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.