Myanmar/Burma’s Binding Obligations Under International Law

November, 2012

This document outlines some of Myanmar/Burma’s (hereinafter “Burma”) obligations under international law, and demonstrates the ramifications of these obligations. Burma’s obligations under international law have greatly increased due to the advances in international law and the enforcement of states obligations over the last fifteen years.

International law mandates that states either act or refrain from acting in certain ways, and provides remedies for state breaches. The framework of Burma’s obligations arise from four interrelated bodies of international law: international human rights and other treaty law, including the United Nations (UN) Charter; customary international law, including the laws of state responsibility; international humanitarian law; and international criminal law.

Download PDF

Taking Rights Seriously: The Next Stage of the Human Rights Revolution

Friday, November 02, 2012 18:30 - 20:30

At The Global Justice Center

The Global Justice Center will be holding an event in New York City on Friday, November 2 from 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm. This event will feature an evening of conversation with GJC President Janet Benshoof discussing the Global Justice Center’s innovative approach to enforcing international law to establish human rights grounded in the rule of law.

INFO: Due to limited space, please contact Sarah Vaughan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information and to RSVP for this event.

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.

Download PDF

Letter to Norwegian Foreign Minister

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Norway's Foreign Minister Eide asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

Download PDF

Letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Secretary Hillary Clinton, asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

Download PDF

As Aung San Suu Kyi Visits US, International Law Violations in Burma Constitution are Highlighted

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.)

Open Letter to European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva

An open letter written by the Global Justice Center to European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Kristalina Georgieva urging that EU humanitarian aid for women raped in armed conflict respect their rights to non-discriminatory medical care under international humanitarian law.

Download PDF

How can international humanitarian law bind non-state actors?

Interstate armed conflicts are rare nowadays but intrastate armed conflicts have been on the rise in recent years. Intrastate conflicts often involve non-state actors and pose an important question for the international community – how can non-government parties be bound under the international humanitarian law (“IHL”).  

International Humanitarian Law applies to all the signatory States of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 but it also binds non-state actors: private citizens, armed groups, national liberation movements, and international organizations.  It has been established that since IHL provides rights and special protections to private citizens in conflict, it also confers obligations, as demonstrated by the Nuremberg trials, international tribunals, or recent ICC decision to sentence Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga to 14 years for using child soldiers and forcing them to commit atrocities. Several instruments also create IHL obligations on part of non-government armed or rebel groups – Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the Second Additional Protocol of 1977, and Article 8 paragraph 2 of the Statue of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), whereas the First Additional Protocol applies to national liberation movements. And while there is no specific legal provision that binds international organizations under international humanitarian law, the ICC specifically stated that “an international organization is a subject of international law and, as such, is bound by all the obligations deriving from the general rules of international law.”

It is important to remember though that IHL does not apply to any instances of violence but only those non-international armed conflicts that satisfy organization requirements and reach certain level of intensity, and possibly duration. Mere riots, isolated acts of violence, protests, and single acts of terrorism do not constitute an armed conflict under international humanitarian law. Despite difficulties in proper identification of armed conflicts under IHL, currently there is no single legal body that provides armed conflict designation; rather the UN Security Council and the General Assembly call for application of IHL in certain conflict situations, implying existence of an armed conflict under IHL. Perhaps, the international community could benefit from a clearer statutory definition of an armed conflict or expanding IHL applicability to any instances of violence motivated by a specific goal.

If These Walls Cold Talk, They Would Be Censored: U.S. Restrictions on Pro-Choice Speech

If United States foreign assistance funded the writing of this paper, which addresses free speech and women‘s rights issues of the utmost international concern, the authors, two United States citizens, would be censored—by U.S. law—from making any statements that advocated for abortion in any context.

Because the writing of this paper is not conditioned on the revocation of the authors‘ First Amendment rights, this paper can and will examine the legality and impact of U.S. abortion speech restrictions on foreign assistance recipients. The restrictions violate U.S. constitutional protections of free speech and contravene international law regarding democratic reform of criminal abortion laws abroad and human rights guarantees, including the right to health. Although the U.S. places myriad abortion-related restrictions on foreign assistance, this paper focuses on the speech concerns of the Helms Amendment3 in the context of domestic constitutional law and the Helms and Siljander Amendments4 in the context of international law. 

Download PDF

 

 

Observing World Refugee Day and the Plight of Displaced Girls

If you happened to be in New York City last night and were wondering why the Empire State Building was blue, here is your answer: the Empire State Building, along with major landmarks around the globe, was lit up in blue yesterday to commemorate World Refugee Day. The UNHCR honored the day in New York by opening a new exhibit dedicated to the world’s refugees entitled In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees.

Joan Timoney, the Director of Advocacy and External Relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission, spoke at the opening of the exhibit, and we were struck by her description of the “lost potential” of displaced girls. While life is difficult for all displaced persons, displaced girls tend to be exposed to even greater risks because of their gender. For instance, displaced girls are susceptible to exploitation and abuse, sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancy, forced marriage, and forced labor. Displaced girls also have less access to education and resources than their male counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that women and girls have a lower status than men and boys in most societies. This unequal status is exacerbated in times of conflict and civil strife, continuing even after displaced girls are able to leave refugee camps.

To avoid losing their potential, these girls need access to security, education, and resources. Fortunately, the Women’s Refugee Commission is working to do just that with its Protecting and Empowering Displaced Girls project. The goals of the project are to ensure that displaced girls are safe and have the opportunity to finish school, develop a sense of confidence, and learn their rights and important skills so they can go on to lead fulfilling lives without abuse. This is incredibly important work and we would like to applaud the Women’s Refugee Commission for its efforts.

To learn more about the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work, visit their website.

The exhibit, In Search of Solidarity: The State of the World’s Refugees, is free and will be on view at the United Nations Visitors Centre until Aug. 7, 2012. For more information, visit their website.

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.

Vice-Presidents of European Parliament Urge President Obama to Lift US Abortion Restrictions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  - March 2, 2012

[NEW YORK, NY] -  The Global Justice Center's August 12th campaign is gaining momentum. The Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament have written a letter to Obama to issue an Executive order to lift all current U.S abortion restrictions that prohibit girls and women raped in armed conflict from terminating their pregnancy.

Contradictions and Empty Guestures – USAID’s New Policy on Gender Equality

According to the United States Agency of International Development’s new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, “Gender equality and female empowerment are …fundamental for the realization of human rights.” This policy directing USAID aims to: Reduce gender disparities in access to resources and opportunities, reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects on individuals and communities and increase capabilities of women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes. Certainly these are lofty and noble goals. Yet, is USAID making an empty gesture?

The tactical and deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war has been reported in at least 36 recent conflicts. Often, rape is used as an effective tool to terrorize and destroy communities, leaving women and girls with significant and sometimes deadly, physical, psychological and social consequences. Following the horrific wake of the Rwandan Genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found that rape can be a war crime, crime against humanity and constitutive act of genocide.

Yet, for the victims of these heinous crimes, the chance of having a full and healthy life is often denied. Even if women impregnated by rape survive the high risks of maternal mortality, they often suffer further ostracisation from their community. Facing these harmful outcomes, women are denied the option of abortions – perpetuating their suffering and trauma.

USAID, while paying much lip-service to its gender-egalitarian vision, hardly mentions sexual violence against women in its policy. As one of its policy goals, USAID aims to reduce gender-based violence and mitigate its harmful effects. In light of the suffering of impregnated women through rape, isn’t the most effective means in mitigating the harmful effects to provide safe abortions?

However, currently under the Helms Amendment and other related abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance funding to motivate or provide abortions. This prohibits all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments and humanitarian aid providers from using U.S. funds to “motivate” or provide abortions. The restrictions, placed in allforeign assistance contracts, contain no exceptions for rape or to save the life of a woman and affects the provision of services, as well as censors all abortion speech. Thus far from alleviating and mitigating the harmful effects of sexual violence, the prohibition actually perpetuates further suffering for the victims.

Additionally, the current restrictions violates the rights afforded to the “wounded and sick” persons, who are entitled to non-discriminatory and comprehensive medical care as envisioned under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the legally-binding principles of customary international law. The prohibition has the effect of systematically denying girls and women in armed conflicts the right to complete and comprehensive medical care. How can women realize the fundamental human rights when current USAID restrictions deny them?

Although the USAID’s new policy highlights the importance of gender equality, it fails to meaningfully alleviate the harmful consequences of sexual violence. Behind the talk of gender equality and women empowerment lays a deep contradiction. While promising women relief and the realization of their human rights, USAID restrictions do the opposite. If women are to truly enjoy the ideals set out in USAID’s new policy paper, the Helms Amendment needs to be revoked.

Vice-Presidents of European Parliament Urge President Obama to Lift US Abortion Restrictions

Two Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament, Alexander Alvaro, MEP, and Edward McMillan-Scott, MEP, have written a letter as a part of the GJC's "Augsut 12th Campaign" to Obama to issue an Executive Order to lift all current U.S humanitarian aid restrictions that prohibit girls and women raped in armed conflict from terminating their pregnancy, urging the US to abide by common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Download PDF