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Ramifications of Recent UN Actions for Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  April 21, 2011

The United Nations Security Council has recently intervened in internal conflicts in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), stressing the urgent need to protect civilians at risk. In only a matter of weeks, the UN Security Council has invoked the responsibility to protect twice, requiring the international community to intervene when a country fails to protect its own citizens. Does this suggest that the pattern of Security Council intervention in internal conflict is changing? Could this thinking translate into protection for civilian populations in other countries such as Burma?

In February 2011, inspired by revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, people in Libya began protesting against Colonel Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi’s regime. They called loudly for democracy to put a final end to years of repression. In an effort to end protests and maintain control over the country, Libyan authorities used military force against civilians, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Condemning the serious human rights violations in Libya, the Security Council has referred the situation to the International Criminal Court. It has also and established a no fly zone over all airspace in Libya and called for UN member states, particularly those in the region, to impose arms embargoes. More than a month after the first air strikes, it seems like there will be no quick and easy end to the war in Libya.

Since 2002, Côte d’Ivoire has experienced internal conflict and instability due to competing political forces and leadership challenges. In an effort to bring an end to the conflict, a United Nations peacekeeping mission has been present in the country since 2003 and a succession of peace accords have been struck, but all have failed. The situation escalated further following the Presidential elections in November 2010. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, tens of thousands of people have fled the armed conflict between former president Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, who after being popularly elected is considered the legitimate leader by the international community. In response to intensifying violence, in March 2011 the Human Rights Council called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. The Security Council stated that the current attacks could amount to crimes against humanity and urged all parties to cooperate with the independent Commission of Inquiry. It reiterated its support for the mandate of the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) to protect civilians. Last week, the UNOCI acted on this mandate using military force for the first time. On 11 April, former President Laurent Gbagbo was captured by Ouattara’s forces and taken into custody. He’s now being guarded by United Nations Police. This puts an end to the most recent episode of a long-term civil war.

How do Security Council responses to the situation in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire compare to the situation in Burma where severe and systematic abuses of human rights have been well documented? This includes forced relocations, forced labour, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and torture. The United Nations has passed 41 resolutions condemning the military regime for its human rights violations, but Burma’s military regime has continuously failed to act on these resolutions. In March 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, recommended the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate whether the violations carried out in Burma could amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Sixteen countries and a number of major non-governmental organizations have called for a Commission of Inquiry, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Institute and the International Centre for Transitional Justice. Despite growing support, there has been no real progress towards establishing a Commission of Inquiry or other mechanisms to prevent ongoing human rights violations in Burma.

The decisive action taken by the Security Council in response to the situations in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire raises several questions in relation to Burma and many other countries experiencing internal conflict. What specific criteria triggered such swift and decisive action from the Security Council in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire? Given the long-term conflict in Burma, why has the Security Council not taken steps to stop widespread attacks on civilians and end impunity? Finally, does Security Council action on Libya and Côte d’Ivoire set a precedent for future interventions in internal conflict in order to protect civilian populations?

Apart from Security Council intervention, there are a number of actions that United Nations bodies could take to end impunity in Burma. In June 2010, the UN Secretary General appointed a Panel of Experts to investigate major human rights violations committed in Sri Lanka at the end of the war between the Government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Panel has found “credible allegations” of serious crimes that, if proved, may amount to war crimes. This is the most significant step taken to hold perpetrators in Sri Lanka accountable. A similar action could prove to be highly effective in Burma, where the regime has demonstrated repeatedly that it is unwilling and unable to conduct a credible domestic investigation in accordance with international standards.

Given the recent United Nations interventions in Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka, what future positive actions can we expect for Burma?

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