Burma’s National Human Rights Commission can't be trusted to do the job of addressing rampant human rights abuses; for this, the international community must push harder to end impunity.
By AUNG MYO MIN
Friday, December 9, 2011(Irrawaddy, Dec.10, 2011)
Today as the world celebrates another international human rights day, people in Burma continue to face a host of serious human rights abuses.
Despite minor changes in Naypyidaw, human rights abuses, such as rape, forced labor, killings, torture and forced displacement continue to be committed by Burma Army soldiers in the northeastern part of my country, including Kachin State.
Nevertheless, the international community has overwhelmingly seen the small and reversible changes made by President Thein Sein as real reforms and as a consequence has increased its engagement with the regime.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her historic visit to Burma last week, made further engagement conditional on concrete and genuine democratic reforms, including the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners and the end of human rights abuses. Unfortunately, a major area of reform has been constantly and conveniently—for the regime—left out of the conversation by those in the international community: impunity.
In Burma, impunity for human rights violations perpetrators is rampant. To make matters worse, it remains enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, which is impossible to amend without the support of the regime. The international community must address the issue of impunity in order to help Burma move towards real and lasting democratic progress and national reconciliation.
Not only does impunity for serious crimes make real national reconciliation impossible, by denying truth to the country as a whole and justice to its citizens, but it also perpetuates human rights violations.
Why is it that the US and the European countries leave the issue of impunity out of their discourse, when a year ago they expressed support for a UN-led Commission of Inquiry (CoI)?
Sadly, it seems as though the regime’s latest window dressing, the creation of a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has given the flawed impression that the country can address human rights violations domestically. However, the international community should not be misled. This body is nothing more than a cunning gesture, designed specifically to woo Western governments at a time the regime is seeking to have sanctions lifted.
Almost nothing is known about this new body. There is no publicly available information about its procedure, mandate, responsibilities and funding. The entire process of establishing the NHRC has been anything but transparent, making it clear that it is not designed to be a functional and effective institution, accessible to the public and, in particular, victims of human rights violations. This alone makes it very difficult to take it seriously.
What is known should be a further cause of concern for anyone who cares about human rights in Burma.
The establishment of the NHRC and the nomination of its members was entirely decided by, and only by, Thein Sein’s government, lending even more support to the idea that this body is far from independent.
The commission’s chairman, Win Mra, is the regime’s former mouthpiece at the UN. During his tenure from 1994 to 2001, he consistently defended the regime’s abysmal human rights record by denying the occurrence of human rights violations, the existence of impunity and forced labor in Burma.
In an interview in September, Win Mra stated that people in Burma were “not familiar” with human rights. Such a statement wouldn't be out of place in the theater of the absurd. Any lack of “familiarity” with human rights on the part of the population of Burma is a direct consequence of the actions and policies of the regime he has long been part of and devoted his life to defending.
The vice-chairman, Kyaw Tint Swe, succeeded his new boss at the UN from 2001 to 2010. During his time there, he denied allegations of the regime’s involvement in the Depayin massacre. He also stood in front of the entire world and denied that the Burma Amy is involved in the recruitment of child solders, when there is more than enough evidence to prove that the practice continues to this day.
To say the leadership of this commission lacks credibility is an understatement. It is clear that its leading members have been part of the regime’s campaign to deny human rights abuses and to defend the perpetrators of these crimes. All of them are today in charge of conducting the activities of the NHRC, leaving little hope that it will ever be able to carry out its duties with autonomy and independence.
It is evident that the NHRC cannot adequately address human rights abuses domestically. More than ever, international involvement is necessary to determine the extent and nature of the crimes being committed in Burma, such as through a CoI, as well as to develop credible mechanisms to address and persecute human rights violations.
By accepting the NHRC’s legitimacy at this time, the international community is encouraging the regime to undertake further acts of insubstantial window dressing rather than genuine reforms.
This weekend a delegation of Burma’s Parliament will visit India to study the Indian model of government and learn lessons from the world's largest democracy. Indian MPs should take this opportunity to raise the issue of the NHRC with their visiting peers. As a step that would show its potential to be effective and credible, Burma’s Parliament should take up the issue of the NHRC by adopting a law establishing the commission, laying out its mandate, funding and responsibilities. If the NHRC is ever to be functional and independent, it must be established by the nation’s legislative body, not by former army generals leading the executive.
Burma will require further comprehensive reforms if it is to enjoy peace, stability and an end to human rights abuses. Ending impunity is an important element of this, and the international community must be more realistic and active in addressing the issue rather than reinforcing the regime in its public relations games. The NHRC is not functional or independent. Today, it is not a solution to the human rights abuses in my country.
Aung Myo Min is the founder and director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma.