The 2008 Constitution Breaches Myanmar/Burma’s Binding Obligations under International Law Including the United Nation’s Charter

The 2008 Constitution Establishes a Civilian Government Without Full Sovereign Powers

Under the 1947 Constitution, in place when Burma applied for United Nation (UN) membership in 1948, Burma was a sovereign state. The Union of the Republic of Myanmar, as established under the 2008 Constitution (the “Constitution”), is not a sovereign state as defined by international law. A “sovereign” state must have supreme power to make laws that are applicable to all institutions and citizens of the state “without accountability” to any other body. To be considered a sovereign state, the civilian government must have “paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration” as well as be the person or body of persons which has no political superior.

The Constitution is unlike any in the world in that it grants the Defense Forces complete autonomy and supremacy over the civilian government.No branch of the “sovereign” state (consisting of the legislative, executive and judicial branches) may exercise oversight over the military. The Constitution reserves 25% of Parliamentary seats for the military and Constitutional amendments require more than 75% majority for passage. This essentially reserves a veto over Constitutional amendments for the military. The civilian government under these limitations does not have full sovereign powers as defined by international law.

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Letter to Norwegian Foreign Minister

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Norway's Foreign Minister Eide asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

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Letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Secretary Hillary Clinton, asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

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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

Letter to the NY Times Editor, Keep Up the Pressure on Myanmar’s Generals

A version of this letter appeared in print on page A30 of the New York edition with the headline: Change in Myanmar.

Janet Benshoof, President of the GJC, responds to an OpEd about Myanmar. She explains in this letter that sanctions are not enough to exact lasting democratic change in Myanmar; the focus should be on the Constitution.

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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

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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Global Justice Center’s Suggestions and Comments Regarding the Integration of Gender Equality and International Law for the Draft Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan

The GJC publishes suggestions and comments regarding the integration of gender equality and international law for the draft transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan.

These suggestions are formatted in a list of the topic, constitutional article and the GJC's issues/comments with it. The topics include Gender Equality, International Law, Prevention of Underage Marriages, Right to Litigation, Public Health Care, Family, Defence of the Republic of South Sudan, Establishment and Composition of the Council of Ministers, and Appointment of Justices and Judges. There are 18 entries in the list.

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GJC Attends “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” Screening at the UN

On Tuesday, June 13, 2011 several GJC staff members and legal interns attended a screening of the controversial and disturbing documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” at the Church Center in front of the UN Headquarters.  The event was presented to senior diplomats, UN staff and NGOs.  The film documents the final weeks of the Sri Lankan Civil War which lasted from 1983 to May 2009.  During the war, rebels known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought to create independent Tamil state in North and Eastern territories of Sri Lanka, but were ultimately defeated by government forces.

The documentary explains how the Sri Lankan government pressured UN representatives to leave the Tamil occupied regions before launching a major offensive, leaving few or no international observers of the horrors which were to follow.  

The footage shows Sri Lankan soldiers committing extra-judicial killings of bound prisoners, photographs suggesting torture, and interviews of a woman who handed herself over to government forces and claims she and her daughter were raped and that she witnessed others being raped and killed.  Other footage suggests that such treatment of women may be systematic.  The film also shows displaced civilians killed by the government after being moved to a “no fire” zone and hospitals that were deliberately shelled by the government.  

Many of the accounts in the film are corroborated by a UN Report released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in March 2011.  The report found that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the last weeks of the conflict.  The Secretary General has expressed concern over potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides and has urged the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged violations and to “advance accountability.”  

The government, however, has rejected the report and called it “biased, baseless and unilateral.”  The Sri Lankan government further claims that the footage of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” is fake and that the film is not even-handed.  The film, however, has been authenticated by UN specialists and suggests that war crimes were committed by both sides, with the LTTE engaging in suicide bombings, using civilians as human shields and enlisting child soldiers.


The screening was followed by a panel discussion which included Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona and Former Major General and current Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Shavendra Silva.  Kohona claimed many of the interviewees were lying and denied that the government engaged in systematic human rights abuses.  He stated that Sri Lanka is “a mature democracy” and that any violations by individual soldiers should be dealt with internally, asserting that calls for accountability from the international community are “paternalistic.”  He also rejected the 40,000 casualties figure suggested by the UN, claiming that if one counted all the bodies in the film “you would not come up with a total of one hundred persons.”  Silva alleged that the filmmakers were funded by the LTTE and demanded that the country be allowed to deal with issues domestically.


The screening timely comes soon after the Sri Lankan Justice Ministry has received a summons from a US Federal Court for President Mahinda Rejapaksa.  The summons is connected to three civil cases filed under the Hague Conventions and the US Torture Victims Protection Act by relatives of victims of alleged extra-judicial killings.  The Sri Lankan government has indicated that it will not respond to the summons.  The cases will be founded on the principle that the US, as well as other countries, may exercise universal jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.  


Similarly, the GJC is currently investigating the possible use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute Burmese war criminals.  Specifically, the Burmese military junta routinely employs rape, torture, slavery, murder, mass imprisonment and abduction of children to fill its military quotas, all of which war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.  Moreover, the new Burmese Constitution provides military criminal impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Given that Burma is a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention and to the Genocide Convention, which require parties to enact domestic legislation to implement the treaties, the Burmese Constitution is a prima facie violation of its obligations.


In addition to the UN Security Council’s ability and, indeed, imperative to declare the Constitution “null and void,” fellow state parties may refer the issue of Burma’s noncompliance to the ICJ.  As with the recent US summons of Sri Lankan President Rejapaksa, however, states need not necessarily rely on the Security Council or the ICJ to ensure accountability for war crimes.  For violations of rights that are erga omnes, or owed to all, any state may use universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute suspected war criminals.  GJC is working to encourage certain states to exercise this tool to arrest and try Burmese officials who travel to their territory.


“Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” may be viewed online at the British Channel 4’s website until July 13:
http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sri-lankas-killing-fields/4od 

Historic Opportunity for Women of South Sudan

GJC provides Critical Expertise to Ensure South Sudan’s New Constitution Embeds Internationally Guaranteed Equality Rights.

The Republic of South Sudan is in the process of drafting a new constitution and democracy advocates and women’s groups are hoping to create a new paradigm of democracy, justice, and equality in Africa that will be adopted when the region declares independence on July 9, 2011.

The Global Justice Center, due to its extensive experience in constitution analyes in Iraq, Kurdistan, Burma, and Northern Ireland, was asked by one of South Sudan’s leading women’s organizations for its expertise on implementing women’s rights in the Draft Transitional Constitution.  Because the GJC is dedicated to forging and enforcing international law grounded on gender equality, the recommendations that were made on the South Sudanese draft constitution naturally reflected these principals, ensuring primacy for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and equality guarantees.  With the ratification of this new constitution, South Sudan has the historic opportunity to remodel their government on a foundation of parity and power that promotes equality and peace.

In particular, the GJC’s analysis carefully scrutinized every article in order to ensure compliance with international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

GJC believes that the structure and inherent permanence of constitutions to be a critical component in efforts to create justice and equality, by establishing a concrete basis upon which all law and policy will be developed going forward.  Amongst many crucial suggestions, the GJC recommended that:

1.  Equality for women must be explicitly defined to ensure that women have gender parity in positions of power.

2.  The government has an obligation to take permanent steps to ensure that all treaty guarantee laws are implemented.

3.  In accordance with the ICCPR and the African Protocol, which are both applicable to South Sudan as a successor state, there exist quotas for a starting point of 30% women in the legislative and executive branches as well as gender parity in the judiciary branch and new constitutional court.

4.  Adding an article modeled after the South African Constitution explicit on reproductive rights.

The Republic of South Sudan’s new constitution has the ability to address the suffering caused by Sudan’s civil war and mark a crucial turning point in women’s ability to access equality.

The GJC advocates for the enforcement of law over the creation of policy as the strongest avenue to effectively implement human rights.  As GJC President Janet Benshoof states, “The constitution is the most important legal instrument, for it is the single time for women to influence peace and justice as well as place equality over conflict and peace over security.”