Mass Atrocity Crimes
Recent Wave of Defecting Diplomats and War Crimes Confessions Brings Burma’s Human Rights Abuses to the Foreground
In the past two weeks, Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win and Soe Aung, the second and fourth-ranking Burmese diplomats at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, have defected and are seeking asylum in the United States. Both diplomats cited the unrelenting abuse of their fellow countrymen by the military junta, sham elections, and fear for the safety of themselves and their families as reasons for their defections.
This recent wave of defections of high-ranking officials is undeniable evidence of the egregious human rights abuses that the Burmese government has been committing for decades. GJC aggressively advocates for legal action to be taken against the Burmese government in the form of a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Furthermore, the UN Security Council should pass a resolution deeming the Burmese constitution “null and void” under international law for it is a complete breach of international law and poses a threat to international legal accountability as a whole. For more information, see GJC’s legal brief, 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.
Adding to the growing evidence of atrocities, this week, a Burmese refugee in Australia Htoo Htoo Han confessed that he committed war crimes while serving as an undercover military intelligence officer in Burma. “For so long I have lived like an animal. Now I want to release what I carry inside for 20 years. I want to say sorry to the mothers and fathers of the people I killed.” Han admits to carrying out 24 executions during a 1988 anti-government student uprising and being implicated in over 100 more killings. However, since Australia is a supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, the decision of the Australian government to report Han’s confession may jeopardize the interest that some Australian corporations have in Burma’s resources, specifically their access to crude oil.
Hopefully, these defections and confessions will increase awareness of the human rights atrocities that are being committed in Burma. Furthermore, GJC hopes that this information instills a sense of responsibility in the UN and other members of the international community to provide support for take radical action against the overtly oppressive Burmese government and support the creation of a democracy.
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:
UK Baroness Uddin Uses GJC Legal Arguements in House of Lords Debate to Call for end to Discriminatory Care of Women Raped in Conflict
In her statement last Thursday, UK Baroness Uddin used a new legal argument from the Global Justice Center to call for the end to the routine denial of access to abortions for women who are raped and impregnated in conflict. Baroness Uddin identified the United States policy of censoring humanitarian aid recipients from speaking about or providing access to abortions as playing a major role in the continuing violation of the rights of these victims and called on the UK to ask questions of the United States about this policy when it is reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council.
From UK House of Lords debate on the Millennium Development Goals, October 7, 2010, at link below, columns 307-308:
Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this important discussion. In the UK we should be rightly proud of the British leadership in advancing the millennium development goals which represent a vision of a world transformed where equality and justice prevail.
However, while we are very pleased, one group of women remains outside the MDG effort. Until we address this failure, we cannot speak of real progress. Today I ask our Government to call explicitly for girls and women who are forcibly impregnated by the vicious use of rape in armed conflict to be included under MDG 5-reducing maternal mortality. “Rape as a weapon of war” is a phrase commonly used accurately to describe what is happening alongside today’s armed conflicts, but we rarely speak about the consequences of this weapon. Thousands of girls and women impregnated by rape used as a weapon of war are routinely denied access to abortions. Girls and women die from their attempts to self-abort and from suicide resulting from untold stigmatization leading to social marginalization.
We should do what no other country has done: to ensure that the humanitarian medical aid provided to girls and women in places such as Congo, Sudan and Burma-an endless list of countries-gives them choices and access to abortion when pregnancy is a direct result of rape as a weapon of war. This is a moral imperative and a legal obligation. The Geneva Convention requires that civilians and combatant victims receive non-discriminatory medical care, whether it is provided by the state in conflict or by others. Why, then, are pregnant rape victims given discriminatory medical care through the routine denial of access to abortion? The embedded inequality towards women in conflict settings has been recognised by the Security Council in such historic resolutions as 1325 and 1820. Equal justice for women is not limited to the courtroom, it must be extended to supporting those women who are victims of the inhuman practice of rape as a weapon of war.
I draw the attention of the House to the recent report of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam, which details examples of the impact, stigma and suffering of raped children and women in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, where no legal provision exists to support them. It also mentions that women should be given preventive care-that is, utilisation of contraception-as though women who are raped can be prepared for such horrors.
One of the solutions proposed by women’s organisations, including the international human rights organisation the Global Justice Center, is that access to abortion must be a critical part of the support available to women. The centre filed a shadow report with the Human Rights Council asking it to recommend that the US remove the prohibitions put on humanitarian aid to rape victims in conflict, as it violates the US obligation under the Geneva Convention. The UK can and must support this issue by asking questions of the US during the council’s review process due shortly.
I know that these are difficult matters for many individuals and countries to address, and international donor communities have thus far resisted pressurising countries to review their policies. Neither criminal abortion laws in the conflict state nor foreign aid contracts with the United States can serve as defence to a state provision of discriminatory medical care to all victims under international humanitarian law.
Time is short, and I should have liked to highlight many examples of countries such as Bangladesh where the suffering and humiliation of rape has left decades of suffering, ill health and stigma. The UK must take a lead to end that discrimination. This will mark real progress towards the millennium development goals and towards ensuring equal rights for women under international humanitarian law.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and, Global Justice Center partner, the Burma Lawyers Council (BLC) released a report entitled: “Advancing Human Rights and Ending Impunity in Burma: Which External Leverage?”. The report catalogues the presentations of leading exiled Burmese organizations, international and regional human rights NGOs, as well as renowned international legal experts from an FIDH-BLC joint seminar in May 2009.
As said by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi in the introduction of the report: “We know that there can be no effective treatment by simply wiping the slate clean and starting anew…Burma cannot claim international legitimacy by merely plastering onto one of the worst dictatorial systems in the world a mask of democracy that fools no one.”
Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof gave the keynote remarks, calling to end impunity in Burma through an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral, which would demand criminal accountability. This accountability is essential to sustainable peace and national reconciliation in Burma:
“The legal duty to ensure Senior General Than Shwe and other top criminal perpetrators are prosecuted for perpetrating crimes of concern to the global community is neither an option nor a “lever” for change. This legal duty, just like the criminal culpability of these perpetrators, exists today and forever. It can never be negated, suspended, or replaced by a statute of limitation, peace agreements, talks, sanctions, elections, negotiations or amnesties.
However, generations of men, women, and children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have lived and died in Burma without knowing peace, without having received any forms of redress or justice and, without experiencing the most basic guarantees of human dignity embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are entitled to justice in their lifetime. I believe we can make this happen.”
Please access the full report here:
To read more about criminal accountability in Burma, please reference the Global Justice Center “How to Talk About Burma” tool:
The passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325) in 2000 was a legal milestone for women’s equality. For the first time, the UN Security Council not only recognized the gender-specific impact of conflict and historic gender discrimination in criminal accountability, it also underscored the need for women to participate in postconflict reconstruction. Ten years later, the military junta in Burma continues to flout this legal obligation through the routine and systematic use of gender based crimes and the utter exclusion of women from peacebuilding processes. To ensure respect for the legal obligations set out in SCR 1325, the international community must address the situation on the ground for women in Burma, and women of Burma in exile.
Rampant Impunity for Gender Based Crimes
There is substantial documentation that sexual violence is used by the military junta against ethnic women in Burma as a means to consolidate military rule and destroy ethnic communities. Virtually none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. These crimes are a threat to international peace and security.
Three concrete examples of this sexual violence include:
- October 23 to November 4, 2004 – Four Mon women held by SPDC troops at their base and repeatedly gang raped (Catwalk to the Barracks, Mon Women’s Organization, 2004)
- October 9, 2006 – Palaung woman raped, her skull cracked open and stabbed four times in her left breast (Rights Yearbook, Human Rights Documentation Unit, 2006)
- October 10, 2006 – Three naval cadets raped a 14 year old girl, none of the cadets were punished and the girl was forced to marry one of her rapists. (Burma Human Rights Yearbook, 2006)
On July 15, 2009, Burma was reported to the Security Council by the Secretary-General as a country violating Resolution 1820, citing to the impunity afforded to the military’s systematic use of sexual violence against women. Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820 and 1888 note that such crimes against women can constitute war crimes, a crime against humanity or a constituent act with respect to genocide. The Resolutions require that all perpetrators of these crimes be prosecuted in either domestic or international courts. SCR 1820 specifically recalls the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court and prohibits any amnesties for these crimes.
Exclusion of Women from the Peacekeeping Process
Women’s peacebuilding organizations are based in neighboring countries, mainly Thailand, as a result of the stranglehold the military regime executes over all aspects of political, social and economic life in Burma. Under a constant threat to their safety, women’s organizations operate on very limited resources, and without the partnerships of UN bodies in the region. These women’s organizations are working tirelessly and courageously in the harshest of conditions to document the increasing human rights abuses by the military; and to educate women on their rights to political empowerment. However, despite the important perspectives these groups offer they are excluded from any international dialogue that takes place about Burma.
The International Community Must Uphold the Legal Obligations of SCR 1325
Recognizing that systematic crimes of sexual violence trigger the United Nations Security Council obligations under Resolution 1325 and 1820 to provide justice and accountability, the Global Justice Center advocates for the immediate launch of a Commission of Inquiry in Burma and a Security Council referral of the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Unlawful Convictions of Burmese Political Prisoners are Crimes Against Humanity – U.N. Security Council Should Refer Burma to the International Criminal Court
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - November 19, 2008
[NEW YORK, NY] - Certain judges in Burma, acting under the orders of Chief Justice U Aung Toe and Senior General Than Shwe, are themselves criminally liable as co-conspirators to crimes against humanity for their acts in “trying” and “convicting” 60 political activists last week. “These acts are the latest from the junta which uses the judiciary as one of its key weapons to commit grave crimes,” says Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof. Judges including those listed below are criminally culpable and must be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The letter "Justice for Myanmar," by a spokesman for 88 Generation Students, was published in the Editorial section of the New York Times, in response to the Times' article "Exiles Try to Rekindle Hopes for Change in Myanmar," also included in this document, published on August 6, 2008.
The Op-Ed published on August 12 points out that the article published by the Times does not represent the view of all Burmese exile groups. Not everyone thinks that President Bush and other world leaders should negotiate with the military juntas; many want access to justice and criminal accountability.
Criminal Accountability for Heinous crimes in Burma, A Joint Project of the Global Justice Center and the Burma’s Lawyers’ Council
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - July, 2008
[NEW YORK, NY] - The Security Council should act under its Chapter 7 powers and end the impunity accorded the Burmese military junta for crimes perpetrated against the people of Burma. The junta uses torture, gang rape of ethnic women, slavery, murder, mass imprisonment, and abduction of children to fill military quotas in order to retain its power in what is a failed state. These acts go far beyond a repudiation of democracy; they are criminal violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including violations of the Geneva Conventions. There is a growing international consensus that no safe harbor should exist for perpetrators of heinous crimes. The Project on Criminal Accountability for Heinous Crimes in Burma seeks a Security Council resolution establishing an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the commission in Burma of the most serious of crimes of concern to the international community as a whole, which threaten the peace, security and well being of the world.
In the Wake of Historic Resolution 1820 on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict Women of Burma and International Lawyers Call on the Security Council to Refer the Situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—June 20, 2008
[NEW YORK, NY] - The United Nation’s Security Council took a historic step with the passage of Resolution 1820 on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. Resolution 1820 recognizes the importance of full implementation of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and reaffirms the Security Council’s commitment to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and a means to terrorize populations and destroy communities. For this commitment to be meaningful, the Security Council must provide justice for victims of sexual violence in armed conflict even when it is not politically convenient.
International Lawyers Denounce Attempt by Myanmar Regime to Give Themselves Immunity from Criminal Prosecutions and Renew Call for Criminal Investigation
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—April 14, 2008
[MAE SOD, THAILAND] The Myanmar regime, guilty of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, has revealed that it is seeking to give itself constitutional immunity from prosecution for those crimes. The Burma Lawyers’ Council, the Global Justice Center and the Burma Justice Committee denounce this attempt by the regime to avoid accountability. The recently distributed final version of the Constitution being put to a “referendum” on May 10th, 2008 now includes in Chapter XIV “Transitory Provisions,” Article No. 445, stating, “No legal action shall be taken against those (either individuals or groups who are members of SLORC and SPDC) who officially carried out their duties according to their responsibilities.” This immunity is invalid under international law and cannot be accepted by the international community.
This document contains a brief introduction to the different legal tools, international instruments and strategic contexts through which the advancement of women worldwide can be facilitated, and how the Global Justice Center is helping to achieve this goal.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—September 27, 2007
[MAE SOD, THAILAND] The Burma Lawyers’ Council and the Global Justice Center urge the United Nations Security Council to take all actions necessary to stop the murders of innocent people in Burma and hold the military junta commanders criminally accountable. This includes authorizing peacekeeping forces and creating an independent commission of inquiry to investigate on-going crimes. Violence is a tool of the military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to retain control over the people of Burma who are prisoners, not citizens. The latest massacre in Burma must be the last, no more impunity for criminal actions such as the massacre of student protestors in 1988 and of supporters of pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Sui Kyi in 2003 in Depayin. It is the obligation of the international community to stop the junta from using murder, torture, and rape as tools to maintain power. The Security Council has an obligation to act under its Chapter VII mandate to maintain international peace and security as well as UNSCR 1674 on the Responsibility to Protect, UNSCR1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the Genocide Convention.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 18 2007
NewYork, NY – The UK-based International Coordination for Gender Justice in Iraq (ICGJI) last week submitted recommendations to the Iraq Commission, the independent cross-party UK commission to examine the future of British commitment in Iraq.
The GJC publishes a fact sheet on the Anfal decision.
The Anfal decision was made by the IHT, in prosecuting crimes committed under the Anfal campaign against Iraq's Kurdish population. The decision is a step in the right direction for women's rights in Iraq. This fact sheet gives information on the decision, including rape as torture, rape as genocide, joint criminal enterprise and rape, and how the IHT can be a vehicle for legal reform both in Iraq and internationally.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—April 10, 2007
[NEW YORK, NY] The Global Justice Center, an NGO that advocates for women’s human rights through the rule of law, commends Prosecutor Monquth Al Faroon for including the charges of rape and sexual violence against the perpetrators of the Kurdish genocide in his closing arguments for the Al-Anfal trial in Baghdad. That the IHT Prosecutor identified these crimes, alongside other crimes such as torture, forced displacement and murder, is a significant step towards ending impunity for crimes of sexual violence committed under the Saddam Hussein regime.
Criminal Accountability for Heinous Crimes in Burma: A Joint Project of the Global Justice Center and the Burma’s Lawyer’s Council
The Global Justice Center and the Burma Lawyers' Council publish, in a joint project, this fact sheet on criminal accountability for heinous crimes in Burma.
This fact sheet gives information on the project on criminal accountability, and states that the Security Council should end the impunity accorded the Burmese military junta for crimes perpetrated against the people of Burma, as well as establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry. The fact sheet also explains the Security Council's Obligation to Act under Chapter VII.