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.