We Have Failed The Rohingya

A family of displaced Rohingya people
A family of displaced Rohingya people. Credit to United to End Genocide under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Not since the atrocities of Rwanda has the world seen widespread ethnic cleansing equal to that of the Rohingya in Burma. And just like Rwanda, the international community has failed to intervene as a widespread genocide continues.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been ongoing since the military takeover of Burma in 1962. While not on the current scale of violence, the Rohingya have always been subjugated in Burma whether through their assets and homes being seized by the Burmese government or their lack of political recognition by the Burmese government. Due to their Bengali heritage and Muslim faith, the Rohingya have long remained on the outskirts of Burmese society, alienated.

Only recently has this structural violence evolved into the current ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. Attacks on Burmese border guards in October of 2016 by unidentified insurgents were blamed on the Rohingya, despite the insurgents being unknown. These border attacks were utilised by the Burmese government to portray the stateless Rohingya as being “violent Muslim terrorists” that have no right to reside in Burma. The border attacks helped the Burmese military establishment consolidate its power by rallying the majority Buddhist population against Muslim Rohingya.

The genocide of the Rohingya by Burmese nationalists is on a scale unlike any in modern history. Encouraged by the government, local police in the Rakhine region have jailed hundreds of Rohingya, some as young as ten years old, accused of “terrorism.” According to Médecins Sans Frontières, over 6,700 Rohingya have been killed in August alone (730 of which were children). Hundreds of homes have been burned down by the Burmese military. The government recently admitted to using helicopters to attack Rohingya villages accused of being armed. Hundreds of women have been reportedly raped by Burmese soldiers. Over 3,000 children are currently suffering from malnutrition. In total, more than 640,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee Burma.

What is most concerning is that the mistreatment of the Rohingya has been known by the international community for years. The first indications of mass ethnic cleansing began in 2012 when fears of the Rohingya developing into a demographic majority triggered mass rapes and killings of Rohingya by Buddhist extremists, with government endorsement. A suppressed internal UN report revealed that the UN had failed to adequately respond to the violence against the Rohingya beginning in 2012. Another BBC report revealed that the head of the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) in Burma, Renata Lok-Dessallien, had reprimanded and isolated staff who warned of mass ethnic cleansing. The damning BBC report also exposed the UNCT for blocking human rights activists from investigating the claims of the Rohingya.

It increasingly appears that in the case of the Rohingya, just like that of the Rwandan massacre, the UN failed to properly warn of and condemn the persecution of the Rohingya. While the UN is now openly defending the Rohingya, it is too little too late. The responsibility to intervene has now shifted from the UN to the international community. Despite the UN publicising the Burmese government’s direct involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, no governments have actively implemented economic sanctions against Burma.

If we want to end to the abuse of the Rohingya, the international community must act against the Burmese government. With no economic sanctions, and the US State Department refusing to classify the persecution as genocide, the Burmese government continues to face no consequences for its actions. The international community has a moral responsibility to not only condemn instances of ethnic cleansing but to actively punish state actors that participate in such atrocities.

We, the international community, have failed the Rohingya. We failed the Rohingya by not acting following the 2012 riots against the Rohingya. We failed by not acting when numerous human rights activists warned of a possible genocide. And we continue to fail the Rohingya every day that the Burmese government and those responsible face absolutely no consequences for their horrific actions.


An Introduction to Smart Contracts and the Law

What are smart contracts?

There is no one definitive answer to the question “What is a smart contract?” Depending on who you ask a smart contract could be either considered lines of executable code existing on a blockchain or an autonomous agreement. In the context of the legal industry, a smart contract is defined as an agreement between two or more parties to the exchange of information or assets; based on one or more conditions being met; which is self-enforcing, autonomous and operates as a computer program.

Such smart contracts are not written or oral contracts but are instead programs executed and stored, most commonly, on a trusted and independent blockchain (a decentralized public ledger). Smart contracts do not necessarily have to be executed on the blockchain (such as a simple transaction processed by a vending machine), however, the use of secure blockchain technology ensures that both parties are able to trust that their smart contract cannot be changed or reversed by any party. The use of blockchain technology ensures that both parties are able to view and access the code of a smart contract and also allows for smart contracts much more complex than simple automated transactions.

The purpose of smart contracts is to prevent parties, to a contract, from failing or refusing to fulfill their agreements. Since smart contracts are written into code and executed independent of both parties, it is impossible for any party to renege on their agreement. Essentially smart contracts create trustless environments where parties to a contract do not have to rely on each other nor fallible and centralized institutions (such as law firms or the government) to enforce contracts.

How can smart contracts be used?

There are numerous practical applications of smart contracts. One common application of a smart contract is for betting. Parties to a betting agreement will all send their assets to a smart contract which then waits for a condition to the bet to be fulfilled (for example whether or not a winner has been declared for the Mayweather v. McGregor fight) and then based upon the result, the assets of the losing parties are redistributing to the winning parties. In this example, while the smart contract still relies on a third party to decide the winners, it is impossible for the parties to the contract to renege on their agreements by refusing to pay the winners.

A more complex application of smart contracts is insurance policy. Smart contracts are now being used to autonomously execute insurance payouts, without the policyholder having to make a claim. Instead, payouts can be automated if verifiable and public information (such as if the policyholder had died, or if a natural disaster had affected their home) is found by the contract. Such an application would significantly reduce the possibility of insurance fraud, as well as saving the time of both policyholders and insurers in making and verifying claims.

The possible applications of smart contracts are extensive and varying from simple transfers of assets to complex financial operations. The trustless, self-enforcing and public nature of smart contracts has also opened up the possibility of their use by governments and the legal industry. In many countries and in the US, governments are considering using smart contracts in elections. This fact demonstrates the increased importance of both blockchain technology and smart contracts and, in the context of the law, the need for definitive legislation and research on smart contracts.

Are smart contracts legal?

Smart contracts are not inherently legally binding and recognized contracts, however, that does not mean smart contracts cannot be legal. The legality of a smart contract is dependent upon the nature of the agreement, the conditions of the agreement and whether parties to the contract are consenting. It is also dependent on a legal system’s definition of what is and is not a contract.

The primary issue with the legality of smart contracts is that unlike traditional contracts, smart contracts are neither written text nor oral communication (which is a requirement of contracts in most legal systems). Smart contracts are solely code and while the code of a smart contract is supposed to be accessible to both parties, code is not a natural language or even a language for that matter.

One notable case that demonstrates the risks of recognizing code as a legal contract is the DAO incident. In the DAO case, a smart contract known as the Decentralized Autonomous Organization was supposed to raise money from investors who would then use the smart contract to fund other blockchain projects that they liked. It was essentially a democratic Kickstarter for blockchain projects. The DAO eventually raised over $150 million USD, however, due to a bug in the code of the DAO smart contract, hackers were able to steal over $50 million dollars. Although to the code of the smart contract this was a completely legitimate transaction, the intended and implicit agreement between the participants of the smart contract wouldn’t have allowed for such an action. This case demonstrates the problem with treating code as the rule of law in smart contracts.

One solution offered to this problem is that smart contracts, if intended to have the protection and recognition of the law, should be accompanied by written agreements that would supersede any faults in the code of smart contracts. In such cases, the legality and rules of the smart contract would be clear to both participants and to the law. Outside of cases where smart contracts are not accompanied by written contracts, there exists a large legal gray area. In certain US states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Vermont, legislation has been introduced that legally recognizes smart contracts. However, in other states and countries, there is no definitive legal position on whether code alone is considered legally binding. 

While there are very obvious cases where smart contracts would not be recognized by the law, such as an assassination smart contract or smart contract that trades state secrets for fiat, in more innocuous cases such as betting there are questions over just how much participants are protected by the law. Such questions over the legality of smart contracts will likely depend on future state legislation and an increase in use-cases for which the legal industry can begin to evaluate.

What is the future of smart contracts and the law?

As the use of smart contracts for financial operations increases, so will the desire for definitive legislation on smart contracts. Despite some proponents of smart contracts arguing that they will remove the need for contract lawyers, cases such as the DAO demonstrate that for now, code is not law. Smart contracts do make many common operations and contracts much cheaper and efficient and this may limit the responsibilities of many lawyers, but such contracts will still require the protection of the law.

While the self-enforcement of smart contracts seemingly eradicates the need for contract law enforcement, the DAO shows that when smart contracts fail to enforce their intended agreements, that failure can have significantly detrimental and sometimes irreversible consequences that can only be prevented and reversed by the human element of the law. The legal industry will also play a significant role in assessing the legality of different smart contracts and possibly attempting to supersede the self-enforcement of such contracts when they circumvent laws and regulations (i.e. tax law, gambling laws). Smart contracts are a tool that when used in accordance with the law and with the protection of the law, can provide a great deal of value to its users. However, when such contracts fail to act as intended or attempt to circumvent the law, contract law will definitely be required to overrule smart contracts.

In conclusion, smart contracts will not in the near future be replacing contract law enforcement. There is no doubt that smart contracts will not only require legal oversight to protect consumers but will likely increase the role of law in contracts. The law will be needed to prevent the misuse of smart contracts and the exploitation of smart contract code, for the protection of both consumers and the law.

An Evaluation of Western Sanctions on Iran

The effectiveness of Western sanctions on Iran can be evaluated by three key criteria: Whether they have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, whether they have a set and achievable end-goal and whether the sanctions have been supported and upheld by allying states. These three criteria are crucial to the effectiveness of sanctions, as outlined in a previous essay,[1] and can therefore be used to judge if Western sanctions of Iran have been effective in achieving their desired goal. These criteria can also be used to assess exactly why Western sanctions of Iran have been effective, in comparison to numerous other failed sanctions.

The current impact of the Iranian sanctions on Iran’s economy has been significant. Since 2011 the Iranian Rial has been continuously depreciating. Iranian oil exports have also decreased because of EU sanctions and as such the main consumers of Iranian oil are now China, India and Russia. This dependency on trade with China, India and Russia represents a weakness in their trading power. It has led to increase inflation and the banning of Iranian banks by the EU and US has prevented Iran’s ability to deal with Western based multinational corporations (MNCs). According to a report by the World Bank Group: “the imposition of sanctions on Iran’s oil exports had a serious negative effect on the Iranian government budget.”[2] Public welfare has also decreased with the government removing food, electricity, water and gas subsidies in 2010 and an estimated unemployment rate of 35% due to low export demand.[3] The Iranian economy has lost approximately $17.1 billion USD in export revenue.[4] Such statistics highlight the significant impact that Western sanctions on Iran have had on the Iranian economy, largely due to the Iranian economy’s reliance upon oil exports to the EU and services from American MNCs. Despite economic relief being provided by China and Russia, the Iranian national economy has failed to recover from the impact of such sanctions. These findings give credence to argument that Western sanctions have been extremely effective in halting the Iranian economy.

In assessing the goals of Western states in sanctioning Iran, the West has used their sanctions to halt the Iranian nuclear program. This goal, unlike most goals of sanctioning states, is a practical and achievable goal that attempts to restrict Iranian military and political power in exchange for economic power. This fact combined with Iran’s heavy reliance upon trade with the West highlights the fact that Western sanctions on Iran have been extremely effective and that their outlined goal was achievable. The recent Iran nuclear framework agreement to end Western sanctions in exchange for the ceasing of Iran’s nuclear program highlights the efficacy of sanctions as a method of conflict resolution. The willingness of Iran to give up their sovereignty in exchange for economic power emphasis the effect that such sanctions have had and can have on a state by efficiently targeting its economy and setting realistic and practical goals.

Another important factor in the effectiveness of the Iran sanctions is the fact that they were multilateral and supported by numerous Western states. The sanctions involved restrictions imposed by the UN on arms trade with Iran, Iranian assets and Iranian banking. American sanctions when further by completely banning any American firms from dealing with Iran which greatly restricted Iran’s access to Western markets and services. EU sanctions also supported American sanctions by restricting Iran’s access to European markets and arms trade. European sanctions had the greatest impact on Iran by completely preventing their access to any Western markets, greatly devaluing their trading power. The involvement of Western states, other than the US, such as the EU and Australia played a large role in having an impact on Iran, by completely restricting Iran’s dealing to economically developing states such as India, China and Russia. It is as such that a major aspect of the efficacy of the Iranian sanctions was the fact they involved multiple economically developed states that the Iranian economy was reliant upon.

The effectiveness of Western sanctions on Iran, as an exercise of coercive state power, cannot be understated. Because of the multilateral nature of the sanctions, the significance of Western markets to the Iranian economy and a set and achievable end-goal for the sanctions, Western sanctions have been extremely effective in coercing Iran into ending their nuclear program. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signified the end of the Iranian nuclear “issue” with Iran dismantling their nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. This case study demonstrates the coercive power of sanctions as method of conflict resolution and the requirements for such sanctions to have an impact upon a state.

[1] Butler, Umar. 2017. The Efficacy of Sanctions as a Method of Conflict Resolution. February 8. Accessed February 11, 2017. http://umarbutler.com/index.php/2017/02/08/efficacy-sanctions-method-conflict-resolution/.

[2] Ianchovichina, Elena, Shantayanan Devarajan, and Csilla Lakatos. 2016. Lifting Economic Sanctions on Iran: Global Effects and Strategic Responses. Policy Research Working Paper, World Bank Group.

[3] Peterson, Sabrina M. n.d. Iran’s Deteriorating Economy: An Analysis of the Economic Impact of Western Sanctions. Accessed February 12, 2017. http://www.iar-gwu.org/node/428.

[4] Mufson, Steven. 2015. What ending sanctions on Iran will mean for the country’s economy. August 12. Accessed February 12, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/what-ending-sanctions-on-iran-will-mean-for-the-countrys-economy/2015/08/12/2c3a9942-3d17-11e5-b3ac-8a79bc44e5e2_story.html.