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What is the EU waiting for in Myanmar?

It is time the EU work to establish a UN-led Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law in Myanmar.

Four years ago this month, the people of Myanmar rose up in what became known as the “Saffron Revolution”, named after the Buddhist monks who eventually led the demonstrations.  While the world initially condemned the security forces’ violent crackdown that followed, several months later the Myanmar authorities managed to deflect international criticism by announcing it would hold national elections and form a civilian government.

The international community, including the European Union (EU), has been distracted ever since, despite an abundance of information that the Myanmar government has continued to violate human rights on a massive scale.  ‘Wait and see’—what the government will do before the elections, how the elections will be conducted, whether the new government will make any changes—has been the prevailing and irresponsible approach.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Myanmar has gone from bad to worse, with no justice for the victims.  By the time the elections announcement was made, the number of political prisoners in Myanmar had nearly doubled from its pre-Saffron Revolution number to over 2,100—where it remains today.  Several months afterwards, the government denied, obstructed, and/or confiscated international aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, turning the humanitarian disaster into a human rights crisis.  And a year later, authorities arrested, tried, and unlawfully extended the house arrest of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Among the situations calling out loudest for justice and accountability is Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions.  Ten months before the November 2010 elections, Amnesty International released a report on the repression of ethnic minority political activists in Myanmar, which showed that optimism in relation to the polls was being contradicted in the ethnic minority areas.

It followed a mid-2008 publication, Crimes against humanity in eastern Myanmar, whose relevance has only increased since then.  The report focused on the Myanmar army’s human rights violations against ethnic minority Karen civilians on a widespread and systematic basis, which amounted to crimes against humanity.  Violations included extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour, confiscation of land and food, and forced displacement of the civilian population on a large scale, starting in late 2005.

While this was the first time Amnesty had characterized such violations as crimes against humanity, the report’s findings were consistent with our research on the country for two decades.  The testimonies, collected in several countries since 1987, documented the very same crimes against civilians.  They were told to us not only by the Karen, but by many other ethnic minorities as well, including the Rohingya, the Karenni, the Shan, and the Mon.

Likewise, accounts since mid-2008, especially since the day of Myanmar’s national elections last November, when hostilities were accelerated or renewed between the Myanmar army and armed groups fighting on behalf of several ethnic minorities, recall our report’s findings: serious human rights violations—some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and/or war crimes—against ethnic minority Karen, Kachin, and Shan civilians.

These include recent accounts of the army using prison convicts as porters in the fighting in Kayin (Karen) State, forcing them to act as human shields and mine-sweepers, and of rape and other sexual violence, primarily in Shan State.  Reliable reports indicate that the number of displaced persons there has reached 30,000, while in or near Kachin State 20,000 internally displaced persons were reported at the end of July.

 We have waited for years, even decades, and seen quite enough: these violations call for accountability.  However, Article 445 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution—which codifies immunity from prosecution for officials for past violations—indicates that without international action, this is most unlikely.

In October 2011 the UN Special Rapporteur will be presenting a report to the UN General Assembly, which will likely adopt a resolution on Myanmar.  The EU will again lead in the drafting of this resolution.  In each of his reports or statements to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur has called for greater accountability for grave international crimes in Myanmar or expressly recommended that the UN establish a Commission of Inquiry into such crimes.

While the question remains as to whether such a Commission would have access to Myanmar, a similar 1997 Commission by the International Labour Organization compensated for its denial of access partly through expert testimony, which Amnesty among others provided.  Two years later, Myanmar passed a law prohibiting forced labour.  Accountability must begin somewhere. 

Moreover, accountability need not exclude increased humanitarian assistance and efforts to engage the new government.

Amnesty International welcomes the fact that 12 of the 16 nations that have publicly stated their support for a Commission of Inquiry in Myanmar are EU members, but regrets that neither the EU as a bloc nor several of its influential members—including Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden—have not done so.

After more than three years of ‘wait and see’, it is time the EU and its member states translate their concern about Myanmar’s human rights situation into public support for the establishment of a UN-led Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law in Myanmar. 


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