“Press for Progress” toward Accountability for Sexual Violence and Other Crimes in Myanmar
From February 24 to March 2, 2018, a delegation from the Nobel Women’s Initiative, led by three female Nobel Peace Laureates, visited the Bangladesh border to learn about and highlight the situation of Rohingya refugees, in particular violence against Rohingya women. At the end of their visit, having heard testimonies from Rohingya women they met in the refugee camps, the Laureates made strong statements condemning the horrific crimes committed by the Myanmar Army, including rape and sexual violence and called for the international community to do more to push for accountability for those crimes. This is the latest in a growing number of strong demands for accountability by eminent figures and foreign diplomats, calling for international action in the face of Myanmar’s unwillingness and inability to address accountability for the serious crimes committed against the Rohingya.
“With over a million Rohingya displaced, countless dead or missing, and rape and sexual violence being used as a weapon of war, it is well past the time for the international community to act,” commented Nobel Laureate and Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi who joined the delegation’s visit to Bangladesh. The delegation called on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a fellow Nobel Peace Laureate to use her influence to oppose the violence in northern Rakhine State, stand up for the Rohingya and protect their human rights. Ebadi also commented on the dire situation for Rohingya women in the camps, noting, “Less than 20 percent of displaced Rohingya women who have survived sexual violence have access to post-rape care.”
The Nobel Laureates’ observations are echoed by “Rape by Command,” a recent report from Kaladan Press Network, a Rohingya news organization, which documented rape of “well over 300 women and girls in or near at least seventeen villages” in northern Rakhine State. These rapes took place before, during and after the military “clearance operations” in August and September 2017, though they were concentrated mostly during attacks starting on 25 August. The report also found that the troops acted with high confidence of impunity, committing the crimes in public in front of numerous witnesses, and that the crimes were systematic and part of the military’s “clearance operation” tactics. “Women and girls were raped, mutilated and killed for their very identity as Rohingya,” said Ms Razia Sultana, chief researcher of the report. “Rape is being used as a weapon of genocide.”
In the face of the growing body of evidence that the Myanmar Army has committed systematic sexual violence and other international crimes against the Rohingya, and the refusal of the military and civilian government to acknowledge, let alone credibly investigate and punish these crimes, momentum is slowly building to pursue international measures of accountability. On 26 February, 2018, the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted conclusions on Myanmar, calling on the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security to propose an extension of an existing arms embargo and targeted sanctions against senior officers of the Myanmar Army.
The EU and other international actors have a responsibility to take stronger leadership on supporting criminal accountability, including gathering evidence and preparing for future legal action against those responsible for serious international crimes. The Council’s conclusions did not go as far in this direction as some European lawmakers and civil society organizations had advocated, only calling on the Myanmar Government to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is very unlikely in the current political climate. Some in civil society have called the EU decision “too little, too late,” and urged the EU to work to build an international consensus toward ICC referral. A group of 102 Members of Parliament in the UK called on the British Government to “unequivocably state that the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court,” and called on the Foreign Secretary to lobby the EU to increase its efforts to secure a referral through the UN Security Council. Accountability does not need to be limited to the ICC, particularly given the slim chances of a referral by the Security Council or of Myanmar agreeing to its jurisdiction. In mid-February 2018, a delegation of EU Parliamentarians visited Myanmar and Bangladesh, and called for an independent international investigation into mass atrocities committed in Myanmar. In January 2018, 21 civil society organizations from inside and outside Myanmar urged the EU to pursue options for the application of universal jurisdiction, in addition to supporting ICC referral.
The theme for 2018’s International Women’s Day, “press for progress,” calls for the “global movement of advocacy, activism and support” for women’s rights to press forward and build on recent gains toward gender parity around the world. This must include “pressing for progress” in the fight for justice for the most marginalized and discriminated populations around the world who have survived rape and sexual violence, including Rohingya women. Progress for the Rohingya women means that perpetrators of these heinous crimes, including rape and sexual violence, are brought to justice. Progress for the Rohingya women means that they are able to voluntarily return to their homeland in safety and dignity, with full restoration of their rights and identities as citizens of Myanmar. Progress for Rohingya people and women in particular means that the international community, the Myanmar Government, and all those with a conscious act now to stop the ongoing killing, rape, torture, humiliation and persecution against them. Progress for Rohingya refugees means that their rights are protected in refugee camps and humanitarian aid meets their basic needs, as they continue to struggle and face further hardships, especially as the monsoon season knocks at their doorsteps.
Now more than ever those dedicated to gender parity and to justice for Rohingya women survivors of sexual violence must join hand-in-hand to support growing calls for accountability and “press for progress” in ensuring that those most responsible are held accountable.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Remarks to Human Rights Council by the Secretary-General
By António Guterres, UN Secretary-General
EU Burma Response: Too Little Too Late
By Burma Campaign UK
Myanmar/Burma: Council Adopts Conclusions
By European Council
International Development Committee: Burma Visas
By House of Lords Hansard
SHRF Condemns Unjust Prison Sentences of up to Ten Years for Ho Pong Farmers
By Shan Human Rights Foundation
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”