Obama Commissions Inquiry of Burmese Human Rights


By Nehginpao Kipgen

Aug 31, 2010


With just a little over two months before the general election in Burma, which is scheduled for Nov. 7, the United States joined Australia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia in calling for the creation of a U.N.-led commission to investigate alleged war crimes by Burma’s military junta.

On Aug. 18, the White House in a statement said the commission could advance the cause of human rights in Burma by “addressing issues of accountability” for members of the regime. The Obama administration also hinted at the possibility of further sanctions.

Such a commission of inquiry against the military leaders has also been sought by the Burmese human rights groups. The issue took prominence when Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, released a critical report to the Human Rights Council in March of this year.

“According to consistent reports, the possibility exists that some of these human rights violations may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the statute of the International Criminal Court,” said Quintana.

Since the diplomatic engagement of the Obama administration with the ruling military junta, which began in September 2009, has not yielded the desired results, there were not too many options left on the table.

During the past 11 months of engagement, the Obama administration has apparently learned more about the intention and psychology of the Burmese military junta. This gives the White House an opportunity to redraw its strategy to better deal with the recalcitrant members of the State Peace and Development Council.

Washington has tried to reach out to the Burmese leadership through high-level visits. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited the country in November 2009 and May of this year. Neither visit, however, yielded the desired results.

The Obama administration had anticipated a positive response from the junta, but its primary demands, such as release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the creation of a free and fair environment before the general election, have not been implemented.

That disappointment has been exacerbated by the news that Burma may be seeking a nuclear program, with the support of North Korea. Moreover, the Obama administration has not ruled out tougher sanctions.

The proposed commission of inquiry could be through the U.N. Human Rights Council, through a U.N. General Assembly resolution, by the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, or by a vote at the U.N. Security Council, and could eventually lead to a war crimes prosecution.

Any attempt to go through the Security Council is likely to be opposed by a veto-wielding China, and perhaps by Russia. The Bosnian war crimes commission in the early 1990s was an instance where the secretary general initiated the case.

Though the prospect of a commission of inquiry to prosecute senior general Than Shwe (the chief of Burma’s junta) is debatable, such action may help prevent the younger generation of the junta from committing further crimes against their own people.Related Articles

The Liberian ex-President Charles Taylor is on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes. Sudan’s leader, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 but has yet to be arrested. Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, was arrested after leaving office and tried for war crimes, although he died during the trial.

Now that the Obama administration has endorsed a commission of inquiry, it must see this through to the end. A commitment from the U.N. secretary general, the Human Rights Council, or the General Assembly, and wider support from the international community are essential to launching a commission.

Meanwhile, the United States should not abandon the policy of engagement. The Obama administration needs to appoint the special representative for Burma that was mandated by the Congress in 2008.

The special envoy, in consultation with other stakeholders, such as China, Russia, India, Japan, ASEAN, and the EU, needs to work toward coordinated international action on Burma.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947–2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (Kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia. His articles have been widely published on five continents.

Note: The article will be published in print version (newspaper in New York) on September 1, 2010.

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