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March 17, 2017
A Year In: Examining Myanmar’s Democratic Transition
A talk by May Sabe Phyu,
Kachin leader and winner of “International Woman of Courage” award
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Harvard Law School
Lunch will be provided
Please join us for a talk by May Sabe Phyu, a Kachin leader and a winner of the State Department’s “International Woman of Courage” award. She will discuss efforts to prevent violence against women; the ongoing armed conflicts in Kachin and Shan States; and how peace activists are attempting to address entrenched militarization in the country.
This is the first talk in a two-part lunch series that looks at changes in Myanmar since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power in the wake of the first free and open election in a generation. The series will examine the progress underway to protect human rights, achieve peace, and address the legacy of abuses and conflict in Myanmar dating back to the 1950s.
For the second talk, on April 10, Matthew Bugher, an HLS alumnus with investigative experience into international crimes in Myanmar, will discuss accountability efforts in the country, including a major investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity.
February 28, 2017
“Shifting Grounds in International Human Rights”
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Please join the Human Rights Program for a panel discussion on how the international human rights landscape has changed since President Trump took office. HRP’s resident scholars and advocates will examine the question: what impact is the change of administration having on the work of international human rights scholars, lawyers, and activists working internationally? Panelists will address a range of topics, including women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, and the rights of religious minorities, and examine these issues in contexts where human rights are already under threat, such as Myanmar and the Middle East.
October 20, 2016
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Legal analysis shows ceasefire’s civilian protection commitments extend nationwide
(Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016)– Reported abuses of civilians in non-ceasefire areas by the Myanmar military and other signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) would, if verified, constitute violations of key civilian protection provisions established by the agreement, said Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (the Clinic) in a legal memorandum released today. The military and other signatories should act immediately to address such reports, including by engaging with the mechanisms and processes established by the NCA and investigating alleged abuses.
The Clinic’s memorandum comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the signing of the NCA by the government and eight ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). While the agreement failed to include many of the EAOs that participated in the ceasefire talks, it was still heralded as a significant step in the country’s peace process. Over the past year, however, armed conflict has intensified in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere, with reports of widespread abuse of civilians by the Myanmar military in particular.
“Ongoing abuses in conflict zones cast doubt on the military’s commitment to the NCA and undermine the trust between Myanmar’s government and ethnic nationality populations,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Myanmar military officers can’t hide behind the fact the NCA was signed with only some ethnic armed organizations to abuse civilians in non-ceasefire areas.” Continue Reading…
September 20, 2016
Posted by Cara Solomon
Now that we’re in the rhythm of the semester, it’s time to introduce some new faces in the International Human Rights Clinic. We’re thrilled to welcome five new clinical advocacy fellows, all accomplished lawyers with different expertise and experiences. They’re leading clinical projects this semester on a range of new topics, from human rights protection in investment treaties to armed conflict and the environment.
In alphabetical order, here they are:
Fola Adeleke is a South African-trained lawyer who specializes in international economic law and human rights, corporate transparency, open government and accountability within the extractives industry. This semester, his projects focus on human rights protection in investment treaties and reconfiguring the licensing process of mining to include more consultation with communities.
Rebecca Agule, an alumna of the Clinic, is an American lawyer who specializes in the impact of conflict and violence upon individuals, communities, and the environment. This semester, her project focuses on armed conflict and the environment, with a focus on victim assistance.
Juan Pablo Calderón-Meza, a former Visiting Fellow with the Human Rights Program, is a Colombian attorney whose practice specializes in international law and human rights advocacy and litigation. This semester, his project focuses on accountability for corporations and executives that facilitated human rights abuses and atrocity crimes.
Yee Htun is the Director of the Myanmar Program for Justice Trust, a legal non-profit that partners with lawyers and activists to strengthen communities fighting for justice and human rights. Born in Myanmar and trained as a lawyer in Canada, Yee specializes in gender justice and working on behalf of refugee and migrant communities. This semester, her project focuses on women advocates in Myanmar.
Salma Waheedi is an attorney who specializes in international human rights law, Islamic law, gender justice, family law, comparative constitutional law, and refugee and asylum law. Born in Bahrain and trained as a lawyer in the U.S., Salma currently holds a joint appointment with Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program, where she focuses on family relations in Islamic jurisprudence. This semester, her project focuses on gender justice under Islam.
We’re so pleased to have the fellows as part of our community this semester. Please swing by at some point to introduce yourself and say hello.
June 9, 2016
Today marks the grim five-year anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State. This conflict, between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Organizations at the local and international level have also documented severe human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence and forced labor.
The International Human Rights Clinic today joins 129 other organizations in calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin State.
“Joint Statement: Five Years of War- A Call for Peace, Justice and Accountability in Kachin State”
(June 9, 2016)— Although much of the world has expressed excitement over Myanmar’s political transition, communities throughout Kachin and northern Shan states have been living with severe human rights abuses and displacement for the last five years.
Since 2011, renewed armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Continue Reading…
May 20, 2016
Posted by Cara Solomon and Tyler Giannini
The International Human Rights Clinic had the great honor last month of hosting a three-day workshop in Yangon for some of the leading women advocates in Myanmar- all of them pioneers in their various fields, and all of them pushing for change. The training, facilitated by The Op-Ed Project, focused on voice and messaging in the media’s opinion sections, where women’s bylines are too rarely found.
The title of the workshop: “Write to Change the World.” Below, some images from those three days, with thanks and appreciation for what these women have done to strengthen the world already, and what they will surely do in the decades to come.
April 14, 2016
Myanmar: Investigate Use of Excessive Force Against Letpadan Protesters
Hold perpetrators accountable, amend peaceful assembly law
(Yangon, April 14, 2016)—While welcoming the Government of Myanmar’s recent release of political prisoners, Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic urged authorities today to open a formal investigation into the violent police crackdown against protesters in March 2015 in Letpadan.
The Letpadan protesters were among nearly 200 political prisoners that the recently elected Government of Myanmar—led by the National League for Democracy (NLD)—either pardoned or dropped charges against on April 8. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced on her second day in office a plan to free political prisoners, activists, and students in the weeks surrounding the Buddhist New Year holiday. According to human rights groups, more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“After spending more than a year in prison for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, the Letpadan protesters are finally free,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Their courage and tenacity is an example to human rights defenders across the world. We commend the government for prioritizing their release and urge the authorities to take swift action to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School published an 81-page report documenting how Myanmar police officers punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs at Letpadan on March 10, 2015. Hundreds of photographs and dozens of videos from journalists and other witnesses show police officers beating unarmed protesters. Still, more than a year later, the authorities have failed to hold anyone responsible for the use of excessive force.
In January 2016, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the Letpadan Justice Committee, and Justice Trust released a briefing paper detailing how Myanmar authorities repeatedly delayed the trials of students arrested at Letpadan and denied them access to adequate medical treatment while in prison.
In addition to investigating the abuses, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School called for the government to hold police officers responsible for using excessive force against protesters. The government should investigate commanders and officials who gave orders to use excessive force or failed to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct.
“Releasing these protesters and dropping the charges against them is a positive and historic step,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic at Harvard Law School. “We look forward to the government upholding its promise to follow the rule of law by investigating and holding perpetrators to account.”
The October 2015 report makes clear that not all police officers at the scene in March 2015 participated in violence. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attack by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers. Fortify Rights and the Clinic urged the authorities to highlight commendable police action in any investigation.
The protests in Letpadan stemmed from the September 2014 passage of the National Education Law, which critics said failed to protect the right to form unions and failed to accommodate ethnic communities, among other alleged shortcomings. Protesters in Myanmar took to the streets in January 2015 and continued to march in various locations throughout the country over the next several months.
Many of the Letpadan protesters faced charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior authorization or consent for assemblies and provides penalties of fines and imprisonment for failure to comply, infringing on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School encourage the NLD Government to repeal or amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to bring it in line with international standards and to prevent it from being used to target human rights defenders.
For more information, please contact:
Tyler Giannini, Director, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic: +1-617-496-7368,
email@example.com; Twitter: @HmnRghtsProgram
November 8, 2015
Posted by Roni Druks, JD '17, and Sharon Yuen, LLM '16
Today, Myanmar held its first contested general election in 25 years — one that will have major implications for human rights. As vote counting starts, everyone is waiting to see whether the current ruling party, the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party, or the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, will win control of the parliament. There is a long history between military-backed parties and the NLD, dating to 1990, when the NLD won a landslide victory that was never recognized. In 2010, after decades of military rule, the country held elections again, leading to a USDP victory in parliament and the appointment of former general Thein Sein as president. But the NLD boycotted the 2010 vote, which was largely considered illegitimate.
Today, as the USDP, NLD, and other parties face off, seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national legislature, as well as at the state and division levels, are at stake. Despite concerns about whether the election will be free and fair, the key question is whether the NLD or USDP will win a victory and be able to control parliament—either alone or in a coalition. The winning party should control the selection of the next president, who will have a major influence over the course of human rights in the country over the next few years.
The outcome of the election will prove especially crucial since the president and newly elected parliament will bear responsibility of advancing a challenging peace process. Although the Myanmar government signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight ethnic armed organizations on October 15, 2015, the agreement remains neither nationwide nor a ceasefire. (For more on that, see the recent piece by our fellow clinic student, Roi Bachmutsky, JD ’17). Fighting has continued in several ethnic areas, raising concerns about the displacement of ethnic communities and other human rights violations.
Beyond the elections, Myanmar’s human rights record was under scrutiny this past Friday through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is evaluating Myanmar’s progress on human rights since 2011. Regrettably, Myanmar appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for Myanmar’s UPR process. Ko Ko has a long track record of alleged involvement in human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity as the International Human Rights Clinic previously documented in a four-year investigation.
The Clinic made a UPR submission in March highlighting that the Myanmar government has not taken any steps to investigate the allegations against Lt. Gen. Ko Ko. In a major development, more than 500 groups from Myanmar (who must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) have signed a petition calling for international action to hold Lt. Gen. Ko Ko accountable due to inaction at the national level. In response, the Clinic, along with eight other organizations, released a statement echoing the need for an end to impunity.
Whether on the election front, in its peace process, or on issues of accountability, it is a pivotal time in Myanmar. Along with the world, the people of Myanmar wait to see whether a new chapter for human rights is on the horizon or whether it will be more of the same.
November 5, 2015
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
Tomorrow is Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) hearing in Geneva. Today, a coalition of groups issued a statement calling for accountability for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, the head of Myanmar’s UPR process:
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of
Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
November 5, 2015
We, the undersigned organizations, call for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Population, to be held accountable for his involvement in human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On November 6, 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council will review Myanmar’s human rights record during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. Regrettably, the Myanmar Government has appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for its UPR process.
Hundreds of civil society organizations in Myanmar have signed a petition expressing their concern about Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s role in the UPR process, as well as the current impunity at the national level that exists for his involvement in abuses. They have called on the international community to take concrete steps to hold him accountable.
Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has a well-documented track record of human rights violations. He led Myanmar’s Southern Command during a military offensive in Kayin State from 2005-2008. According to a report released by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, there is sufficient evidence against him to satisfy the standard required to issue an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for his command over soldiers that intentionally attacked, killed, tortured, enslaved, and forcibly transferred civilians.
In his current position as the Minister of Home Affairs, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including violations of the rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. For example, strong evidence exists that the Myanmar Police Force, which is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has repeatedly used unlawful and excessive force against peaceful protesters. In November 2012, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko was accused of authorizing riot police to use white phosphorus munitions to disperse peaceful protesters—mostly monks and villagers—at the Letpadaung Copper Mine, resulting in severe chemical burns of more than 100 people. In March 2015, the police again used excessive force in the town of Letpadan against unarmed protesters calling for reforms to the National Education Law.
The Human Rights Council has called upon the Myanmar Government to take all necessary measures to ensure accountability and end impunity for violations of human rights. This recommendation also was made during Myanmar’s previous UPR in 2011 and has been reiterated in advance questions for the forthcoming UPR this year. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recommended in both her March and October 2015 reports that the Government address impunity for human rights violations committed by security personnel.
In light of Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s track record, we call on the Myanmar Government to remove him as the head of its UPR process, and to initiate a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation into the allegations of his involvement in human rights violations and international crimes. The international community should lend support to any investigation and prosecution. If the Myanmar Government does not pursue accountability in a prompt and effective manner, the international community should initiate its own investigation into Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s responsibility for human rights violations and international crimes, and governments should pursue appropriate legal action against him if he enters their territory under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Burma Campaign UK
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Global Justice Center
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
US Campaign for Burma
World Organization Against Torture
November 5, 2015
October 9, 2015
Myanmar: Hold police accountable for crackdown at Letpadan; Free wrongfully imprisoned protesters
New report finds police blocked peaceful assembly, used excessive force
(YANGON—October 10, 2015) Myanmar police officers used excessive force during a crackdown on protesters and arrested more than 100 individuals in Letpadan, Bago Region in March, according to a new report (summaries available in English and Burmese) released today by Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (“the Clinic”). Authorities should release individuals wrongfully detained for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, the organizations said.
Compiling evidence from dozens of eyewitness accounts, more than 500 photographs (see slideshow), and 40 videos, Fortify Rights and the Clinic found that police brutally punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs in the town of Letpadan on March 10. Police also beat protesters in police custody, including at least one protester being treated in an ambulance and others whose hands were bound behind their backs.
“The government should hold to account those police officers that used excessive force against the protesters,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “This crackdown occurred in broad daylight. Police officers are clearly visible on film and in photos beating unarmed protesters, yet they walk free while the protesters are behind bars.”
The new report, Crackdown at Letpadan: Excessive Use of Force and Violations of the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Expression in Letpadan, Bago Region, Myanmar, also details how not all police officers at the scene participated in violence during the crackdown. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attacks by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers.
Police arrested 127 protesters, journalists, and bystanders in Letpadan on March 10. Seventy-seven men and women of those arrested in Letpadan face charges that carry sentences of up to nine years and six months imprisonment. Several student leaders face multiple counts under a law relating to peaceful assembly, potentially adding years to their sentences. In the weeks and months following the crackdown at Letpadan, Myanmar authorities have arrested dozens of additional student leaders and activists for involvement in the protests at Letpadan and elsewhere.
“The decision of Myanmar authorities to prosecute protesters rather than those police officers that committed abuses doesn’t bode well for a country on the cusp of national elections,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic. “Justice demands the authorities release those wrongfully arrested in Letpadan and drop charges against peaceful protesters.”
On September 11, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) issued a statement calling for police officers responsible for the use of excessive force at Letpadan to be disciplined. The statement alleged that the beating of protesters led to injuries, and that the protesters should not be facing charges under the penal code.
Fortify Rights and the Clinic welcomed the MNHRC’s investigation and statement on the events in Letpadan, but noted that it failed to address all the violations related to the protest and crackdown in Letpadan. In particular, the MNHRC failed to address restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression as well as the arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals connected to the protests.
Under international law, arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are engaging in a protected activity, such as exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
In January 2015, protesters began to march south from Mandalay to demonstrate their opposition to the National Education Law passed by Parliament in September 2014. In early March, police blockaded the protesters at Letpadan. As the protesters attempted to challenge the blockade on March 10, police officers violently dispersed the group of 200 protesters.
“The events leading up to the crackdown failed to justify the massive wave of violence unleashed by police officers,” said Matthew Smith. “This crackdown is ongoing and reveals the shallow depth of human rights reform in Myanmar.”
For more information, please contact:
Amy Smith, Executive Director, Fortify Rights (in Yangon): +66.87.795.5454; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AmyAlexSmith @FortifyRights
Matthew Bugher, lead author and researcher, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and consultant to Fortify Rights: +95.9401596412; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @bughermk1
Students from the International Human Rights Clinic—Roi Bachmutsky (JD ’17), Roni Druks (JD ’17), Courtney Svoboda (JD ’16), Matthew Thiman (JD ’16), Yao Yang (Harvard/Berkeley JD ’16), and Sharon Yuen (LLM ’16)—provided essential support in reviewing evidence as well as with writing and editing for the report. The team worked under the direction of the report’s lead researcher, Matthew Bugher, who was a Global Justice Fellow at Harvard Law School as well as Tyler Giannini, co-director of the Clinic.
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