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Dear Foreign Minister,

We are writing to urge you to ensure the adoption of stronger European Union financial sanctions against a defined group of Burmese individuals and entities.

As you concluded in your General Affairs and External Relations Council conclusions of October 15, the situation in Burma is extremely serious and this is the time to “increase direct pressure on the regime through stronger measures”.

Few disagree that Burma is ruled by a repressive military regime that fiercely opposes democratization. Since it came to power in 1988, it has had a dismal human rights record, including security forces that continue to carry out extrajudicial killings, the routine use of torture, the forcible relocation of persons, the use of forced labor and child soldiers, and the use of violence to quash peaceful protests for democracy. The recent crackdown on protestors, including the highly-publicized attacks on thousands of monks participating in pro-democracy protests, have sparked widespread international outrage, resulting in the widening of economic sanctions against the regime including those by the EU. While the EU sanctions are welcomed and necessary, they must be regularly reviewed, amended and enhanced in order to maximize their effectiveness.

Human Rights Watch welcomes that the EU, along with other like-minded states, has imposed various sanctions against the regime in Burma, including an arms embargo, an asset freeze, visa restrictions, and, most recently, import, export and new investment bans in the sectors of logs, timber and mining of metals, minerals, precious and semi precious stones. Targeted sanctions such as these serve as a sustained message to the ruling regime that an atmosphere of change is expected. But a genuine dialogue leading to political change in the country is unlikely unless the generals come under sustained economic pressure that they cannot withstand.

In order to maximize the efficacy of efforts to apply such pressure in the interest of human rights, the EU and others imposing sanctions need to coordinate their efforts. The United States has adopted some targeted measures against the junta, including a longstanding ban on new investment, all imports, and the export of financial services to Burma, but it has yet to take steps to block exports to key sectors that benefit the regime or to fully ensure that goods of Burmese origin cannot be imported into the US.

Recently, US businesses, trade organizations and industry leaders have called for a more stringent ban on the import of gemstones from Burma to close a loophole that allows the import of Burmese gemstones that are cut or polished in third countries. The Burmese mines are primarily owned or controlled by the SPDC; revenues from sales of gems, metals, and minerals benefit the regime; and conditions in the mines are reportedly appalling. The timber sector likewise is dominated by the SPDC and has been associated with allegations of human rights abuses.

Recommended EU Action: In order to complement existing EU sanctions and ensure their efficacy, the US should tighten its sanctions regime accordingly. We call on you to work with the US Administration to ensure that it takes needed steps to more effectively block trade with Burma’s timber, gemstone and mining sectors.

Similarly, financial sanctions targeted against the regime need to be consolidated. While the EU has long imposed visa restrictions and asset freezes against select Burmese individuals and entities, the US has more stringent measures in place that also deny such individuals and entities access to US banking systems and international financial transactions. The US also has the capacity to refuse access to US financial institutions for any financial institution that services the ruling junta in Burma, which gives banks in third countries a strong incentive to uphold the US measures. In fact, it appears that at least in some cases Singaporean banks have proactively cut off access to funds of US-sanctioned Burmese entities in light of the US’s ability to impose secondary sanctions. The EU should coordinate with the US to ensure that US-sanctioned individuals and entities are not able to simply bypass these US sanctions by using EU financial institutions and services instead.

Banking sanctions are the key to effective enforcement of all the other measures the EU has taken. All other sanctions – whether investment or import bans – go after the sources of the SPDC’s income. But the government has always been able to counter such measures by going after new sources of income -- new investors and new markets in countries (particularly in Asia) that have not imposed similar measures. But banking sanctions have the potential of freezing the government’s income itself, no matter what its source. Whether the regime makes money from gem deals, oil deals, or drug deals, it can’t benefit unless it can use banks outside Burma. And the US and EU, acting together, can prevent the SPDC from using most banks in the international system, and even deny it access to its existing resources in those banks.

The EU has recognized the need to increase direct pressure on the regime in Burma. Judicious, calibrated and targeted sanctions have proven effective in achieving the goals of political change.

Recommended EU Action: EU-imposed sanctions should be reviewed, amended and enhanced to ensure that those entities and individuals denied access to financial transactions in the United States are not circumventing the US-imposed sanction by using financial institutions within the Member States of the EU.

As a logical extension of the current EU asset freeze sanctions regime, the EU should extend its sanctions to deny identified entities and individuals access to banking systems within EU borders and should prohibit them from making any financial transaction that uses clearing house banks within the EU. Drawing on the experience of the US, the EU should adopt enhanced anti-money laundering and sanctions measures that would deny foreign financial institutions access to the financial systems within EU Member States if they fail to comply with the EU-imposed sanctions against Burmese individuals and entities. Only when international efforts are consolidated will the ruling junta feel the true bite of sanctions.

We also call on the EU to examine ways in which it can proactively require the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) to prohibit specific, targeted Burmese entities and individuals from using the SWIFT network to conduct international financial transactions. Sanctioned Burmese individuals and entities should not be able to circumvent financial sanctions by originating or terminating financial transactions in non-sanctioning countries. Given SWIFT’s position as the dominant global network for financial transactions, if it were to deny sanctioned entities from engaging in most types of cross-border financial transactions, then the sanctions would have a more far-reaching impact. Therefore, the EU should examine whether it can regulate SWIFT to prevent sanctioned Burmese individuals and entities from accessing the SWIFT network.

We call on you to ensure that the newly appointed EU Special Envoy to Burma, Pierro Fassino, is tasked with ensuring the effective implementation of EU sanctions on Burmese officials and entities, that these sanctions are kept under constant review and enhanced, and that they are well coordinated with other like-minded states to ensure maximum impact.

We also urge the EU to take every opportunity in the international arena to raise issues of human rights concerns in Burma, including the continued and persistent abuse of children, especially through the use of child soldiers.

The ruling junta has completely failed to address in any substantial way the continued recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch into the use of child soldiers revealed that the Burmese army has recruited thousands of children, some as young as ten years old, to fill its ranks and maintain its military stronghold over the country. Unable to find willing volunteers, recruiters pick up young boys off the street to fill their recruitment quotas. New recruits are in such demand that children have literally become commodities, and are routinely sold by brokers in exchange for cash payments and rice. Officers at recruitment centers falsify records to register children as 18, even if they are clearly underage. After 18 weeks of brutal training, these child soldiers are deployed to battalions, where they are often forced to fight against armed opposition groups, or commit human rights violations against civilians, including burning villages and rounding up civilians for forced labor.

In the coming weeks, the United Nations Security Council working group on Children in Armed Conflict will be focusing on violations in Burma. In resolutions 1539 and 1612, the
Security Council stated that it will consider targeted measures, including embargoes on arms and other military assistance, against parties to armed conflict that persist in recruiting and using child soldiers in violation of international law. Since 2002, the UN Secretary-General has identified Burma’s army in four consecutive reports as violating international standards regarding the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Given the Security Council’s commitments and Burma’s abysmal record, an arms embargo is clearly warranted.

Recommended EU Action: Consistent with the EU’s own Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict and the arms embargo it has already imposed against Burma, the EU should use its December GAERC meeting to publicly agree to pursue a Security Council arms embargo against Burma under the Council’s children and armed conflict agenda. Moreover, given China’s key role in the Security Council, the EU should engage China as a partner in securing concrete progress on Burma’s violations against children in armed conflict.

China remains the regime’s chief backer and protector. No serious change in Burma is likely to happen unless China puts pressure on the Burmese government to embark on a program of political reform. China is now blocking further UN Security Council action.

Recommended EU Action: The EU should raise its concerns with Chinese officials about its role in protecting the Burmese regime during the upcoming EU-China Summit. It should engage in sustained pressure, including public statements, about China’s role in Burma.

Until the SPDC demonstrates a respect for human rights and the rule of law, it should expect concerted and coordinated international sanctions. Only when international efforts are consolidated will the ruling junta feel the true bite of sanctions. Only when sanctions bite will the junta be willing to seriously engage in dialogue to promote real political change. Only when political change occurs, will the people of Burma enjoy human rights, democratic principles and rule of law.

We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.


Lotte Leicht
EU Director

Brad Adams
Asia Director

CC: EU PSC Ambassadors
EU Political Directors
EU Special Envoy, Mr. Piero Fassino

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