Myanmar: KHRG responds to UN criticism

News and Press Release
Originally published
Christopher Smith

Responding to reaction from the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma critical of a recent publication, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) has issued a statement defending the method and validity of its report.

The report, entitled "Development by Decree: The politics of poverty and control in Karen State" and released on Tuesday, contests that development projects inside Burma are used by the military regime as a means of further militarization while placing local communities in a position of heightened vulnerability to human rights abuses. The KHRG believes that the international community too often overlooks the potential for abuses when considering development projects.

The report calls into question the merits of certain development projects partly facilitated by UN agencies, specifically citing the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in its support toward the Asian Highway Project, alleging that the project has directly led to land confiscation and incidences of forced labor.

Additionally, the report warns that the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) risks abetting in rights violations through its assistance toward agricultural programs. The FAO is stated to have already awarded the government with $14 million in financial aid for an Oil Crop Cultivation Programme.

In the UN statement issued on Thursday, the KHRG report is brought into question for the incorporation of supposedly inaccurate and dated statistics, while critiquing the KHRG for not discussing the content and accuracy of its material with the UN prior to publication.

The response from the KHRG to the UN position states that the KHRG did "communicate with various UN agencies regarding some of the issues raised in the report including the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator and the Food and Agricultural Organization."

The KHRG goes to lengths to make it clear that the main focus of their report is to give voice to the local villagers most affected; a voice the KHRG believes is "very seldom heard."

With respect to the claim of inaccurate and dated material, the KHRG stands by the information accumulated from local villagers. They do, however, welcome the UN to forward specific examples of what they believe to be factually incorrect information, to which the KHRG says it will respond "with relevant information from the local villagers targeted by development projects."

Additionally, the KHRG response is highly critical of the capacity of the UN to adhere to its stated position of delivering aid only with strict attention paid to basic humanitarian principles. The KHRG argues that such a position is untenable from the onset, as any such adherence must automatically include the voice of the people. The basic parameters established by the ruling junta for the delivery and logistics of assistance are deemed to make the truthful involvement and empowerment of the local population impossible.

Further, "the principle of neutrality, which requires aid to be provided based on need rather than political considerations, is violated by UN agencies' inability to deliver aid cross-border from neighbouring countries or from central Burma to anyone living in areas not under firm SPDC control."

To give additional weight to its concerns over the role of the FAO, the KHRG notes the connection between those purported to have engaged in rights abuses and those with whom UN agencies are obliged to work.

Specifically, the KHRG challenges the UN to justify its working relationship with figures such as U Htay Oo, Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) Secretary General and Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation. By means of his former affiliation he is implicated in rights violations allegedly orchestrated and carried out by the USDA, including violent attacks on rights activists and pro-democracy campaigners. By virtue of his latter title, he is a crucial implementing partner with the FAO in their Oil Crop Cultivation Programme.

The KHRG does reiterate that it recognizes and appreciates the complexities of trying to deliver assistance inside Burma, and simply urges that the international community give priority to "devising an effective means of conducting human rights impact assessments", an approach which of necessity must incorporate the voices of the local population.