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Burma: US Should Complete Policy Review

Principled Diplomacy, Aid, and Targeted Sanctions Can Spur Change

(New York) - The Obama administration should promptly conclude its Burma policy review and adopt initiatives to make its policies on diplomacy, sanctions and humanitarian aid more effective, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released today.

"Delays in announcing a new Burma policy could encourage Burmese military leaders to believe the US is weakening its commitment to human rights and pluralism," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Although the situation in Burma seems intractable, an energetic and revitalized approach to Burma from the Obama administration could help bring positive change."

Human Rights Watch recommended that the United States appoint its own special envoy on Burma, who would have a direct line to the secretary of state and specific instructions to engage in a principled way with the Burmese government and key bilateral and multilateral actors. Vigorous diplomacy is specifically needed with China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan.

Human Rights Watch also recommended the establishment of a Burma Contact Group or similar form of multilateral grouping to meet and regularly discuss diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government on a range of issues. This could have the effect of converging the views and policies of China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the European Union, and the United Nations, and gradually minimize the ability of Burma to play states off against each other. There is considerable common ground on a range of issues, including the need for political reform and credible elections involving the political opposition, concern over Burma's trafficking in heroin and methamphetamines, and the need for a regional approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such a grouping would demand that the US remain firm on fundamental human rights principles and not engage in diplomatic horse-trading on core issues of reform.

As the UN has long been the focal point for diplomacy on Burma, Human Rights Watch urged the US to support the continuation of a special envoy of the secretary-general. It is crucial that the secretary-general and the special envoy not accept access or high-level meetings as the goal or a sign of progress in Burma, as they have in the past. The envoy should be an individual with the principles, skills, and backing of the international community to make an impact.

"More high-level diplomacy is welcome, so long as the US stands by its principles to uphold the basic rights of the Burmese people and work for a genuine and credible process of political reform," said Adams. "But there should be no wishful thinking or illusions that more conciliatory talk from the US and others will somehow cause Burma's generals to alter their plans."

Human Rights Watch said that generalized sanctions on Burma that have had little or no impact and have not been targeted on key decision-makers and human rights abusers should be reconsidered and phased out at an appropriate time. At the same time, properly imposed, targeted sanctions - such as financial sanctions on individuals and entities, investment and trade sanctions that are specifically focused on companies or economic sectors of greatest concern, arms embargoes, restrictions on military assistance, and travel bans on individuals -should be tightened, as they can be effective in bringing about improvements in human rights.

Human Rights Watch particularly urged the United States to expand, strengthen, and fully implement financial sanctions. The US should take the lead in coordinating efforts among the US, EU, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada to target key individuals, both military and civilian, who bear responsibility for abuses; their business interests; and the individuals and entities whose considerable financial support of the Burmese government could undermine these sanctions. These individuals are at the apex of the system inside Burma and susceptible to this kind of pressure. More effective coordination could also lead to greater support from other key states, such as Japan and Singapore. EU states have been noticeably slow to implement full financial sanctions; the US should take the lead and then press European countries to follow suit. Slow implementation by the US and poor coordination internationally have undermined financial and other sanctions, and kept them from realizing their potential.

"The US has legal tools it is not yet using - for example, to deny foreign banks access to the US financial system if they are holding targeted Burmese accounts or otherwise undermining US measures, and going after transactions by the oil and gas authority, the key revenue-generating entity in Burma," said Adams. "This requires the dedication of intelligence resources and continual monitoring and adjustment by US officials."

Human Rights Watch has long called for increased assistance to deal with acute humanitarian needs in Burma. US and other donor funding should increase, but in a coordinated and realistic manner. The military government spends next to nothing on the welfare of its people. Combined social spending is estimated to be a paltry 0.8 percent of GDP for 2008-2009, making public expenditures on health and education in Burma among the lowest in the world. Huge numbers of Burmese live in grinding poverty, resulting from decades of government economic mismanagement and corruption. Donors will need to stress the importance of transparency and accountability in the delivery of humanitarian aid, including the need for approaches that strengthen civil society rather than existing corrupt power structures and that respond to the views and needs of ordinary people.

"The US and other donors offer to provide more humanitarian aid with appropriate oversight, but they should also insist that their contributions are matched by a genuine commitment from the military government to use its vast revenues from natural resources to help the Burmese people," said Adams.

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