The Burmese military and non-state armed groups are bound by international humanitarian law, which outlaws both crimes against humanity and war crimes. A fundamental principle of humanitarian law is that persons taking no active part in hostilities shall in all circumstances be treated humanely. War crimes and crimes against humanity are punishable irrespective of whether they are committed in time of peace or war. Individuals who deliberately commit serious violations of international humanitarian law are responsible for war crimes. These include deliberate attacks on civilians or indiscriminate attacks, torture, sexual violence, and use of child soldiers and forced labour. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or to punish those responsible.

In 2008, The Border Consortium (TBC) argued that there has been an increasing debate about whether violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma constitute an international crime (TBC, 2008). Numerous other reports have described the human rights violations committed by the Burmese army as international crimes (e.g. FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, & BLC, 2009; KWO, 2010; Partners Relief & Development, 2011). The Burmese army has been responsible for numerous serious war crimes, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions of civilians, sexual violence against women and girls, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on populations’ livelihood and food supplies, forced displacement, and use of anti-personnel landmines. In fact, almost all the acts enumerated under Article 7 of the Rome Statute have been repeatedly documented by various independent sources, including both NGOs and human rights organisations as well as UN mechanisms (read more about human rights violations in Burma).

Mae La refugee camp

Millions have fled widespread and systematic human rights violations in Burma, which multiple international and local organisations have characterised as crimes against humanity and war crimes. These grave violations continue in a culture of impunity. (Photo: Ariana Zarleen)

Non-state armed groups in Burma, especially the Burmese military’s proxy armies, have also committed serious abuses, including forced labour, recruitment of child soldiers, and anti-personnel landmine use. These groups have, however, committed these abuses to a far smaller degree than the Burma Army. Furthermore, the Burmese military has employed counter-insurgency strategies that deliberately target the civilian population in attempts to demobilise support for armed opposition groups; a number of organisations such as Amnesty International (2008), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) (Richards, Parmar, & Sollom, 2010), Human Rights Watch (2011), and International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School (IHRC, 2012) have also characterised these strategies as war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2007, the ICRC issued a public denunciation of the government for “major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law”.

Countless UN reports, resolutions, and documents have also called for an end to serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Burma. A report published by IHRC (2012), an outcome of an intensive review and analysis of UN documents, evaluated Burma’s breaches in light of the Rome Statute. According to their findings, there has been a long-term awareness on behalf of the UN of the grave human rights and humanitarian violations occurring in Burma. UN actors have described these violations as both “widespread” and “systematic” as well as “part of a policy”, and UN actors documenting of reported violations have thus been strongly suggesting these violations may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes under international criminal law. The report focused on violations regarding forced displacement, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, and found that each separately creates a prima facie case for the existence of violations amounting to possible crimes against humanity and war crimes. Furthermore, these violations were found to take place within a culture of impunity due to the military regime’s failure to provide accountability and justice.  According to the report, all of the necessary elements exist for the UN to take action in Burma.

In March 2010, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma], Tomás Ojea Quintana, reported to the UN Human Rights Council:

“Given the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar over a period of many years, and the lack of accountability, there is an indication that those human rights violations are the result of a State policy that involves authorities in the executive, military and judiciary at all levels. According to consistent reports, the possibility exists that some of these human rights violations may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”. (Tomás Ojea Quintana, see UN General Assembly, 2010, p. 21)

The latest UN Resolution, adopted on December 27, 2013 (UN General Assembly, 2014a), expressed concern about “remaining human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions of political activists and human rights defenders, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violations of international humanitarian law”.

Similarly to the resolution adopted on December 24, 2012 (UN General Assembly, 2012), it urged the government to step up its efforts to put an end to such violations.

It seems, however, that the human rights violations articulated in the resolution remain prevalent, and impunity continues.

Updated October 27, 2014

Continue to Ending Impunity

  • 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