Recent reports detailing the heinous human rights abuses committed in Rakhine State in Burma have triggered calls for perpetrators to be held accountable, both domestically and internationally. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) has opened a preliminary examination1 and the UN Human Rights Council has established an investigative mechanism to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of crimes.2 International action is not only justified but absolutely necessary given the impossibility of holding perpetrators to account using domestic justice mechanisms. Decades of unchecked human rights abuses against ethnic groups in other areas of Burma and deeply-entrenched domestic structural barriers preventing accountability have emboldened the military and contributed to the current crisis. Without international action to address and tackle Burma’s culture of impunity and the structural barriers that underpin them, this pattern will likely continue unabated.
This Fact Sheet details the domestic structural barriers that impede accountability for perpetrators and preclude justice for victims of human rights abuses in Burma. These obstacles, formalized with the “adoption” by a spurious referendum of a new Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (the “Constitution”) in 2008, prevent any full accounting for human rights violations committed by the military (the “Tatmadaw” or “Defense Forces”) in Burma. Obstacles outlined in this Fact Sheet include: (1) constitutional supremacy and autonomy of the military; (2) constitutional guarantees of impunity; (3) military emergency powers; and (4) lack of an independent and accountable judicial system.
Understanding the domestic structural impediments to accountability for the military is crucial to understanding the circumstances that give rise to these offenses and lead to the inevitable conclusion that unless these barriers are dismantled, human rights abuses will go unpunished and a true democracy will not take hold in Burma. Moreover, a situation of national unrest gives the military great powers under the Constitution capable of emboldening and further empowering the military.
While the increasingly volatile situation and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State highlight military abuses and impunity, the Tatmadaw has for decades engaged in armed conflict with multiple ethnic groups in Burma. These long-running conflicts are characterized by human rights abuses perpetrated by the military that have gone unpunished and continue today in multiple regions, including Shan and Kachin states. The situation in Rakhine State must be understood not in isolation but as part of a continuum, and as another example of how impunity for human rights abuses committed by the military is the rule, not the exception, in Burma.
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