Burma’s Human Rights Violation and International Law

Burma, officially known as Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a state in South East Asia bordering India, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, and Laos.1 The country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.2 According to Fund and Von, since gaining independence, the country has experienced a prolonged political instability because of the coup d’états and civil wars.3 The military rule that lasted from 1962 to 2010 saw many people lose their lives because of the instability in the country.

Human rights abuse became common in the country as the military did everything possible to remain in power. Political prisoners were often executed while in the prison, children were forced to join the military, and arbitrary arrests were common. Forced labor, torture, human trafficking, sexual violence, and land grabbing among other social evils were experienced in the country. In 2010, the military rulers handed over power to the civilian rulers. Human rights groups have reported that major improvements in protection of human rights have been witnessed in the country since it gained independence. In this paper, the researcher seeks to investigate these human rights violations in Burma.

Key Concepts of International Law and Diplomacy

The international community, through the United Nations, has set laws and regulations about human rights that all member countries are expected to abide by at all times. The international laws and diplomacy are meant to protect individual citizens and expatriates living within a country from abuse by those in power. According to Fund and Von, international laws and diplomacy stipulates that foreigners who are living in a given country as diplomats have immunity from prosecution and that when they commit a crime the host state is expected to launch a complaint with the government of that diplomat.4 International laws also require a country to protect refugees, especially political refugees and those felling war. A study by Berry says that international law and diplomacy emphasizes on the need to protect fundamental human rights, especially freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and right to life.5

Implementation of these laws in Burma

According to Berry, Burma has had a poor record when it comes to implementation of the key concepts of international law and diplomacy.6 When the country was under military rule, human rights were never the priority of the government. The primary concern was to ensure that any form of resistance against the government was crushed to protect and legitimize the rulers. Those in power used fear to suppress the majority. A number of international laws were violated by the government in their effort to ensure that they remained in power. During the military rule, the country maintained close diplomatic ties with some of its neighbors that were also experiencing similar political problems such as Viet Nam. Berry says that sometimes political refugees who went to countries such as Viet Nam were sent back to Burma to face charges.7 The act of handing over political refugees to the oppressive government is against the international law that created United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The government has also played minimal role in implementing laws meant to protect foreigners, especially the diplomats working in Burma on behalf of their governments. According to Berry, cases where government of Burma directly arrests and prosecutes diplomats have not been common even during the period when the country was under military rule.8 However, cases were reported where diplomats and other foreign nationals were killed in very unclear circumstances. The blame was often put on the militias fighting against the military government.

Gutstein says that some of those foreign nationals were human rights activists who came to the country either to report the violation of human rights by the government or to convince the government to put measures that would protect human lives in the country.9 It is believed that some of these people were killed by government agents for fear of exposing the atrocities committed by the government against its own people. The government failed to protect lives of its own people, which is one of its fundamental responsibilities.

Practices and Procedures Adopted and Implemented by United Nations

The United Nations has come up with practices and procedures meant to protect human rights all over the world. As Gutstein notes, the United Nations has no capacity to implement laws and regulations that it develops regarding human rights protection.10 It is the responsibility of the member countries to implement these laws once they are enacted. Whenever there is a violation of the laws and regulations put in place by international community regarding human rights, the procedure that the United Nations is often forced to follow is to make a formal report to the Security Council.

In the report, the United Nations is expected to outline the violations and justify the need for the member countries to intervene using either economic sanctions or military actions.11 It is upon the Security Council to adopt the proposals made by the United Nations. If the Security Council is convinced that the violation requires immediate attention either militarily or economically, then measures are put in place to ensure that there is an immediate and effective response. In Burma, the international community has not been effective in responding to human rights violations when it was governed by the military.

International Human Rights

The United Nations was founded in 1945 soon after the end of the Second World War with the primary objective of preventing a similar war in the future.12 According to Anderson, one of the main concerns of the founders of this body was the pain and suffering of people during the war, especially women and children. As such, the United Nations came up with a number of measures meant to protect people from suffering instigated by government or those trusted with power. It is important to look at the major conventions put in place by this body as a way of protecting people from abuse of power under the International Bill of Human Rights. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted in 1948 and was specifically meant to prevent cases where those in power committed mass murder to remain in power.13 This law stated that genocide and other crimes against humanity were punishable through the International Criminal Court. Critics argue that this law has not been implemented objectively to protect human lives in countries such as Burma.

In 1951, the United Nations came up with Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to protect refugees fleeing their country because of war or any other justifiable cause.14 This convention was meant to ensure that political refugees and those fleeing conflicts are given refuge in foreign states until it is safe for them to return home. It was created because of political instability that became common in several countries around the world soon after they gained independence. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1965 is also very important in protecting human dignity irrespective of one’s race.15

In some countries where people of different races lived together because of the historical events, racial discrimination was becoming a major problem and a reason why some people were treated inhumanly. The law was enacted to emphasize on the need to treat human race with dignity and as equals. Scholars have argued that although the spirit of this law was noble, its implementation is a big challenge because racial segregation may happen in different ways and it may not be easy for the UN to come up with measures of enforcing it.16 It is one of the least enforced conventions of the United Nations.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted in 1981 due to the pressure by human rights groups.17 For a long time women had been denied equal opportunity as men in the socio-economic and political environment. The law was enacted to help in empowering women all over their world. It was also meant to ensure that they are protected from domestic abuse and other forms of violations. The United Nations Convention against Torture was enacted in 1984 specifically to prevent government from using its powers to torture those considered politically incorrect.18 Other important United Nation conventions include CRC that protects the rights of children, ICRMW meant to protect the rights of immigrant workers and their families, CRPD that protects rights of people living with disabilities, and ICPPED meant to protect people from enforced disappearance.19 These laws and regulations are meant to protect fundamental human rights from different perspectives.

Challenges faced in Burma

In Burma, implementation of international human rights laws has been a major challenge. When the country was under the rule of the military, most of the above conventions were often violated to help the military rulers maintain power. Many people were killed, but the rulers were never charged with genocide. Rights of the refugees fleeing the conflict were never respected. Torture was commonly practiced by the government as a way of suppressing the opposition.

People were arbitrarily arrested, taken to prison, and subjected to torture as a way of stopping them from fighting for a democratic country. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party is currently in power, was one of the political prisoners who suffered under the military rule. Child abuse was common in the country, especially minors who were forced to join the military or the militias.20 Currently, the country has witnessed massive changes in protection of human rights. The current leadership of the country is committed to protecting human rights as stipulated in the International Bill of Human Rights.

Processes of International Human Rights Protection

As stated above, the process of international human rights protection is defined at national level. The Individual nations are expected to ratify the laws mentioned above and to come up with measures of enforcing them. The international community lacks the capacity to implement the laws in individual member states. The UN agencies may monitor these violations in different countries and petition these governments to act upon such violations. If the government is responsible for these violations, the only process that the UN can follow is to report to the Security Council so that appropriate measures can be taken against such governments.

Violation of human rights in Burma

In Burma, progress has been made in protecting human rights. This is particularly so because those who were previously oppressed by the military rulers have become leaders. They understand the pain and sufferings associated with violation of human rights violation. Political prisoners have been released from prison in the recent past. According to Waldman, cases of arbitrary arrests, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and torture have been eliminated.21 Problem of land grabbing is still a problem, but the situation is not as bad as it was in the past. More still needs to be done to address some of the issues affecting people of Burma, especially those that relate to historical injustices. The commitment of the government towards promoting justice and protecting human rights means that lasting solution may be found soon.

Conclusion

Burma has experienced one of the worst cases of civil wars in South East Asia since it gained independence. The military rule and human rights abuses that followed saw many people lose their lives because of their political standing. Arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual abuse, forced labor, and land grabbing are some of the social evils which have been common in this country. Following the victory of civilian rulers in the last elections, it is expected that human rights will become a primary concern for the coming government.

Bibliography

Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The unspoken truth of our racial divide. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Berry, Frances. Five dollars and a pork chop sandwich: Vote buying and the corruption of democracy. New York: Cengage, 2016.

Fund, Joan and Sally Von. Who’s counting: How fraudsters and bureaucrats put your vote at risk. New York: Encounter Books, 2012.

Waldman, Millie. The fight to vote.Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Publishers, 2016.

Gutstein, Donald. Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada. Hoboken: Springer, 2014.

Miroff, Bruce, ‎Swanstrom, Todd, Seidelman, ‎Raymond, and Tom DeLuca. The democratic debate. London: Oxford, 2014.

Footnotes

  1. Millie Waldman, The fight to vote (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Publishers, 2016), 23.
  2. Joan Fund and Sally Von, Who’s counting: How fraudsters and bureaucrats put your vote at risk (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), 38.
  3. Ibid, 41.
  4. Ibid, 48.
  5. Frances Berry, Five dollars and a pork chop sandwich: Vote buying and the corruption of democracy (New York: Cengage, 2016), 42.
  6. Ibid,49.
  7. Ibid, 53.
  8. Ibid, 68.
  9. Donald Gutstein, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada (Hoboken: Springer, 2014), 62.
  10. Ibid, 77.
  11. Ibid, 81.
  12. Carol Anderson, White Rage: The unspoken truth of our racial divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 84.
  13. Ibid, 61.
  14. Ibid, 96.
  15. Ibid, 101.
  16. Ibid, 113.
  17. Bruce Miroff et al., The democratic debate (London: Oxford, 2014), 52.
  18. Ibid, 46.
  19. Ibid,59.
  20. Ibid, 78.
  21. Millie, 95.