Update: This document has been updated to reflect new sanctions measures taken by the UK government on February 18, 2021.
This questions-and-answers document provides detailed information about sanctions and other legal and diplomatic measures that have been or can be imposed on the Myanmar military and its leaders in response to the coup on February 1, 2021, as well as Human Rights Watch’s general position on sanctions. It explains how current or future sanctions on Myanmar could effectively be used, why they should be imposed, and how they might be relaxed, lifted, or tightened in the future. The document also offers other recommendations for addressing the Myanmar government’s human rights record.
Human Rights Watch supports the use of certain types of sanctions—including targeted sanctions and travel bans, and restrictions on military, trade, financial, economic, and other relations—as a means to condemn situations involving grave or widespread human rights abuses or humanitarian law violations, to assert pressure to end those abuses, to hold those responsible to account, and as a means to deter other parties from becoming complicit in abuses. The aim is to affect the actions of policymakers and perpetrators of abuses while minimizing negative effects on the general population.
As a general matter, Human Rights Watch believes that sanctions and other measures taken against abusive individuals and governments are most effective and legitimate when they are imposed multilaterally by groups of states. In cases where multilateral action is not feasible or not the most effective option, Human Rights Watch supports unilateral targeted sanctions.
Human Rights Watch supports arms embargoes and bans on security assistance to militaries or security forces implicated in serious human rights abuses or violations of the laws of war.
We support the use of targeted sanctions (also known as “smart sanctions”), which emphasize the need for individual accountability by focusing on and singling out those considered most responsible for committing serious human rights abuses, while minimizing negative impacts on a country’s population. Targeted sanctions may also deter other governments, foreign actors, companies, and others from committing or becoming complicit in the abuses being committed by the leadership of the sanctioned government.
We support targeted sanctions against persons or entities implicated in serious human rights violations, including the denial of the right to life; the right to security of the person, including freedom from torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention; the right to fundamental liberties, including free expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and the right to freely elect one’s government. We also support targeted sanctions against individuals responsible for war crimes and other grave international crimes. Typically, targeted sanctions entail freezing of assets, restrictions on travel, and prohibitions on other parties that stop them from conducting business with sanctioned persons, for instance, sending them assets or revenue, or providing goods or services, including credit or financial services.
In some instances, Human Rights Watch will support targeted sanctions on individuals, companies, banks, or other entities that deliberately violate or break multilaterally imposed sanctions, for instance, by providing significant revenues or financing to sanctioned actors or providing them with financial services on an ongoing basis (e.g., banks holding assets of sanctioned persons or entities).
Separate and independent of sanctions, Human Rights Watch supports governments enforcing anti-money laundering and anti-corruption measures. This is especially important in countries in which targeted sanctions are being imposed. Robust enforcement of such measures may include freezes of state assets (e.g., a county’s foreign currency reserves), where transactions or patterns of transactions indicate that funds are at risk of being looted or being withdrawn by sanctioned persons or entities.
Human Rights Watch in certain instances supports broader measures on systematically abusive governments focusing on trade, finance, and direct foreign investment. When supporting such restrictions, Human Rights Watch will seek action that will have the greatest impact on an abusive leadership, such as sanctions against an industry that is dominated by an abusive government or military from which substantial benefits are derived.
Suspensions of some trade privileges should not be considered sanctions. For instance, parts of Generalized System of Preferences regimes or the EU’s Everything But Arms program are conditioned on export countries’ human rights records. Accordingly, withdrawing those privileges for violations of human rights conditions amounts to the conditioning of a privilege, not a sanction.
Whenever measures are imposed, governments should ensure that they are compatible with international human rights law and tailored to have minimal negative humanitarian impact. In considering the imposition of sanctions, governments should assess their impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially vulnerable or marginalized groups. Of particular concern is their continued access to food, shelter, clothing, water, sanitation, and medical care. Having timely and accurate information about a particular country situation is critical to gauging the effectiveness and appropriateness of sanctions.
Sanctions should be tied to clear benchmarks and have clearly defined goals rooted in international human rights norms and standards which, if achieved, would trigger a lifting of sanctions. Open-ended and overly broad sanctions are more likely to have negative impacts on the humanitarian needs and enjoyment of human rights of the general population.
At the outset, Human Rights Watch is urging countries to immediately impose targeted economic sanctions, global travel bans, and asset freezes on:
- The leadership of the Myanmar military;
- All members of the cabinet and State Administrative Council (SAC) who are current or former officers in the Myanmar military;
- The military business conglomerates Myanmar Economic Holding Corporation (MEHL), Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), and these entities’ subsidiaries; and
- All directors and officers of these conglomerates and these entities’ subsidiaries who are former or current military officers.
Countries should also consider sanctions directed at the revenues from Myanmar’s oil and gas sector when it can be determined that payments are being transferred directly to the military or the persons or entities above.
We are calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a global arms embargo. (See below.) Until this happens, individual countries should impose new bans and tighten existing arms embargoes on a bilateral or regional basis. Measures should block the direct and indirect supply, sale, or transfer of all weapons, munitions, and other military-related equipment, including dual-use goods such as vehicles, communications, and surveillance equipment, as well as the provision of training, intelligence, and other military assistance. The arms embargo should be accompanied by robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.
Countries with existing arms embargoes on Myanmar should strengthen monitoring and enforcement of prohibitions on arms exports, as well as scrutiny on intermediaries, brokers, shell companies, and potentially illegitimate trans-shipment points that may be involved in diverting, reselling, or transferring items to Myanmar. These countries should call on Russia and China to cut their sales and assistance to Myanmar, as well as Ukraine, Turkey, and Israel.
Tougher enforcement should entail governments taking urgent steps to exercise greater oversight over export licensing in general to ensure arms are not illegally transferred.
In imposing sanctions, arms embargoes, or enforcing tighter financial controls, governments should work in coordination, targeting the leadership of the Myanmar military and the military-owned entities described above, while focusing on revenues that provide the military with the greatest revenues, such as the extractive sectors and in particular the oil and gas sector.
Governments should focus on stopping outside companies and banks from sending revenue directly to military leaders or military-owned companies. These efforts can be accomplished, for instance, by requiring companies to suspend operations in Myanmar or requiring companies and banks to hold revenues in escrow. Measures like these can be taken in accordance with sanctions enforcement laws, or under corruption or anti-money laundering laws, or both.
Sanctions are more effective when applied multilaterally. The UN Security Council should pass a resolution imposing the sanctions recommended above on an international basis, obligating all UN member states to enforce them. The council should also impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar.
Separately, the UN General Assembly can also endorse individual governments or regional organizations imposing unilateral sanctions on Myanmar’s military, something the General Assembly has done in the past (e.g., during South Africa during apartheid).
Imposition of targeted sanctions should be linked to specific behavior by the military and others sanctioned, who should be told that sanctions will be eased as key benchmarks are met. These benchmarks should include demands that the military leadership:
- Unconditionally release all individuals arbitrarily detained since February 1, 2021, including members of the democratically elected government at the national, state, and local levels, protesters, activists, journalists, and civil servants, among others.
- Dismiss all appointments of new ministry heads and chief administrative and state government officials made since February 1; allow previously serving officials to return to their posts; and allow the democratically elected government certified by the Union Electoral Commission to take their seats in parliament and form a government.
- Cease the use of the military in law enforcement operations, recognizing that even their presence can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Permit demonstrations and protests in accordance with international human rights standards, including prohibitions on the use of excessive force.
- Rescind all orders, decisions, and policies adopted by the National Security and Defense Committee and State Administrative Council since February 1 and declare that all revisions to Myanmar law since February 1 are null and void, including changes to the Penal Code, the Privacy and Security Law, and the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, providing authorities unfettered police powers.
Human Rights Watch supports tougher enforcement of corruption and money laundering laws in third countries where assets may be located.
We recommend that governments repeatedly issue public statements calling on Myanmar’s military leadership to restore democratic civilian rule, release political prisoners, and not commit further rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch urges governments to speak out publicly against the military’s coup and disregard of the Myanmar people’s right to choose their government and ensuing human rights abuses. Countries should warn Myanmar’s military leadership of the financial costs and legal liabilities of their actions. Governments should also shun Myanmar’s military leaders on the international stage, disinviting them from regional events or forums, clarifying that they will be relegated to “pariah status” until democracy is restored.
In addition, governments should explore all avenues for justice and accountability for grave international crimes committed by the military, including through domestic and international courts.
Governments should increase their support for civil society groups in Myanmar, especially those providing support to marginalized or vulnerable groups, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. Diplomatic staff should meet with groups, monitor protests and other events, and attend trials of individuals unjustly prosecuted.
Governments should also help ensure internet connectivity by expanding alternative internet services into Myanmar—for instance, by satellite linkups from embassies and other locations—and helping social media and international telecommunications and technology companies stand up to harassment by the junta.
Several countries already had limited sanctions imposed on Myanmar military leaders related to past atrocities against the Rohingya, and some have already placed new sanctions in reaction to the February 1 coup. (See next question.)
The US government had already sanctioned several military leaders—including the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing—for complicity in atrocities against the Rohingya. These measures were taken under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to sanction perpetrators of “gross human rights abuses,” and persons or entities who are complicit in those abuses.
On February 11, the United States imposed an expansive new sanctions regime on the leadership of the Myanmar military through an executive order by President Joe Biden and new sanctions designations by the US Treasury Department. Designations include Myanmar military leaders and the junta’s leadership—including Min Aung Hlaing again—and several gemstone companies directly owned by the military or military leaders.
Most of the above sanctions have been imposed by placing officials and entities on the US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, which prohibits any US person, company, or financial institution from engaging in business with the person listed and prohibits their travel to the United States. The SDN list in general is used by the US government to impose sanctions on actors around the world who are implicated in criminal activity, corruption, terrorism, or gross human rights abuses. SDN listings are often imposed either under relevant US laws, a country-specific statute, or an Executive Order issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 (IEEPA). SDN sanctions can also be imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act.
The February 11 Executive Order and Treasury Department designations were made under the IEEPA. Future sanctions related to the coup and human rights abuses related to it may be imposed under the IEEPA, the Global Magnitsky Act, or other authorities.
Separately, in the week before sanctions were imposed, the US State Department announced that all direct US financial assistance to the government of Myanmar would cease under provisions of US law known as “the coup clause,” which bars assistance to governments whose leaders have taken power by overthrowing a democratically elected government. US assistance to civil society groups and humanitarian assistance will continue. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced on February 11 that it was “immediately redirecting $42.4 million of assistance away from work that would have benefited the Government of Burma. Rather than supporting the military, we will redirect these funds to support and strengthen civil society.”
The US government was not previously given assistance to the Myanmar military. Prior to the coup, US law already provided several legal restrictions on direct assistance to the military, and prohibitions on the export of military or security equipment and training. These have been maintained over many years because of the military’s many past and ongoing human rights abuses, including against the Rohingya in Rakhine State and other ethnic minorities, particularly in Kachin and Shan States.
In addition to the sanctions and designations adopted on February 11, the US announced that it would block access to $1 billion in US dollar-denominated assets in the United States at risk of being accessed by Myanmar’s military leaders. The size of the reported seizure and its timing, as well as descriptions by President Biden and his press secretary (“steps to prevent the generals from improperly accessing over $1 billion in assets”) make clear that the bulk of these assets were the Myanmar Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves in the US.
Multiple people familiar with the decision confirmed the US government’s action with Human Rights Watch. The action was taken earlier and independently of decision-making on the February 11 sanctions. Several days after the February 1 coup, financial authorities in the Treasury and Federal Reserve, which holds the bulk of Myanmar’s reserves, received a set of requests via the Central Bank of Myanmar’s accounts to transfer or withdraw all of the bank’s foreign currency reserves. The US authorities then determined that the requests were not legitimate financial actions by the Central Bank of Myanmar as such, but instead “fraudulent” or “criminal” activities by the military leadership, and blocked the transactions under US financial laws.
The Myanmar Central Bank itself is now blocked from accessing its foreign currency reserve in the US, which could have serious impacts on Myanmar’s general economy in the future. Typically, foreign currency reserves are held to back a country’s debts, use for stabilizing currency rates, or access during major economic crises or natural disaster. At a later date, the Central Bank of Myanmar—acting as a banking institution—may need to access US funds for legitimate financial purposes in the interests of the general economy of Myanmar. In that event, the US government could lawfully allow some of the assets to be unfrozen for legitimate transactions—for instance, paying a foreign creditor or to purchase Myanmar currency. Presumably, such transactions could occur if officials at the bank can provide transparent records or otherwise demonstrate that the funds are being used for legitimate banking purposes.
Other governments are also considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar.
On February 9, New Zealand announced it was suspending all high-level political and military contact with Myanmar, imposing travel bans on Myanmar military leaders, and suspending assistance to the government.
The same day, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell told the European Parliament that he would be recommending to the European Council the imposition of targeted sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and military-owned enterprises. On February 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution supporting that call.
Foreign ministers of EU member states are set to meet February 22 to consider those recommendations.
The EU already has in place a series of restrictive measures on Myanmar, adopted in reaction to the atrocities committed during the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. Those measures include an embargo on arms and equipment that might be used for internal repression, as well as targeted restrictive measures against 14 senior military officers.
Under the recently adopted EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, targeted sanctions and travel bans can be imposed on “individuals and entities responsible for or involved in serious human rights violations or abuses” and “individuals and entities associated with the perpetrators.” Violations and abuses can include “genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, slavery, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, enforced disappearance of persons, arbitrary arrests or detentions.” In addition, where violations or abuses are “widespread, systematic or are otherwise of serious concern [to EU foreign policy]” persons or entities can be sanctioned for “violations or abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association” and “violations or abuses of freedom of opinion and expression.”
United Kingdom law allows for targeted sanctions under the country’s “Global Magnitsky” law—similar to the US Global Magnitsky Law and the EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime above—as well as under anti-corruption laws and other economic laws. The UK government has previously sanctioned several Myanmar military officers for complicity in atrocities against the Rohingya. On February 18, the UK government designated three additional Myanmar military leaders involved in the February 1 coup, citing their complicity in human rights abuses “during the coup.” In addition, the UK Foreign Office and Department for International Trade also announced they were launching an “enhanced due diligence process to mitigate the risk of military businesses operating in the UK and associated illicit money flows.”
Canada too has a “Global Magnitsky Law,” as well as pre-existing sanctions authority under its Special Economic Measures Act and anti-corruption laws; the government had previously sanctioned several leaders of the Myanmar military—including Min Aung Hlaing—for complicity in atrocities against Rohingya. On February 18, Canada imposed additional targeted sanctions on nine military leaders involved in the February 1 coup. Many other countries have broader sanctions authorities under economic emergency laws or other regimes, that would allow imposition of targeted sanctions against the leaders of the Myanmar military.
In addition, all the countries above as well as countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, and other important banking centers have strong anti-money laundering or anti-corruption laws that may be applicable—or become applicable—to persons or entities who are sanctioned by other governments. For instance, such laws might become applicable if a sanctioned person or entity, or a financial institution doing business with them, conducts illegal transactions in circumventing other countries’ sanctions or violating other laws.
Sanctions are not just about assets. Sanctions imposed by the US, UK, the EU, and other jurisdictions can have extremely broad international consequences. The majority of the world’s financial institutions and banks are based in these jurisdictions, have shares that are traded on their securities exchanges, or otherwise have connections that make them subject to relevant sanctions or regulations enforcing them. Many multilateral or transnational financial institutions make use of the financial services and infrastructure of these jurisdictions.
Even banks or financial institutions with no direct ties to sanctioning jurisdictions may prohibit sanctioned persons from accessing accounts or use of wire services, including the international SWIFT system. As a practical matter, persons on the SDN list can face major hurdles in holding or moving money through the international banking system.
In addition, countries with corruption or money laundering laws can, and often do, subject sanctioned persons or entities to heightened scrutiny under those laws and can seize assets and allow forfeiture of those assets where financial crimes are proven. As noted above, such laws may be applied where a sanctioned person or a financial institution working with them conducts what amounts to an illegal transaction while attempting to avoid other countries’ sanctions laws.
Previous sanctions regimes appear to have been a significant factor in the military’s decision to embark on the reform process that led to national elections in 2015. Conditions are different in 2021, however, and a new approach is necessary.
To start, it is crucial that countries imposing sanctions on Myanmar not merely make designations, listing sanctioned persons and entities, but also take effective steps to enforce measures. It is also vitally important for governments to act jointly, target sanctions precisely, enforce them vigorously, and focus—like never before—on communicating effectively to the military leadership and others about what they need to do to have the measures be lifted.
Myanmar’s economic situation is not the same as it was during previous periods of military rule. The economic context for the military’s leaders and its military-owned companies is fundamentally different than during previous juntas, as most of the military’s economic relationships are now more integrated into the global economy (where sanctions can be more effective) and the military’s economic interests in general are less insular or local.
While tough enforcement is vitally important, equally important is broad coordination among sanctioning governments. If sanctions are robustly enforced across different jurisdictions, the targeted entities are more likely to suffer direct economic consequences. Besides any asset freezes, targeted entities will be prevented from using most of the international banking sector and be unable to obtain financing from many of the world’s banks—or favorable financing from any banks. Those banking institutions and companies that continue to work with sanctioned persons or entities can be expected to offer far less favorable terms, extend more expensive credit, and in general provide worse terms and services. At the same time, some outside revenue sources—for instance, royalties, fees, or dividends—may be cut off and held in escrow. If sanctions are imposed effectively, targeted entities will see adverse effects to revenue and credit terms. If coupled with effective communication about how sanctions can be eased, these measures could serve as an important catalyst for Myanmar’s military leadership to begin reconsidering their actions and taking steps to reverse them.