Burma: A Case Study
The 2008 Constitution Breaches Myanmar/Burma’s Binding Obligations under International Law Including the United Nation’s Charter
The 2008 Constitution Establishes a Civilian Government Without Full Sovereign Powers
Under the 1947 Constitution, in place when Burma applied for United Nation (UN) membership in 1948, Burma was a sovereign state. The Union of the Republic of Myanmar, as established under the 2008 Constitution (the “Constitution”), is not a sovereign state as defined by international law. A “sovereign” state must have supreme power to make laws that are applicable to all institutions and citizens of the state “without accountability” to any other body. To be considered a sovereign state, the civilian government must have “paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration” as well as be the person or body of persons which has no political superior.
The Constitution is unlike any in the world in that it grants the Defense Forces complete autonomy and supremacy over the civilian government.No branch of the “sovereign” state (consisting of the legislative, executive and judicial branches) may exercise oversight over the military. The Constitution reserves 25% of Parliamentary seats for the military and Constitutional amendments require more than 75% majority for passage. This essentially reserves a veto over Constitutional amendments for the military. The civilian government under these limitations does not have full sovereign powers as defined by international law.
For over two decades, women’s rights organizations in Latin America have mobilized around September 28th, which is also the day slavery was abolished in Brazil. Today, the Global Justice Center joins the Women’s Global Network for Reproduction Rights, who have declared September 28th Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. As part of our August 12thCampaign, GJC fights for full medical rights for girls and women raped in war, including access to safe abortions. We urge President Obama to lift the blanket abortion on US humanitarian aid that denies a girl or woman raped in war the option of an abortion, even in life/threatening situations.
War rape victims are forced to carry the child of their rapists in conflict areas such as Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Sudan, where systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war. It is even used to accomplish military goals such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Apart from being inhumane, the American ban also violates the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee non-discriminatory medical care to the “wounded and sick”. The situation is presented in a recent article by GJC Senior Counsel Akila Radhakrishnan, published in The Atlantic.
From September 22, 2012 15:47 until September 22, 2012 17:47
From September 19, 2012 15:50 until September 19, 2012 17:50
Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s is in Washington DC today to received the Congressional Gold Medal. She will also be meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a proud moment for the Burmese community and for the Global Justice Center, which has worked tirelessly on democracy issues in Burma.
However, we also recognize that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete. A major obstacle continues to be the country’s constitution, which entrenches military influence over Burma’s civilian government. Daw Suu Kyi said herself that amending the constitution must be a top priority, and we agree with her. The Global Justice Center calls for the international community to challenge the constitution as a violation of fundamental international law—including the UN Charter.
Burma has seen substantial change these past few years; a civilian government was formed, political prisoners were released (Suu Kyi herself being one example), and, this April, opposition parties were allowed to take part in the by-elections, carrying 43 out of 44 open parliamentary seats (but continuing to exert little influence overall). However, Burma has yet to fully commit to democracy. The Burmese civilian government still owes its parliamentary majority to the fraudulent elections of 2010, and the current constitution hinders further democratization and gives complete autonomy to the military. This makes it nearly impossible to prosecute Burma’s military rulers, who are guilty of egregious crimes—including the use of systematic rape of ethnic women as a weapon of war, torture, forced relocation and forced labor. All are rampant violations of fundamental international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The impunity accorded to the military under the current constitution leaves civilian victims, particularly those in the conflict areas of the Burmese border, virtually without legal protection. Activities of the Myanmar military are also in breach of a set of agreements that govern nuclear development.
The Burmese government and the international community must ensure that Burma is meeting international law requirements. Yet, because the constitution gives the military a “legal vacuum” the government would be legally unable to fulfill these obligations. Thus Burma’s new constitution stands in breach of core international commitments.
The Global Justice Center urges the international community to stand with the people of Burma and challenge the legality of the constitution.
(For an in-depth analysis of the constitution and restraint it puts on the civilian government, read GJC president Janet Benshoof’s report, co-written with the Burma Lawyers Council or see the Global Justice Center Project Page on Burma.)
Janet Benshoof, Global Justice Center President, writes an article for the Democratic Voices of Burma explaining in depth Thomas Quintana's difficult position as UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar.
Click here to read the full article.
Global Justice Center's Phyu Phyu Sann states:
"The judiciary has been firmly entrenched as a key tool of the military in Burma since 1988 when the military junta suspended the 1974 constitution and declared martial law, taking for itself all legislative, administrative and judicial powers," said Phyu Phyu Sann, a Myanmar researcher at the Global Justice Centre. "Like Stalin, sergeant-general Than Shwe perfected using judges as a weapon of choice for purging the population and those deemed a threat to his regime. The judiciary remains the same under the current civilian government."
She continues further:
"Changing the military's policy of discrimination and sexual violence against women is one of the most important reforms that need to be taken if we ever want to see real progress in Burma." However, Phyu Phyu Sann said the chances of the ruling elite championing women's issues as part of the current wave of legislative and administrative reform are slim to none, as it would involve far deeper, fundamental changes to the system. "Since the constitution was purposefully crafted to be difficult to amend, moving towards true democratic reform is unlikely," she said.
Click here to read the full article.
Ethnic and religious violence continues to flare in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State of western Burma after an incident last month in which a local woman was raped by three men, allegedly of Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly along the border between Burma and Bangladesh. They are not recognized by the Burmese military government as citizens in Burma, nor have they been permitted to obtain citizenship in Bangladesh. According to United Nations estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma, many of whose families have lived in the country for generations. An estimated 300,000 currently live in Bangladesh. The Burmese refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” illustrating the widespread perception of the Rohingya people as unwelcome foreigners in Burma. Nor have members of the minority received much support from their supposed country of origin. Boats of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in Bangladesh are being turned away by government authorities, who have effectively closed their border to refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.
The conflict risks creating greater political strife within the country at a time when the government is especially vulnerable to instability due to the recent “liberalization” undertaken by the ruling military regime. Many government officials are hesitant to address the issue publicly. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy has remained tight-lipped on the plight of the country’s Rohingya population. The NLD spokesman Nyan Win would not comment on Suu Kyi’s position but said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”
The three men accused of committing the rape that are believed to have initiated the conflict have been arrested and charged for the crime, yet the ethnic tensions sparked by the incident have continued to evoke violence in the region. After the attack, a group of Buddhist Burmese citizens boarded a bus and beat ten Rohingya passengers to death, some of whom were apparently thought to have been involved in the rape. Since then, clashes between the Arakanese (members of the ethnic Burmese population in Rakhine state) and the Rohingya community have included rioting, arson, and a continuing cycle of revenge attacks. Government officials report that the month of clashes has resulted in eighty deaths. The Rohingya community believes the death toll to be much higher.
In response to the violence, the military regime has instituted a state of emergency in the Arakan state, a situation which gives the military full governing rights under the 2008 constitution. While the government claims the measures have been undertaken to ensure the safety and security of the local population, a declared state of emergency robs the state’s civilian government of what little power and authority it previously enjoyed in the region.
It’s time for the international community to recognize the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma by increasing humanitarian aid to the region and openly calling for the military junta to end its oppression of minority groups in Burma, a trend that has characterized the regime’s rule for decades. In addition, the international community should call for Bangladesh to reopen its borders to refugees fleeing the violence in Burma and allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country. As Human Rights Watch has noted, Bangladesh is obligated under international law to provide temporary protection to refugees and asylum seekers. While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is a party to the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These treaties and customary international law establish the obligation of states to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which holds that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened and that no person should be returned to a place where they would be subjected to torture.
Post by: Adrian Lewis
Janet Benshoof, President of the Global Justice Center wrote a Letter to the Editor to the New York Times in response to the Op-Ed Keep Up the Pressure on Myanmar's Generals.
Click here to read the full article.
This article, published in the London Times, describes the recent action by Queen's Counsel members in a letter urging President Barack Obama to lift the US humanitarian aid restrictions placed on abortions. The article includes exerpts from the letter, as well as the names of signatories.
A woman should never have to resort to using a fishing hook or dangerous medications as the only feasible options to terminating a pregnancy. Yet these dangerous tactics remain pandemic in eastern Burma where inaccessibility to proper healthcare and safe abortions threatens the livelihood of thousands of women. A recent report by Ibis Reproductive Health highlights the dire state that women on the Thai-Burma border are in. The fact that so many women in Burma turn to these fatal and unsafe method of pregnancy termination underscore the need for safe abortions.
Yet, despite this clear need, USAID silences any prospects for these women to enjoy a healthier future. The United States, being the largest donor of humanitarian aid, has an immense amount of influence on how aid is distributed. When Congress implemented the Helms Amendment in 1973, abortion restrictions were placed on foreign aid. Under “Helms” no USAID funding may be used to pay for abortion as a method of family planning. The amendment contains a provision that prohibits abortion speech, saying that the funds cannot be used to “motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” The Global Justice Center staunchly argues that these abortion restrictions are a violation of the rights of girls and women raped in armed conflict under international humanitarian law. This is because the Geneva Conventions recognize that women and girls raped in armed conflict, as “protected persons”, are classified as “wounded and sick” and are entitled to “receive to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition.” Therefore, depriving these girls and women of this care is unlawful and this injustice is the driving force behind the Global Justice Center’s August 12th campaign.
Focusing in on eastern Burmese women, it is clear that they do not have a credible institution to turn to when it comes to reproductive healthcare. In fact, reproductive healthcare in Burma is known to be the worst in the world. The “Separated by Borders” report, released by Ibis Reproductive Health and the Global Health Access program exposes the crippling healthcare infrastructure in eastern Burma. The GJC has long noted the terrible state of eastern Burmese women when it comes to accessibility to reproductive health care and abortion, especially during conflict. The Global Justice Center is using legal tools to work diligently to help lift the “no abortion” clause in U.S humanitarian aid to make this type of care more accessible so women in order to prevent prolonged suffering.
Based on the Ibis Reproductive Health Report, RH Reality Check author Anna Clark notes the life-threatening repercussions of depriving Burmese women of reproductive services including unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and death. Furthermore, 80 percent of women in eastern Burma have never used birth control due to the overall inaccessibility of contraceptives and the lack of legitimate healthcare.
Granting women in eastern Burma their rights, including access to reproductive healthcare will be a step in the right direction for Burma. Burmese women will not only be alleviated from suffering, but, they will also have the opportunity to become more active members of society. Utilizing the rule of law, the Global Justice Center works to dismantle the patriarchal structures inhibiting women’s rights to make sure that the prioritization of women’s health will be factored into the equation in the years to come.
To read the “Separated by Borders” report, click here.
To read more about the Global Justice Center’s August 12th Campaign, click here.
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:
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.
Article "Clinton's Visit to Myanmar Raises Hopes and Concerns" in the New York Times quotes GJC President, Janet Benshoof
Janet Benshoof, President of the Global Justice Center, was quoted in a New York Times article on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent trip to Myanmar, a test of the Obama's administration policy of engagement with repressive regimes long shunned by the United States.
Click here to read the full article.
New York Review of Law and Social Change, “U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: An Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution”
The NYU Review of Law & Social Change publishes an article titled "U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution" by Janet Benshoof (GJC's Founder and President).
Subheadings in this article include "Women's Rights Advocated Shaped the Development of the Supreme Court's Scheme of Women's Rights", "The Tripartite Scheme Used by the Supreme Court to Adjudicate Women's Rights to Equality", and "The U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity for Change."
Check out a press release of GJC calling for the release of political prisoners in Burma after releasing a transcript that exposes the military's use of trumped up pornography charges to convict Buddhist monks and nuns.