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Joint Open Letter on Review of the European Union’s Joint Decision on Burma

By Altsean-Burma, International Federation for Human Rights, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Info-Birmanie and Secours Catholique  •  April 11, 2013

To EU Member States Foreign Ministers

Subject: review of the European Union’s joint decision on Burma/Myanmar

Dear Minister,

We are writing to you regarding the upcoming review of the European Union’s joint decision on Burma/Myanmar and to call upon you to support the continuation of the state of suspended sanctions against Burma/Myanmar for an additional year.

While we acknowledge that positive steps have been taken by the government in Burma/Myanmar, we caution that reforms have not led to progress towards national reconciliation. Nor have they sought to stem the ongoing human rights abuses and impunity, which continue to be serious problems in the country. A continued period of formal, albeit suspended, sanctions is a necessary safeguard to ensuring that reforms reach their intended ends.

On 26 April 2012, the Council of the European Union, in its decision 2012/225/PESC, agreed to suspend most of its sanctions against Burma/Myanmar until 30 April 2013 and outlined the progress that should be made, including “the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released. It [the EU] looks forward to the end of conflict and to substantially improved access for humanitarian assistance, in particular for those affected by conflict in Kachin State and along the Eastern border, as well as to addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas.”

In this context, it is essential to note that over 200 political prisoners remain imprisoned and the conflict in Kachin and the status and welfare of the Rohingyas has worsened because of the actions and omissions of the Government of Myanmar. Of great concern is that the anti-Muslim aspect of discrimination against Rohingya has continuously intensified and recently led to fatal violence against Muslim communities in central Burma/Myanmar.

First, hundreds of political prisoners continue to be detained arbitrarily and the majority of those who have been freed have been released provisionally and are subject to restrictions and conditions on their freedom, including on travel and future political activity. Following his visit to Burma/Myanmar in February 2013, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar not only highlighted the ongoing detention of political prisoners, but also the use of torture against some detainees.

Although high-profile political prisoners, such as members of 88 Generation Students have been released and given passports, lesser-known prisoners remain imprisoned or released and subject to restrictions. For example, U Gambira (former prisoner of conscience and a leader of the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance), who needs to travel abroad to receive medical treatment for illnesses and injuries caused by torture in detention, has not been allowed to leave the country. While the President has announced the formation of a committee to review the status of remaining political prisoners, like many recent reforms, the formation of this committee and its mandate continue to lack transparency and credibility.

Throughout the last year, the conflict in Kachin state has also worsened. Although President Thein Sein announced a unilateral ceasefire in January, Burma/Myanmar’s army stepped up troop deployment and military offensives, with use of helicopters and fighter jets, and regularly shelled and launched airstrikes in civilian areas. The army also continues to use rape and sexual violence as a weapon of terror.

Access to humanitarian assistance also has not “substantially improved” despite the UN General Assembly’s December 2012 resolution declaring the restrictions on aid as a violation of international humanitarian law. In Kachin state, the government repeatedly rescinded its promises to grant humanitarian agencies access to areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), authorizing access to only one international convoy since July 2012. Over the last year, new humanitarian restrictions have also been introduced in Arakan state. The government has failed to take action against Rakhine who have threatened international organizations, such as the Médecins Sans Frontières, and fourteen humanitarian workers were arrested and continue to be detained. Although access to IDP camps has improved, Valerie Amos, UN Deputy Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, characterized the living conditions as “disastrous” during her visit to several camps in Arakan state in December 2012.

The status and welfare of the Rohingya has deteriorated as a result of religious violence, which has now evolved into systematic attacks against Rohingya. Possibly hundreds of people have been killed and over 100,000 have been displaced. The Government of Myanmar has not only failed to prevent the violence, but also has encouraged perpetrators by making inflammatory statements against the Rohingya. The government also continues to refuse to recognize the rights of Rohingya to citizenship and statehood. Among those political prisoners that remain imprisoned is Aung Naing, who has been wrongly imprisoned since 1999 and was convicted in 2005 to a 17-year sentence for obtaining Burmese citizenship and concealing his Rohingya origins under Article 18 of the Citizenship Law.

Nor has any meaningful effort been carried out to allow Rohingya who are displaced by violence to return to their villages. Rather, the government has proposed a policy that amounts to ethnic cleansing, asking the UN to arrange for Rohingya people to be placed in camps, removed from Burma/Myanmar, and sent to third countries. Anti-Muslim sentiment and sectarian violence also has recently escalated in other areas of Burma/Myanmar, including clashes in Meikhtila in March. The UN and other reports indicate that authorities failed to protect Muslim men, women and children from fatal violence, even when they had prior knowledge of attacks.

We believe that, in light of these ongoing abuses and, in many instances, deteriorating human rights situation, the presence of sanctions, in suspended state, is a necessary safeguard to ensure that Burma/Myanmar continues on its path to reform. Given that the benchmarks specifically outlined by the European Council in its 26 April 2012 decision have not been met, and, in many respects, the human rights situation has worsened, any permanent lifting of sanctions on Burma/Myanmar is unwarranted and would undermine the EU’s credibility.

In addition to the failure of the Government of Myanmar to address issues raised by the EU, other very serious omissions should also be taken into account before the EU eases sanctions further. These include the lack of progress on legislative reforms, the absence of meaningful political dialogue leading to national reconciliation, and an end to the impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations as called for by the Council of the European Union in its 12 April 2011 conclusions. Because of its concern over ongoing serious human rights violations in the country, on 21 March 2012, the UN Human Rights Council decided to maintain Burma/Myanmar under item 4 of its agenda and renewed the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

On 22 April 2013, the EU Foreign Affairs Council will meet to make a decision regarding the future of the EU’s restrictive measures against Burma/Myanmar. Our organizations are worried that the premature lifting of sanctions may jeopardize the reform process in Burma/Myanmar by removing a much-needed incentive for further change.

We therefore recommend that the EU extend for an additional year the suspension of restrictive measures against Burma/Myanmar. International pressure has played a key role in encouraging actors within Burma/Myanmar to support democratic reforms, and consequently, removing all pressure may very well discourage them from engaging in further reforms.

We ask that during the Council’s discussions on Burma/Myanmar, EU member States continue to call for genuine legislative and political reforms and respect for human rights and that the credible possibility of reinstating sanctions remains in place as long as such serious aforementioned concerns are not addressed.

We urge all EU member States to take a clear stand in favor of renewing the decision taken by the Council on 26 April 2012 that “restrictive measures should be suspended with the exception of the arms embargo and the embargo on equipment which might be used for internal repression which should be retained.”

Most sincerely,

Debbie Stothard, Director, Altsean-Burma
Souhayr Belhassen, President, FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Bernard Pinaud, Managing Director, CCFD-Terre Solidaire
Mathieu Flammarion, President, Info Birmanie
François Soulage, President, Secours Catholique

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This post is in: Business and Human Rights

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