In Myanmar there will be no democratic transition without women

Sara Davies and Jacqui True

Republished from original APPS Policy Forum post

In Yangon, Myanmar, there is a remarkable coming together of women.

From the urban sprawl of Yangon to the rural countryside, the border internal displacement camps and the conflict zones inside Myanmar, women are meeting to discuss the new National Prevention of Violence Against Women (NPVAW) law.

For the first time, there is dialogue between the state and civil society around the law. This is also the first bill to have civil society engagement in the drafting process.

It’s just one example of how women’s organisations in Myanmar have been and remain major actors in pushing for a peaceful and democratic state.

The degree to which women can express their political interests and human rights is a major indicator of democratic transition. It’s therefore revealing that at the moment, parliamentary representation of women in Myanmar is 4.6 per cent.

There is only one woman in a senior ministerial position (Myat Myat Ohn Khin of the Ministry of Social Welfare) and no women are in the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (there are, however, women in the numerous ‘backroom’ committees that support the ceasefire talks).

Yet, there is an impressive array of women’s activism across Myanmar’s seven states and regions.

During a recent research trip, we spoke to women representing different ethnic and political groups raising money for victims of this year’s devastating floods in Mandalay region.

Some of these women once worked for the government and are now working in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs – seeking to break through stigma about drug addiction, prostitution and trafficking.  Others have worked with migrant workers and human rights education at the Thai-Myanmar border and returned to Yangon after 2010.

Image by PROrichard evea on Flickr.

All of these women talked about the importance of an inclusive political process that addresses gender inequality in Myanmar’s social, economic and political structures.

Women’s civil society organisations continue to be the key campaigners for human rights awareness in Myanmar, often at great personal risk.  These groups are making visible incidences of violence against women (intimate partner violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment) to highlight to the state and international organisations the need for services and laws, to address impunity.

They have also been contributing to discussions on free and fair elections on November 8, on the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), and the passage of bills that affect the right to equality and non-discrimination under Myanmar law, particularly the four controversial marriage and populations laws.

It is hoped these efforts by local women advocates, human rights defenders and community activists will assist a peaceful transition to democracy.

There remain, however, many tensions and grievances.  Myanmar is in a rapid state of transformation, and there are three developments in the next six months that will be crucial for Myanmar to progress as a stable and unified democratic state: the NCA, the November Parliamentary elections and the Presidential appointment in March 2016.

Each is tremendously significant in a situation where grievances could easily surface.  We heard three major sets of grievances during our visit: the failure to address past (and present) issues relating to human rights violations; deepening social and economic inequalities; and the need for public services in an environment of continual crises that include both seasonal and natural disasters, as well as myriad armed conflicts.

Past (and present) grievances

Currently, military immunity affects impunity for all forms of violence against women perpetrated by non-military, armed and non-armed perpetrators. It is concerning, however, that sexual violence in armed conflict may be taken out of the National Prevention of Violence Against Women (NPVAW) legislation before Parliament.

After 18 months of consultation and more than a decade of reports of widespread and systematic sexual violence in conflict areas, this law had the potential to build trust between civil society and government. It is a disappointment and short sighted to take this issue off the agenda.

Military rape is the tip of the iceberg of sexual and gender-based violence in Myanmar. Failure of the state to address it within their military and police permits non-state armed groups to do the same. This failure also raises the concern that immunity for past and present crimes of conflict-related sexual violence by Tatmadaw and non-state armed groups may also be in the outcome of the National Ceasefire Agreement.

Above all, immunity facilitates the perpetration of structural inequalities in the transitional, post-conflict state where any violence against women and girls is acceptable precisely because it is reinforced under state law.

Where will this lack of justice leave women and girls, those most affected by these crimes?

With more international pressure, there is the chance for turning this around both within the ceasefire process and the political processes that will follow.  The UN Secretary-General Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict statement to the Security Council on addressing the culture of impunity for sexual violence in security sector reform did not include Myanmar, but must do so in future statements.

Image by Mark Fischer on Flickr.

Ongoing inequalities

The population control and marriage bills passed by Parliament earlier this year not only exacerbate ethnic divisions; they dramatically highlight how women and women’s bodies are viewed in Myanmar.

The ethnic divisions within the country, fuelled by the prevalence of poverty especially in Chin and Rakhine states, has perpetuated the identity of women as birthing vessels for the reproduction of ethnic groups.

Women are either enemies of the state because they give birth to unwanted populations or they are allies because they may continue the line of ‘Myanmar’ children or in some cases, furthering the population for non-state armed groups’ struggles.

In Myanmar, this ‘politics of the womb’ explains why decades of sexual and gender based violence has been part of the pattern of political violence: for minority women, their ethnic, religious or political affiliation is exacerbated by their subordinate gender status.

Laws that perpetuate this status are a danger not only for addressing the long term structural inequality of women, but also because they place women at high risk of sexual and gender-based violence in conflicts as has already been seen in Myanmar.

Continuation of crisis

Finally, much capacity has been built in Myanmar around responses to disasters and conflict. But what is most clear when talking to the women organising relief and advocacy is that the government has a role in assisting the country’s transition from a culture of crisis.

There is much discussion about service provision in the states and regions.  The prospect of more internally displaced persons returning to their homes and lands, particularly if the ceasefire negotiations take place, coupled with a rise in land-grabbing practices to make way for mines and other state and foreign investment developments, provide numerous new risks for political grievances.

Under Myanmar law, women should have equal rights to land ownership and land inheritance, but in practice they are often denied these rights due to local customs that privilege male lineage over women.

Nor is there opportunity for women to seek support where most township administrations are dominated by men, and in some cases, Myanmar state military.

This is just one example of how women’s equal social, economic and political status is constrained across Myanmar. But, it also highlights women’s particular vulnerability in situations of conflict and natural disaster.

Addressing gender equitable service provision in the rural and urban locations of Myanmar requires international support to ensure that policy frameworks and service delivery enable women’s participation and empowerment.

The most pressing risk in the next six months is that women’s rights and participation may be sacrificed to group rights and group participation in order to achieve security and political stability.

Image by Adam Jones on Flickr.

We see three major events and narratives that require government and international attention to ensure women’s rights and equal representation, before the law and in practice, are not subordinated.

Firstly,  there is an obvious need for the NCA to enable free and fair elections to progress the democratic transition. But there is a need to also address and include past crimes and rights violations for moving forward in communities.

Secondly, the November election; the campaign for representation often requires and depends upon ethnic group solidarity and struggle. But will appealing to this base be transformative? And will ethnic-based organisations enable representatives to address women’s interests and concerns?

Finally, climate affects the protraction and scale of conflict. The ceasefire must be negotiated before the dry season, when fighting will resume. Cyclone Nargis opened Myanmar up to the world; can the state continue to view climate as an enabler for peace and develop the capacity to support, enable and protect all populations by becoming the source of humanitarian and social welfare?

The international community has the framework in place for assisting the Myanmar state with becoming a responsible sovereign for all of its population.   The ceasefire agreement and the democratic elections will provide the state with the mandate to achieve this.

Imagine if Myanmar became the pilot case for implementing the new, soon to be ratified, post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and sought to realise these mutually reinforcing goals:  ending violence against women; promoting social inclusion by reducing inequalities; creating a sustainable natural environment; and bringing peace and reconciliation to all groups in Myanmar.

The opportunity is wide open for Myanmar to broker peace and continue the unfinished journey to democracy.

Leveraging the Women, Peace and Security Plan

Anna Powles and Jacqui True

This year New Zealand will become the 49th country to adopt a National Action Plan (NAP) on women, peace and security. This is fifteen years after the adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 and eleven years after Kofi Annan’s call for member states to develop NAPs. New Zealand has a rich history of advancing women’s rights as the first country to give women the vote and is ranked thirteenth out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Index. But the development of a women, peace and security NAP has waited until the achievement of a non-permanent seat on the UNSC. This timing could be fortuitous. During its two-year term in New York, New Zealand has a crucial opportunity to advance UNSCR 1325 issues at the international level.

New Zealand’s draft NAP was released in May 2015. It focuses on five areas: (1) ensuring women’s involvement in decision-making within conflict and post-conflict situations; (2) promoting New Zealand women as mediators and negotiators in international forums; (3) increasing the number of New Zealand women deployed in police and military roles in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions; (4) ensuring that gender analysis informs NZ’s peace support responses, and development assistance to conflict-affected countries; and (5) promoting efforts to combat sexual violence, intimate partner violence and violence against women in conflict affected countries where New Zealand has a development programme or post.

So how does New Zealand’s proposed NAP measure up?

First, with respect to focus areas 2 and 3 it is important to examine the extent to which New Zealand can strengthen its capacity and capabilities to meet its commitments to UNSCR 1325. New Zealand’s overall contribution to UN peacekeeping is minimal and currently stands at 11 personnel out of more than 100,000 personnel from member states. Increasing the number of deployed female police officers and soldiers to reach the target of 18% on peacekeeping missions requires recruiting and retaining women within the police and defence force and ensuring their progression through to senior rank. Although there has been an increase in the number of female officers deploying with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in senior roles –  including a Lieutenant Colonel to the Chief UN Observer role in Lebanon, a Wing Commander as Senior National Officer in Dubai and a Colonel to Afghanistan – women in the NZDF continue to face the “armoured glass ceiling”, making up only 6% of officers in combat operations. In a 2012 Review, the NZ Police acknowledged the need for more women in senior police management and agreed to targets of 30% women in constabulary recruitment and 10% women total commissioned officers by 2017.

Second, in ensuring gender analysis informs NZ’s peace support activities in conflict-affected countries, New Zealand must examine the efficacy of the gender mainstreaming approach. Rather than deploying specialist gender experts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has focused on training NZ Police and MFAT programme staff to integrate gender dynamics analysis into intervention design and implementation. According to a 2013 evaluation of NZ policing in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, gender equality has not been built into country-level interventions, nor linked to partner country national gender and human rights processes. New Zealand has very limited capacity to pursue a gender mainstreaming agenda with just one gender equality advisor with no delegated authority or budget and no staff with specific responsibility for gender equality in any of the country missions.

Third, on the issue of how New Zealand can advance women, peace and security issues much more could be done to promote women’s inclusion in peace processes, including putting forward New Zealand women as potential UN mediators. Former NZ Permanent Representative, H.E. Jim McLay, actively contributed to the UNSC Open Debate in January stating: “it’s widely acknowledged that women have an important role to play as leaders and decision-makers in the prevention and resolution of conflict. But, while that’s recognised, it’s not something that’s consistently applied in practice.” Women have comprised only 4% of signatories, 2.4% of chief mediators, 3.7% of witnesses and 9% of negotiators between 1992-2011. With over half of all peace agreements failing within a decade, there is clear evidence that involving women expands the scope of agreements and improves the prospects for durable peace.

As the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective’s submission on New Zealand’s draft NAP recommends, New Zealand should organise an Arria Formula dialogue for Pacific women peacebuilders to have their work in the region highlighted and to generate best practices and lessons learned for other conflict-affected regions. At the UNSC, New Zealand could leverage its historical experience in supporting women peacebuilders and ensuring gender-sensitive policing/peacekeeping in the Pacific Islands. For example, in New Zealand’s peacekeeping experience in Bougainville the inclusion and influence of women at the earliest stages of the peace processes was recognised as essential to sustainable peace. By contrast, where peace negotiations were less inclusive of women in south and central Bougainville, the transition to peace was notably slower. Highlighting these examples of gender-sensitive peace talks would reinforce New Zealand’s commitment to the core principles of the Pacific Regional Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018.

New Zealand’s draft NAP contains some noteworthy strengths. It addresses the importance of recognising and resourcing women peacebuilders within early warning and conflict prevention. It also acknowledges a range of forms of Violence Against Women (VAW) that is exacerbated following conflict and natural disasters – especially those in fragile countries.

The NAP deserves a national conversation as well as buy-in and ownership across government agencies and in partnership with civil society. The formal adoption of New Zealand’s plan should be marked by a parliamentary debate on UNSCR 1325 and women, peace and security and what it means for New Zealand in the Pacific region.

Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University and Director of Women in International Security New Zealand (WIIS). She can be emailed

Jacqui True is a Professor of International Relations and Politics at Monash University and Co-Founder of the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective (WPSAC) and can be emailed at

This article was first published on the Incline website. Incline is a New Zealand-based project that publishes original analysis and commentary on issues and trends that impact New Zealand’s international relations.

R2P at 10: Continental Sovereignty

Challenges and Opportunities for Implementation in Africa

Author: Obinna Ifediora, UQ

SUDAN, Nyala: In a photograph made available by Albany Associates, newly arrived engineers from China serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) stand to attention after arriving in Nyala, South Darfur 17 July.

In recent times, global-regional cooperation on peace and security issues in Africa have come under serious strains, as the event in South Africa, last June, regarding the attempted arrest of Omar al-Bashir over allegations of genocide and war crimes in relation to the crisis in Darfur region, Sudan on ICC arrest warrant demonstrate. Analysts, academia, and commentators have sought to explain this widening dichotomy with the notions of ‘African Unity’ or ‘African Solidarity’ and still, on the basis of state-led policy of ‘Pan Africanism’. Instead, I present, in this blog, a different narrative to this stand-off of global liberal institutions/ideas and regional approaches, which are as a result of the African Union (AU) asserting its powers over continental Africa. For vivid illustration, I found the concept of responsibility to protect (RtoP) apposite. I argue that rather than seeking explanations to the disagreements on global-regional peace and security dynamics in Africa through state practices, the AU provides more effective analytical basis because AU now tends to exercise what I refer to as continental sovereignty over Africa. This exercise of power and authority over Africa is being reflected, for instance, in its relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Furthermore, recall that at the turn of the twenty-first century, one of the overarching commitments to improving global safety, security and development by world leaders was to strengthen cooperation by building effective multilateral institutions – the Millennium Declaration. My contention here is that it appears that the commitment has not received much political and diplomatic attention, and hence, the global-regional frictions we are witnessing today.

As civil society groups and academia take stock and reflect on the implementation of RtoP – a concept endorsed by world leaders in 2005 World Summit where they committed to, among other things, the prevention of genocide, war crimes, crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing – there is little to be hopeful about a concept that was introduced to address exactly the current situations in Sudan, Syria and Iraq. Proponents of the RtoP concept take comfort on the fact that RtoP language has gained prominence within the work of the UN Security Council. They defer to recognize RtoP as a ‘failure’; rather, they argue that states and the UN Security Council have failed to uphold their RtoP commitment to the people of Sudan, Syria and Iraq, and all other populations suffering from organized violence and egregious human rights abuses. Critics and sceptics riposte that the measure of success should be based on how many lives were saved; whether there are changes in the working method of UN Security Council, particularly regarding consensus and use of veto in RtoP situations. While the RtoP concept is not a ‘magic wand’ that will solve all of humanities problems in one fell swoop, its influence on global affairs has to be judged within the parameters of its original mandate – that is, to build global political consensus on issues of intervention for human protection (international peace and security) and sovereignty. The brutal truth is that RtoP, rather than fostering healthy multilateralism on the ‘doctrine for human protection operations’, it has effectively polarized the international community, even alienated regional and subregional partners, to such an extent its predecessor, ‘right of humanitarian intervention’, would envy.

According to Ban Ki-moon, fostering more effective global-regional collaboration is a key plank of the strategy for fulfilling the promise embodied in RtoP, in line with paragraph 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome document. Arguably, over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in joint activities between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council in the areas of peace and security in the African region. But this improved coordination between the two organs is yet to incorporate the RtoP concept because prior to the endorsement of RtoP in October 2005 World Summit, the AU had held its own Summit earlier in March 2005 where it adopted the ‘responsibility to protect’ as set out in the report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change: A more secure world; our shared responsibility. In the document that emerged from the AU Summit, now refers to as the ‘Ezulwini Consensus’ – that is, the common African position on the reform of the UN – the Union evinced RtoP through the lens of the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) conception based on ‘humanitarian intervention for human protection purpose’, and thus, itemized conditions for such operations. The key criterion for the Union’s embrace of RtoP is the reform of the UN Security Council, which it views as undemocratic and unrepresentative. In practical terms, the effect is that the AU has not recognized UN-led conception of RtoP as a working concept. Indeed, there has not been any further official statement or references to RtoP by the Union. Now, there is a tendency to conflate the position of the AU on RtoP and the positions of its constituent Members States, which may appear sympathetic to the October 2005 RtoP doctrine. I therefore argue that, for effective analyses of RtoP implementation in Africa, we need to always keep this distinction in perspective. This is not to say that AU abhors intervention for human protection purpose. Of course, the AU had pioneered a formulation of a legal basis for trumping sovereignty over human rights concerns. Accordingly, pursuant to Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the AU, the Union has the right to intervene in a Member State in grave circumstances, such as genocide and war crimes.

Moreover, the re-characterization of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ by, effectively, RtoP doctrine coheres with the finiteness of sovereign immunity of sitting Heads of State and Government in relations to individual international criminal responsibility, now codified in the Rome Statute that established the ICC. Although a good number of African states have acceded to the Rome Statute, the AU, as an entity, does not recognize the Court’s jurisdiction over serving Heads of State and Government, based, again, on its position on the reform of the UN Security Council. The problem here is that the Security Council has the authority to demand from the Court to defer proceedings against any accused person if it deems continuation of a trial detrimental to the maintenance of international peace and security. In this context, AU had persistently requested of the UN Security Council to exercise its deferral powers by concluding a resolution demanding that the Court suspend criminal proceedings against serving Heads of State and Government in Africa, including Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and William Ruto of Kenya to no success. In response, AU has asserted its sovereignty over continental Africa, referring to its mandate to protect Africa’s political independence and territorial integrity, as well as promoting and defending common African position on issues of interest to the continent and its people pursuant to Article 3 (b and d) of the Constitutive Act. The Union’s position, which appears similar to the powers of the UN Security Council under Article 16 of the Rome Statute, is that the search for justice should be pursued in a way that does not impede or jeopardize efforts aimed at promoting lasting peace. In the Assembly of the Union decision in January 2014, the AU reserves the right to take any measures that may be necessary in order to preserve and safeguard peace, security and stability, and dignity, sovereignty and integrity of the continent. In what may be considered a desperate measure in this regard, the Assembly of the Union in January 2015 reaffirmed the principle of customary international law by which serving Heads of State and other Senior Officials are granted immunities during their tenure in office, and based on this legal principle demanded from its Member States not to cooperate with the ICC and threatened to sanction erring Member States who fail to comply with the decision, consistent with Article 23(2) of the AU Constitutive Act.

The policy implications of the Union’s claim of continental sovereignty could have far-reaching consequences to the effort to fight impunity and protect populations from atrocity crimes. The recent event in South Africa concerning al-Bashir of Sudan is a clear indication of how much influence this notion of continental sovereignty is gaining in Africa. This is because South Africa has always been viewed as a model for the rest of African states in upholding the rule of law, promoting human rights and accountability. However, this trend can be corrected by greater coordination between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council in forging common policy for human protection. Moreover, more resources could be marshalled towards a Commission on comprehensive, rather than ‘a case-by-case’ global-regional cooperation on peace and security to improve on the work of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM). Furthermore, serious consideration should be given to the contents of the Ezulwini Consensus if the Union were to adopt the 2005 version of RtoP. For consideration, how agreeable, across relevant stakeholders, to the AU becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council as a continental sovereign? In other words, to represent the interest of African continent at the world’s supreme decision-making forum; this could help in building confidence on shared collective sense of security, challenges and responses in this twenty-first century. Additionally, Article 98 of the Rome Statute, which recognizes diplomatic immunity and the challenges the principle pose for states vis-à-vis cooperation with the Court provides a leeway for the Court to address some of the concerns highlighted by the AU and its Members regarding ‘hibernating’ criminal proceedings against sitting Heads of State and Government. It has to be said, however, that sovereignty, be it continental sovereignty, was and can never be absolute. Therefore, AU should be aware of the responsibilities such rights and privileges inherently imply. Above all, the task of the new principle and new approaches in this twenty-first century is to save human lives, and not to resurrect obsolete claims to abstract concepts, such as sovereignty. And perhaps, it is time the five permanent members of the UN Security Council came around to the new power balances of our time – we cannot save human lives by remaining entrenched in outdated power structure that practically serve no humane purpose; rather, it fosters global disunity to our shared insecurity.

Obinna is a PhD candidate at the Centre. His current research is looking at ‘The Bases of Implementing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) in Africa’. His areas of expertise include Human Security, International Humanitarian Law, and Public International Law.


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