May 28, 2021

Beyond the Coup: Can the United Nations Escape Its History in Myanmar?

Posted by Ambassador Kelley Currie

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted to Just Security on May 27, 2021)

When Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun took the floor of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 to condemn the weeks-old military coup and announce his loyalty to the elected government, he not only shocked all those tuning in who expected a pro forma defense of the Tatmadaw’s power grab and denunciation of U.N. interference. He also provided Myanmar’s democratic movement a potentially powerful new tool, both to help secure their legitimacy, and to shift the historic dynamics of U.N. failure in Myanmar. To make the most of this tool, the nascent National Unity Government (NUG) must quickly learn how to work with the U.N. system and leverage it for its intrinsic utility as well as to build out their footprint internationally. To date, the results have been mixed, but there are signs that the NUG is learning. Whether these efforts ultimately will be effective also depends on whether the U.N. system can learn from its own failures in Myanmar and make the necessary course corrections at this pivotal moment.

Past Imperfect

The U.N.’s history with Myanmar has been a multi-decade case study in the moral hazards that international organizations face when dealing with regimes that do not care about either the welfare of their own people or the opinions of outsiders. After being one of the first of the newly independent post-colonial countries to join the U.N., Myanmar enthusiastically participated in U.N. activities during the parliamentary democracy period. It even requested the U.N.’s help in dealing with spillover from the Chinese civil war, when both Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist troops breached Myanmar’s border.

After Ne Win’s 1962 coup, however, successive military regimes rigorously limited their engagement with international organizations out of an almost fanatical devotion to neutrality. Like other autarkic dictatorships, the Ne Win regime deeply distrusted the U.N. and particularly eschewed involvement with its field-based activities, even though his countryman U Thant served as U.N. Secretary General during much of the first decade of Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) rule. It was not just the U.N. that drew Ne Win’s suspicions: nearly all foreign organizations were kicked out of Myanmar during the 1960s and diplomats based in the country were heavily restricted. The BSPP’s fetishization of neutrality was such that Ne Win withdrew Myanmar from the Non-aligned Movement in 1978 because he was concerned it had become too partisan toward the Soviet Union. Given the role of Southeast Asia as a major theater of Cold War contestation, and China’s mercurial role in these geostrategic games, one can hardly blame Myanmar for wanting to remain aloof from it all. But Ne Win’s autarky also ensured that Myanmar essentially was suspended in amber for more than a decade.

Faced with a ruinous economic situation, however, the post 1974-BSPP and its successors in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), while no less xenophobic, recognized that the U.N.’s rapidly expanding aid agencies could be useful as they attempted to address the country’s disastrous economic situation. The Tatmadaw generals seemed to innately grasp that these various humanitarian and development agencies cared more about their agency’s particular development and humanitarian mission set than about the quality of Myanmar’s governance and these agencies were competing for “clients” in the developing world. Having been locked out of Myanmar at the height of the BSPP’s autarky, these agencies were desperate to experiment on its broken economy and what they viewed as a tabula rasa society ripe for their modernization efforts. This gave the BSPP the ability to arbitrage aid agencies’ ambitions and silos, strictly limiting their staffing and physical access and insisting on a high degree of control over their activities in the country. Even after Ne Win resigned as BSPP chairman in 1988, the SLORC and SPDC continued to use humanitarian access as a bargaining chip to ensure that agency operations were compliant. In the most striking—but far from the only– example of its extreme suspicion toward the U.N., the Burmese regime initially rejected U.N.-led humanitarian assistance in the wake of 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people, wiped out the critical Irrawaddy Delta rice production zone, and left millions homeless.

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May 27, 2021

Ode to the Class of 2021

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

On May 27, 2021, we said goodbye to Harvard Law School Class of 2021. In lieu of an in-person celebration, graduating students of the International Human Rights Clinic joined clinicians and staff on May 26, 2021 via Zoom to celebrate each other and bid adieu. Read a tribute written by Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, below.

IHRC students on their individual zoom screens
The International Human Rights Clinic gathered on Zoom on May 26, 2021, to celebrate its graduating class.

’Twas a year after COVID, and to our surprise, 
Commencement online, Harvard Law must reprise.
But you should still celebrate your graduation day, 
And we are prepared to send you off on your way. 

It’s been an odd time with all learning remote,
But your achievements are no less deserving of note.  
You’ve been such good sports throughout the pandemic. 
You’ve given your heart, soul, and humor to the Human Rights Clinic. 

Each week you came to your Clinic Zoom room 
To address violence, injustice, and things that go boom.  
You survived “trips” to Geneva no matter the hour, 
Greeting 4 a.m. meetings without being dour.

You spotlighted weapons and their human cost 
Making sure victims’ voices did not get lost. 
Incendiaries, nukes, arms trade, robots, EWIPA  
For each HD issue you’ve made a tangible difference. 

Impunity in Gambia and within the UN, 
Through research and law, you sought to end.  
After years of hard work, you saw victory,  
For Bolivian plaintiffs in the case Mamani. 

On the environment front, you fought the good fight, 
Showing climate, water, and lead all affect human rights. 
And last but not least you examined privacy  
And abuses faced by Syrian refugees. 

You’ve inspired your peers and your clinicians 
With your work, fortitude, and true dedication.  
You all should be proud of what you have done,  
The people you’ve helped, the respect you have won.  

We’ll miss you but know great things you will do, 
Whatever area of the law you decide to pursue. 
Congrats and best wishes to HLS ’21. 
Keep in touch and come back to see us in person! 

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May 25, 2021

Goodbye HLS Class of 2021

To the Class of 2021:

Congratulations! You are now law school graduates—always a tremendous accomplishment, but even more so in the midst of this ongoing pandemic. The last fourteen months have tested you in ways none of us could have anticipated. You persisted with compassion and commitment, through unprecedented challenges, to reach this milestone.

After you pause to celebrate the moment, we urge you to continue to look ahead. The pandemic has both laid bare and exacerbated many preexisting divides. Hundreds of millions of lives have been turned upside down, not only through the loss of loved ones but through lost health, lost education, lost opportunities, lost support networks, lost jobs, and lost income. The brunt of the pandemic has been borne by those already living at the margins or in dire circumstances. The elderly, people with disabilities, women, girls, racial and ethnic minorities, frontline workers, and those who rely on the informal economy have been especially hard hit. In less than a year, progress on gender equality was rolled back decades. Extreme poverty is on the rise for the first time in a generation. Young people are struggling, not only to access education but also to access the connections and the community needed to thrive. In some countries, the pandemic has provided pretext to crush opposition, subvert electoral processes, and crack down on human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. Worldwide vaccination efforts to date have been woefully unequal, and the virus continues to rampage across the global south.

While all of this was unfolding, we have watched in awe as you excelled in our clinic, supporting each other and persevering with extraordinary determination, intelligence, resilience, and courage. Now, as you venture out to launch your careers, you will face a new and challenging world. Solidarity and collaboration will be necessary not only to overcome the pandemic, but to meet the many human rights challenges of our time—from poverty and inequality, to climate change, to the resurgence of authoritarianism, extremism, and nationalism. Your creativity, leadership, and dedication to social justice are urgently needed.

It is daunting, but you are ready. You know how to build to community, how to lead with kindness and empathy, and how to create space for diverse voices and perspectives. We have seen you do it in our clinic, and we look forward to seeing what you will do throughout your careers. As we send you off to continue this important work, remember that you will always have a home here. We look forward to welcoming you back to the clinic, in person, one day soon.

For today, we extended our heartfelt congratulations to you, Harvard Law School’s Class of 2021!

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May 21, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The Need for an Inclusive Accountability

Posted by Carmen Cheung

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 20, 2021).

If the current crisis in Myanmar is one “born of impunity”, any response that is rooted in accountability needs to acknowledge that the Myanmar military’s crimes span decades and across its ethnic regions. Some in the international community may have first learned about “clearance operations” in the context of the devastating attacks in recent years that have destroyed Rohingya villages and forced an exodus into neighboring Bangladesh. For almost sixty years, however, Myanmar’s military has engaged in forced displacement, sexual violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings against civilian populations as part of its ongoing conflict against armed groups in the country’s ethnic regions. A proper accounting in Myanmar must be inclusive of crimes committed against all its people, and inclusive of all the communities who have suffered at the hands of its military.

Decades of Impunity: A Brief History

For close to six decades, Myanmar has suffered from a crisis of impunity, one which the international community has never adequately addressed. Almost immediately after its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, civil war broke out between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) and armed organizations in the country’s ethnic nationality areas. The Tatmadaw overthrew civilian rule in 1962 and cracked down on all threats to its power, from journalists and political dissidents to the armed groups in the ethnic areas. Throughout the period of military rule (1962-2011), serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and forced labor were commonplace.

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May 19, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Crisis Born from Impunity

Posted by Grant Shubin and Akila Radhakrishnan

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 18, 2021). 

In his first speech since illegally attempting a coup d’etat, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law.” He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But in reality, Min Aung Hlaing and indeed all of the military (Tatmadaw) are very much above the law in Myanmar.

Of the coup’s many potential causes, perhaps the most overt is that military leadership thought they could get away with it. The military’s constitutional insulation from civilian oversight and control, the failure thus far to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and international crimes, and even periodic cheerleading from the international community for a “democratic transition” emboldened the military into thinking that subverting the will of the people could be done without major consequence. To quote the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “This crisis was born of impunity.”

After all, the military has been getting away with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, so why not a coup?

In the aftermath of Feb. 1, a great many novel and knotted international legal questions have arisen. Chief among them is a question about the status of the constitutional order in Myanmar: the military has strained to claim that it is upholding the 2008 Constitution, while the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)/National Unity Government (NUG) have abolished the 2008 Constitution and issued a new Federal Democratic Charter that envisions a different system entirely. Rather than getting into the merits of these claims, this piece looks at the related – and in many ways inseparable – issue of how military impunity is an essential part of the narrative of the ongoing crisis and how accountability must be part of the solution moving forward. In doing so we analyze the major areas of concern in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the lack of concerted international action to address the military’s grave crimes, how those collective failings created an environment of impunity that paved the way for the coup, and why this path must be avoided going forward.

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May 17, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The ASEAN Way Must Change

Posted by Vanessa Chong and Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 14, 2021). 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long failed to meet its aspirations of supporting the rule of law and human rights, instead emphasizing to a fault the principle of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its members – even when these internal affairs entail mass atrocity crimes. Most recently, this ambivalence has manifested in a lack of concrete actions in response to the coup in Myanmar. This ineffectual reaction underscores what has long been clear: ASEAN must change its approach to the “internal affairs” of its members and recognize that regional stability depends on respect for democracy, human rights, and rule of law within each member.

ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Coup

When the Myanmar military attempted to seize all levers of power on Feb. 1 and detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and scores of others, the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Prawit Wongsuwan, promptly dismissed news of the coup d’état. “It’s their internal affair,” he said. At the height of the junta’s attack on unarmed civilians, on March 27, three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Thailand, Viet Nam, and Laos – sent representatives to a military parade in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, hosted by coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing. On the same day, strong evidence indicates that Min Aung Hlaing’s forces killed more than 100 women, men, and children in a matter of hours.

When ASEAN foreign ministers met in an “informal” meeting on March 2, the first involving the bloc since the power grab, the ministers failed to muster a collective condemnation of the coup, let alone address the systematic killings underway. On April 24, ASEAN held a special summit on Myanmar, inviting Min Aung Hlaing but not representatives of the elected civilian government he overthrew. Without input from such elected officials, the ASEAN leaders reaffirmed the bloc’s commitments “to the purposes and principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, including adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, respect for fundamental freedoms, and the promotion and protection of human rights.” As he stepped out of the meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin celebrated the outcomes of the convening by hastily declaring “We have succeeded.” As the leaders met that day and spoke of rule of law, at least 3 people were killed in Myanmar.

The April 24 meeting resulted in ASEAN’s “Five Points of Consensus,” an agreement on five issues to facilitate a peaceful solution for Myanmar’s current crisis. However, there are clear warning signs that the group will fall short of its commitments. ASEAN not only failed again to condemn the coup or call on Min Aung Hlaing to immediately return power to the elected government, it failed to specifically condemn past attacks on civilians and once again evaded holding Min Aung Hlaing accountable for these attacks.

These clumsy, callous approaches are nothing new. They are sadly consistent with traditions of “the ASEAN way”  – a euphemism for a style of regional cooperation that puts national sovereignty first  and that emphasizes “non-interference” in the “internal affairs” of other states. But to ensure continued stability in the region, it is clear the old ASEAN way must change.

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May 13, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The Other De-Platforming We Should Have Been Talking About

Posted by Jenny Domino

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The post was originally posted to Just Security on May 11, 2021). 

On Feb. 24, 2021, three weeks after Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) staged the coup that changed the course of Myanmar’s future, Facebook announced it was banning all “remaining” military and military-controlled state and media entities from Facebook and Instagram, including ads from military-linked commercial entities. To this end, Facebook said it would use the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s (FFM) 2019 report on the military’s economic interests in identifying relevant commercial entities. Though Facebook had removed military accounts and pages in the past for their involvement in human rights violations– most notably the account of State Administration Council chairperson, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaingin 2018– the company’s 2021 decision went much further by indefinitely suspending military and military-related accounts and pages regardless of content or behavior.

In other words, contrary to popular opinion, former President Trump’s account was not the first high-profile account to be indefinitely suspended by Facebook. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s de-platforming was described as “unprecedented” in 2018, but outside of Myanmar watchers, it garnered little global attention, much less debate.

The 2021 de-platforming of the Tatmadaw offers a renewed opportunity to engage with how Facebook – and other powerful platforms – should do their part to deal with authoritarians and human rights-violating institutions like the military in Myanmar. Facebook’s act to de-platform the Tatmadaw was the culmination of incremental steps taken by the company in response to the “emergency situation” unfolding in Myanmar since the coup. For example, on Feb. 11, Facebook decided to “significantly reduce” the distribution of false content emanating from military accounts and pages still operating on the platform, but stopped short of an immediate outright ban. And it had previously declined to ban the entire military’s presence on its platform despite it being implicated in the Rohingya human rights crisis. At each of these moments, Facebook took action too late, and too incrementally, to avert harm – harm that the platform knew was imminent and which its very design facilitated. Facebook’s history in Myanmar highlights the broader problems with content moderation in vulnerable contexts, and it should serve as a cautionary lesson to companies that wish to prevent their platforms from facilitating atrocities.

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May 7, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Northern View

Posted by Taylor Landis

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School). 

Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of an individual in northern Burma who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats she currently faces. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individual in northern Burma and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.


Over encrypted video chat, a long-time civil society leader from one of northern Myanmar’s many remote conflict-affected communities reflects on life in the midst of the country’s latest crisis. “We are lucky to be from here,” she explains, referring to her small town situated in a valley among what would be picturesque mountains. She explains that each of the five closest peaks is occupied by a different armed entity: four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control one apiece and the fifth is the territory of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). The forested hillsides are contaminated with landmines, and the roads cutting through the valley are punctuated by EAO and Tatmadaw checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers closely control all movement. With this layout, travel in and out of town was dangerous and daunting before the military’s Feb. 1 grab for power. Now, with new checkpoints in place, it’s even more difficult. EAOs in this area have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades, some since the country’s 1948 independence. In recent years, escalating armed violence between and among the EAOs has eclipsed their battles with the Tatmadaw. Over this civil society leader’s lifetime, ceasefires, alliances, and new armed entities have come and gone, but active fighting has never been far off. “We really are lucky,” she continues, “we grew up hearing gunfire. Now we are more resilient.”

When the Tatmadaw rolled tanks and troops into cities following the Feb. 1 coup, the woman’s community nervously followed the news, just like others all across Myanmar. The massive urban protests taking place throughout the country remained peaceful for weeks. Then the Tatmadaw began its crackdown. Having seen more than 700 people killed and over 3,000 detained by security forces across Myanmar by the end of April, her colleagues in Yangon have been shocked by the level of Tatmadaw violence they witness everyday. Like most people in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, her colleagues had never seen the Tatmadaw in action before February 2021.

“For them, the first time they saw a Tatmadaw sniper target a woman who was only buying snacks in the street, and they saw her shot in the head even though she was not even participating in the peaceful protest, they were shocked.” She pauses for a moment and goes on, “For us, in the conflict areas, we have seen the Tatmadaw’s human rights abuses. We know they shoot to kill. We are not shocked. We are sad, but we are not shocked.”

In ethnic-minority communities like hers, first-hand experience with Tatmadaw cruelty was common [and well documented] before the crisis brought on by the 2021 coup. Having borne the brunt of Tatmadaw violence, many in ethnic-minority communities had long looked for protection from and been supportive of EAOs, considering them a protective barrier standing between their communities and Tatmadaw violence. Not everyone, however, shared this view. Having tired of the ever-evolving, ever-present armed violence in their areas, some had little patience for any entity taking part. In her community, the civil society leader says people’s views of EAOs varied widely, but no one supported the Tatmadaw.

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May 5, 2021

Not One Bullet More

Clinic Joins 200+ Orgs in Calling on UN Security Council to Impose Arms Embargo on Myanmar

(May 5, 2021) — The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School joins over 200 other civil society organizations, including the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Human Rights Watch, GCR2P, Global Justice Center and Amnesty International, in calling on the United Nations Security Council to urgently impose a comprehensive global arms embargo on Myanmar. The letter responds to the current crisis in Myanmar, beginning with a February 1, 2021 coup that has spiraled into increasing brutality and violence against civilians, including dozens of children. The organizations urge the UN Security Council to help prevent further violations of human rights against peaceful protestors and those opposing military rule by halting the arms trade with the military junta. Read the full letter below or download it at this link.

Image of protestors kneeling over a memorial with text that says, "Not One Bullet More: Ban Weapons Sales to Myanmar"

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May 4, 2021

A Burning Issue: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch

This post also appears on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.

Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating physical and psychological injuries on civilians in conflict zones, and those who survive endure a lifetime of suffering. While Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of incendiary weapons, loopholes in the protocol have limited its effectiveness.

“The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and Shortcomings of International Law,” a recent online event organized by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), brought together an incendiary weapon survivor, a military trauma nurse, a burn rehabilitation doctor, and a disarmament lawyer, who collectively highlighted the problems of these cruel weapons. Drawing on their first-hand experiences and professional expertise, the speakers vividly detailed the humanitarian consequences of incendiary weapons and called on states to strengthen international law regulating their use.

Two of the panelists had personally witnessed the horrors of incendiary weapons. “Abu Taim” (pseudonym) was a teacher at a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria, that was attacked with incendiary weapons in 2013. In pre-recorded video testimony, he recalled exiting the school right after the strike: “I saw bodies, and those bodies were only black. . . . I came closer to their bodies to know, who are those people? Who are those students? I didn’t recognize their faces.”

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