Burma: A Case Study

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.


Fundamental Constitutional Review Needed in Burma

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

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

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

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

For More Information:

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

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

The Legal Obligation to Prevent Genocide in Burma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burma’s New Threat to Global Security

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

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

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Exposing a “Pornography Ploy”: The Global Justice Center calls for President U Thein Sein to release all political prisoners and make public all related trial transcripts

The Global Justice Center calls for President U Thein Sein to release all political prisoners and make public all related trial transcripts.

The Global Justice Center today released a October 23, 2008 official court transcript which exposes the military’s use of trumped up pornography charges to convict fourteen Buddhist nuns and monks suspected of supporting the “saffron revolution” of 2007.

The six page judgment, signed by Judge U Peine Tun Aung after a one-day “trial,” convicted the seven nuns and seven monks of possessing “dirty” videos which “insulted” religion and sentenced them to imprisonment with hard labor for four years and three months. The judgment in Burmese can be found here. [English translation forthcoming.]

Among those convicted was Daw Pone Na Mee (Daw Mya Nyunt), an elderly, crippled, 84-year-old nun, who was one of the political prisoners visited by UN Special Rapporteur, Mr. Tomas Quintana in 2008. Mr. Quintana’s report on this visit related that the infirm nun told him she had no idea why she was in prison.

Burma’s top officials including the President and Chief Justice have consistently denied that political prisoners exist and claim that all prisoners have been convicted for committing serious crimes.

The Global Justice Center, a New York based human rights law group, calls for Burma’s President U Thein Sein to explain the full extent of this “perfidious pornography ploy,” and to release the trial transcripts of all current and former political prisoners, including any which are included in the upcoming release of 6,359 prisoners.

To read the full Global Justice Center press release, click here.

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.

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 

Burma: Comparison of New Government Officials with the Council of the European Union List of Sanctioned Regime Members

This list gives the name of the Burmese government official, the position in new government, the department, the code on the EU list, name on the EU list, and position & department on the EU sanction list.

A list is provided for: New Cabinet Members, new Deputy Ministers, new Chief Justice, Attorney-General and Constitutional Tribunal, new Chief Minister of Regions or States, and new Commanders-in-Chief.

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Making Justice for Burma a Reality

Written by Phyu Phyu Sann, GJC Burma Researcher

I am part of a generation of people from Burma who grew up dreaming of and longing for justice. A generation that continues to be victimized by terrible acts of mass atrocities carried out by our own ruling regime. Extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced labor are prevalent; rape and sexual abuse by the military are rampant; and more than 200,000 civilians were forcibly displaced in the east. In regions where armed conflict is ongoing, villagers have been used as human minesweepers and the forcible conscription of child soldiers is widespread.

More that 2,100 of my fellow country women and men who dedicated their lives to the ideals of justice and democracy are now languishing in remote prison labor camps far from their homes, in atrocious conditions, enduring mental and physical torture and summary executions at the hands of the military.

When I was inside Burma, the widespread repression and atrocities made me feel desperate and hopeless – that we were on our own and no one could help us to end this circle of impunity. As part of the Global Justice Center team working to uphold international commitments to the rule of law and enforce the people of Burma’s rights to criminal accountability, my sense of desperation has changed to one of hope. The international legal tools exist to give the people of Burma justice, and the GJC is working tirelessly to see that this happens.

This fall, the military regime will entrench its power permanently through elections that will trigger the full implementation of a criminal Constitution that codifies the military control over the government. What’s more, this Constitution gives the military amnesty for the crimes it is committing against its people and ensures that no civilian judge can ever hold a member of the military accountable.

This aggressive and deliberate act by the military to enshrine impunity as a “right” is a serious breach of peremptory norms striking at the heart of Burma’s obligations under the Genocide and Geneva Conventions, customary international law, and UN resolutions on women, peace and security and the use of sexual violence in conflict.

The Global Justice Center refuses to let the Burmese junta continuously thwart the international justice system.

We are preparing a draft Security Council Resolution declaring the Burma 2008 Constitution and any elections arising therefrom null and void, as it did with the South African apartheid Constitution in 1984. The pivotal precedent set by UN Security Council Resolution 554 on South Africa provides a framework for addressing analogous constitutions and election processes that entrench repressive regimes. In the upcoming months we are seeking avenues to bring this resolution before the Security Council and asking the global community to respect its commitment to international justice by joining us in calling for a referral of the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court.

If the elections in Burma take place this fall, the threat that Burma poses to global peace and security will continue to escalate. This is our opportunity to show the world’s dictators that global rule of law will not be flouted.

The dream of justice for the people of Burma – one that I held onto my entire life – must become a reality.

Read a speech by GJC President Janet Benshoof on advances in international law to end impunity in Burma here.

“Advancing Human Rights and Ending Impunity in Burma: Which External Leverage?” Report Released

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:

http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/FIDH_BLC_Burma_seminar_final_internet.pdf

To read more about criminal accountability in Burma, please reference the Global Justice Center “How to Talk About Burma” tool:

http://globaljusticecenter.net/publications/Advocacytools/BurmaQ&A.pdf