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EU: Press Burma’s President on Rights Reforms

Visiting Leader Should Endorse UN Presence, Grant Full Humanitarian Access

(Brussels) – European Union leaders should press Burmese President Thein Sein on adopting key rights reforms during his visit this week to Brussels, Human Rights Watch said today. Thein Sein is set to meet a top-tier roster of leaders on March 5, including Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament; José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council; Catherine Ashton, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy; and others.

Burma’s president should be urged to honor his pledges to permit an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with a full rights protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate and allow full and unimpeded access of humanitarian organizations to areas where civilians are in need, Human Rights Watch said.

“EU leaders should treat the reform efforts to date in Burma as just the start of a process, not the end,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “They should of course encourage President Thein Sein’s reforms but also press him to address the hard reality of serious ongoing human rights violations in Burma.”

Human Rights Watch said that EU leaders should recognize that recent positive changes in Burma are due in large measure to international pressure and the Burmese leadership’s desire to escape economic and political isolation. Thus it is critical that the EU not ignore ongoing abuses by the Burmese security forces, including attacks on civilians in ethnic conflict areas and crackdowns on peaceful protesters in Rangoon and elsewhere.

Since the resumption of the armed conflict with the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State in 2011, the Burmese military has been responsible for numerous violationsof the laws of war, including shelling of civilians, summary executions, rape, the use of child soldiers, unlawful forced labor, and looting. Tens of thousands of displaced Kachin civilians have been unable to gain access to humanitarian assistance.  

The government has also failed to address deadly sectarian violence against ethnic Rohingya Muslims and others last year in Arakan State, Human Rights Watch said. The government-formed inquiry on the violence again postponed the publication of its findings, until late March. Thein Sein has already indicated on his European trip that his government does not intend to revise the 1982 Citizenship Law, whose discriminatory provisions are used to deny citizenship to most Rohingya.

EU leaders should urge Thein Sein to allow unimpeded humanitarian assistance to Kachin and Arakan States and other areas where the population is at risk, Human Rights Watch said. EU member states and the EU Commission have increased humanitarian assistance to Burma although there have been ongoing government obstacles. Despite specific promises by Thein Sein to permit greater assistance, security forces have blocked, harassed or failed to protect aid convoys to beleaguered populations such as Kachin outside of government controlled areas and to camps of displaced Rohingya Muslims.

Thein Sein should permit the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)to establish a regular presence in the country as he pledged to US President Barack Obama in November, Human Rights Watch said. While the government did allow three OHCHR staff to monitor developments in Arakan State, such monitoring is urgently needed elsewhere in Burma. The OHCHR presence should have a full mandate for rights protection, promotion, and technical assistance. Doing so would be in keeping with a recent European Parliament resolution urging the government “to accelerate the implementation of its commitment to establishing an OHCHR Country Office” in the country.

Human Rights Watch urged EU leaders to make clear that without an agreement on an OHCHR office with a full mandate to monitor and report on rights developments, the EU will sponsor a Burma resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for such an office and extending the existing mandate of the UN special rapporteur for Burma.

“Thein Sein no doubt has his talking points polished and is primed to be applauded for his reforms. But any realistic analysis of the current situation on the ground in Burma would conclude much more needs to be done to entrench reforms,” Leicht said. “The EU is not genuinely assisting Burma’s transition – and, more importantly, its people – if it settles for feel-good platitudes. Only constructive and firm pressure will ensure durable protections for civilians, and basic human rights for all. ”

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