The future of a UN inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese regime has been thrown into doubt after a number of one-time supporters of a probe, including Britain and the US, appear to have retreated in the wake of reforms made by the new government.
Altogether 16 governments threw their weight behind a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) first mooted by UN Special Rapporteur to Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana. But the US was the first to publicly drop its support, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggesting during her December 2011 visit that Washington now favours a wait-and-see approach.
She told reporters following the visit that “it’s important to try to give the new government and the opposition a chance to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving [accountability for past state crimes]”.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon announced yesterday that he will visitBurma“in the near future” and confirmed the appointment of his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, as special envoy to the country.
It is as yet unclear how prominently the discussion of human rights will feature on the secretary general’s agenda when he visits, with the trip more likely to focus on positive engagement. Ban has previously been criticised for failing to vocally back a CoI on Burma, which would investigate abuses committed by the army and sanctioned by the regime.
A number of governments who supported the now CoI now feel they should gauge the outcome of Burma’s reform programme before pressing ahead with an inquiry, but the about-face has drawn criticism.
“It’s unfortunate that the 16 countries who stated their support for a CoI are now temporarily retreating from that support in the hope that the government pursues some mechanism for accountability for past abuses and, crucially, takes steps to end impunity and ongoing violations,” David Mathieson, Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
The international community has broadly welcomed the positive changes seen to be happening in Burma, including the release of political prisoners, easing of media restrictions and ceasefire discussions with rebel factions. Earlier this week the EU agreed to begin easing sanctions against Burma and the US is set to review theirs immediately after the 1 April by-elections.
Some critics have said however that the response is premature and done with disproportionate enthusiasm. Even if the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, wins every available seat in the April vote, it will struggle to challenge the parliamentary supremacy of the military-backed government.
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said however that a CoI can remain on the table and “be revived very quickly at any time”.
“If there are genuine domestic efforts to achieve justice and accountability, and they have the support of society in Burma, including ethnic people, then the UK is likely to support that process,” he said.
The hurdles a UN inquiry into Burma would face are daunting, not least because the current constitution provides blanket immunity to all former and serving military generals.
Aung San Suu Kyi has voiced support for the creation of a Truth Commission, but even that may be a distant prospect as the international community looks keener to encourage Burma’s ongoing reforms rather than punish it for the crimes of the past.