(Tokyo) - Burma's elections have been announced for November 7, yet there is little optimism they will produce a free and democratic country. The military will continue to rule with fear and repression, and commit abuses against civilians.
Having been observing the situation in Burma as a member of international human rights NGO, I believe that Japan will do the people of Burma no favor if it blithely accepts these elections as an exercise in democracy. To ameliorate the harsh human rights reality in Burma, a high-level United Nations inquiry into the allegations of widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law is necessary, and Japan should support the establishment of an International Commission of Inquiry for Burma. .
The Burmese army has over a half century been responsible for numerous serious abuses, including deliberate attacks on civilians, summary executions, sexual violence against women and girls, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on people's livelihoods and food supplies, forced displacement of populations, and use of anti-personnel landmines. On the other hand, non-state armed groups in Burma such as the ethnic Karen, Karenni, Shan and Wa rebel armies also have been implicated in serious abuses, including forced labor, recruitment of child soldiers, and landmine use.
The long list of abuses by the Burmese military and armed groups has been included in 19 annual UN General Assembly resolutions on Burma, and in numerous reports to the UN human rights body. It is not enough, though, simply to continue to publish reports on atrocities in Burma because Burmese authorities have shown no interest in ending serious crimes.
In March the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, an Argentine lawyer, reported to the Human Rights Council that patterns of crimes in Burma could amount to breaches of international law. He recommended that the UN "consider the possibility to establish a commission of inquiry with a specific fact-finding mandate to address the question of international crimes." The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Czech Republic and Slovakia have publically announced their support for an inquiry.
Besides Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic and many other groups have all documented war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Burma.
The time has come for the UN to take the next step in the process to bring justice to Burma. All those responsible, regardless of position or rank, should be held accountable for their abuses.
Commissions of inquiry for other countries such as East Timor, Israel, Guinea and Sudan have shown that this process can promote accountability.
Japan is one of only a few Asian countries to have ratified the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, which tries persons accused of the most serious crimes in violation of international humanitarian law. It has also shown a positive attitude toward democratic coexistence in Asia. Now is the time for Japan to express support for an International Commission of Inquiry for Burma, and exercise leadership in solving human rights issues.
Kanae Doi is Japan Director for Human Rights Watch