As Aung San Suu Kyi Visits US, International Law Violations in Burma Constitution are Highlighted

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s is in Washington DC today to received the Congressional Gold Medal. She will also be meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a proud moment for the Burmese community and for the Global Justice Center, which has worked tirelessly on democracy issues in Burma.

However, we also recognize that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete. A major obstacle continues to be the country’s constitution, which entrenches military influence over Burma’s civilian government. Daw Suu Kyi said herself that amending the constitution must be a top priority, and we agree with her. The Global Justice Center calls for the international community to challenge the constitution as a violation of fundamental international law—including the UN Charter.

Burma has seen substantial change these past few years; a civilian government was formed, political prisoners were released (Suu Kyi herself being one example), and, this April, opposition parties were allowed to take part in the by-elections, carrying 43 out of 44 open parliamentary seats (but continuing to exert little influence overall). However, Burma has yet to fully commit to democracy. The Burmese civilian government still owes its parliamentary majority to the fraudulent elections of 2010, and the current constitution hinders further democratization and gives complete autonomy to the military. This makes it nearly impossible to prosecute Burma’s military rulers, who are guilty of egregious crimes—including the use of systematic rape of ethnic women as a weapon of war, torture, forced relocation and forced labor. All are rampant violations of fundamental international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The impunity accorded to the military under the current constitution leaves civilian victims, particularly those in the conflict areas of the Burmese border, virtually without legal protection. Activities of the Myanmar military are also in breach of a set of agreements that govern nuclear development.

The Burmese government and the international community must ensure that Burma is meeting international law requirements. Yet, because the constitution gives the military a “legal vacuum” the government would be legally unable to fulfill these obligations. Thus Burma’s new constitution stands in breach of core international commitments.

The Global Justice Center urges the international community to stand with the people of Burma and challenge the legality of the constitution.

(For an in-depth analysis of the constitution and restraint it puts on the civilian government, read GJC president Janet Benshoof’s report, co-written with the Burma Lawyers Council or see the Global Justice Center Project Page on Burma.)

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

Global Justice Center's Phyu Phyu Sann states:

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

She continues further:

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

Click here to read the full article.

Continued Violence in Burma’s Rakhine State Demands Greater Attention from International Community

Ethnic and religious violence continues to flare in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State of western Burma after an incident last month in which a local woman was raped by three men, allegedly of Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly along the border between Burma and Bangladesh. They are not recognized by the Burmese military government as citizens in Burma, nor have they been permitted to obtain citizenship in Bangladesh. According to United Nations estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma, many of whose families have lived in the country for generations. An estimated 300,000 currently live in Bangladesh. The Burmese refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” illustrating the widespread perception of the Rohingya people as unwelcome foreigners in Burma. Nor have members of the minority received much support from their supposed country of origin. Boats of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in Bangladesh are being turned away by government authorities, who have effectively closed their border to refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.

The conflict risks creating greater political strife within the country at a time when the government is especially vulnerable to instability due to the recent “liberalization” undertaken by the ruling military regime. Many government officials are hesitant to address the issue publicly. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy has remained tight-lipped on the plight of the country’s Rohingya population. The NLD spokesman Nyan Win would not comment on Suu Kyi’s position but said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”

The three men accused of committing the rape that are believed to have initiated the conflict have been arrested and charged for the crime, yet the ethnic tensions sparked by the incident have continued to evoke violence in the region. After the attack, a group of Buddhist Burmese citizens boarded a bus and beat ten Rohingya passengers to death, some of whom were apparently thought to have been involved in the rape. Since then, clashes between the Arakanese (members of the ethnic Burmese population in Rakhine state) and the Rohingya community have included rioting, arson, and a continuing cycle of revenge attacks. Government officials report that the month of clashes has resulted in eighty deaths. The Rohingya community believes the death toll to be much higher.

In response to the violence, the military regime has instituted a state of emergency in the Arakan state, a situation which gives the military full governing rights under the 2008 constitution. While the government claims the measures have been undertaken to ensure the safety and security of the local population, a declared state of emergency robs the state’s civilian government of what little power and authority it previously enjoyed in the region.

It’s time for the international community to recognize the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma by increasing humanitarian aid to the region and openly calling for the military junta to end its oppression of minority groups in Burma, a trend that has characterized the regime’s rule for decades. In addition, the international community should call for Bangladesh to reopen its borders to refugees fleeing the violence in Burma and allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country. As Human Rights Watch has noted, Bangladesh is obligated under international law to provide temporary protection to refugees and asylum seekers. While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is a party to the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These treaties and customary international law establish the obligation of states to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which holds that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened and that no person should be returned to a place where they would be subjected to torture.

Post by: Adrian Lewis

The Perils of the Inaccessibility to Reproductive Healthcare in Eastern Burma

A woman should never have to resort to using a fishing hook or dangerous medications as the only feasible options to terminating a pregnancy. Yet these dangerous tactics remain pandemic in eastern Burma where inaccessibility to proper healthcare and safe abortions threatens the livelihood of thousands of women. A recent report by Ibis Reproductive Health highlights the dire state that women on the Thai-Burma border are in. The fact that so many women in Burma turn to these fatal and unsafe method of pregnancy termination underscore the need for safe abortions.

Yet, despite this clear need, USAID silences any prospects for these women to enjoy a healthier future. The United States, being the largest donor of humanitarian aid, has an immense amount of influence on how aid is distributed. When Congress implemented the Helms Amendment in 1973, abortion restrictions were placed on foreign aid. Under “Helms” no USAID funding may be used to pay for abortion as a method of family planning. The amendment contains a provision that prohibits abortion speech, saying that the funds cannot be used to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The Global Justice Center staunchly argues that these abortion restrictions are a violation of the rights of girls and women raped in armed conflict under international humanitarian law. This is because the Geneva Conventions recognize that women and girls raped in armed conflict, as “protected persons”, are classified as “wounded and sick” and are entitled to “receive to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition.” Therefore, depriving these girls and women of this care is unlawful and this injustice is the driving force behind the Global Justice Center’s August 12th campaign.

Focusing in on eastern Burmese women, it is clear that they do not have a credible institution to turn to when it comes to reproductive healthcare. In fact, reproductive healthcare in Burma is known to be the worst in the world.  The “Separated by Borders” report, released by Ibis Reproductive Health and the Global Health Access program exposes the crippling healthcare infrastructure in eastern Burma.  The GJC has long noted the terrible state of eastern Burmese women when it comes to accessibility to reproductive health care and abortion, especially during conflict. The Global Justice Center is using legal tools to work diligently to help lift the “no abortion” clause in U.S humanitarian aid to make this type of care more accessible so women in order to prevent prolonged suffering.

Based on the Ibis Reproductive Health Report, RH Reality Check author Anna Clark notes the life-threatening repercussions of depriving Burmese women of reproductive services including unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and death. Furthermore, 80 percent of women in eastern Burma have never used birth control due to the overall inaccessibility of contraceptives and the lack of legitimate healthcare.

Granting women in eastern Burma their rights, including access to reproductive healthcare will be a step in the right direction for Burma. Burmese women will not only be alleviated from suffering, but, they will also have the opportunity to become more active members of society. Utilizing the rule of law, the Global Justice Center works to dismantle the patriarchal structures inhibiting women’s rights to make sure that the prioritization of women’s health will be factored into the equation in the years to come.

To read more about this issue on RH Reality Check, click here and here.

To read the “Separated by Borders” report, click here.

To read more about the Global Justice Center’s August 12th Campaign, click here.

Fundamental Constitutional Review Needed in Burma

On Sunday, 29 January 2012, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for reforms to the military drafted 2008 Burmese Constitution. The Nobel Laureate’s call highlights the fundamental and systemic obstacle that the constitution represents to democracy in Burma. The Global Justice Center has long noted that the 2008 Constitution not only undermines the prospects of any true democracy but also leads to the perpetuation of some of the world’s most heinous war crimes and human rights violations.

Unlike any other constitution in the world, the Burmese Constitution creates a bifurcated sovereignty. It ensures that the military is constitutionally autonomous from and supreme over the civilian government. Even if he is willing, the President, Thein Sein, cannot enforce any laws against the military. Furthermore; the constitution guarantees the military amnesty for all crimes – including the most heinous such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also ensures the perpetual dominance of the military by guaranteeing that 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved solely for the military, while parading itself as a multi-party “democracy”.

This flawed constitution has dire and detrimental consequences. The bifurcation of sovereign power means that Burma cannot enforce or comply with international obligations including the Geneva Conventions, UN Security Council Resolutions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To have a military, which is not legally accountable by any standards, obtain nuclear capabilities is a threat to global peace and security. Additionally, the clear lack of accountability, transparency, and legal autonomy of the military perpetuates genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – all of which are punishable under international law. This means that the military’s targeted attacks against the ethnic minority civilians in regions such as the Kachin go un-checked, gross human rights violations are perpetuated and more fundamentally, justice is denied to victims of the armed conflict.

While the recent “democratization efforts” may be welcome, what Burma needs is not just change but radical change. At the most basic level, the 2008 Constitution serves to enshrine the military’s impunity for the worst crimes. If Burma is to achieve democracy, the rule of law and justice, fundamental constitutional review is certainly most needed.

For More Information:

Putting Democracy Out of Reach: How Burma’s New Government Violates the Law of Nations and Threatens Global Peace and Security

Burma’s Nuclear Strategy: How Burma’s Military Has Successfully Hijacked Democracy and Made Control over Burma’s Nuclear Future a Constitutional Right of the Military

The Legal Obligation to Prevent Genocide in Burma

The GJC publishes this fact sheet explaining the legal obligation of states to prevent (not just punish) genocide. Burma is now the number one state in the world at risk of genocide; it is therefore the obligation of all states to act against genocide in Burma.

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New York Review of Law and Social Change, “U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: An Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution”

The NYU Review of Law & Social Change publishes an article titled "U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution" by Janet Benshoof (GJC's Founder and President).

Subheadings in this article include "Women's Rights Advocated Shaped the Development of the Supreme Court's Scheme of Women's Rights", "The Tripartite Scheme Used by the Supreme Court to Adjudicate Women's Rights to Equality", and "The U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity for Change."

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Reflections on This Week’s Release of 184 Political Prisoners in Burma

As 184 prisoners of conscience have been released in Burma this week, GJC has been hearing news of – and from – newly released friends.

Rather than feeling jubilation or unconstrained hope, we are reminded through our personal conversations with them of the overwhelming feelings that come with being released (in some cases, after 23 years) as well as the despairing anguish of knowing that so many other political prisoners remain in prisons across Burma.

We are also mindful of the more than 1,816 prisoners of conscience themselves who continue to await release – including many who have been waiting for decades. We think, too, of their loved ones, including many who today continue to hope and wait outside of prisons in Burma with the hope that the person they love will be among those released.

History teaches us that what should be unfettered hope for our newly released friends in Burma, and even measured hope for those political prisoners who remain detained, must be tempered by skepticism and caution until real, proven change comes.

As those of us with friends or loved ones in (or newly released from) prisons in Burma understand, what should be unbridled joy at the release of 184 political prisoners (of 6,359 prisoners released) must in fact be bridled by the understanding that releases such as this one are strategically timed by the military for political advantage.

Even as the number of political prisoners released grows incrementally to 220 (October 13), friends of Burma are now called to pay ever more careful attention to what is and is not being done by the regime, for example by noticing the discrepancy in numbers between the total prisoners released and actual number of political prisoners released. By doing so, we will not mistake much more progress and promise for what has in fact been delivered.

All of this said, we extend our heartfelt best wishes to the 184 political prisoners who have been released this week and their families.

By Julaine Eberhard, Geneva Project Consultant for the Global Justice Center

Burma’s New Threat to Global Security

"Burma's New Threat to Global Security" is an article by Janet Benshoof (President and Founder of the GJC) published in Democratic Voices of Burma.

This article explains the mistake the global community is making in allowing Burma to continue to violate international law. The new constitution is not a step towards democracy, because under it military power is still unchecked.

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