To End Sexual Violence, British Government Can’t Avoid Elephant in the Room

By Zoya Phan 3 August 2015

Last week the British government arranged for Angelina Jolie to visit Burma, in part in her capacity as co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI). The British government certainly deserves praise for how it has taken up the issue globally, put it on the international agenda, and in some countries developed projects that are making a noticeable difference on the ground.

On the face of it, it looks like the UK is also doing good work in Burma. They persuaded Burma to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, have provided funding for sexual violence projects, invited women from Burma to last year’s global summit on sexual violence, and, as the Angelina Jolie visit demonstrates, are eager to raise awareness about this issue. For all of this, they deserve praise.

It is also apparent, however, that the British government are going to great lengths to avoid the elephant in the room: that the vast majority of incidents of sexual violence in conflict in Burma are perpetrated by the Burma Armed Forces.

When it launched the PSVI in 2012, the British government faced a real problem with Burma. Reports of sexual violence were increasing as a result of the military breaking ceasefires in Kachin and Shan States.

This is exactly the kind of situation that the PSVI was set up to take action on, but while these reports were emerging, the British government was embracing the Burmese government and country’s reform process. They were praising President Thein Sein, supporting the end of international sanctions and shifting their priorities from human rights to trade.

The British attempted to reconcile these contradictory positions by excluding Burma from the PSVI. After pressure from activists and the British Parliament, the government reluctantly included Burma in the initiative, and had to be further pressed to fund survivor and women’s organizations documenting sexual violence by the military.

Whether these funding commitments actually benefit survivors of military sexual violence is highly debatable. For instance, the government pointed to a legal project in Thai refugee camps to help survivors of sexual violence, but admitted after further questioning that the program was targeted to victims of domestic and other forms of violence, rather than tailored to the unique needs of victims of sexual violence in conflict.

Though they are linked, sexual violence in conflict situations and sexual violence in border society are different things, which is why the British government set up the PSVI in the first place. As former British Foreign Secretary William Hague said when launching the initiative, “The aim of PSVI is the eradication of rape as a weapon of war.”

If the British government is serious about meeting this aim, it must stop avoiding the fact that most sexual violence in conflict is being committed by the Burma Armed Forces. Instead, it refuses to support proposals to establish a UN Inquiry into sexual violence in conflict within Burma. In an attempt to rebuff criticism, they say that UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee has a mandate to report on sexual violence cases, but the truth is that she has no resources to conduct detailed investigations into these cases, and the British government does not provide her funds to do so.

When the British government offered to provide free training to the military—to the tune of $400,000 in funding—they set no preconditions before providing the training, such as ending the culture of impunity around sexual violence. The British government claimed that the training was about human rights, and then attempted to withhold details of the training from Burma Campaign UK. These details revealed that in the course of a sixty-hour training program, just one hour was dedicated to human rights.

In some countries, implementing the PSVI can be done in partnership with governments, but in other countries it is the governments that are the problem. This is the case in Burma, where the government’s forces are responsible for the vast majority of sexual violence in conflict.

When the British government persuaded the Burmese government to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, they were warned that without sustained and high level pressure, this would become yet another international commitment which the Burmese government would fail to honor. The British government ignored these warnings, and did virtually nothing to persuade the Burmese government to implement it. A year later, no steps have been taken to implement the Declaration.

It is welcome that Ms. Jolie’s visit will put the issue of sexual violence back on the agenda in Burma this week. It is an issue that receives scant attention from Burma’s government, political parties and civil society organizations, and the UK should be commended for helping to raise awareness.

Nonetheless, more needs to be done. If the British government is serious about ending instances of sexual violence in conflict, difficult choices will have to be made. A comprehensive commitment would require making it clear that future support to the government, training for the military, and good relations between Burma and the UK depends on concrete action to end the culture of impunity around sexual violence in the military. If the Burmese government refuses, the British government must honor the promise they made when they launched the PSVI, and use every available means, including international law, to help stop sexual violence by the Burma Armed Forces.

Zoya Phan is Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published under the title ‘Undaunted’ in the USA and ‘Little Daughter’ in the rest of the world. She has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.