On 29 November 2003, a woman’s body was discovered near a farm by her husband and other people from her village. She was 20 years of age and her name was Naang Sa. She and her husband Zaai Leng had been approached, three days before, by 40 soldiers from the Burmese Army. Zaai Leng was tied up and Naang Sa was gang raped. The soldiers took her back to their base and her dead body was left at an unknown time during those three days, completely unconcealed, to be found by those who loved her.
Events such as these are not unusual in Burma. Numerous United Nations reports have expressed concern about high numbers of rapes of women by the army in Burma since at least 1996. The number of reports that reach the UN are, almost certainly, gross underestimates. The lack of effort to conceal rapes or the bodies of victims is a regular feature of such cases that underlines a culture of impunity for soldiers in a country under military rule.
The UN’s Torture Rapporteur recorded in 2006,
“Women and girls are subjected to violence by soldiers especially sexual violence as “punishment” for allegedly supporting ethnic armed groups. The authorities sanction violence against women and girls committed by military officers, including torture as a means of terrorising and subjugating the population.”
This has been brought to the attention of Burma’s military government consistently since 2002 but United Nations representatives have found, at best, shrugging indifference from the government and often active attempts to prevent impartial investigation.
The widespread abuse of civilians by their own country’s government (or its soldiers or agents) is a crime against humanity under international law. Unfortunately, the rape of women is but one strand of human rights abuses in Burma.
Burma gained independence in the 1947 and enjoyed parliamentary government, albeit with inter-ethnic and Communist inspired armed conflict occurring, until 1962 when General Ne Win staged a coup that begun a continuous period of rule by force. Ne Win‘s regime sought to control rural areas by destroying farms and villages, killing thousands of civilians. Student protests were harshly suppressed and the once prosperous economy collapsed.
In 1988, further protests against military rule led to 3000 people being killed and fighting between the army and rebels groups has continued since then creating 100,000s of refugees. The regime has forced people away from their home areas and used murder and torture, as well as sexual violence, as tools of oppression on a widespread scale and with an ingrained culture of impunity for those who commit such crimes.
In 1998, a UN Special Rapporteur wrote,
“These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years to suggest that they are more simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehaviour by middle and lower-rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level, entailing political and legal responsibility.”
More recently, you may recall the violent suppression in 2007 of Buddhist monks who began peaceful protests against military rule.
The United Nations and the European Union have published numerous reports documenting these crimes against humanity. President Obama has indicated that the United States is willing to take more decisive action against Burma.
There are two recent developments that deserve to be noted. The first is the publication of the report “Crimes in Burma” by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The report was commissioned by five of the world’s leading jurists from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. The Harvard Report took as its source material not any and every allegation, but only those allegations documented and actually found to have occurred in United Nations investigations and reports.
The 102-page report surveys the evidence and the legal framework (the established elements of crime against humanity) and concludes that there is undoubtedly a strong prima facie case for Burma’s military leaders to answer.
The report also notes the glaring disparity between the international community’s response to these cases and how it has acted in relation to similar crimes in other countries.
The established response to a prima facie case of crimes against humanity is an international judicial process. This is what the international community has done in recent years with regard to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur. Abuses of human rights in Burma are comparable to all three of those countries. An international judicial process establishes the truth and brings some of the guilty people to justice. Armed with those precedents for action, the Harvard Report calls for an international judicial commission of inquiry for Burma. If we fail to set up such a process, it is likely that abuses of human rights will continue for decades to come.
Secondly, during August, the military regime announced new elections but 25% of the seats in parliament will be reserved for the military, numerous democratic parties including the movements led by Aung San Suu Kyi have been barred from even taking part and the leading General announced on 31 August that he will not relinquish power whatever the election result. There is every chance that the election period and its aftermath will unleash a heightening of violence and oppression by the regime.
I and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (who prosecuted Milosevic at the Hague) have tabled an Emergency Motion to a recent Party Conference calling for urgent action. We want the British government, and the European Union of which we are also citizens, to use all means at its disposal to begin an international judicial process as called for by the Harvard Report to end the murder and torture of innocent people.