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This international expert meeting is part of a series of events on colonial wrongs and double standards that is being planned together with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and others. Subsequent events are expected to take place in several former colonies. 

The Yangon meeting was based on the publication ‘Myanmar, Colonial Aftermath, and Access to International Law’ by Morten Bergsmo, which served as its concept note. Wolfgang Kaleck’s monograph Double Standards: International Criminal Law and the West (also published by the Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher) is important inspiration and background reading for the project. The detailed programme document linked to above contains abstracts of the conference papers and presentations. You also find links to AV-recordings of the conference lectures above. An anthology will be published with papers from the Yangon meeting. We hope these combined project outcomes will make a useful contribution to the field. 

The Yangon meeting had seven sessions, dealing with both case studies and general issues. There were case studies on the Belgian-dominated area in the Great Lakes Region, colonial Burma, Namibia, as well as the Sami and Romani peoples in Norway, and native Americans of Canada. The colonial (or similar) wrongs on which the project is focused is conduct that could amount, in contemporary terms, to core international crimes as defined by the Statute of the International Criminal Court. The case studies focussed on colonial wrongs that have lingering, negative consequences today, and how measures taken after the colonial period ended – including international(ised) criminal justice and reconciliation measures – have not fully addressed related grievances in affected populations.

The general part of the Yangon meeting and the conference-anthology considers a) relevant patterns identified by the case studies; b) the extent to which contemporary international law addresses lingering consequences of colonial wrongs; c) the risks of double standards and related perceptions in affected populations; d) wider implications of such risks for the Third World Approaches to International Law movement and legitimacy of international law; e) whether traditional truth and reconciliation mechanisms are adequate to address lingering grievances linked to colonial wrongs; f) important elements for a new tool that could be used to address such grievances, including ensuring the participation of relevant expertise in the listening to, analysing of, and otherwise engagement with the grievances through consultation or other processes; and g) the relevancy of legal notions such as subjugation, reoccupation and continuing core international crimes.

The programme document explains that the meeting was being held in Yangon “because the situation in Myanmar is illustrative of problems that can arise if colonial grievances are long ignored by moderate actors and abused by other actors. The location highlights why the topic of the meeting is important. Similar problems exist in other former colonies, and subsequent events in this project will be located in several such locations”. It explains that the meeting was not about the contemporary armed conflicts in Rakhine.

In his lecture, CILRAP Director Morten Bergsmo explored how norm-internalisation is a key mechanism to understand why double normative standards are so problematic. He suggested that the “more fragile aspect of norm-internalisation is that it is as fluid and non-conclusive as life itself – a stream, more than a conclusive act (such as depositing an instrument of ratification with the UN Secretary-General)”, and that “[n]orm internalisation is perhaps more a relationship than an event or even an activity”. “Norm inconsistency, exceptionalism, eclipses or neglect may therefore have a disproportionate impact on relational norm implementation”, he argued; this “is why a practice of double normative standards – including legal standards or norms – can be so fundamentally disruptive to societal norm internalisation”, especially in the area of international law. 

Together with Professor Gregory S. Gordon (linked above), Bergsmo suggested a new approach to engagement with colonial grievances, a ‘consultation’ process that can contribute towards reducing or dissolving such grievances where that serves fundamental interests of peace, security, and respect for international law. Gordon elaborated how this can be built into early warning and hate speech prevention in certain situations.

The concept of atonement through symbolic but sincere gestures was also discussed as a way to bring closure to the victims of colonial injustice, as was reparations, criminal responsibility, truth and reconciliation processes, and artistic and other expression. 

The conference was attended by, among others, participants from former colonies, who in sharing their respective histories of injustice and ways to address them, could see that they are not alone in their predicament.

The Yangon meeting was organised by the Centre for International Law Research and Policy (CILRAP) in co-operation with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (Berlin), China University of Political Science and Law (Beijing), Centre for Diversity and National Harmony (Yangon), the Institute for International Peace and Security Law (University of Cologne), and Maharishi Law School (New Delhi).

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