On the heels of his return from a refugee camp in Turkey, Dr. Shah did a live interview on Friday, December 7th with Al Jazeera English about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Dr. Shah stressed the importance of international support for those affected by the crisis, which is why the U.S. has committed more than $200 million for displace people inside and outside of Syria. He also noted that humanitarian efforts are reaching about 1.5 million people with food, 400,000 families with winterization materials, 22,000 people with surgeries.
Archives for Humanitarian Assistance
This blog post coincides with USAID’s blog series on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence (GBV). GBV is a human rights and public health issue that limits individual and societal development with high human and economic costs. For more information about how USAID is combatting GBV, please visit our website.
This year has seen the continued prevalence of widespread and devastating gender-based attacks on women and girls around the world, from new outbreaks of sexual violence at the hands of a new militia entering the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the shooting of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, targeted for seeking educational opportunities for herself and other girls.
Such tragedies are examples of how far we have to go as a global community to ensure the safety and well-being of those vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Yet, the past 20 years have also seen remarkable progress in holding perpetrators of SGBV accountable on the international level.
Such violence is now recognized as conduct that can constitute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Indeed, the statutes governing international and internationalized criminal courts, including the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have all recognized that sexual and gender-based crimes are among the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
The ICC, in particular, has included the broadest number of sexual and gender based crimes within its jurisdiction, including not only rape but also sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and enforced sterilization, while also including a residual “sexual violence” clause intended to apply to serious sexual assaults that are of comparable gravity to those explicitly included.
These tools represent significant milestones in addressing SGBV but they are just that—tools. Without prosecutors and judges applying these tools to hold perpetrators accountable, and without pressure from activists to push the ICC and other institutions to continue making progress, too many sexual and gender-based attacks will continue to be under-investigated and inadequately prosecuted.
For instance, the sexual and gender-based crimes that SCSL prosecutors could have charged members of the Civilian Defence Force, a security force in Sierra Leone that fought against rebel groups during the conflict in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 1999, resulting in widespread atrocities committed against civilians, were not included in the indictment against the accused. The result was the exclusion of evidence of widespread rapes and sexual slavery from the trial and the silencing of victims present and willing to testify to the full range of harms they suffered.
Similarly at the ICC, the Prosecutor failed to add similar charges against Thomas Dyilo Lubanga, former Commander-in-Chief of a rebel group’s military wing who was convicted by the ICC of conscripting children under 15 years in armed conflict that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from 2002 to 2003. Despite evidence that members of Mr. Lubanga’s militia were responsible for acts of sexual violence against abducted girls, female child soldiers and other civilians, such acts were not included in the Prosecution’s charging document against the accused. In its final judgment, the Trial Chamber held that the Prosecution’s failure to include SGBV charges meant the Chamber could not make any findings of fact on the issue of sexual violence.
These are but two examples, out of many, in which the hard-won advances have become missed opportunities. Until the international community demonstrates that we care about these crimes and we expect accountability, SGBV victims will not have access to the level of justice they deserve.
For more information about the War Crimes Research Office, please visit our website.
Susana SáCouto is Director of the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) at the Washington College of Law (WCL), which promotes the development and enforcement of international criminal and humanitarian law.
Chanté Lasco is the WCRO’s Jurisprudence Collections Coordinator, managing the Gender Jurisprudence Collections, a unique research database tracking the treatment of SGBV in international criminal jurisprudence.
Today is Day 15 of our of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.
The science is clear – childhood experiences shape adult outcomes, including long-term health, cognitive development, academic achievement, and one’s ability to be gainfully and safely employed. Our experiences as children shape our lives as adults, affecting our ability to develop as healthy and productive individuals, families, communities and nations. One could say (with firm evidence as back up) that there is no sustainable development without sincere and sustained commitment to child development.
In the same way, our notions about what it means to be a female or male are imprinted in our brains early in development. Formative experiences – such as how our parents behave with one another and what caretaking and economic roles our mothers and fathers assume—influence our “normative gender expectations”.
If we are serious about change – really breaking through cycles of poverty and gender inequality– we must start early. Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, has demonstrated that investments in young children produce much greater dividends than those made later in life. These physiological and economic arguments reinforce an even stronger moral imperative.
Evidence shows that violence against and exploitation of children and women – which often occur together and share common risk factors – can be prevented. Children who witness violence are significantly more at risk of health problems, anxiety disorders, poor school performance and violent behavior. Women who experience violence are less likely to earn a living and less able to care for their children.
Those who face violence face significant threats to their survival and well-being, as well as profound life cycle risks that have an impact on human, social and economic development. And the cycle of violence, exploitation, and abuse repeats itself, compromising the lives of children, women and families, and hindering the growth and productivity of communities. The cycle also contributes to abuse as a normative gender expectation for males and females alike. Until this cycle is broken—intentionally, strategically and early on, poverty, inequality and inhumanity will persist.
In the same way that public health efforts have prevented and reduced pregnancy-related complications, infant mortality, infectious diseases and illnesses, so can the factors that contribute to violent and abusive responses – attitudes, behavior and social, economic, political and cultural conditions –be changed.
In a few days, the U.S. Government will release an Action Plan on Children in Adversity, the first-ever government-wide strategic guidance for international assistance for children. The goal is to take strategic action to ensure that children grow up within protective family care and free from deprivation, exploitation and danger.
The Action Plan identifies programs that work and that can be taken to scale. It demonstrates that we can measure impact and affect change. It builds on existing efforts that allow children to not only survive, but thrive – honoring children’s rights to strong beginnings, protective and loving family care, and protection from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. These objectives are central to U.S. development and diplomatic efforts and, as a result of the Action Plan, will be integrated into our international assistance initiatives.
We know what needs to be done. Let’s get to it!
Today is Day 13 of our 16 Days Against Gender Activism.
Uzbekistan is at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. For centuries, people traveled across the country to exchange goods and share news. In today’s world, Uzbekistan’s strategic location has made its women prime targets for human trafficking to the Middle East and Russia.
I wanted to see firsthand how USAID is supporting services for female victims of trafficking on the modern Silk Road, so I visited the NGO Istikbolli Avlod(“Future Generation”), which is part of a small USAID-supported network of NGOs that work around the clock to help trafficked women return to Uzbekistan, get new passports, recover from their experiences and start their lives again.
Istikbolli Avlod has established connections in 10 cities across the country and operates a resource hotline for victims of human trafficking or domestic violence. In Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, this hotline receives more than 100 calls a month.
The national impact of this work is evident in the stories of more than 800 human trafficking victims who have been helped by Istikbolli Avlod.
I had the opportunity to meet some of these women during my recent visit to the NGO. Lina (full name withheld), a young brunette with a quiet disposition, had already lived through a great amount of personal tragedy before her 21st birthday. At age 18, Lina was trafficked by her teacher and made to work in the United Arab Emirates. She tried unsuccessfully to escape. When she finally made it back to Uzbekistan, she had little hope for her future. Istikbolli Avlod changed that. She learned life skills, such as baking, sewing and money management. She received the emotional help she needed and was able to start her life over. Now, Lina volunteers her time to help other women who face similar situations.
The leaders of Istikbolli Avlod noted that the government’s attitudes about trafficking have undergone a sea change. Five years ago, when this network of NGO leaders started working together, the Uzbekistan government didn’t take combating human trafficking seriously. However, “Now,” they said, “police will call us and ask us for help, and will refer women in trouble to us. We are working much more closely with the government to change laws and assist citizens in returning to a normal life here.”
Going forward, one key to tackling the challenge of human trafficking in Uzbekistan will be coordination among the many and growing number of NGOs working on this issue. To address this, a network of 43 women’s rights NGOs throughout the country is being established to share experiences and advice on how to strengthen their organizations and meet community needs. They are training each other in best practices for running an NGO and are making joint plans to avoid a redundancy of services. This is a truly impressive group of women who have woven together a strong and sustainable network to help women like Lina, who have nowhere else to turn.
Whenever I’m asked to describe the scale of the hunger crisis in the Sahel, I see Moussa’s face.
I met him in August during a trip to Mali when he was two months old, but he was so small and frail that I worried he would die in my arms. That day, Moussa’s mother rushed him to an emergency clinic where he received medicine and treatment for malnutrition, and he improved within days. What’s shocking about this story is not how narrowly this little boy escaped death—but that he was one of the lucky ones.
This year, more than 18 million people, including millions of children, struggled during a hunger crisis in the Sahel for the fourth time in a decade. Too many children struggle repeatedly because families don’t have the resources to recover from previous crises, restore their livelihoods or build savings in preparation for the next crisis. Families and communities must be resilient so they can cope with the shock of a crisis and help their kids survive and thrive, even in challenging times.
Last week in Vietnam, I saw the flip side of drought—how too much water causes flooding and landslides that turn poor children’s lives upside-down. With the long-term impact of climate change looming on the horizon, we must sustainably reduce families’ vulnerability to these and other hazards that threaten their ability to bounce back.
We will never be able to stop shocks from happening, but we can give families the tools they need to protect children in the short- and long-term. To do this, we must tackle the root of the problem by developing resilience in chronically vulnerable areas when a crisis is not at hand. In parallel, we must increase the capacity of all levels of society—household, community and national—to cope when disaster strikes.
USAID’s new policy and program guidance (PDF), “Building Resilience to Recurrent Crisis,“ is an important step in helping families in vulnerable settings build pathways to a brighter future. This policy will enable USAID and partners—including Save the Children—to better coordinate emergency response and development assistance, decreasing the need for repeated assistance in the same affected areas while increasing families’ ability to face and overcome future crises.
Recently, USAID has impressively reorganized itself to meet the challenges of resilience, including forming country-led strategies, learning agendas and joint planning—all of which will help create a more hopeful future for children. We encourage the U.S. government to continue its leadership role in the Global Alliance for Action for Drought Resilience and Growth and the Champions for Resilience, and invite others in the development community to join in this opportunity for families.
A child’s future shouldn’t depend on luck. For every Moussa who received care just in time, there are countless others who did not. We can’t reach every child when a crisis hits. But we can give parents and communities the tools they need to help kids weather the storm, stay safe and healthy, and build a better future for the next generation.
Over the last month, we have watched communities along the New York and New Jersey coastline begin to rebuild from the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy. It is a reminder that we are all vulnerable to natural disasters that can happen at any time. How communities survive and recover from these shocks depends very much on their resilience – their ability to cope and their systems for preparing, responding and rebuilding. In the United States, these systems are already in place and, for the most part, function well. This is not the case in many low-income countries.
Year after year, we see poor communities in developing countries deal with the effects of floods and droughts. Many of these weather-related problems are predictable, and so is the recurring “hunger season”—the period before the main harvest is ready—in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. All of these cause a great deal of suffering, including severe malnutrition which threatens the lives of the most vulnerable. In fragile states, vulnerability to shocks is even higher. Each year, humanitarian agencies mobilize relief efforts to save lives. Once the crisis is over, we go back to business as usual.
It shouldn’t be this way. People in the affected communities know all too well that every year the rainy season or monsoon cuts off their contact with nearby towns, or that every year the dry season leaves many families without access to enough food. With the right support, countries and local communities can build systems and develop responses that help people get through these difficult seasons. This way, they are not stuck in the powerless position of hoping, year after year, that emergency assistance will arrive in time.
In 2007 and 2008, many millions of poor people suffered because of a dramatic rise in global food prices, particularly for basic grains such as rice and wheat. They had no control over the causes of the price hikes, and they had very few coping mechanisms. Poor families spend a large percentage of their income on food, so when prices soared, they had to cut back on more nutritious foods, eat fewer meals, and go without other basic needs such as health care. The World Bank estimated that the food price crisis pushed more than 100 million people deeper into poverty.
The crisis served as a wake-up call — it risked reversing the tremendous progress the world had made in reducing extreme poverty and hunger. In fact, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), progress against hunger stalled due to high and volatile food prices.
As a result, there has been a greater focus on the concept of resilience since 2008. It is very important that USAID now has its first policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience. Through Feed the Future and Food for Peace, USAID has already acted on important components of such an undertaking, with the focus on reducing malnutrition in the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2 and helping smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods and diversify diets in their families and communities. Social safety nets are also essential. With dramatic weather events and food price volatility only likely to continue and intensify due to climate change, the need to build resilience has never been greater.
Since 2000, it is estimated that floods, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural hazards have cost the world more than $1 trillion. These disasters have triggered significant social, ecological and economic devastation well beyond their immediate points of impact. As the President of Oxfam America, a humanitarian relief and development organization, I am often asked which characteristics makes one community more resilient than another and what can communities do to better prepare for natural disasters?
Under Administrator Raj Shah’s leadership, USAID has been trying to answer these questions and today released its first ever policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience to recurrent crisis. This guidance should be considered a breakthrough, and Oxfam congratulates USAID on a very thoughtful framework to saving lives and creating conditions where families and communities can prosper. The guidance outlines a real commitment to link short-term humanitarian response interventions with longer-term development programming by creating joint planning cells that work comprehensively to address both humanitarian and development needs in close coordination. This is not an easy undertaking. Oxfam, too, is trying to do a better job at linking humanitarian and development programming in countries where we work.
For me, what makes some more resilient than others comes down to people’s rights. The question is: rights – who has them, who doesn’t and why? Risks and vulnerabilities are never equitably distributed: poor men and women are more vulnerable because of the structure of their societies and economies. Lack of access to economic assets, essential natural resources, or to political power translates into greater risk and vulnerability when crises hit. That is why it is essential that when we talk about resilience, we must also talk about issues of rights and equity and how they contribute to resiliency. As USAID goes about implementing its new guidance throughout the world, this interrelationship should be at the core of the new framework.
As an example of how resilience, rights and equity relates in El Salvador, located in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to natural disaster, Oxfam has been part of disaster risk reduction programs in which community organizations have not only led projects to prepare communities to evacuate, but have also taken measures to reduce the chance of floods. Those same groups have helped bring about the enactment of civil protection laws, which has subsequently enhanced government investment, in risk reduction infrastructure for communities where it is needed most.
The new USAID guidance comes at a critical juncture when the world is looking more deeply than ever at how to assist people and their societies withstand and recover from a growing number of natural disasters. In many cases, national governments and the poorest and most marginal communities already have found ways to increase their resilience, and we should be doing more to enhance their capacity to prepare for and respond to crises. We would be remiss to not only support local capacity but to ensure communities’ successful approaches and methods to weather disasters are at the heart of our operational principles.
The global “resilience” agenda is exciting – and overdue. The idea that aid should invest not just in responding to crises, but also in preventing, mitigating, and helping people adapt to them, has been around for a long time. Yet for too long, the global aid architecture has been stuck with a basic split between relief and development camps. The relief side responds to the effects of major shocks (droughts, wars, economic calamity, etc.) but has struggled to address why so many people are so vulnerable in the first place. The development side has in turn steered clear of shock-prone populations and focused most of its resources on (relatively) safe and stable populations.
Dating back at least to the early nineties there have been repeated – failed – attempts to move past this divide and find ways to apply developmental tools to chronic humanitarian problems. We have seen some incremental improvements – practices like using cash and vouchers to work within local markets during a humanitarian response – rather than destroying those markets with floods of free imported commodities. But the global aid system at large still retains the relief-development split – in targeting, practices, architecture and funding streams.
So resilience is exciting not because it is a fundamentally new idea – it is not – but because where past efforts to move the global aid architecture past the relief-development divide have failed, the global resilience agenda frames this idea in a way that is compelling – to donors, aid providers, and critically, to the governments and citizens of at-risk countries.
But this exciting agenda remains tenuous, and realizing its potential will be hard work. Resilience transcends many of the basic organizing principles that have long characterized the relief and development worlds; it challenges all of us to make major changes to how we do business. Major reform of entrenched systems, practices and norms is never easy. This new USAID policy on resilience represents a very important starting point for tackling that challenge.
The policy gets some important things right. In Mercy Corps’ experience, interventions that build resilience have to be highly flexible and closely tailored to the specific context that they target. It is good to see USAID affirm that resilience interventions must bring together activities that have traditionally operated in silos – economic development and livelihoods, natural resource management, water and sanitation, health and nutrition, conflict mitigation, governance, risk reduction, and so on. The policy’s focus on joint planning and design of programs across different parts of USAID “turf” is a big step forward, as is the mandate that USAID’s country planning processes must consistently build in a focus on resilience.
At the same time, talking is easier than doing. This policy is a strong step forward but it does not – at least not yet – guarantee a major shift in USAID’s own practices, structures and systems, which still largely reflect the basic relief-development divide. This policy takes an approach of working within the existing USAID architecture, rather than seeking to alter it. This is an easier lift – but will it be enough? The policy notes that leadership within the agency will be critical to pushing through roadblocks and ensuring that entrenched habits evolve. And the current leadership of the agency deserves tremendous credit for having done just that with the responses in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But as with any government agency, leadership will eventually change and priorities will change with it. The major test for this policy – as for the global resilience agenda more broadly – will be whether it will have staying power to remain relevant even after the current buzz around resilience subsides.
Disasters impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world every year. Half of those affected are children, who often bear the biggest brunt of humanitarian crises. Nowhere have we seen this more clearly than in the wake of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. As a result of the disaster, hundreds of thousands of children lost a parent, caregiver or other family members. They lost access to essential services and resources including food, water, shelter, education and health care. Children who were separated from their families– orphaned or disabled– and those living and working as domestic servants were particularly vulnerable. Many more were exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect.
This devastating event hammered home the need to provide children with timely and appropriate protection, care, and support when they need it the most. The need for child protection was clear in Haiti, and yet, despite the best of intentions and a wealth of resources, emergency child protection interventions were slow to start and inadequate for the scale of the problems. In reviewing what happened in Haiti, USAID and our global partners identified a need to advance our efforts for children in emergencies.
USAID is leading the charge in this effort by supporting the launch of the new Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. These standards were developed by the Child Protection Working Group in response to the hard lessons we learned in Haiti. Specifically, these standards strive to strengthen coordination, increase accountability, improve the quality of protection programs, and enable better communication on issues involving children. These standards provide a common approach to the protection of children for the entire humanitarian community across sectors. Over the next few years, frontline humanitarian personnel will receive training on these new standards, and organizations will develop strategies to translate them into life-saving assistance on the ground.
While the standards are oriented to staff working in the field, I believe they also provide donors and governments with new opportunities to promote stronger child protection interventions especially in times of crisis. These new standards also compliment the commitments made in the soon-to-be released U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. This plan emphasizes the need for the entire government to work together to ensure quality, coordinated, evidence-based programs to protect children. The U.S. Government is fully committed to seizing the opportunities presented through the release of these standards.
I had the opportunity to attend the launch of the minimum standards earlier this month in Geneva. In the more than 30 years I have spent working in this field, I have witnessed first-hand the struggles children in Rwanda, Mozambique, Indonesia, Darfur, Haiti and elsewhere face in the wake of conflict and disaster. I am heartened to see how far we, the humanitarian community, have come in efforts to assist these children, and the promise and hope these standards give us all to do even more going forward.
Dr. Neil Boothby is the U.S. Government Special Advisor and Senior Coordinator to the USAID Administrator on Children in Adversity
This post originally appeared on The White House Blog.
Yesterday’s announcement that President Obama will become the first U.S. President to visit Burma marks an historic step in the United States’ engagement with Burma. In the past year, since President Obama first noted “flickers of progress” in Burma – and since Secretary Clinton became the most senior U.S. official to visit since 1955 – we have seen continued progress on the road to democracy. Several opposition political parties have been permitted to register legally for the first time and their members – including Aung San Suu Kyi – have been elected to parliament. Restrictions on the press have been eased. Legislation has been enacted to expand the rights of workers to form labor unions, and to outlaw forced labor. The government has signed an action plan aimed at ridding its army of child soldiers; it has pledged to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to help ensure that Burma’s natural wealth is not squandered to corruption, and it has announced fragile ceasefires in several longstanding ethnic conflicts.
Seeing these signs of progress, we have responded in kind, with specific steps to recognize the government’s efforts and encourage further reform. We have eased sanctions, appointed our first ambassador in 22 years, and opened a USAID Mission. At the same time, we have also updated sanctions authorities that allow us to target those who interfere with the peace process or the transition to democracy, and we created a ground-breaking framework for responsible investment from the United States that encourages transparency and oversight.
We are clear-eyed about the challenges that Burma faces. The peril faced by the stateless Rohingya population in Rakhine State is particularly urgent, and we have joined the international community in expressing deep concern about recent violence that has left hundreds dead, displaced over 110,000, and destroyed thousands of homes. There is much work to be done to foster peace and reconciliation in other ethnic conflicts, develop the justice sector, and cultivate the free press and robust civil society that are the checks and balances needed in any stable democracy. But we also see an historic opportunity both to help Burma lock in the progress that it has made so far — so that it becomes irreversible — and to meet the many challenges in front of it. In May 2011, as the Arab Spring took hold, the President noted that America’s interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures. And to governments, the President made a promise: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.
Last month, as part of our effort to fulfill that promise, the Obama administration held the first-ever official bilateral dialogue on human rights with the Government of Burma. Led by Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor, the purpose was to initiate a new channel between our two countries to discuss challenges ahead – a high-level exchange on urgent and delicate issues that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Our delegation included not only Posner, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, and other State Department officials, but also senior officials from the White House, the Vice President’s office, USAID, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense, including both civilian officials and uniformed military. The delegation included experts on labor rights and economic development, rule of law and political reform, ethnic conflict and reconciliation, land-mine removal and criminal justice. Our hosts included senior advisors to President Thein Sein and ministers and senior officials from across the Burmese government and military. Aung San Suu Kyi attended in her capacity as a member of parliament and the chair of a new legislative committee on the rule of law.
Before the official dialogue began, the U.S. delegation spent three days in Rangoon meeting with former political prisoners, ethnic minority leaders, labor advocates, LGBT organizations (who said that this was the first time any government had ever invited them to meet together), and other members of Burma’s nascent civil society. When we sat down for our official dialogue in Naypyidaw, we were able to convey the concerns raised in these meetings to our counterparts, and also stress the importance of their building an inclusive reform dialogue that will seek input from Burmese civil society.
The U.S. government engages with many countries around the world in official dialogues on human rights. While these discussions are often a useful forum for diplomacy, it is fair to say that these conversations can sometimes be stilted, characterized by predictable presentations rather than a spontaneous back-and-forth in which uncertainty can be expressed. The U.S.-Burma dialogue was unusually high-energy and candid.
We both recognized the need to empower reformers in and out of government, protect against backsliding, and ensure the broader Burmese public feels the changes afoot. One of the most challenging aspects of reform is enlisting the country’s military, which governed the country through authoritarian rule for five decades. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski drew on his own experiences to make a powerful case to senior officials from the Burmese Defense Ministry that national security is helped rather than hindered by transparency and independent monitoring, and by compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights law. The discussions, which emphasized areas where commitments to reform are necessary – including on child soldiers, forced labor, and in conflict areas – underscored that the gradual process of normalizing our military-to-military relationship will hinge on progress on human rights.
Many of the issues that we discussed in detail will likely feature in the President’s upcoming trip to Burma. These included:
- Prisoners of conscience. The release of more than 700 political prisoners in the last year has been unprecedented. But as Secretary Clinton has made clear, for the United States, even one prisoner of conscience is too many, and the State Department has passed along a list of those we are concerned remain imprisoned. In addition, as one ex-prisoner put it, “we have been released, but we are not free.” The released prisoners have a huge amount to offer a democratic Burma, but, as we noted, the government will need to lift outstanding travel and other restrictions in order for them to participate fully in society.
- Political reforms. Reforms have begun to change the political landscape, particularly as parliament has become more inclusive, and as representatives are increasingly answerable to their constituents. But efforts to build civil society, make government ministries responsive to the public, and create a more inclusive political process have just begun. In particular, the central government needs to tackle the challenge of ensuring that any reforms that are made by the parliament and central government are felt at the local level and especially in Burma’s border areas where the majority of the country’s ethnic minorities reside.
- Rule of law. The parliament and the executive branch have tackled part of an ambitious agenda for remaking Burma’s law and legal institutions. But the judicial branch remains the least developed of Burma’s political institutions. Judicial reform, repealing outdated and restrictive laws, educating citizens of their rights, creating a vibrant civil society to protect those rights, and remaking the legal system and the legal profession all are required to lay the foundation of rule of law in Burma, and all have a long way to go.
- Peace and reconciliation. The challenge of ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence – including in Shan State, Kachin State, and Rakhine State – remains an area of deep and ongoing concern. If left unaddressed, it will undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability, and lasting peace. Serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children. Humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons remains a serious challenge and on-going crisis. The government and the ethnic nationalities need to work together urgently to find a path to lasting peace that addresses minority rights, deals with differences through dialogue not violence, heals the wounds of the past, and carries reforms forward. The situation in Rakhine State and the recent violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims last week only underscores the critical urgency of ensuring the safety and security of all individuals in the area, investigating all reports of violence and bringing those responsible to justice, according citizenship and full rights to the Rohingya, and bringing about economic opportunity for all local populations.
Ultimately, Burma’s reforms will succeed or fail based on the efforts of the Burmese people themselves. President Obama’s policy approach has been to support reform and those championing it – an investment in Burma’s future that the President will personally reinforce later this month in Rangoon. Behind this investment is a commitment to helping the Burmese people see the promise that lasting reform holds for their country. As they take charge of their destiny, the American people stand ready to help.
Samantha Power is the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council