It’s been a difficult year for the human rights movement. This has been true especially in Washington, where the US government under President Donald Trump has largely abandoned advancing a global human rights agenda.
On Human Rights Day, December 10, however, part of the system worked. The US Treasury Department finally acted on repeated recommendations from human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and announced sanctions against senior commanders in the Myanmar military. The commanders are implicated in a slew of crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses, in particular against ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, committed since 2017. Those sanctioned include the commander-in-chief of the military, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and several commanders deployed in Rakhine. Abuses included mass forced deportations, mass arson, summary executions, systematic mass rape, and torture, resulting in the displacement of over 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.
The decision came only a day after another remarkable, unrelated decision to impose sanctions on the commander of the Cambodia military, Gen. Kun Kim. Kim is implicated in mass corruption and gross human rights abuses over his decades-long career in the Cambodian government, dating all the way back to his time as a Khmer Rouge official in the 1970s. (Sanctions were also announced on December 10 against officials from South Sudan, Pakistan, and other countries.)
Sanctions hit military officials where it hurts: their bank accounts. Myanmar and Cambodia security forces are never going to end their abuses, and their governments will never change their behavior, unless the costs of defying the international system are made too high to withstand. Under the sanctions announced today, commanders’ assets in their foreign bank accounts have been frozen or restricted from transfer within the international banking system.
If the European Union follows suit and works with the US to press other jurisdictions to crack down (including Singapore, the region’s banking center), soon the Myanmar and Cambodian security forces will find that their world is geographically and financially shrinking.
The sanctions also dovetail with other efforts to increase pressure on Myanmar. The decision on sanctions comes in the same week Myanmar appeared at a hearing before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to answer a complaint brought by Gambia under the Genocide Convention. The government is simultaneously facing a potential criminal investigation by the International Criminal Court.
There is a still a long way to go before the victims of the Myanmar’s military can obtain justice. But today there were some important steps forward.