Burma: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity


Text of remarks by Lord Alton of Liverpool at a Press Conference in Parliament on Thursday 23rd June 2005, organised by Jubilee Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

In 1998, the then UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, Mr. Rajsoomer Lallah QC, submitted a report to the U.N. General Assembly, entitled, “Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar” (reference: A/53/364). Paragraph 59 of the report reads, “The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations that continue to be committed by the armed forces in the ethnic minority areas. The violations include extrajudicial and arbitrary executions (not sparing women and children), rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or he acts of individual misbehaviour by middle- and lower – rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility. “

Jubilee Campaign agrees with this assessment and would go further to state that the Burmese regime and its subordinates, the Burmese military, is committing Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity against the Karen, Karenni and Shan people of Burma. This is simply a question of fact and law, whether the facts of the situation of these ethnic groups fit within the legal definitions under international law of Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. Jubilee Campaign believes the facts of the situation clearly fit within these legal definitions but notes with concern that governments and even some individuals and organisations have “muddied the waters” by denying this because of their lack of knowledge of the legal definitions and/or the facts of the situation and especially in the case of governments, because of political reasons and the lack of political will to deal more strongly with the Burmese regime.

The international legal definition of genocide is found in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Burma has in fact ratified this convention. The legal definition of genocide is given in Article 2 of the Convention, which reads:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

There are some points to note regarding the legal definition of genocide. First, genocide need NOT be an attempt to destroy an ENTIRE ethnic group. Just attempting to destroy PART of an ethnic group suffices. This is extremely important since a very common myth about the genocide definition is that it must target an entire group.

What is happening to the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma at minimum, falls within the scenarios given in the Article 2 genocide definition of a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. Only ONE of the five acts described in Article 2’s definition should apply to the situation in question in order for it to be considered genocide but in the case of Burma at least three of the scenarios apply.

Finally, there is no requirement in international law of a minimum number of fatalities for a situation to be defined as genocide.

What the Burmese military regime is doing to the Karen, Shan and Karenni people clearly fits within the international legal definition of genocide.  Article 3 of the Convention on Genocide states-

“The following acts shall be punishable:

a) Genocide;
b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
d) Attempt to commit genocide;
e) Complicity in genocide.”

Under international law, genocide is a very serious crime requiring an urgent global response.  Under Article 1 of the 1948 Genocide Convention, all State parties to the Convention “confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”

The British government is one of several governments who are parties to the Genocide Convention yet they refuse to recognise that Genocide is occurring against the Karen, Karenni and Shan and this is probably for political reasons. Denying Genocide is a common tactic used by governments to avoid having to take strong action to stop it. For example, this was done with devastating effect in the case of the Rwandan genocide, where an estimated 1 million people were massacred. Much evidence has since surfaced indicating that the international community, especially the West, was well aware that Genocide was occurring in Rwanda but resisted acknowledging this because of the legal obligation they would come under to take strong

measures, including possible military action, to stop the bloodshed.
The situation in Darfur also illustrates the failure to see genocide for what it is or to act accordingly. Those who don’t learn from history inevitably repeat it.

There are also repeated and deliberate violations of the laws of war by the Burmese military whose frequent and systematic violence against unarmed Karen, Karenni and Shan civilians amounts to a grave breach of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions which prohibits the killing of persons taking no active part in hostilities. This blatant, repeated and deliberate violation of the laws of war by the

SPDC clearly constitutes War Crimes.

Black’s Law dictionary’s definition of Crimes Against Humanity is as follows: –

Crimes Against Humanity- “A brutal crime that’s not an isolated incident but that involves large and systematic actions, often cloaked with official authority, and that shocks the conscience of humankind. Among the specific crimes that fall within this category are mass murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts perpetrated against a population, whether in wartime or not.”

The mass and systematic forced labour, forced portering (where the porters have to carry heavy loads for the Burmese army and are often killed if they’re too weak to continue – forced labour and forced portering are a form of slavery), forced relocations (where hundreds of villages have been destroyed and the villagers relocated to places under military control), rape and summary executions conducted by the Burmese military against the Karen, Karenni and Shan are just some of the actions of the SPDC which easily fit into the definition given above of Crimes Against Humanity.

Furthermore, in their report on Burma, the International Labour Organisation has rightly condemned the systematic and widespread use of slave labour as a “crime against humanity”.

For five years we have argued that genocide is being committed in Burma by the Junta and it is a disgrace that the international community have not accepted or acted on the evidence that is available.