The content of all publicly available sources of information reveals a consistent pattern of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Burma, which constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes, as defined under the Rome Statute. These grave violations have been, and are still being, perpetrated with total impunity.

On the run for decades

70-year-old woman who has been fleeing Burmese government troops her whole life. (Photo: KHRG)

The policies, structures, and practices of Burma’s legal system contribute to creating a climate in which breaches of international humanitarian law are able to occur with impunity. It seems that the Burmese government is unwilling to prevent crimes against humanity, as well as to prosecute those responsible. Burmese officials, including the Chief Justice and other justices of the Supreme Court, continue to deny that any challenges and weaknesses exist in Burma’s judicial system. The Burmese government has continuously denied that torture occurs in Burma on the grounds that it is against domestic law. However, neither the 2008 Constitution nor Burmese law explicitly prohibits torture. Furthermore, the act of promulgating a law does not guarantee that it will be enforced, particularly in the absence of an independent, impartial and effective judiciary.

Although President Thein Sein has publicly committed to respect the Rule of Law and to create an independent and transparent judiciary in his inaugural speeches to Parliament on March 30, 2011, and to cabinet members and Government officials on March 31, 2011, little has changed in how Burma’s judiciary is appointed or how it operates. The President established the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) in September 2011, which so far seems to have been yet another government structure that fails to protect its citizens, and appears rather to be a tool for winning over the international community.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma] at the time, said in September 2011 that the MNHRC is neither independent nor in a position to credibly pursue justice and accountability (see Burma Partnership, January, 2012). In 2013, a network of 30 NGOs from 17 countries across Asia expressed grave concerns over the latest developments on the founding legislation of the MNHRC. Concerns were raised that the draft bill contains many problematic provisions that will undermine the independent and effective functioning of the MNHRC (Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions, August 2013). On September 25, 2014, a report authored by Burma Partnership and Equality revealed the continuing ineffectiveness of the MNHRC as well as the lack of independence from the government.

Systemic reforms that establish accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations are essential in order to reduce the deep-seated mistrust between the government and ethnic nationalities. In order to embark on a process of true national reconciliation, achieve sustainable peace and development, and ensure a true transition to democracy, institutional protection of universal human rights and the non-recurrence of abuse must be guaranteed for the people of Burma. Furthermore, perpetrators of past abuses must be brought to justice. In 2011, The Special Rapporteur reaffirmed that justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are essential for the country to face its past and current human rights challenges, and to move forward towards national reconciliation (UN General Assembly, 2011a, p. 19). In October, 2011, the UN General Assembly stated that the Assembly:

“Strongly calls upon the Government of Myanmar to take urgent measures to put an end to continuing grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the targeting of persons based on their belonging to particular ethnic groups, the targeting of civilians as such in military operations, and rape and other forms of sexual violence, and to end impunity for such acts”. (UN General Assembly, 2011b, p. 5)

Although international crimes continue in Burma, the UN General Assembly’s most recent 2013 resolution was significantly shorter, and softer in tone, as compared to its predecessors. In the resolution in December 2013, the UN General Assembly stated that the Assembly:

Urges the Government of Myanmar to accelerate its efforts to address discrimination, human rights violations, violence, displacement and economic deprivation affecting various ethnic and religious minorities”. (UN General Assembly, 2014a, p. 3)

Following a ten-day visit to Burma in July, 2014, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma], Ms. Yanghee Lee, urged the authorities to avoid any backtracking that could threaten the achievements of the past few years and called for more public freedoms (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, July, 2014).

Despite these UN resolutions and the recognition of the existence of these violations by many UN organs for over a period of 15 years, the UN Security Council has failed to act to ensure accountability and justice in Burma (more on the role of the United Nations). The perpetrators in Burma continue to avoid both. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was founded to address the impunity of serious crimes and violations against international humanitarian law, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It is time that the perpetrators in Burma are held accountable and systematic impunity is brought to an end.

Updated October 27, 2014

Continue to The Role of the International Community

  • For an overview of existing documentation on serious human rights violations perpetrated by Burma’s military regime, and demonstrate that international crimes have been perpetrated in Burma with total impunity;

FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, & BLC (2009). BURMA/MYANMAR, International crimes committed in Burma: the urgent need for a Commission of Inquiry. A joint report by International Federation for Human Rights, ALTSEAN-Burma & Burma Lawyers‘ Council. www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/bu08.pdf. Accessed December 17, 2013.

  • For UN General Assembly Resolutions on Burma;

UN General Assembly Resolutions on Burma. ALTSEAN-Burma. http://www.altsean.org/Research/UN%20Dossier/UNGA.htm. Accessed December 17, 2013.

  • For customary International Humanitarian Law;

Henckaerts, j-M. & Doswald-Beck, L. (2009). Customary International Humanitarian Law, Volume 1: Rules. International Committee of the Red Cross. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • For a description of repressive laws in Burma;

ALTSEAN-Burma (2011). Burma’s Parliament: A Tool for Institutionalized Oppression. November 28, 2011.

List of All References