(New York) - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and governments attending a “pledging” conference in Burma should focus on urgent humanitarian access and discuss long-term reconstruction at a later date, Human Rights Watch said today.

Three weeks since Cyclone Nargis, Burmese government blocks on aid have kept the vast majority of the 2 million affected people from getting assistance.

Secretary-General Ban will visit Burma on Thursday and Friday to assess the humanitarian situation. On Sunday he will attend a “pledging” conference organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UN to address Burma’s long-term reconstruction. The conference appears to have replaced an earlier ASEAN initiative to set up a humanitarian coalition to break the government-imposed impasse and “to ensure timely and adequate assistance” to the cyclone’s victims.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the military government will misuse the conference to deflect international pressure to allow immediate humanitarian access to victims. It is not known if the junta will even send officials with decision-making authority to the conference.

“Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other diplomats should not show up in Rangoon with smiles and praise, but with blunt demands to Burma’s generals to immediately allow full access to aid,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s long past the time for high-level visits and meetings that end in empty promises while the cyclone victims suffer.”

The United Nations has reported that its agencies and partners have been able to reach only about 25 percent of the population affected by the cyclone. The Burmese government continues to prevent foreign humanitarian workers, including health, logistic, and water and sanitation experts, from reaching some of the worst affected areas of the Irrawaddy Delta, severely limiting the ability of aid agencies to respond effectively or monitor the humanitarian situation. The Burmese authorities have themselves carried out only limited relief work in the delta.

Today, the Burmese government refused permission for US ships off the coast of Burma to deliver desperately needed aid. French and British aid ships also remain in the area, unable to deliver assistance.

“Secretary-General Ban should avoid the Burmese government’s time-tested trap of dangling petty concessions as a delaying tactic,” said Adams. “The junta no doubt hopes that the UN and donor states will accept a ‘successful’ pledging conference in exchange for easing the demand for immediate access.”

The Burmese authorities have requested long-term reconstruction funds on the specious grounds that the emergency relief stage is already over. They have sought to buttress this argument by taking foreign envoys, including the ASEAN assessment team, on propaganda tours of small, carefully controlled camps on Rangoon’s outskirts. And state television has shown endless footage of military officials handing out aid packages, while the government’s response has largely been limited to photo opportunities.

Human Rights Watch urged participants at Sunday’s donor conference to make any offers of future assistance for long-term reconstruction contingent on immediate, unimpeded access to all of the affected people in the delta. High-level representatives of the Burmese government who can make decisions on behalf of the rulign State Peace and Development Council must be present at the pledging conference.

Human Rights Watch said that when the time comes for discussions of long-term reconstruction – after the immediate humanitarian needs have been met – the donor community should adopt a principled approach for such projects. At a minimum, the donor community should insist that:

  • Assessment teams from international organizations and countries considering pledges should have full and unimpeded access to affected areas to determine reconstruction needs;
  • All internationally funded reconstruction activities should be conducted by recognized and qualified agencies, rather than by providing funding directly to the Burmese authorities, and should be monitored by the implementing agency or country;
  • All reconstruction aid should be monitored to ensure that aid is not diverted by the Burmese authorities, and to guard against forced labor, forced relocation, land seizure, and other well-documented abuses systematically carried out by the Burmese government;
  • Funding agencies should consult with affected communities, religious officials, ethnic minorities, and a broad range of civil society actors when considering reconstruction projects;
  • No reconstruction contracts should go to any Burmese company or individual under international sanctions, or to companies owned or controlled by the Burmese military; and,
  • Before committing to reconstruction projects, donor governments should require that the Burmese government, which has an estimated US$4 billion in foreign reserves and receives an estimated $150 million in monthly gas exports revenues, formally commit to making a significant contribution to the reconstruction efforts.

“The diplomats shouldn’t be talking about reconstruction when they still need to be talking getting access for emergency aid,” said Adams. “And part of that message should be about holding accountable those officials responsible for preventable deaths.”