban of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians. President Obama emphasized that potential US strikes is about protecting this fundamental international norm, which is threatened by the Syrian government’s alleged gassing of its own people. Yet, Syria has long been in a state of unrest – and the Global Justice Center takes a look a few other areas in which Syria is violating international law, particularly when it comes to equal protection and rights for women.

Impunity

As has been evident throughout the conflict in Syria, neither the government nor the rebel faction shave been held accountable for their crimes – even when these crimes do not respect international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that government abuses were largest in scale. In its 2013 Annual Report on Syria, Amnesty International wrote that “the government took no steps to investigate the numerous allegations against their forces or to bring anyone to justice for alleged gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The government maintained a reign of impunity, including legislation giving members of the security forces effective immunity for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.”

The Global Justice Center is all too familiar with the dangers of governmental impunity through its work with the Burma Law Project. The Burma Constitution perpetuates injustice as a policy by giving complete amnesty to the military for its crimes, including systematic rapes of ethnic women. It also excludes women, just as 2012 Syrian Constitution. With the human rights violations mounting in Syria, including an alarming number of reported rapes and sexual crimes, it is clear that no matter how the conflict in Syria ends, perpetrators must be held accountable on both sides. The international community cannot allow yet another example of war crimes, especially gender-based violence, to be carried out with impunity.

In addition, according to Women under Siege, a journalism project founded by Gloria Steinem, sexual violence is and has been rampant in Syria throughout the conflict. It is perpetrated by both sides, without justice for victims (or, in many cases, even necessary medical care). Women Under Siege has been collecting reports of sexual violence in Syria to document the way rape is being used to terrorize and intimidate the Syrian people. With this data they have created a live, crowd-sourced map. The crimes documented went largely unpunished and represent only a small part of the whole, because sexual violence in Syria is largely underreported.

“With no clear future for Syria in sight, refugees are understandably cautious about who they speak to and trust with sensitive and personal information… It may be hard to put their trust in a stranger when, time and again, there has been little justice for victims of wartime rape.” – Lauren Wolfe, Director, Women Under Siege.

Gender Equality

According to data from the WEF Gender Gap Report on countries’ gender equality progress since the Arab Spring, overall the region’s score increased by a dismal 1.2% from 2010 to 2012. Syria, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3%. That’s right: Syria is moving backwards on women’s rights issues, mainly because of decreases in estimated earned income. In addition, in a list of 135 countries, Syria was ranked an abysmal #111 in the Gender Gap Index for “political empowerment” in 2012 by the report.

“[Syria]’s civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country’s shattered economy,” wrote Max Fisher, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, in an article.

But Syria is not only moving backwards; the basis on which it started never had equal opportunities for women in the first place.

“While the penal code no longer fully exonerates perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, it still gives judges options for reduced sentences if a crime was committed with “honorable” intent. The nationality law of 1969 prevents Syrian women married to foreign spouses the right to pass on their citizenship to their children or spouses,” Human Rights Watch stated in its 2012 World Report on Syria.

When this tragic and deadly conflict finally comes to an end, any future government in Syria must look towards building long-term stability. A major key to that is to have a government and a constitution that is representative. Women’s rights are not something that can be pushed to the side and fixed only after the country is considered “stable.”In reality, ensuring women’s rights is anecessary step to achieving long-term stability. There must be increased participation in the political process by women if the country is to fulfill the pledge in the 2012 Syrian Constitution of a multi-party system, replacing ade facto one-party system that has hindered democratic reform for the past several decades.

As the world waits to see if the US will strike and what the global fallout from such action will be, it is critical to examine the roots of injustice if Syria can ever hope to move forward.

Donate now to help the Global Justice Center establish global human rights through the rule of law.

Legal Victory in Kenya Can Serve as Model to Fight Impunity in Burma

Girls and women in Kenya recently made history when the High Court of Kenya delivered a favorable outcome to a constitutional challenge in which 160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.

The girls brought the action under Section 22(1) of the Kenyan constitution, which provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or is threatened.” The Kenyan criminal code contains laws that protect against rape, however they are not enforced and as a result rape has been on the rise. The petitioners accused the police of “neglect, omission, refusal and/or failure…to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations” into sexual violence complaints.

The High Court agreed with the petitioners, saying that the police had “unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably” failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse in Kenya. It said police inaction and lack of enforcement has created a “climate of impunity” that shows perpetrators they can commit crimes of sexual violence and not be punished. The Court found that the petitioners’ fundamental rights and freedoms had been violated, not only under the Kenyan Constitution but also according to international law. The Court found police inaction to violate fundamental rights that are protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Court also considered international cases that demonstrate a consensus that states may be held accountable for failing to properly respond to sexual violence because they have a duty “to protect all citizens from violence and ensure their security of person.”

Two days after the victory, several people contacted Fiona Sampson, the Toronto attorney who worked on the case. They wanted to use the case as a model in other countries for fighting impunity in the context of sexual violence, a problem that is hardly limited to Kenya.

For the women in Burma, for example, the problem of impunity in the face of widespread sexual violence is dire. The prevalence of abuse, documented by Burmese women’s groups, UN special rapporteurs, and even the Security Council, is extensive. These violations are not anecdotal incidences of crime. Rather, the Burmese military uses rape as a weapon of war against the civilian population.

Although this problem has been reported at length, the Burmese government refuses to take any action to punish such acts. In fact, the current 2008 Constitution provides complete impunity for sexual violence perpetrated by the military by including an amnesty provision that precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes. What’s more, current law requires that any amendment to the Constitution be supported by more than 75% of parliament. Because 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, all nonmilitary members plus at least one military member must support any proposed amendment. It is therefore unlikely that the amnesty provision will be overturned any time soon.Because of this, the International Center for Transitional Justice has said that Burma presents “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity”.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Burma has an affirmative duty to ensure women are protected from sexual violence, which includes not affording immunity to its perpetrators. Like Kenya, Burma is bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and should be guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in developing policies and practices that protect Burmese citizens from sexual violence. Burma is violating these international obligations when it relies on its 2008 Constitution to justify inaction.

The international community should look to the recent case in Kenya as a model and call for Burma to put an end to impunity if it wants to establish viable democracy in the country. Given the Burmese military’s reliance on aid, international pressure could be highly effective. While the government continues to fail to act to combat impunity, the international community must demand a change in the constitution so that girls and women in Burma, just as in Kenya, receive the protections their government owes them.

The Gender Gap and Women's Political Power in Myanmar/Burma

The rights of women under international law, including the right to occupy positions of political power, have advanced more in the last 20 years than ever before. True political participation requires a significant number of women in all areas of governance: ceasefire and peace treaty negotiations, constitution drafting committees, political parties, executive branch appointments, and elected positions.

In Burma, the long history of militarization has reinforced and perpetuated the gender gap in power. Women are not admitted into active military service, effectively excluding them (as well as ethnic minorities) from political participation since top offices are reserved for the military. Therefore, they have also been ineligible for the employment, education, business, joint venture and travel opportunities created by military status.

Pursuant to the 2008 Constitution, the Defense Services (Tatmadaw) remain an integral and permanent part of the machinery that governs Burma and is constitutionally guaranteed complete power and autonomy. The continued military dominance guaranteed by the Constitution is the main obstacle for women in Burma hindering them from ever gaining real political power.

This timeline illustrates the absence of women’s voices from formal governing structures throughout Burmese history. It should provide an impetus for this formerly silent majority, the feminist majority, to make their voices heard and to take their turn at governing the country.

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Why is a War Criminal Getting a Peace Prize?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 17:00-18:00

At New York, New York

On Tuesday April 23, Burmese President Thein Sein was awarded a peace prize from the International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to resolving deadly conflict. Oddly, presenting Thein Sein with this award is a step away from the ICG’s goal, seeing as their main focus involves conflict resolution, something the Burmese president has evaded. In ICG’s recognition of Thein Sein, they highlight that he has transformed Myanmar by “liberalizing past repressive laws” and “making significant strides in ending internal conflicts, securing ceasefires with all but one of the ethnic armed groups”. However, they gloss over the fact that despite the changes that he’s made, ethnic groups are still being oppressed by the military. There have been ongoing reports against the Myanmar Army from a multitude of sources, including the UN, with claims accusing them of systemic use of rape against Ethnic women. These allegations clearly indicate that rape is being used as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities, while the government turns a blind eye to these atrocities. Instead of acknowledging these methodical violations of human rights or making some sort of effort to alleviate the situation, President Thein Sein has merely denied the allegations. Reports have made it clear that the Myanmar army uses rape to terrorize and intimidate Ethnic people. As a signatory of the Geneva Convention, the nation of Myanmar is obligated to take initiatives to enforce humanitarian law against its army, but has failed to do so. As an advocate of human rights, GJC does not support a leader who oppresses its citizens and violates principles of humanity, especially against women. Our Rape as a Weapon of War Campaign demands justice for women raped in conflict in order to shatter this culture of impunity. Raping women for military objections is a complete violation of the Geneva Conventions, and states must face repercussions for these actions. Thein Sein should not be awarded a peace prize when he is not recognizing the abuses that his own citizens are facing under his rule as he allows this to continue, and by awarding him, the ICG is only approving of the suffering of innocent civilians. It is time to punish states that use rape as an unlawful weapon in armed conflict, not reward them.

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. 

GJC Rises Up! One Billion Rise to End Gender Violence

February 14, 2013, 15:00

At Times Square, NYC

 

On February 14, 2013, the staff of the Global Justice Center  joined with Amnesty International is Times Square today for One Billion Rising, V-Day’s global movement to end violence against women. It was such a meaningful event and incredible atmosphere, so we'd like to share a few photos from the day!

Please also take a look at our blog to see more of our One Billion Rising activities and learn more about our work: http://globaljusticecenter.net/blog/

Definition of Sovereignty

November 2012

The very definition of “sovereignty” or of a “sovereign” state like the Union of the Republic of Myanmar, assumes that the state has complete legal authority over the military and over constitution amendment processes

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The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Calls for UN Security Council Action on the 2008 Myanmar Constitution's Removal of All Civilian Government Control Over the Military

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - November 30, 2012

[NEW YORK, NY] - On November 30, 2012, the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Dr. David Krieger, alerted United Nations Security Council members to the security risks raised by the 2008 Myanmar constitution, which denies the civilian government any power to control the military.

Myanmar/Burma’s Binding Obligations Under International Law

November, 2012

This document outlines some of Myanmar/Burma’s (hereinafter “Burma”) obligations under international law, and demonstrates the ramifications of these obligations. Burma’s obligations under international law have greatly increased due to the advances in international law and the enforcement of states obligations over the last fifteen years.

International law mandates that states either act or refrain from acting in certain ways, and provides remedies for state breaches. The framework of Burma’s obligations arise from four interrelated bodies of international law: international human rights and other treaty law, including the United Nations (UN) Charter; customary international law, including the laws of state responsibility; international humanitarian law; and international criminal law.

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