Burma

In too many countries, women do not have a voice in governance which leads to structural inequality. GJC is developing a blueprint for democracy in post-conflict countries by securing gender equality in the law. Calling for equal rights is not enough; laws focused on the inclusion of women in power must be enacted and enforced. In our first case study in Burma, GJC has partnered with local women’s groups to ensure equal access to power and justice.

GJC’s work on Burma focuses on challenging structural barriers to ensure long-lasting democracy and justice for the people of Burma, protect women’s rights and establish a sustainable end to ethnic conflict. 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 not only prevent true peace and democracy but also conflict in certain cases with international law.


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.

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.

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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.

Burma's Hollow Reforms

Check out an article by Akila Radhakrishnan, Vice President and Legal Director of GJC, and Michelle Onello, Special Counsel at GJC, about the persistence of the military sexually assaulting ethnic women in Burma. 

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Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security in Practice: The Failed Case of Burma

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed a historic resolution as its clarion call for ending sexual violence in conflict. This Resolution, SCR 1325, as well as the succeeding Resolutions, that together form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Resolutions recognized the gender-specific impact of conflict and historic gender discrimination in criminal accountability for sexual violence in conflict, and underscored the need for women to participate in post conflict reconstruction. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence (the Summit) has been convened to create a “sense of irreversible movement to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict” and, therefore, is a time to assess how the WPS Resolutions have translated into protections for women during conflict.

Using the current conflict situation in Burma as a test of the WPS Resolutions demonstrates how ineffective they have been in providing protection and remedy for women on the ground during conflict. Despite the mandates of the WPS Resolutions, credible evidence continues to indicate that the military uses sexual violence against ethnic women in Burma as a means to assert its authority and to destroy ethnic communities. The military continues to operate with Constitutionally-sanctioned impunity for its actions. Moreover, current peace negotiations, intended to end decades of ethnic conflict, have almost completely failed to include women, especially ethnic women.

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GJC Hosts High-Level Panel on Sexual Violence in Burma at the United Nations

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 30, 2014

[NEW YORK, NY] –  On Thursday, April 24 2014, the Global Justice Center, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security hosted a side event to the Security Council Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. The interactive panel included distinguished guests such as Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International.

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United Nations Stakeholders Alerted of Continued Use of Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Burma's Ethnic Areas

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - April 24, 2014

[NEW YORK, NY] - Today, at a side-event to the Security Council’s annual debate on conflict-related sexual violence, the United Nations was presented with a troubling account of continuing sexual violence committed by the military against ethnic women in Burma. On the eve of the April 25 debate, Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, presented compelling reports of heinous crimes committed by the military and called on the United Nations, international donors and governments to investigate these human rights violations, denounce the use of sexual violence in Burma and support women’s groups on the ground who are attempting to combat this pervasive pattern of abuse.

The Spotlight on Burma: Calling for the Elimination Sexual Violence and Inclusion of Women in Peace Talks

On Thursday, April 24th, the Global Justice Center, along with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International, and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, hosted a side event to the Security Council’s Open Debate on Conflict Related Sexual Violence at the United Nations with the intention of shedding light onto the continued plague of sexualized violence in Burma. The panel consisted of special guest speaker, Naw K’nyaw Paw who is the Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and a grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. This standing room only event highlighted the ongoing dangers and abuses that the women and girls of Burma face at the hands of the Burmese military and strengthened the call for international action as well as the inclusion of women in the peace process.

Naw K’nyaw Paw poignantly voiced the concerns of an entire nation of women and girls who face the threat of sexual violence on a daily basis, with girls as young as eight years old suffering these heinous attacks. She called out the Burmese government for its ingrained culture of impunity for these crimes, stating that there is no accountability for the perpetrators, most of whom are members of the Burmese military forces. SRSG Bangura went on to assert that sexual violence should not be attributed as an inevitable element of conflict; to do this only marginalizes the plight of those victimized. The stigma attached to sexual assault, as well as fear of retribution, often prevents women and girls from reporting their attacks or seeking aid and, because of this, there is no way to know the true range and scope of these crimes.

The conversation turned toward the absolute necessity of the inclusion of women in peace processes. Ambassador Donoghue reaffirmed Ireland’s full support of Security Council Resolution 1325, which stresses the importance of gender parity in all areas of governance and peace-building. Naw K’nyaw Paw voiced her concerns over the exclusion of women in the Burmese peace processes, stating that women from all ethnic groups must be present at the negotiation tables. When faced with an argument posed by a representative of the Burma Mission that the Burmese government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), she swiftly countered that to sign was not enough, the practices must be adopted into law; the realities of CEDAW must be visible on the ground, not merely on paper. With regard to planning talks, Naw K’nyaw Paw emphasized the need to strengthen the existing community structures, as opposed to approaching the situation as one in need of complete rebuilding. This, she said, was necessary for sustainable peace in Burma.

In closing, it was reiterated that women’s involvement in Burmese peace talks is of the utmost importance as is the transition to a civilian government. Both of these factors, as well as the elimination of sexual violence which rages on unhindered, devastating the lives of thousands of women and girls, must be realized in order for there to ever be true peace in Burma.

GJC Hosts High-Level Panel on Sexual Violence in Burma at the United Nations

Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 3:00pm-4:30pm

At UN Secretariat, Room 9

On Thursday, April 24, 2014 the Global Justice Center, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security hosted a side event to the Security Council Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. The interactive panel included distinguished guests such as Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International.

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What Success Looks Like for Women on the Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At 866 United Nations Plaza, New York

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

Speakers:

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

Janet Benshoof, President, Global Justice Center

Pablo Castillo-Diaz, Protection Specialist, UN Women

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - January 13, 2014

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

New Report Details Ongoing Sexualized Violence in Burma

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

Click here to read the full article. 

Burma Refuses to Relinquish Rape as Weapon of War

The event was hosted by Secretary Hague and Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, and included speakers from 27 member countries who discussed the need to prevent and respond to sexualized violence committed under the cloak of war. They also highlighted the devastating effects that rape and sexualized violence wreak on individuals, families, communities, and entire nations.

By the end of the day, 113 member countries had endorsed what Secretary Hague called the “milestone” Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The declaration holds that sexualized violence in conflict is in direct violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and declares that the perpetrators should be pursued and arrested no matter where they are in the world. The declaration also calls upon signatory member states to do more than raise awareness to the issue and to provide better support not only to the victims but to national and international efforts to prevent and respond to sexualized violence in conflict.

But 80 nations opted not to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. One of them was Burma.

For many, Burma’s refusal to sign the declaration didn’t come as a surprise. Reports of sexualized violence committed by the army and police, particularly in Burma’s ethnic and border regions, have increased over the last two years, according to some advocacy groups. And Burma President Thein Sein has done little to address the issue, preferring to highlight gains made in other sectors, including the opening of the economy to global investment and his periodic release of political prisoners.

The international community, eager to praise these reforms, has neglected to call Burma out on its sexualized violence problem, ignoring the ingrained culture of impunity that has allowed sexualized violence to flourish for decades. The military regime that came to power in a 1962 coup has used rape, particularly against women in the ethnic and border regions, as a way to quell opposition movements and retain control. A weapon of war, the practice is typically employed to keep communities compliant by sowing fear and humiliation and punishing and interrogating those who would support opposition groups. Sadly, the Burmese military junta’s campaign of widespread and systematic sexual violence continues unabated today.

It’s understandable, then, that President Thein Sein and his new admirers would not want to tarnish fragile gains, but how much do these gains really mean in the face of continued sexualized violence toward women and girls in Burmese conflict zones?

Burma President Thein Sein speaks at Chatham House in July. (Chatham House)

This is precisely why Burma’s failure to stand with 113 other nations in signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was such a disappointment. More than just a squandered opportunity for the nation to demonstrate an honest and ongoing desire for social and political reform, it was a chance to turn the tide, to announce an end to the culture of silence and impunity that legitimizes rape and sexual violence in Burma.

Human rights groups in and outside of Burma were quick to condemn the government’s failure to sign on to the Declaration.

Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, said, “The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict in Burma must be stopped. If Thein Sein refuses to cooperate, then international legal action should be taken to prevent these crimes. For many ethnic women, rape by Burmese army soldiers is a daily fear, and justice seems to be just a distant dream.”

“The government should bear the responsibility of crimes perpetrated by its army. They should ensure justice for such crimes in accordance with the law,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, Central Committee member of the Myanmar Women’s Network, told the 2013 Myanmar Women’s Forum prior to the UN event.

The Burmese Diplomatic Mission to the UN in New York declined to comment by telephone and did not reply to email requests for an official statement on their failure to sign the declaration.

But it’s hard to fault the Mission for their non-answer; after all, they’re simply following President Thein Sein’s lead in ignoring the issue. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in Burma’s transition to civilian rule has been the government’s unwillingness to fully divest itself of the privileged status of the previous military junta. In fact, this lack of accountability is hard-wired into the country’s constitution, rendering the nation incapable of enforcing IHL against its military, as the Global Justice Center’s President Janet Benshoof has noted.

Ultimately, last week’s missed opportunity can be seen as less a statement on Burma’s disinterest in ending government-sanctioned sexualized violence and more an appraisal of Burma’s transition to democracy. To assent to the UN’s declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict would be to assent to accountability and to a new era of checks and balances for a government whose members seem more concerned with losing a seat at the table than addressing the issue being discussed at the table.

Perhaps this is only another hiccup on the road to reformation. Perhaps Burma will relent and commit to the mandates of the declaration. But, in the meantime, the girls and women of Burma will continue to be victimized without means of redress or protection, and the body count will continue to rise.

A version of this article was cross-posted with Women Under Siege.