After months of intensive behind the scenes lobbying by the British government, the Burmese government has finally signed the 'Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict'. On the face of it this is very good news, and a diplomatic success for the British government. However, based on past experience of a string of broken promises by the Burmese government, there is also good reason to be cautious. The signing of the declaration needs to eb followed by an immediate action plan for implementation to ensure real progress to end rape and sexual violence in Burma. Otherwise, it will join the long list of previous broken promises.
The timing of the signing, on the eve of the global summit on sexual violence in conflict being held in London next week, is clearly designed to maximize positive publicity for the Burmese government. A delegation of women from Burma is attending the summit to highlight the ongoing use of sexual violence by the Burmese Army. They are from women's civil society organisations, which work with women in grass roots organisations, especially in conflict zones, documenting abuses and proving assistance. Earlier this year they published a report, 'Same Impunity, Same Patterns' which highlighted how rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army has continued unabated since President Thein Sein began his 'reform' process.
There are legitimate reasons for women in Burma to be cautious. Under President Thein Sein, Burma has gained a reputation for making promises of reform, garnering international praise for doing so, and then not delivering on its promises. Recent examples of broken promises include the failure to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, , not delivering on the promise of allowing the opening of a UN human rights office, not stopping hate speech, and not ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
There is no single step that will end sexual violence by the Burmese Army, but one of the single most effective steps would be to end impunity. If soldiers or those who command soldiers know they will go to jail if they commit rape, that would be an effective initial deterrent. Suspected perpetrators of sexual violence should receive a fair trial, in line with international standards, and be sentenced.
If the Burmese government is serious about ending sexual violence in conflict, it should set a timeline for the implementation of practical steps, including ending impunity and holding perpetrators of sexual violence to account; supporting an independent investigation involving international expertise; amending the 2008 Constitution that condones sexual violence by guaranteeing impunity for past sexual crimes; ensuring full women's participation in peace negotiations as well as in political, social and economic development; repealing repressive laws against women, including making rape in marriage illegal; and allowing international support for civil society organisations, including women's organisations such as the Women's League of Burma, for their work in documenting cases of rape and providing support for victims of sexual violence.
There is no doubt that domestic and international pressure led to the Burmese government signing the declaration. Over the past 3 years, with numerous cases of rape and sexual violence by the Burmese Army since Thein Sein became President, there has been growing international attention on this issue.
Earlier this year, for the first time, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the government of Burma to fully investigate crimes of sexual violence, and work with the United Nations to protect and assist survivors. The British government has also discussed the sexual violence issue with the Burmese government on several occasions. There have also been numerous resolutions from the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and reports from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar/Burma.
Foreign Secretary William Hague deserves a lot of credit for helping to persuade the Burmese government to sign this declaration, but he should remember Thein Sein's broken promise on releasing all political prisoners by the end of last year, and keep up the pressure to make sure he keeps his word this time. Just because Burma signed the international declaration on sexual violence, it doesn't mean they will do anything about it. This is just a first step on a very long road. There is also still an urgent need for an international investigation into rape and sexual violence, to ensure an end to impunity and justice for women. Pressure must be maintained.