Thursday, August 26, 2010

A War Crimes Commission Could Help Lead Burma to Democracy

The Washington Post, Letter to Editor, August 25, 2010 at page A18. See full text at

In his Aug. 21 op-ed, "Hold off on Burma," David I. Steinberg argued that a United Nations commission of inquiry into war crimes in Burma will only salve Western consciences and do the Burmese people no good. He worries that an inquiry "will hinder negotiations and relations" with the "new government" that will be elected later this year, so the United States should instead "hold off."

In fact, the government will not be new; the military will control 25 percent of legislative seats as well as key ministries. More ominously, the military will be constitutionally immune from civilian control and will have power to respond to threats to "national stability" however it wants. Recall that during the Saffron Revolution, the junta gunned down peacefully protesting monks as threats to national stability.

A commission of inquiry would hinder relations with the "new" government only if that government is controlled by those accused. Mr. Steinberg is really saying that we should not offend the authors of the atrocities because then they won't talk to us. But they won't talk to us now; the United States decided to support the inquiry only after the junta refused repeatedly to meet with senior diplomats to talk about reform.

A commission of inquiry would help the people of Burma in several ways. First, it would cost the junta hard-liners some political support at home and abroad, making a transition to democracy more possible. Second, an inquiry into the conduct of higher-ranking officers would make lower-ranking officers think twice before committing atrocities themselves. Third, an inquiry might be the first step in bringing justice to the victims of the junta's atrocities -- victims who, sadly, make no appearance in Mr. Steinberg's analysis.

David Clair Williams, Bloomington, Ind.

The writer is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

United States Supports a United Nations COI to Investigate War Crimes in Burma

From the Washington Post:

U.S. Supports Creation of UN Commission of Inquiry Into War Crimes in Burma
By John Pomfret

The Obama administration decided Tuesday to support the creation of a United Nations commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, a sign of a tougher U.S. policy against a regime long accused of murdering and raping its political foes.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also said the administration is considering tightening financial sanctions against the regime as part of an effort to force it to open its authoritarian political system and free thousands of political prisoners.

By supporting the commission of inquiry, the Obama administration is committing itself to backing a U.N. investigation of the military junta led since 1992 by Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

The 77-year-old dictator has been accused of leading brutal campaigns against ethnic insurgencies and Burmese dissidents, such as the 2007 crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution," during which scores of protesters, including Buddhist monks, were killed and thousands jailed. Than Shwe's State Peace and Development Council also overturned election results in 1990 that favored the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, who was named a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains under house arrest.

"What's important here is that this is not aimed at the people of Burma but at its leadership, particularly at Than Shwe," said a senior administration official.

Human rights organizations welcomed the news.

"I think this is an extremely smart move," said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "So long as Burma's military elite believe that their leader's strategy of defying his people and the world is working for them personally, they will continue to resist political compromise at home and engagement with the U.S."

The Obama administration entered office with a desire to shift course on Burma -- both as part of a strategy to improve relations with all the nations of Southeast Asia and as part of a belief that Burma, also known as Myanmar, should not be allowed to become a client state of China.

The administration decided last fall to begin to engage with the Burmese regime. It dispatched high-ranking diplomats and held out the prospect of the resumption of some aid. It opened discussions about Burma's planned upcoming elections in the hope that the regime would allow some measure of democracy. The administration also raised its concerns with Burma about its military relationship with North Korea following reports that Burma was exploring the possibility of a nuclear weapons program.

But Burma has rebuffed the outreach and announced a series of severe restrictions on campaigning ahead of coming elections, prompting the regime's opposition to all but withdraw.

Added another senior administration official: "There have been no positive results on democracy and human rights in our diplomatic engagement."

The commission of inquiry has been urged by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana. Commissions can be established directly by the U.N. secretary general -- as happened in the case of the Bosnian war crimes commission in the early 1990s. They also could be established by a vote of the Security Council, although China would probably block such a move.

Some debate whether the prospect of a war crimes charge can change the behavior of a regime. Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 and has yet to be arrested.

Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia and one of the main forces behind the devastation of Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, was arrested after leaving office and went before the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, although he died during his trial. Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor is on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes.

Malinowski said the U.S. decision Tuesday probably won't much change the calculations of a dictator such as Than Shwe but could cause some concern among younger members of the junta.

"There's a whole generation of military elites in Burma who will be making choices in the next few years," he said. "This is aimed at them."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Human Rights Watch Calls on EU to Raise COI in UN Resolution on Burma

From Human Rights Watch:
Burma: EU Should Endorse International War Crimes Inquiry

Raise Commission of Inquiry in UN Resolution on Burma

(Brussels) - European Union member states should publicly support the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to EU foreign ministers today.

Human Rights Watch urged the EU to include a Commission of Inquiry in the draft resolution on Burma for the General Assembly. Such a move follows up on the March 2010 statement by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, calling on the UN to consider the possibility of establishing a Commission of Inquiry into crimes in violation of international law committed in Burma.

"Ritually condemning Burma in annual General Assembly resolutions is no longer enough," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The UN needs to raise the price for continuing abuses by starting to investigate them."

In support of Quintana's call, the European Parliament on May 20 passed a resolution on Burma calling on the EU High Representative and member states to publicly support the UN's establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Burma and to include this request in the General Assembly's draft resolution on Burma at the upcoming session.

Some EU member states, as well as the government of Australia, have already publicly pledged their support for an international commission for Burma.

The June 2010 Kampala Declaration resulting from the Review Conference of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), reiterated the commitment of 111 ICC member states "to put an end to impunity for perpetrators of the most serious crimes of international concern." EU states, which are all members of the ICC, should demonstrate that commitment by taking a leading role in pushing for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate abuses by all parties amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Burma, Human Rights Watch said.

For years UN special mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, and others have documented and publicly reported on serious, widespread, and systemic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma. There have been 19 resolutions on Burma in the UN General Assembly alone since 1992.

Human Rights Watch also released today an extensive Q & A that addresses various issues relating to accountability for crimes in violation of international law in Burma.

"Continuing business as usual in Burma will only embolden rights abusers" Roth said. "Establishing an international Commission of Inquiry would be an important first step towards bringing abusers to justice and ending impunity in Burma."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

UN Rights Envoy, Burmese Activists, Meet in Thailand

From Mizzima, full text available at

Quintana spoke to such activists at the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) based in Chiang Mai for about an hour after being in Thailand since Friday.

“I presented to him information about the human rights situation in Burma such as the fact that right activists have to hide their human rights educational work from authorities, the activists, who are arrested if they use rights terms in their work,” HREIB staff member Cherry Zahau said. “Moreover, I told him that 43 child soldiers had been recruited so far in this year, according to various reports on this issue.”

Meeting Quintana was for restoration of democracy in Burma and the HREIB was willing to co-operate with the military junta to fulfill this mission, the institute told the UN human rights special envoy at the meeting.

The UN envoy also met pro-democracy and ethnic organisations based in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border on Saturday, Teik Naing, general secretary of the Association Assistance for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB), said.

“We explained how the junta has tortured and persecuted political prisoners … For instance, innocent persons were framed as suspects in the Thingyan bomb blast case, were severely beaten under interrogation and forced to give confessions,” Teik Naing said, of those accused of the blasts at a water-festival pavilion in Rangoon in April.

Moreover, Quintana told the Burmese pro-democracy organisations he would collect information on the situation of refugees who had recently fled across the Thai border, Forum for Democracy in Burma General Secretary Dr. Naing Aung told Mizzima.

“And also he told us about the ‘commission of inquiry’ and his opinions on it, the probable obstacles and difficulties it would face, the grounds for constituting this commission of inquiry, who will give a final decision on it, the impact of such a commission would have, not only on the SPDC [the junta] but also on others,” Naing Aung said, of Quintana’s call in March for the UN Human Rights Council to consider the establishment of a commission of inquiry into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

Such a high-level UN inquiry into serious international crimes in Burma could result in a recommendation for a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to initiate an investigation.

Quintana said in his March 8 report to the UN rights council that the grave crimes perpetrated by the Burmese army were a “result of state policy that involves authorities in the executive, military and judiciary at all levels”.

He was appointed in 2008 and has visited Burma three times, last visiting for the country five days in February this year, on missions that led to the recommendations for an inquiry in the March report.

Inter Press Service news agency reported today, citing diplomatic and UN sources that the Burmese junta had denied Quintana a visa to return to Burma for his fourth visit.

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand today to meet activists during a fact-finding mission ahead of the submission of a report on Burmese junta’s rights violations, activists said.

The report said: "But Burmese pro-democracy activists in exile are hardly surprised by the treatment given to the Argentine lawyer, who is currently on a visit to Thailand and Indonesia ahead of preparing another report on Burma to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October."

His investigations on this trip to Thailand also led to meetings with members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), the Shwe Gas Movement, and ethnic Shan, Mon and Chin rights organisations.

The junta’s mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, reported on April 7 that the junta’s human rights committee would submit its report to the UN Human Rights Council next February, a year after Qintana’s. Home Affairs deputy minister Major General Maung Oo is head of the committee, which reportedly constituted nine sub-committees handling home affairs, legal, social, labour, health, education, international affairs, religious affairs and women’s affairs rights issues.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sudan: ICC Warrant for Al-Bashir on Genocide

Published by Human Rights Watch. Full article available at

(New York) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant on July 12, 2010, for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for genocide committed in Darfur. An earlier arrest warrant for al-Bashir was issued in March 2009 by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

This is the first time the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for the crime of genocide. The warrant is for al-Bashir's alleged role as an indirect perpetrator or indirect co-perpetrator of genocide in Darfur through killing, causing bodily or mental harm, and deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring physical destruction.

"President al-Bashir's stonewalling on the initial ICC warrant against him appears only more outrageous now that he's also being sought for genocide," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "Security Council members and other concerned governments should actively press Sudan to stop its blatant obstruction of the ICC and to see to it that al-Bashir appears at the court."

The ICC has jurisdiction over international crimes committed in Darfur, even though Sudan is not a party to the court, under Security Council Resolution 1593, which referred Darfur to the ICC and obligates Sudan to cooperate with the ICC.

The ICC pre-trial chamber declined to include genocide charges when it issued the first warrant for al-Bashir. The prosecutor's office appealed the decision on the basis that the chamber had used an inappropriate standard of proof in declining to include the genocide charges. In a March 2010 ruling, the appeals chamber agreed and instructed the pre-trial chamber to reassess genocide charges on the basis that genocide could be one reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the material submitted, while not necessarily the only reasonable conclusion. On July 12, the pre-trial chamber issued a ruling that resulted in the second warrant on genocide charges.

Human Rights Watch has found in its research on Darfur that the highest levels of the Sudanese leadership, including al-Bashir, are responsible for creating and coordinating the government's counterinsurgency policy in Darfur, which deliberately and systematically targeted civilians in violation of international law. Human Rights Watch has described the crimes in Darfur as "ethnic cleansing," war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch has not taken a position on whether the crimes constitute genocide due to insufficient information in its research on whether the actions were carried out with the "intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic group," an element of the crime of genocide.

Young Blood

By Simon Roughneen

Published in the Irrawaddy, full post available at

BANGKOK—The number of child soldiers in Burma is impossible to verify and recruitment appears to be ongoing in the Burmese armed forces and ethnic militias, despite some positive steps to curb the practice.

Burma's ruling military has long stood accused of a practice perhaps better known in west Africa's civil wars, popularized by scenes of drugged 12-year-olds firing AK-47s at Leonardo DiCaprio's mercenary character in the movie “Blood Diamond,” which was set in Sierra Leone.

In 2002, Human Rights Watch estimated that there were about 70,000 child soldiers in Burma, a figure that has never been effectively confirmed or rebutted. The NGO Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says Burma as the only Asian country where government armed forces forcibly recruit children.

According to the US State Department’s newly-released “Trafficking in Persons” report: “The regime’s widespread use of and lack of accountability in forced labor and recruitment of child soldiers is particularly worrying and represents the top causal factor for Burma’s significant trafficking problem.”

Worldwide, there are thought to be between 250,000 to 300,000 combatants under the age of 18 in state armies or militia groups.

Speaking in Bangkok, International Labor Organisation (ILO) liaison officer in Burma Steve Marshall told The Irrawaddy that “Whilst a lot more still needs to be done, the [Burmese] army has taken positive steps toward enforcing the minimum age for recruitment and discharging children found to have been illegally recruited.”

The ILO is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the recruitment and use of children in the UN-led MRM Task Force under UN Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005), working through its complaint mechanism on forced labor established in February 2007.

The ILO has a complaint mechanism enabling Burmese to report that a child is being used by the army or a militia group—though this is limited to the parents concerned. The number of complaints is increasing over time as awareness of the procedure spreads—though whether this is having a decisive impact on the number of child soldiers across the country is unclear given the paucity of real information to hand.

“Perpetrators have been disciplined for breaches of the law,” said Marshall. “And children, being the subject of complaint to the ILO, are in most cases discharged back to the care of their families.”

While top brass directives state that recruiters should neither accept nor coerce underage people joining the army, and the military government seems generally cooperative when evidence-based cases of child soldiering are put before them, in practice the regime's drive to create the largest army in Southeast Asia puts pressure on local officers to fill the ranks and meet recruitment quotas.

Precise military spending in Burma is unknown, but on top of senior roles in the country's dominant institution, senior military figures enjoy a lifestyle and access to lucrative commercial contacts unknown to ordinary Burmese or lower level officers.

Desertion and low army morale is thought to be common—according to defectors interviewed by Benedict Rogers in research for his new biography of Burma's military leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe. These factors, if replicated at local levels around the country, would make recruitment for the Burmese army more difficult and perhaps increase the temptation to use child soldiers.

It is thought that around one-third of child soldiers in the Burmese army volunteer to join or are asked to do so by family members due to extreme poverty and an inability to make a living or support their parents. Another third are tricked into joining by brokers who promise jobs in the private sector, while another third are coerced into joining.

Voluntary child soldier recruitment takes place among the country's ethnic militias. A May 2009 report by the US-based Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, titled “No More Denial: Children Affected by Armed Conflict in Myanmar,” said, “Most non-state Armed Groups (NSAGs) have reportedly recruited and used children in their armed groups, albeit on a much lower scale than the Myanmar Armed Forces.”

According to Marshall: “There is evidence that a number of the NSAGs (encompassing both those with and without cease-fire agreements) also have children in their ranks.”

Listed alongside the Burmese army as violators in the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's latest annual report on children in conflict, are a number of the Burmese ethnic militias. The proportion of volunteer under-18s in ethnic militias is thought to be higher than that in the Burmese army, with some militias having, at various stages in recent years, a one-child per family recruitment policy to boost numbers.

However, some of the armed groups say that they are working to stop child soldier recruitment.

Assessing the number of child soldiers in ethnic militias in Burma, and whether steps are being take to end the practice, is difficult; the ILO cannot access ethnic areas inside Burma to establish the full facts on the ground.

There is increasing pressure on the ruling junta to do something about the country's child soldier problem, and during the June 16 UN debate on the Secretary-General's report, junta envoy Than Swe said, “The Myanmar government had taken serious measures to address under-age recruitment, but in some cases, in the absence of official birth certificates or national IDs, some underage children slipped into the military. There was, therefore, stringent scrutiny at various stages, as a result of which, hundreds of children had been discharged and punitive actions taken against military personnel who failed to abide by rules and regulations.”

He was backed indirectly by Chinese representative Li Baodong who said, “Local conditions must be considered, as conflict situations—both on and outside the Council’s agenda—were different.”

The report outlined that “New information received by ILO indicates that recruitment and use of children by the Tatmadaw-Kyi [Burmese army] continued during the reporting period. Reports have recently been received from Shan State (north) and Irrawaddy Division, indicating that the Tatmadaw-Kyi is ordering Village Peace and Development Council chairmen to organize mandatory military trainings for village militias known as 'Pyithusit.' A trend may be emerging in both those regions, where adult males, who are the primary breadwinners of the family, are unable to attend the military training sessions and are sending their children instead.”

The junta clearly prefers that it be removed from the UN Security Council “register” of child soldier offenders. During the June 16 debate, Than Swe questioned the logic used to keep the junta on the list, saying that “Myanmar was not in a situation of armed conflict and, therefore, should not be discussed under the theme of children and armed conflict.”

He said he regretted that the country’s well-trained national army was still listed in Annex I of the report and urged that the progress achieved by the government be duly recognized and the army de-listed from future reports.

He received implicit support from Thailand's representative Jakkrit Srivali, who said the report's scope should be confined to situations of armed conflict and that “there should be more transparency on the listing and de-listing of parties in the annexes.” He added that “reference to countries in which there was no armed conflict and 'sweeping generalizations' were misleading and counterproductive.”

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is due to visit Burma in August, after a trip scheduled for 2009 was postponed due to the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi for alleged breach of house arrest terms.

With UN human rights envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana saying in March that a Commission of Inquiry should be set up to investigate whether war crimes and crimes against humanity have been carried out in Burma, the issue takes added significance. Child soldier recruiters may face prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose statute defines the use of children under 15 in hostilities as a war crime. It is thought that the bulk of child soldiers in Burma are 15-16 years of age, thought there are documented cases as young as 11.

In 2006, the ICC successfully prosecuted a Congolese warlord for the recruitment of child soldiers. Heads-of State are not immune, taking us back to West Africa . The indictment issued by the Special Court for Sierra Leone against former Liberian President Charles Taylor includes charges of recruiting or using children under the age of 15 to fight in Sierra Leone, where a proxy militia linked to Taylor sought to overthrow the government.

Friday, July 9, 2010

ILO: Forced Labor Still Widespread in Burma

By Ron Corben

The United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) says Burma has made limited progress in curtailing the use of forced labor.

Steve Marshall, the International Labor Organization's liaison officer in Burma, says over the past three years there have been "significant steps" toward eliminating forced labor in the country. The most progress has been in private organizations and the civil administration.

"To an extent, the government has passed laws which say that forced labor is illegal, which is a very important first step of cours," said Marshall. "The government has undertaken quite a lot of educational activity among local authorities particularly within the military as to the law and the responsibilities under the law."

Burma's military government has long used forced labor in everything from building roads to carrying military supplies through the jungle. At its extremes, there have been reports of people being pressed to walk through mine fields as human minesweepers.

Rights groups say thousands of Burmese are forced to work against their will, including children and the elderly. Many suffer abuse, including gang rape and murder.

Marshall said Thursday in Bangkok the military particularly continues to use forced labor.

"There are some indicators within the civilian side of the administration, which is very good," said Marshall. "In the military side of the administration, there is no clear evidence of any change whatsoever."

One area of progress has been a new system that allows citizens to complain to the ILO. That has helped the rescue children forced to join the military.

In its new report, the ILO report says the government now regularly discharges under-age soldiers if complaints are filed.

Some armed ethnic groups also use child soldiers and Burma's government has allowed the ILO to talk with them to try to end the practice.

Marshall says there are moves to write new labor laws to allow trade unions once a new parliament is convened after elections later this year.

Regional political analysts say Burma's government appears to be taking a more cautious approach in dealing with labor and economic issues ahead of the elections. The vote will be the first in 20 years and is expected to place the government under the international spotlight.