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

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. 

Dispatch from Geneva - Behind the Scenes Update from GJC's Senior Burma Researcher

Phyu Phyu Sann, far right, the Global Justice Center’s Senior Burma Researcher, is in Geneva, Switzerland for the United Nation’s (UN) review of Myanmar’s implementation of its obligations under the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)  to ensure gender equality. In Myanmar, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) will confront a “constitution and laws that explicitly and in effect discriminate against women,” and a country with a “history of patriarchy, negative gender stereotypes,” and marginalization of women in all parts of society, as outlined in a recent press release and shadow report by the Global Justice Center and the Gender Equality Network.

 

Arriving in Geneva after a long, trans-Atlantic flight, Sann immediately commenced preparations with members of local women’s groups. In an unprecedented show of cooperation, women’s groups agreed to submit a joint oral statement to the CEDAW Committee and GJC helped formulate and draft the statement.  In Geneva, Sann helped to finalize the oral statement, prepare answers to “possible questions from [the] committee,” and compare CEDAW’s list of issues with official responses from the  government in order to effectively highlight the precarious situation faced by women.

In e-mail correspondence from Geneva, Sann stresses the importance of listening to women working on the ground to effect change. She notes that, “the CEDAW Committee pays attention to these informative quick assessments and opinions of women from the ground.” Topics covered might include structural barriers and discrimination in law, underrepresentation of women at all levels of government and in the peace process and violence against women, including conflict-related sexual violence committed by the military. Between intense preparation sessions, Sann and her activist colleagues found time to celebrate the country’s rich culinary diversity, cooking “rice and Burmese soup and salad,” and “[sharing] food together.”

The women, Sann writes, are now “ready to engage with CEDAW.”

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to stay updated on the CEDAW review and other GJC news.

Status of women’s rights in Myanmar to be reviewed at the UN

In July 2016, GJC staff member Michello Onello and Ma Sabe Phyu, Director of Gender Equality Network, published an article in Mizzima titled, "Status of women’s rights in Myanmar to be reviewed at the UN," on the Myanmar's CEDAW Review taking place in Geneva.

Click here to read the article in Mizzima.

Myanmar and the Road to Lasting Peace Round Table Discussion

On February 11th, 2016, the Global Justice Center hosted a round table on Myanmar and the Road to Lasting Peace, featuring two Human Rights defenders from Myanmar, Naw Zipporah Sein and Ying Lao, and Policy Advisor at US Campaign for Burma, Myra Dahgaypaw. At the round table, moderated by the Global Justice Center’s Senior Burma Researcher Phyu Phyu Sann, participants discussed the impact and shortcomings of last year’s cease-fire and election, as well as their hopes for continued international participation in the peace process.

In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an enormous victory in Myanmar’s national election, ending almost half a century of military control of the government. Despite this promising democratic election, Myanmar’s military continues to play an outsized role in governance as the country’s constitution guarantees the military at least 25% of the seats in parliament and the constitution cannot be amended without army approval. The month before the election, the military government and eight of the armed ethnic groups signed a cease-fire after almost two years of negotiations. Although the international community has heralded the cease-fire as a victory for peace in Myanmar, the round table participants noted that fighting continues in many areas of the country, especially in the Shan state and other regions with large ethnic minority populations.  One participant testified that fighting actually increased in many of these areas after the cease-fire was signed, even on the day of the national election. She urged that the international community work to include all ethnic groups in cease-fire agreements. The current cease-fire was signed by only eight ethnic armed organizations—seven other groups refused to sign, and another six were prevented from signing by the government.

In the 2015 election, Myanmar’s ethnic groups voted overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, but a round table participant remarked that they are still waiting to see whether or not the new government has the power to effect change while the military retains so much political and economic power. The NLD government continues to face entrenched challenges, but the people of Myanmar made it clear in the election that they want to see change.  Round table participants stressed that armed conflict and human rights abuses are continuing to take place in their country, and they urged the international community to continue to press for a lasting and fair peace in Myanmar that includes all ethnic groups.

Indict Myanmar’s General Ko Ko

A war criminal accused of ordering attacks on civilians, murder, enslavement, execution without trial, sexual violence, pillage and torture is scheduled to testify about Myanmar’s human rights record at the UN Friday, Nov. 6th.

With overwhelming evidence of his crimes exposed in a Harvard Law School report, General Ko Ko should be arrested when he reaches Geneva. Instead, as Myanmar’s chosen representative on its human rights record, he will be granted complete immunity by the UN itself.

Despite his immunity, the Global Justice Center (GJC), in partnership with Justice Trust, developed a model indictment for General Ko Ko that will be served on Friday in Geneva. GJC is calling for Ko Ko’s arrest and prosecution, under universal jurisdiction and through the ICC, so there can be justice for thousands of Myanmar’s citizens.

“Victims of heinous military crimes, including ethnic women and girls, are entitled to justice in their lifetimes,” said GJC President Janet Benshoof.

Local efforts to hold Ko Ko accountable have been stonewalled, and advocates for justice retaliated against. Undeterred, a coalition of more than 500 civil society groups in Myanmar, supported by international human rights organizations, are urging the international community to take steps to hold Ko Ko criminally accountable for past and ongoing crimes.

You can read more about General Ko Ko’s crimes here and more about the indictment here.

Tweet #arrestkoko & support the people of Myanmar in bringing a war criminal to justice.

Myanmar's Long Road to Gender Equality: Issues for Myanmar's November 2015 UPR

Myanmar’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) provides an ideal venue to question the Government of Myanmar (“Government”) regarding its failure to ensure substantive equality for women as required by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and international treaties including CEDAW. Since 2011, Myanmar’s “democratization” has neither improved women’s status nor dismantled structural barriers preventing women’s equality.

Myanmar’s failure to ensure women’s rights arises from entrenched legacies of inequality that impede genuine reform in all aspects of law. Specifically, ongoing supremacy of the military, gender inequality embedded in the Constitution and other laws, and the lack of adequate justice mechanisms including an independent judiciary serve as structural barriers to equality. No Government reforms have addressed these issues. As a result, women in Myanmar face (1) gender discrimination embedded in law; (2) barriers to access to justice; and (3) exclusion from participation in public and political life.

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GJC President Janet Benshoof Question Burma’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

Below you can read the question that Janet asked Wunna Maung Lwin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, about accountability for human rights abuser General Ko Ko at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Janet Benshoof:
Thank you very much, my name is Janet Benshoof, Global Justice Center. After a 4 year on the ground investigation, Harvard Law School Lawyers concluded, using the standards of the International Criminal Court that Myanmar’s Major General Ko Ko has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Karen ethnic group. I have a two-part question:
First, could you explain, given that Myanmar has been in armed conflict for 60 years if there have been any prosecutions of military commanders for international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. And second, could you explain the government process by which 6 months after the Harvard report, the government selected General Ko Ko to present and defend Myanmar’s human rights record before the Human Rights Council next month. Thank you very much.


Response by Wunna Maung Lwin, Minister of Foreign Affair of Myanmar
To answer your first question, there is no Myanmar General prosecuted or facing any kind of trial in the International Criminal Court or any other court because some of the allegations were unfounded and untrue. Because whenever there is a military operations or whenever there is an insurgency problem, every country has to defend their people, especially the innocent people who were hampered their livelihood by those insurgent groups. So for the military commander that you have mentioned, he is the Commander of the Southern Myanmar regions. So in his region there were insurgent problems and he commanded some of the military operations in that area. He is doing his responsibility as a military commander to defend those people from the scourge of insurgency. This is one question.
Another thing is that in the next month I think we will be submitting our universal periodic review report to the Human Rights Council. So we will be sending a delegation and we will be submitting our universal periodic review for the second time.

Human Rights Hypocrisy: Burma’s Lieutenant General Ko Ko, Suspected of Crimes Against Humanity, to Lead Burma’s Delegation to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review

In November 2014, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic published a legal memorandum revealing that Lieutenant General Ko Ko is one of the leading actors in crimes against humanity committed in Burma. Despite this comprehensive report, General Ko Ko has been appointed by Burma to lead its delegation to this year’s United Nations Universal Periodic Review. Every four years states are subject to this review process that provides states the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

To have General Ko Ko- a man explicitly linked to human rights violations- as the leader of Burma’s upcoming human rights review is sheer hypocrisy. As stated in Harvard Law’s Human Rights Blog “Human Rights @ Harvard Law,” “Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.”

In response to Burma’s decision to have General Ko Ko lead their delegation to the UPR this fall, the U.S. Campaign for Burma has created a petition to add General Ko Ko to the U.S. Sanctions list.

As the petition states, “General Ko Ko has a long history of committing crimes against humanity and human rights abuses throughout Burma. During his post as Regional Commander in Karen State, tens of thousands of Karen fled for safer borders as they faced rape, extrajudicial murders, forced labor and portering, human shields and land grabs. Now, as Home Affairs Minister, General Ko Ko continues his attacks on any individual who supports democratic principles and desires justice. “

Sign the petition and tell President Obama to add General Ko Ko to the Specially Designated Nationals List.

Letter to the NY Times Editor, In Myanmar, Seize the Moment, October 2011

OCTOBER 13, 2011: The New York Times Opinion Pages publishes a letter by Janet Benshoof, founder and president of the GJC.

This document also includes two other Opinion Pieces published in the New York Times; one by Myra Dahgaypaw, campaign coordinator for U.S. Campaign for Burma, and one by Op-Ed Contributor Thant Myint-U titled "In Myanmar, Seize the Moment". This last Op-Ed called for President Obama to voice support for the changes happening in Burma under President Thein Sein. The other two Op-Ed pieces are in response to Mr. Thant Myint-U's piece, and Janet Benshoof calls instead for the global community to refuse to recognize the new constitution.

All of these Op-Ed pieces address the situation in Burma, and what the international response to it should look like.

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GJC at National Young Feminist Leadership Conference

Akila Radhakrishnan of GJC spoke at the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference, speaking about her work at GJC and the global relevance of sexual violence. She particularly focuses on GJC’s Burma project and the correlation between international law and women’s work on the ground. 

“Marital rape is only considered marital rape if your wife is under the age of 13. So these are the provisions that still exist right, so when you talk about Burmese women being able to go to a court and assert their rights, this is the law that they have to assert their rights under. So if you’re 14, you don’t have a right to allege rape by your husband. And they’re working on finally reforming these laws.”

Click here to watch the full video. 

GJC Participates in Third Annual Women Law Summit at the NYU School of Law, titled, "Women in Conflict: Gender, Violence, and Peacekeeping"

Friday, 20 February, 2015 at 11:30am - 5:15pm

At Vanderbilt Hall, Greenberg Lounge

On February 20th,  NYU School of Law held its third annual  women's law summit which coincided  with  the 15th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325. The Summit sought to educate participants about  women's roles within conflict and their various means of empowerment, especially within  the legal system. The all-female panels were composed of practicing lawyers, doctors, academics, and theorists. GJC founder and president Janet Benshoof gave the keynote address, highlighting the organizations projects, such as a campaign for the prosecution of rape as a prohibited weapon,  and a campaign seeking the provision of abortions for women  in conflict. Further, GJC, who advocates "power, not pity," was referenced several times throughout the following panels, as speakers detailed  the ways in which women  might act in conflict. Akila Radhakrishnan, legal director  of GJC sat on the final panel about  women  and the transformation of the legal space, where she spoke on the opportunity for transforming women's rights in Burma.

Download event information

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.”

Obama’s Visit Highlights Changes Still Necessary in Burma

On November 13th, 2014 President Barack Obama held a town hall at Yangoon University in Burma. During the event, protesters held up signs that read, “Reform is Fake,” “Illusion,” and in reference to Obama’s own campaign slogan, “Change?”

Obama himself addressed the signs at the beginning of his remarks, reading them aloud and assuring protesters that they would have time for questions at the end of the town hall where he could address their concerns.

The New York Times, in their article of the event, used pictures of the town hall but made no mention of the signs. The protest and its glossing over by major media outlets demonstrates the fraught relationship that many are having with the Burmese government as it inches towards democracy, accountability, and equality.

While there have been legitimate reforms that have enabled the United States to engage with the Burmese government on a diplomatic level, full reform and rule of law in Burma cannot be established while the constitution places the military outside of civilian control.

As Zin Mar Aung said in an Op Ed in the Irrawaddy Journal,

“Before fully embracing the Burmese government as a democratic partner, the United States must revisit its carrot and stick policy, which has, of late, been much more carrot than stick. Instead of a credible “stick,” we have seen an overall lack of accountability toward the regime.”

These sentiments reiterate statements from Global Justice Center, President, Janet Benshoof, from over a year ago.

“Despite this disturbing evidence of ongoing human rights abuses, military attacks on ethnic civilians, inconsistencies between government statements and actions…the global community continues to ignore or downplay both the significance of these violations as well as the limitations of the constitution.”

Though there have been democratic reforms and fragile advances, the reality is that military rule still prevails in Burma, armed conflict continues and the military enjoys constitutional-guaranteed impunity for war crimes. The Global Justice Center has long called on the United States and the international community to insist that the Burmese government dismantle the structural barriers in place that prevent true peace and democracy.

At the end of the town hall, Obama was asked what he would do if he was President of Burma to help the country develop, he responded,

“Number one, there needs to be an election next year. It shouldn’t be delayed. Number two, there should be constitutional amendments that ensure a transition over time to a fully civilian government. Number three, there needs to be laws put in place to protect freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom to politically organize.”

Though he is not President of Burma, there is still much Obama can do to help achieve these commendable objectives, by using diplomatic pressure, supporting capacity building, policy dialogue and calling for accountability for human rights abuses.