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Blog: Protest and Assembly Rights

November 16, 2022

The Crisis in Sri Lanka: Human Rights in Peril

Protestor waving Sri Lankan flag in front of imposing government building.
Photograph by Amalini de Sayrah

In 2022, a youth-led citizens’ movement succeeded in ousting Sri Lanka’s all-powerful President, Prime Minister, and the Cabinet whom they held responsible for the island nation’s painful economic crash. The movement was the result of the people’s outcry for basic needs, seeking relief from economic distress and demanding justice and accountability for the crisis. The events that followed, however, saw the old political guard maneuver structures of power to cling on it.

An authoritarian constitution and legal framework

The state’s response to people’s outcry was unsurprising, given Sri Lanka’s history of a powerful executive, a constitution that failed to strengthen democracy and decades of investment in laws and policies of repression, including militarization. Unchecked executive powers saw the President, including the newly appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, lavishly use anti-terror laws, declarations of emergency, curfews, deployment of the military and attempts to demarcate popular protest sites as high security zones.

The police resorted to tactics of provoking protestors, making sweeping arrests and intimidating crowds at protest sites by firing tear gas, water cannons and installing barricades fixed with menacing spikes. Protestors were repeatedly summoned to give statements at police stations under the threat of arrest. Their homes were raided and families threatened. Undeniably, the state responded disproportionately with violence, force and intimidation to stifle people’s discontent, anger and pleas for help.

Sri Lanka’s constitution by design lends itself readily to authoritarian rule. An all-powerful executive presidency has meant that many policy decisions rarely respond to or have been informed by people’s needs. Judicial institutions are distant from the people. For example, the judiciary has no power to declare an existing law unconstitutional and citizens are shut out of courts by impractical time-bars of one month to complain of violations of their rights. Legislative processes also fail to involve the public, are not transparent. People often find themselves ambushed by law reform.

The continuing battleground over enacting laws for the independence of institutions have resulted in the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and the recent 21st amendments to the constitution which seek to merely make minor changes, instead of genuine structural change. Who does the recent 21st amendment to the constitution serve? President Ranil Wickremesinghe or the people? If it was in the interest of the people, we would have seen the abolishment of the executive presidency – something that remains an unfulfilled promise of many presidents before him.

Weak legal protections for Sri Lankans

More laws have been developed to repress and control rather than protect the interest of the people of Sri Lanka. The country has failed to enact laws to address discrimination and violence against women and recognize women’s labour and their contribution to the economy. There has been inadequate legal reform to protect children and address disputes within families.

Working people’s rights to fair wages, decent working conditions, right to organize, and secure social protections are often breached by employers without consequences. No legal reforms have responded to these realities. Laws to address land disputes, housing issues, access to basic resources for living, and securing a sustainable environment are underdeveloped. Furthermore, investing in education, health and equitable development has been on the back burner since the late 1970s.

Laws have also failed to address discrimination of minorities and deliver justice and accountability for past violations. Furthermore, ethnicized electoral politics and no meaningful mechanisms for the devolution of power to the island’s provinces and local government bodies have constrained the space for democratic participation.

The lack of recognition of socioeconomic rights in the constitution leaves the people without a legal framework to find recourse for the numerous violations they encounter on a daily basis. The economic crisis exposed the interests the system is designed to serve – interests of capital and the political elite. People’s protests are a challenge to the existing economic order, authoritarian rule and in effect the deficiencies of the constitution. 

Unequal impact of the crisis

The Sri Lankan Government has ensured that the most pressing needs of the middle-class, fuel and electricity, are met. Masked by the middle-class sentiment of, “things are much better now,” is the devastation of the crisis on the lives of daily-wage earners, the urban poor, women, children and marginalized communities.

Headline inflation peaked at 69.8% in September, while food inflation reached a staggering 94.9%, making essential goods unaffordable for the majority of the population. Kerosene prices have quadrupled, forcing fisherfolk to reduce their trips out to sea and a chance at earning an income. This is significant given that fish is the main source of protein on the island. Farmers are abandoning cultivation due to soaring costs of fertilizers, even as the food system was made precarious with the Executive’s drastic ban on chemical fertilizer in 2021.

Experts have warned that almost one third of the population is facing food insecurity and 86% of households have either reduced the quantity of their food intake or nutritional food items. Almost 17% of children under 5 are facing malnutrition, with signs of wasting and stunting. The long-term effects of the economic crisis are already visible. Even the unlikely scenario of a quick exit out of the debt crisis and access to external financing will not eliminate these effects.

Economic policies fail the people

The economic crisis has been long in the making. Sri Lanka’s foreign loans, half of which are sovereign bond market debt, were invested mainly in large-scale infrastructure projects., Such investments failed to realize economic benefits for ordinary Sri Lankans. The country has been experiencing a balance of payments deficit for years. Its foreign exchange reserves dwindled to less than $2 billion in July 2022, making  essential imports unaffordable.

In response to the crisis, the government implemented dramatic measures such as doubling the interest rates and announcing a hurried default on all its foreign debt obligations. Having sought assistance from the IMF, a staff level agreement was reached to obtain $2.9 billion over a 48-month period subject to restructuring of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt. The conditionalities of the IMF as outlined in the staff-level report include addressing budget deficits via severe austerity measures. These measures contribute to the hardships faced by the people. Its recommendations for law reforms, including flexible labour laws and increasing female labour force participation, can pave the way for greater exploitation of cheap labour.

Sri Lanka has one of the most regressive tax systems worldwide. Instead of increasing direct taxes, the former Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime gave away generous tax breaks to corporations and the rich, which left the state coffers empty. Value Added Taxes were the first to be increased amidst the crisis, with little concern about the severe burden it imposed on the poorest households. By contrast, there is push back to recent proposals to increase income taxes affecting higher income earners. In a similar vein, introducing a wealth tax on the richest in the country continues to be fiercely resisted. 

The economic responses by the current Government have further exacerbated the suffering for the people. A severe austerity agenda is condoned by the Sri Lankan elite. Economic pain on the poorest is inevitable in a crisis, they argue, while ignoring the violation of economic and social rights and the right to human dignity when communities are pushed into poverty and economic precarity. The response by the state and other (including international) actors to the economic crisis only safeguards the interests of the political elite. 

It is apparent that austerity as the only solution to economic recovery is further driving the economy down the abyss. Sri Lanka’s economy is expected to contract by almost 10% of GDP in 2022. With Sri Lanka being the forerunner in the foreign debt crisis of the global South, austerity as the only solution to economic recovery must be re-examined. There is an urgent need to reevaluate the role of austerity in global economic governance. 

The way forward

Sri Lanka’s economic policies and the legal frameworks are failing to secure the lives of ordinary people. The existing structure is attempting to reinvent itself by using the language of stability. It is a stability that leads to a cycle of economic hardships and repression.

In a context of human rights in peril and democracy under attack, forging a different Sri Lanka requires a vision that is people-centered. There is no better time than amidst the deep crisis to craft a vision for a new Sri Lanka that holds power to account and builds strong systems of justice. Sri Lankans must commit to building a social movement that has at its core the realities of the most affected, advances equality, democracy and an economic recovery program that does not leave anyone behind. 

Ermiza Tegal is a lawyer in Sri Lanka and currently a visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World.  Niyanthini Kadirgamar is a PhD student in education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The authors are members of the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice.

This piece is based on a talk delivered by the authors on the crisis in Sri Lanka at the Harvard Law School on 27th October 2022. 

Statements by the Feminist Collective for the Economic Justice:

https://www.ft.lk/opinion/Urgent-plea-by-feminists-to-address-humanitarian-crisis-caused-by-economic-collapse/14-733198

https://www.ft.lk/opinion/Universal-social-security-If-not-now-when/14-736777

https://www.themorning.lk/gender-watch-more-suffering-imposed-in-the-name-of-stability/

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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 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 4, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Don’t Ignore the Religious Dimensions

Posted by Susan Hayward

(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 post first appeared on Just Security on May 3, 2021). 

The 2007 democratic uprising in Myanmar looked a lot different from the current anti-coup resistance. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices that created further economic burden on an already struggling population, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns across the country took to the streets in defiance of the military. In a country in which religious actors, institutions, practices, and ideas are deeply influential, the so-called Saffron Revolution, the most recent mass mobilization prior to the current one, had seismic consequences – contributing to the military’s decision to shift to quasi-democratic rule the following year.

This time around, it’s not Buddhist monastics but young lay people who are at the forefront of Myanmar’s mass protest, with clergy from all faiths following their lead. While religious actors and symbols may be less visible than in 2007, they are still very present. This will surprise no one familiar with how deeply entrenched religion is in Myanmar’s social, political, and economic life. And indeed, precisely because of this, exploring the religious dimensions of the current protests provide critical insights on the coup and its aftermath. Among other things, the changing nature of how religion is intersecting with and influencing the protests tells us something about how the country as a whole is changing, and what its future might be.

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May 3, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Inside Karen State

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. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).  

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 the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.


Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”

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April 27, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Echoes of the Past, Crises of the Moment, Visions of the Future

Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series will brings together 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 article first appeared on Just Security on April 26, 2021). 

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – shattered the all too brief effort to transition to democracy in Myanmar. Over the past two and a half months, the Tatmadaw has continued its illegitimate effort to undermine the democratic elections from last year and prevent the elected government from taking power. In the face of mass popular opposition and international condemnation, the military has only escalated its use of violence against its own population – systematically stripping away rights and violently attacking protestors and dissidents, reportedly killing over 700 civilians as of Apr. 20, 2021, and detaining more than 3,000.

Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the people of Myanmar have stood their ground and refused to be silenced. On Apr. 16, opponents of the coup from across the political spectrum announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) to resist the military. Just as importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a grassroots movement aimed at disrupting state functions and crippling the economy in order to undermine the military’s attempt to rule, has been hugely successful in galvanizing collective action since early February. In addition to the tens of thousands of CDM participants walking out of their private and public sector positions, protests across the country have seen massive youth engagement on a scale not seen in a generation. The organizing power has been impressive. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been used to spread awareness and coordinate protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance. The military has taken notice of the CDM’s power, issuing threats against young people protesting and shooting indiscriminately at protestors of all ages, including children. Parallel movements have arisen in areas like neighboring Thailand, with Thai youth protesting their own authoritarian government in solidarity with activists from Myanmar.

Today we launch a Just Security series that will take a deep dive into the situation in Myanmar. The series will provide insights that put the coup and civilian response into historical and modern context, deepen unexplored angles on the current crises, and survey possibilities and ways forward over the next six months to a year. This series also aims to elevate policy discussions on a number of issues, ranging from peace and accountability to religion and democracy, asking: What is happening now and why?

Within the series, contributions from authors from Myanmar and others working closely on the situation will explore topics such as youth leadership in the CDM and protests, domestic and international solidarity, environmental concerns, the dissolution of rule of law in Myanmar, and what the coup means for ongoing international accountability efforts. Below, we offer an overview of the major themes of the series, along with a timeline of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. The current uprising against military rule must be understood in the context of these decades-long struggles for peace, democracy, accountability, and justice.

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April 22, 2021

Report Finds Haitian Government Complicit in Crimes Against Humanity


Haitian human rights coalition, Harvard clinic release new analysis of state-sanctioned massacres


(April 22, 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Cambridge, MA)
— Three deadly massacres targeting impoverished neighborhoods in Haiti were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH). The report points to evidence that the gang-led attacks were resourced and supported by state actors, ranging from high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration to the Haitian National Police.

Report cover shows the image of Haitian citizens marching in the streets protesting.

The report, “Killing with Impunity: State-Sanctioned Massacres in Haiti,” analyzes three attacks that took place between 2018-2020, which have together killed at least 240 civilians. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air, and Cité Soleil, which have played a leading role in organizing protests demanding government accountability for corruption and other human rights violations.

“Moïse’s government has been pushing the story that the attacks are merely gang infighting, but the evidence demonstrates high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up of the attacks,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a member organization of OHCCH.

The report relies on investigations by Haitian and international human rights experts that show that senior Moïse administration officials planned the attacks or otherwise assisted by providing the gangs with money, weapons, or vehicles. Off-duty police officers and resources were utilized to carry out the attacks. The Haitian National Police repeatedly failed to intervene to protect civilians despite the sites of the attacks being in close proximity to multiple police stations. In each attack, gangs arrived in the targeted neighborhood, shot at residents indiscriminately, raped women, and burnt and looted houses. The massacres repeatedly involved gangs affiliated with the G9 alliance led by Jimmy Chérizier, which reportedly enjoys government connections.

“We found that Moïse’s failure to stop or respond to attacks initiated by his subordinates may make the President himself liable for crimes against humanity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Clinic who supervised the research and drafting of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to stand up for human rights, fully investigate allegations of serious abuses, and do its part to hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.

The report comes amidst a deepening crisis for democracy and human rights in Haiti. Widespread demonstrations have gripped the nation, with large swaths of the population protesting government corruption, rising insecurity, and Moise’s increasingly authoritarian conduct. Notably, to repress dissent, Moise has criminalized common forms of protest and created an intelligence agency to provide surveillance of the political opposition. Attacks against civilians, including the assassination of prominent government critics, have largely been carried out with impunity. Although most experts and much of civil society agree that President Moïse’s constitutional mandate ended on February 7, 2021, he has refused to step down, insisting that an illegal constitutional referendum take place before elections for his replacement.   

The finding that the attacks amount to crimes against humanity strengthens the prospects for accountability. In addition to imposing an international obligation on the Haitian government to prosecute the people responsible, it opens the door to prosecutions in national and international courts outside of Haiti. It also means that perpetrators can be pursued indefinitely as no statutes of limitations apply.

“Just like Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eventually had to stand trial for his brutal repression decades after he left office, the perpetrators of today’s massacres can no longer escape justice by relying on statutes of limitations,” Joseph added.

The UN has raised alarm that the ongoing lack of accountability for massacres has fostered an enabling environment for further carnage. Yet another attack on Bel-Air earlier this month bore striking similarities to the massacres analysed in the report.

“The attacks covered in the report are particularly severe and well-documented, but they are part of a widespread, systematic campaign of violence and intimidation of political dissidents,” said Pierre Esperance, Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), an OHCCH member that has led independent investigations into repeated attacks on impoverished neighborhoods. RNDDH has documented at least 11 massacres over the course of Moise’s presidency.

The report relies on evidence collected by a range of Haitian and international actors over the last few years and analyzes it under international criminal law. Harvard Law School students Joey Bui JD’21 and Nathalie Gunasekera JD’21 led the research and drafting of the report under Lindstrom’s supervision.

Read the report in English, French, and Haitian Creole.

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February 17, 2021

Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


Law Clinics Call for U.S. Government to Condemn Haitian President’s Actions


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have released a statement calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

Issued on February 13, 2021, the statement describes alarming actions taken by Moïse in the week preceding that threaten the rule of law and suggest an escalating constitutional crisis. Among the many issues cited, the statement notes Moïse’s refusal to step down after the conclusion of his term, the arbitrary detention of notable political officials, the removal of Supreme Court justices, and state violence against protestors and journalists. The U.S. based law clinics identify the crisis as part of a trend of “grave, state-sanctioned human rights abuses in Haiti” and worry that Moïse’s continual affront toward democratic checks on his power indicates his inability to “oversee free and fair elections for his replacement.”

The statement urges the Biden administration to forge a new path in U.S.-Haiti relations.

“The current U.S. administration should not continue the improper pressure that the Trump administration placed on Haitian actors to acquiesce to an unconstitutional electoral process,” the statement says. “Instead, the Biden administration should support democracy and human rights and condemn Moïse’s attacks against Haiti’s constitutional institutions. Otherwise, Moïse may be emboldened to further restrict human rights and democracy.”

The statement also asks the U.S. to halt deportations, given the political instability. “Since the beginning of February, ICE has deported more than 600 people to Haiti, many without even the opportunity to request asylum. These flights have included many children, infants and pregnant women.”

The statement concludes by making specific recommendations for the U.S. government in order to “support the rule of law in Haiti and [to] call on the Haitian government to meet its international human rights obligations.” This week, the organizers reached out to the United Nations to clarify its position on the issue.

Read the full statement here.

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