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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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November 17, 2014

TONIGHT: “The Inter-American Human Rights System: Contributions and Challenges”


November 17, 2014


“The Inter-American Human Rights System: Contributions and Challenges”


A talk by Professor Dinah L. Shelton

5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

WCC 1010

Please join us for a talk by Dinah L. Shelton, Professor of International Law, George Washington University, and past president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Professor Shelton served on the Commission from 2010 to 2014, a period marked by controversy within the OAS about the Commission’s powers, and struggle over institutional reform. She is a leading expert on international law, human rights law, and international environmental law.

September 12, 2013

Talk Sept. 13: Noah Feldman on Syria


Event Notice


“Should the U.S. Break International Law to Enforce a ‘Red Line’ on Syria”


September 13, 2013

12- 1 p.m.

Langdell North

Please join us for a talk by HLS Professor Noah Feldman on the ongoing and recent events in Syria, and whether the United States should break international law to enforce a ‘red line.’

Lunch provided.

This event is being sponsored by HLS Democrats, Harvard National Security & Law Association, HLS American Constitution Society, and the Human Rights Program.

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March 21, 2012

Tomorrow, March 22: A Talk by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia


Event Notice

March 22, 2012

“Protecting Human Rights Through the Mechanism of UN Special Rapporteurs”


A Talk by Surya P. Subedi

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia

1:00 pm
Wasserstein 3018
Lunch will be served

Surya P. Subedi has been the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia since 2009. He is a Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds and a barrister specializing in the fields of public international law, international law of trade and investment, and international human rights law. He also serves as a member of the Advisory Group on Human Rights to the British Foreign Secretary.

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February 25, 2011

Decades after Dresden, We Must Do More to Protect Civilians from Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Joe Phillips, JD '12

This month marks the 66th anniversary of the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany—an event that demonstrated to the world the devastating power of incendiary weapons.  From February 13 to 15, 1945, British and U.S. forces dropped hundreds of tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs on the mostly undefended cultural center of Dresden, where thousands of people had sought refuge from the Eastern Front.  The resulting firestorm destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 people.

Based on his firsthand experience, Kurt Vonnegut describes the scene in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Dresden was one big flame.  The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. . . . One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.”

During World War II, incendiary weapons generally brought to mind the firebombs used to destroy residential city centers.  Over time, the nature of armed conflict has changed, as has the design of certain incendiary weapons, but militaries continue to use them—often at serious risk to civilians.

Destruction inside a hospital in Gaza City, with wood and beams falling down everywhere
The scorched children’s playroom inside Gaza City’s Al-Quds hospital was destroyed during a white phosphorus attack on January 15, 2009. © 2009 Marc Garlasco/Human Rights Watch

In 2004, the United States launched incendiary shells into the city of Fallujah, Iraq; witnesses reported seeing charred bodies of Iraqi civilians, echoing the scenes in Dresden in 1945.  More recently, when Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008, the substance both injured civilians and set fire to a school, a hospital, and other non-military buildings.

The International Human Rights Clinic has worked for several years to protect civilians through campaigning for a ban on cluster munitions; now, with Human Rights Watch, we are broadening our focus to push for stronger protections from incendiary weapons. Existing law is not enough.

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