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Indonesia: Letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Urging Indonesia to Support a UN Commission of Inquiry for Burma

Dear Dr. Natelagawa,

We write to you regarding the serious human rights situation in Burma. Human Rights Watch urges Indonesia to support a United Nations Commission of Inquiry in discussions at the ongoing 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. 

Your predecessor, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, once emphasized the necessity for Indonesia to take an active role in encouraging genuine reform in Burma.  He said of the divergent approaches taken by Asian countries to ensuring that Burma's "roadmap to democracy" is credibly implemented, "Some countries in the region choose to be indifferent but for Indonesia, we can't afford to ignore this problem. We have to be pro-active." 

We note that in June 2010, Indonesia called for the UN to investigate allegations that Israeli security forces committed serious violations of international law in using lethal force after boarding ships that were part of an "aid flotilla" to Gaza on May 31, 2010, leading to the deaths of at least 10 activists.  In a statement you gave to the Organisation of Islamic Conference Executive Committee in Jeddah on June 6, you stated, "[T]he killing and injuring of scores of innocent civilians represents a gross violation of international law. ... A prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation into the attack is an absolute necessity."

We urge your government to take a similarly proactive position on accountability for serious human rights violations in Burma by publicly supporting the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry for Burma.

More than a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and various EU member states have already publicly pledged their support for an international commission for Burma.

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, Indonesia 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.

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 Indonesia 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, particularly during the ongoing autumn session of the UN General Assembly.

We look forward to discussing this issue with you.

Sincerely yours,

Elaine Pearson

Deputy Director, Asia Division

Human Rights Watch

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