Monday, June 8, 2009

Jurists Want Security Council to Open Burma War Crimes Probe

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — Thanks to support from China and Russia, Burma’s military regime has escaped harsh criticism at the UN Security Council. But this diplomatic deal could come under pressure following the release of a report commissioned by leading international jurists, accusing the regime of committing "war crimes."

"We call on the UN Security Council urgently to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma," wrote the five jurists from Britain, Mongolia, South Africa, the United States and Venezuela in the introduction to the report, "Crimes in Burma."

"The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Burma," added the jurists, who include South Africa’s Richard Goldstone, Britain’s Sir Geoffrey Nice and Venezuela’s Pedro Nikken. "The report’s findings are both disturbing and compelling."

The report, which was released in late May, accuses the regime in Burma of perpetrating "epidemic levels" of forced labor, the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture, and displacement of more than a million people.

The scale of violence—as the Burmese military continues its decades-long campaign to crush ethnic rebel movements in the eastern corner of this Southeast Asian nation—has also left a trail of destruction that has parallels with the brutal civil war in Sudan.

"One statistic may stand out above all others, however: the destruction, displacement or damage of over 3,000 ethnic nationality villages over the past 12 years—many burned to the ground," the report revealed. "This is comparable to the number of villages estimated to have been destroyed or damaged in Darfur."

Prodding the Security Council to consider the violations in Burma as it has done with Darfur is only one part of the argument being pushed in this initiative to trigger a probe. The other is the source of the details revealed about the on-going violations in Burma. The information was culled from reports submitted over the years by UN special envoys assigned as part of a monitoring mechanism to inform the world body about the situation in Burma.

"UN mechanisms have noted there are widespread abuses in Burma," says Tyler Giannini, a co-author of the report that was prepared by the International Human Rights Clinic at the law school of the US-based Harvard University. "There is a prima facie case for the UN Security Council to set up a commission to investigate crimes against humanity in Burma."

UN General Assembly resolutions on Burma reflect this. "Discrimination and violations suffered by persons belonging to ethnic nationalities of Myanmar [include] extrajudicial killing, rape and other forms of sexual violence persistently carried out by members of the armed forces," stated one resolution before the General Assembly in 2007.

But, for the Security Council to issue a binding resolution to establish a special commission of inquiry is a daunting task. "It is a very tough job," says Thaung Htun, UN affairs representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratically-elected government forced into exile.

"The Security Council is very much divided on Burma, with France, the US and UK in one camp and Russia and China in another," Htun told IPS. "Russia and China continue to say that the situation in Burma is not a threat to international peace and security."

That argument by the Burmese junta’s strongest backers in the Security Council embodies the hurdles that have been placed ahead of any resolution calling the regime to account for its litany of abuses. The first breakthrough was in 2006, when the Burmese situation was placed for discussion on the Council’s agenda.

That was followed in late 2007 by a statement released by the president of the Council following a harsh crackdown of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters led by thousands of Buddhist monks in September 2007.

In late May this year, the Council issued a unanimous press statement calling for the release of the over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma - including that of democratically-elected prime minister and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The statement also expressed concern over the recent trial Suu Kyi has been subject to.

This slight opening in the Council to comment on Burma came after the other available UN mechanisms proved ineffective. The military regime has barely demonstrated a shift in policy since 1992, when resolutions critical of the regime began to be placed annually at the General Assembly. The junta responded with a similar cold shoulder when hauled up for violations at the UN human rights body in Geneva.

But there was no mention of war crimes being committed by the regime in those UN reports and resolutions spanning the last 16 years. Consequently, the Harvard University report commissioned by the five international jurists marks a watershed.

"There has been some talk within the Burmese democracy movement about this issue of war crimes but it did not result in a report like the Harvard one," says Khin Ohmar, foreign affairs secretary at the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a network of Burmese political exiles. "This is the first time such a case has been made formally."

"But we should not let this move overshadow the need for dialogue and reconciliation in Burma," she said in an interview. "I see it as two separate issues. This is all about justice. Seeking justice cannot be undermined by the political process."

Another factor has also helped in placing the Burmese regime in this new line of fire - the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002 in The Hague.

Currently the ICC—which has the authority under the international treaty that created it to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes—is probing violations in Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Darfur.

"The emergence of a new international justice order is a factor to push for a probe into crimes against humanity in Burma," says David Scott Mathieson, the Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights watchdog. "And the international community now knows more of what is now happening in Burma."

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