Burma's Senior General Than Shwe salutes during the Armed Forces Day parade in Burma's capital Naypyidaw on March 27, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - Governments concerned about war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma should move beyond mere condemnation and establish a United Nations commission of inquiry as follow-up to a UN expert's report on Burma released today, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter to European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton released today, Human Rights Watch called for Ashton and the EU to back the report of the UN special rapporteur on Burma, Thomas Quintana, and show leadership in support of a commission of inquiry.

More than 12 countries have publicly supported a commission of inquiry into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma, including EU member states such as the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland, as well as the United States and Canada. The EU is the lead sponsor of the annual Burma resolution at the UN General Assembly, which is currently in session in New York.

"Expressions of support for a UN commission of inquiry in Burma are mere lip service if not followed-up by action at the highest levels of the EU," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. "A commission of inquiry needs determined diplomatic engagement by EU institutions, the 27 member states, and others to rally global support for a successful UN resolution."

In its letter, Human Rights Watch expressed disappointment with Ashton's apparent lack of interest in strong and timely EU action on a commission of inquiry in Burma. Human Rights Watch urged Ashton to provide leadership and coordinate demarches to mobilize support for a commission of inquiry. Based on past experience, such as establishing a commission of inquiry for Darfur in Sudan, the EU's determination to act on accountability issues at the UN can produce results, Human Rights Watch said.

Burma's security forces have committed deliberate attacks on civilians, summary executions, sexual violence, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on populations' food supplies, forced displacement of populations, and use of anti-personnel landmines. Ethnic minority armed groups have been responsible for summary executions, used child soldiers, and deployed anti-personnel landmines. These abuses have gone unpunished for decades.

"After almost 20 years of UN resolutions condemning what amounts to war crimes in Burma, real accountability is needed to end the cycle of impunity," said Leicht. "Burma's courageous civil society activists, monks, students, ethnic minorities, and opposition leaders have called for an international commission of inquiry. They won't get a democratic government on November 7, but the UN can take a first step to ensure justice and that it will no longer be cost-free to continue committing human rights abuses."

In his latest report released on October 18, Quintana expanded and strengthened his call for a commission of inquiry. His report states: "If the Government fails to assume this responsibility [to investigate international crimes], then the responsibility falls to the international community... [T]he United Nations can establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity through resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or the Security Council, or the Secretary-General could establish it on his own initiative. Justice and accountability are the very foundation of the United Nations system rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which calls for an international order in which the rights and freedoms set out in the Declaration can be fully realized. Failing to act on accountability in Myanmar will embolden the perpetrators of international crimes and further postpone long-overdue justice."

"Combating impunity for war crimes is one of the EU's stated priorities, and its 27 member states and the high representative should heed Quintana's call for justice by vigorously pursuing the establishment of an international commission of inquiry," said Leicht. "Victims of international crimes in Burma deserve nothing less."