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President Aquino Should Lead Move to Probe Burma

Originally appeared in Philippine Daily Inquirer

June 9, 2011

By Patrick Pierce

President Benigno Aquino III, whose father fought and died at the hands of Ferdinand Marcos’ military dictatorship and whose late mother was the leader and inspiration of the People Power uprising that re-established civilian rule and political freedom for Filipinos, should know what the people of neighboring Burma are going through. Despite recent elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, Burma’s military still controls political life.

Former military officers have formed the post-election government. Parliament is dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. A quarter of legislators consist of active military officers. The military and those who led the dictatorship remain unaccountable to any independent civilian authority and continue to commit massive violations of civil and political as well as economic and social human rights with impunity.

Without greater involvement from the international community, the human rights situation will continue to deteriorate into crisis proportions that could impact on the region. Having established itself as a human rights champion within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines, through its president, is in a unique position to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by leading Asean countries to publicly support the establishment by the United Nations of a commission of inquiry for Burma.

The United Nations recently established commissions that looked into human-rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip, Sri Lanka, Cote D’Ivoire, and more recently in Syria. Calling for such a commission is consistent with the Philippines’ 2009 enactment of Republic Act No. 9851, the “Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity.”

Burma’s people had hoped a post-election diffusion of power away from a military dictator to an elected parliament would mark some improvement. With regard to human rights, this has not happened and, in fact, the situation has worsened. This week, a government delegation from Burma appeared before the UN Human Rights Council to conclude its Universal Periodic Review, a process every country participates in every four years. The Burmese government denied well-documented charges of serious human rights violations, including those still being committed after last year’s elections. These include the continued arrest and detention of anti-government political activists, the use of landmines banned by international law, lack of medical treatment for political prisoners, including those who are victims of torture and those suffering from treatable illness, and the continued displacement of rural and indigenous populations.

While in the Middle East and North Africa dictatorships once thought immune from accountability are being taken down by popular revolt, Burma’s military rulers have manipulated the country’s transition and have used it to maintain their impunity. When President Aquino signed the Rome Statute in February establishing the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction in the Philippines, his spokesman said this was a “message to the international community that (the Philippines) is committed to upholding and protecting human rights.”

By signing the Rome Statute and enacting domestic legislation implementing its principles, President Aquino’s message should also mean the Philippines considers the most severe human rights violations, including those committed by a neighboring Asean government against its people, as crimes of concern to all of humanity. By calling on the UN to establish a commission of inquiry into human-rights violations in Burma, Mr. Aquino will not only live up to the democratic legacy of his parents but to the human rights commitments of the country that gave People Power its name.

Patrick Pierce heads the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Burma Program. He is based in Thailand, near the border with Burma where he has been working on human rights issues since 2001.

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This post is in: Blog, Crimes Against Humanity

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