Dear Foreign Minister,
We write to you regarding the serious human rights situation in Burma. Human Rights Watch urges the European Union to include support for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry in the annual Burma resolution of the upcoming autumn session of the UN General Assembly. Such a commission should investigate reports of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma by all parties since 2002, and identify perpetrators of such violations with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.
In March 2010, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, called on the UN to consider the possibility of establishing a Commission of Inquiry into crimes in violation of international law committed in Burma.
In support of this call, on May 20 the European Parliament passed a resolution on Burma calling on the EU High Representative and member states "publicly to support the recommendation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma/Myanmar that the United Nations establish a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma/Myanmar, and to include this request in the draft resolution to be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly in 2010."
We urge your government to publicly support the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry for Burma, and to actively engage on behalf of an EU-sponsored UN resolution that will make it happen. A few EU member states, as well as the government of Australia, have already publicly pledged their support for an international commission for Burma. In July, 32 United States senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on the US government to publicly support a Commission of Inquiry; senior US officials have written to Human Rights Watch that the Obama administration is seriously considering support for this proposal.
The United Nations has established many commissions of inquiries in the past to investigate serious violations of international law, but never with respect to Burma. The UN has issued highly critical human rights reports on Burma annually for nearly two decades. These reports have demonstrated that serious crimes by government security forces are widespread and systematic, and continue with utter impunity.
The Burmese government and non-state armed groups involved in Burma's long-running internal armed conflicts are bound by international humanitarian law (the laws of war). The Armed Forces of Burma have been responsible for numerous serious human rights and laws-of-war violations, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions of civilians and captured combatants, sexual violence against women and girls, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on populations' livelihood and food supplies, forced displacement of populations, and use of anti-personnel landmines. Non-state armed groups in Burma also have been implicated in serious abuses, including forced labor, recruitment of child soldiers, and anti-personnel landmine use.
Some observers assert that establishing an international Commission of Inquiry and pursuing accountability for serious human rights crimes may negatively affect the conduct of the 2010 elections, Burma's first since 1990, by driving the Burmese military further into isolation, making it more resistant to pressure for greater democratization. Human Rights Watch believes that, if anything, the opposite will be true. Experience in other countries that have undertaken an accountability process shows that a Commission of Inquiry, by demonstrating that there may be penal consequences for serious human rights crimes, may deter further criminality while facilitating a process in which highly abusive figures are marginalized and a more reformist leadership is able to emerge
Human Rights Watch believes that it is not enough to simply continue to document and publish reports on the human rights situation in Burma. Instead, the EU can play a crucial role in helping to bring an end to these abuses by supporting an international Commission of Inquiry into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law perpetrated by all parties to Burma's civil conflict: the Burmese army and the more than 30 non-state ethnic armed groups that have operated in Burma's hinterlands for decades. Such an inquiry will not only support and protect the victims of serious abuses in Burma and arrest the continuing cycle of impunity, but will also generate support for peace-building and broader respect for human rights in Burma.
On the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions last year, the EU declared:
"International law, including international humanitarian law, is one of the strongest tools the international community has to maintain international order and to ensure the protection and dignity of all persons. The European Union will continue to do its utmost to promote an international order where no state or individual is above the law and no one is outside the protection of the law"
In May, prior to the Kampala Review Conference of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the EU once again pledged its active support of "efforts to address the situation of the victims of the most serious crimes, whose plight should always remain as the main concern for those working on international criminal justice."
Victims of serious international crimes in Burma deserve recognition and justice, too. 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; violations that in some cases amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It is time for the EU and other like-minded states to ensure that these crimes will be subject to greater international scrutiny and take steps to halt the cycle of impunity in Burma. The establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry would be an important first step.
We attach a comprehensive Q & A on an international Commission of Inquiry for Burma that explains why a commission is necessary, its scope, and how it could be established, among other issues. We trust that you will give due consideration to publicly supporting a commission and actively engage to see that it is established during the upcoming autumn session of the UN General Assembly.
We look forward to discussing this issue with your government's representatives.
Human Rights Watch
Mr. Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament
Ms. Heidi Hautala, Chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights
Ms. Eva Joly, Chair of the European Parliament's Development Committee
Mr. Gabriele Albertini, Chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee
Mr. Werner Langen, Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation for relations with the countries of South-east Asia and ASEAN
Ambassadors to the EU's Political and Security Committee
EU Ambassadors to the United Nations in New York
EU Ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva
Representatives of the EU Asia Working Party
Representatives of the EU Working Party on Public International Law
Representatives of the EU Working Party on Human Rights