Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia

[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 28 September 2005
Review: 92/05
Burma: The case for UNSC Intervention

The decision of the United States to make another attempt to have Burma included on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council in its October 2005 sessions is welcome. Assistant Secretary of State, Eric G. John informed the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on 21 September 2005 that Washington would push for a Security Council debate on Burma's ongoing human rights abuses. A similar attempt in June 2005 was blocked by China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council.

Courtesy: Burma Post

I. The case for Security Council intervention:

On 20 September 2005, DLA Piper in its 70-page report, “Threat to Peace - A Call to the UN

Security Council to Act in Burma”, commissioned by Nobel Peace Laureates Vaclav Havel, former president of Czeh Republic and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lucidly urged the Security Council for "an urgent, new and multilateral diplomatic initiative" to bring changes in Burma.

The report, “Threat to Peace - A Call to the UN Security Council to Act in Burma”, details the policy of destruction of villages and forced relocation of civilians as a counter-insurgency strategy for many decades, primarily targeting ethnic minority groups; human rights violations including killings, forced labor, systematic rape and destruction of villages, crops, and land during relocation; internal displacement of least 526,000 people in the eastern border areas alone; the presence of over a million Burmese refugees in Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia; forced labour; the use of rape as a means of war against the ethnic groups; and finally, drug  trafficking across the neighbouring countries.

In 2005, the Security Council, among others, discussed the following country situations: Middle East situation, including the Palestinian question, Sudan, Burundi, Iraq, Liberia, Afghanistan, Eritrea-Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Burundi, Timor-Leste, Guinea-Bissau, Georgia, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Somalia, Bougainville, Cyprus, Haiti, Kosovo (Serbia and Montenegro), Western Sahara, Iraq-Kuwait, Middle EastLebanon.

If the Security Council can discuss the above countries, Burma is a fit case by any yardstick given the overthrow of democratically-elected government, conflict between central government and ethnic groups, widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian laws, internal displacement and outflow of refugees, drug production and trafficking.

II. Failure to cooperate with the United Nations:

The level of cooperation of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) with the United Nations has been deplorable. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Prof Sergio Pinheiro has not been allowed to visit Burma since November 2003. The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy Rizali Ismail made 14 visits without any substantial breakthrough. He has also not been allowed to visit the country since March 2004.

The lack of cooperation from the military junta led Secretary General Kofi Annan to conclude that the “present situation casts serious doubt on the prospects for the United Nations to play an effective role as a facilitator in furtherance of the relevant resolutions of the General Assembly.”

Even humanitarian organizations such as The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria had to stop funding projects in Burma in August 2005. The Global Fund - an independent financing organisation set up by the UN, with stringent rules about its donations – was forced to withdraw after the SPDC imposed new travel restrictions in July 2005. The Global Fund stated that these restrictions would "prevent the implementation of performance-based and time-bound programmes in the country, breach the government's commitment to provide unencumbered access, and frustrate the ability of the [recipient of the aid money] to carry out its obligations." Most humanitarian organisations have been facing dilemmas because of such restrictions which deny assistance to those who require it most.

III. Off-setting western sanctions:

On 16 September 2005, the Netherlands refused a visa to Burma's Economic Minister who wanted to attend the Asia-Europe meeting in Rotterdam. The Netherlands was hosting the ASEM economic minister's meeting. The ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations responded to the ban and boycotted the meeting.

Such sanctions by the United States and European Union have been off-set by socalled “constructive engagement”, an euphemistic term to describe “exploitation of natural resources” of Burma by the Asian countries. After European Union imposed further sanctions on SPDC on 11 October 2004 and Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was sacked, SPDC’s Chief General Than Shwe was accorded a red carpet welcome with gun salute reserved for Head of State by the government of India during his visit to India from 24 October 2004 to 29 October 2004.

China, India, Japan and Thailand have played key role to off-set sanctions by the United States and European Union and kept the oppressive military regime alive.

Legitimate questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of the sanctions. However, the neighbouring countries which advocate and practice “constructive engagement” have even refused to raise the issue of the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from solitary confinement. If the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from solitary confinement cannot figure in the "constructive engagement" with the SPDC, there is no alternative to the sanctions against Burma, despite its limited effectiveness.

IV. The course of action for the US:

The decision of the United States to include Burma in the agenda of the Security Council session in October 2005 is welcome. However, the United States is also equally infamous for half-hearted measures – sponsoring resolutions or adding specific country situations in the agenda item – without adequate homework with other members of the relevant UN bodies. The United States must work with France and United Kingdom and other members of the Security Council to include Burma in the agenda item. Apart from the five permanent members, the other non-permanent members of the Security Council are Algeria, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Philippines, Romania and Tanzania. If the United States lobbies with these non-permanent members, the possibility of including Burma in the agenda of the Security Council is quite high.

If the United States is serious, Russia and China are most likely to prevent inclusion of Burma in the agenda of the Security Council by exercising veto powers. Yet, the United States and others must pursue it with the seriousness it deserves. If nothing else, the veto by Russia and China will expose their continued hypocrisy in the face of suffering of the Burmese at the hands of the military junta.

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