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Quintana’s Report Illustrates Military Regime’s Failure to Promote and Protect Human Rights; Calls for Commission of Inquiry into Abuses

By Burma Partnership  •  March 14, 2011

On 7 March 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, submitted his progress report to the UN General Assembly. The information in the report reinforces Quintana’s recent assertion that “[d]espite the promise of a transition [in Burma], the human rights situation remains grave.”

The report notes that 2,189 prisoners of conscience remain in detention in Burma as of January 2011. Freedom of expression is still curtailed. Armed conflict between the military regime and ethnic armed resistance groups has continued since the November 2010 elections, and tensions remain high. Quintana notes that reports of ceasefire groups re-arming in anticipation of resumption of armed conflict. Rohingyas continue to flee persecution.

Burma’s military regime flatly denies abuses and refuses to take the necessary steps to promote and protect the basic human rights of Burma’s citizens.

In January 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Burma’s human rights record, which included an opportunity for member states to raise concerns and propose actions to improve human rights protections. At the session, the regime challenged allegations of widespread and systematic human rights violations, including rape and sexual violence by armed forces against women, detention, torture and murder of prisoners of conscience, and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. These denials contradict overwhelming evidence and illustrate the lack of political will needed to face facts and institute real and irreversible reforms. According to Amnesty International, Burma’ military regime rejected 70 recommendations from the UPR.

The military regime also rejected international calls for free and fair elections in November 2010 and offers of support towards those ends, including election monitors. As Quintana notes, the widely condemned elections, “failed to meet international standards” and “did not guarantee the inclusion of some important sectors of society, particularly from some of the ethnic minorities and the political opposition.” Instead, rampant fraud and abuse served to install a military dominated parliament, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and 25% bloc of unelected military appointees together comprising over 80% of the national representatives.

But the military has never represented the will of, nor served the interests of the people of Burma. Through manipulation of exchange rates and accounts, high-ranking officials have earned billions from natural gas revenue and deposited the unreported income in offshore accounts. Quintana notes that natural gas sales are estimated at 70% of Burma’s total foreign exchange reserves. Unreported sales would have accounted for 57% of total budget revenue. Instead, gas sales contribute less than 1% to the budget. Quintana makes clear that the military has not used this revenue to improve educational infrastructure, or improving the socio-economic situation in Burma. In the 2010 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, Burma ranks 132nd out of 169 States in the Human Development Index, “lagging behind all of its ASEAN neighbours on most socio-economic indicators for poverty, health and education.”

The gross mismanagement of funds and outright theft of state resources that inhibit the development needed to advance rights are sure to continue under the military dominated parliament and will not end without a legitimate, transparent, and accountable government. A recently published national budget for the upcoming fiscal year perpetuates this pro-military budgeting: nearly 20% for defense, 1.3% for health, and 4.5% for education.

In addition, Burma’s military regime lacks the will and capacity to address the evidence of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, including targeted and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, rape and other forms of sexual violence, extrajudicial executions, conscription of child soldiers, forced labor, and forced displacement. The military regime has never adequately investigated these violations, and has repeatedly denied and ignored these claims. In a September 2010 letter to Quintana, the military regime suggested, “Concerning allegations of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, there is no occurrence of such crimes […].”

Noting these problems, Quintana suggests,  “[…] in the context of the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar [Burma] over a period of many years, the Special Rapporteur reiterates that it is essential for investigations of human rights violations to be conducted in an independent, impartial and credible manner, without delay.” He reiterates his March 2010 call for a Commission of Inquiry (COI) as an option to conduct such an investigation.

This week, following protests in London at six separate European embassies, Denmark and Latvia expressed support “in principle” for a COI, bringing the total to 16 countries that have endorsed an inquiry. These are important steps towards progress, but real action is still needed to stop ongoing abuses and bring about real change.

The international community must support domestic efforts towards national reconciliation and the legitimate democratic reforms required to advance and protect human rights. The United Nations must immediately establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

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