By Jennifer Li
The rules for the Spaghetti Tower Challenge are simple and, as far as ice-breakers go, an interesting way to start off a three-day workshop with women’s rights NGOs in Burma. Take 20 strands of dried pasta, a few marshmallows, some Scotch tape, and build the highest tower you can. Just don’t tape the pasta to the floor.
The array of architectural innovation was impressive – though the engineering was, admittedly, less sound. Cell phone towers and leaning towers of pasta scattered across the floor space of our hotel conference room in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar [Burma], about an hour’s car ride east of Mandalay. Bobble a marshmallow at the top, and suddenly it’s Jenga.
It is an improbable, ridiculous, but nevertheless accurate metaphor for Burma’s human rights situation. In January 2015, a team from the Asia Law and Justice Program at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – represented by Professors Elisabeth Wickeri and Joey Lee, along with 3L Fordham law students Dana Swanson and Jennifer Li – traveled with members of the New York-based Global Justice Center to Pyin Oo Lwin. The New York team met with over two-dozen members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – a coalition of community-based women’s rights organizations – to introduce the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as an additional tool to bring women’s rights issues to the attention of the international community. The three-day workshop, consisting of an introduction to the UPR process and the drafting of a research work plan on designated thematic issue areas, culminated in a commitment by all participants to work collectively on a stakeholder submission in advance of Burma’s next UPR in November 2015.
In the four years since Burma’s democratic transition began in 2011, the country has made notable strides forward in human rights reforms, including establishing a National Human Rights Commission and releasing scores of political prisoners. Burma’s human rights record, however, continues to be marked by political and ethnic tensions that serve as flashpoints for communal violence – not only between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, as widely reported in the international press, but also against local Christian minorities. Clashes between the national army and non-state groups have contributed to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeast Burma, in addition to the nearly half a million refugees that continue to live in temporary camps in Thailand. Calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have rung hollow.
Serious and persistent violations against the most vulnerable populations are rampant, including violence against women and girls. Burma’s protracted internal armed conflict, spurred by ethnic and political divisions, have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. A recent WLB report documented over 100 cases of systemic, state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic communities – a conservative estimate of the number of actual violations when considering the volume of unreported incidents. Even as evidence suggests that the use of sexual violence has been used as a strategy and tool by the military regime, impunity provisions in the constitution prevent bringing the perpetrators to justice.
It was against this backdrop that Burma participated in its first UPR in January 2011. The UPR, then a relatively new UN mechanism whereby the General Assembly reviews each country’s human rights record on a four-year cycle, was a chance for Burma to present on the international stage its commitment to human rights reforms, and to engage in an interactive dialogue with other nations on a wide range of human rights issues. Not surprisingly, the Burmese delegation failed to provide meaningful responses in many issue areas, including judicial reform and ending military impunity. As Human Rights Watch reported at the time, even as the Burmese delegation was dispatched to Geneva for the UPR, the government army was forcing hundreds of prisoners to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State – in clear violation of international humanitarian law proscribing forced labor.
As with UN treaty body reviews, NGOs have the opportunity to help shape the conversation during UPR dialogues, both through written submissions as well as in-person lobbying at the review in Geneva. The lack of commentary in 2011 on the pervasive violations against women was a reflection of not only Burma’s fledgling engagement with democratic institutions, but also the lack of participation – whether due to limited opportunities or resources – by women’s rights NGOs.
Given that Burma has yet to accede to six of the nine core international human rights treaties, NGO participation in Burma’s UPR is particularly critical. Unlike treaty-body reviews, the UPR is unique precisely because it provides members of the international community a platform to review each country’s full spectrum of human rights conditions, not just those rights that the country under review is obligated by treaty to uphold. Yet despite Burma having acceded to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, of the nearly 200 human rights recommendations Burma received in 2011, only six related to women’s rights issues. This may be explained by the fact that, of the 25 joint and independent NGO reports that were submitted to the UPR Working Group prior to the review, only one submission was authored by Burmese women’s rights groups. The lack of participation by women’s rights NGOs during Burma’s first cycle UPR was a significant missed opportunity—one that should not be repeated now.
Before the end of the year, Burmese delegates will meet once again with other UN Member States in an interactive dialogue for its second cycle review before the UPR Working Group. As part of its mandate, the Working Group will examine strides the government has made in response to recommendations from the first cycle. Incidentally, in the same way that Burma’s first UPR coincided with the beginning of political reform in 2011, its second cycle UPR will occur within days of the forthcoming general elections in November. Four years after Burma’s first review, it remains to be seen whether the Burmese government will cooperate in providing a meaningful assessment of its human rights record – including an acknowledgment of its shortcomings in women’s rights – or continue to stonewall international demands for reform. Regardless, now is the moment for NGOs to pressure both the international community and the Burmese government to adopt a critical assessment of women’s rights in Burma.
Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She also participated in the Asia Law and Justice Program’s training on the UPR process with women’s rights groups in Burma in January 2015.