Why Did U.S. Support Commission of Inquiry on Burma?

Published on September 2, 2010

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – September 2, 2010

With just a little over two months before the general election in Burma, which is scheduled for November 7, the United States joined countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia for the creation of a U.N.-led commission to investigate alleged war crimes by Burma's military junta.

On August 18, the White House in a statement said the commission could advance the cause of human rights in Burma by “addressing issues of accountability” for members of the regime. The Obama administration also hinted the possibility of further sanctions.

Such commission of inquiry against the military leaders has also been sought by the Burmese human rights groups. The issue took to prominence when Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, released a critical report to the Human Rights Council in March of this year.

“According to consistent reports, the possibility exists that some of these human rights violations may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the statute of the International Criminal Court,” said Quintana.

When the diplomatic engagement of the Obama administration, which began since September of 2009, has not yielded the desired results, there were not too many options available on the table.

During the past 11-month engagement, the Obama administration has apparently learnt more about the intention and psychology of the Burmese military junta. This gives the White House an opportunity to redraw its strategy to better deal with the recalcitrant members of the State Peace and Development Council.

Washington has tried to reach out to the Burmese leadership through high-level visits. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited the country in November 2009 and May of this year. Both visits, however, did not yield desired results.

The Obama administration anticipated a positive response from the junta. The administration primary demands such as release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and creation of a free and fair environment before the general election have not been implemented.

This disappointment has been exacerbated by the alleged news of Burma seeking a nuclear program, with the support from North Korea. Moreover, the Obama administration has not ruled out tougher sanctions if and when warranted.

Since Washington has not achieved the desired objectives with its engagement policy, it has decided to back the establishment of a commission of inquiry.

This commission of inquiry could be through the U.N. Human Rights Council, through the U.N. General Assembly resolution, by the U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon, or by a vote at the U.N. Security Council, and could eventually lead to a war crimes prosecution.

Any attempt at the Security Council is likely to be opposed by veto-wielding China, and perhaps by Russia. The case of the Bosnian war crimes commission in the early 1990s was an example where the secretary general initiated the case.

Though the prospect of a commission of inquiry to prosecute senior general Than Shwe (Burma's junta chief) is debatable, such action may help prevent the younger generation of the junta from further committing crimes against its own people.

Liberian ex-president, Charles Taylor, is on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes. Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 and has yet to be arrested. Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, was arrested after leaving office and tried for war crimes, although he died during the trial.

Since the Obama administration has embarked on endorsing a commission of inquiry, it must further push the agenda to see through to the end. A commitment from the U.N. secretary general, the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and a wider support from the international community is essential to its success.

Meanwhile, the U.S. should not abandon its engagement policy. The Obama administration needs to appoint the special representative for Burma that was mandated by the Congress in 2008.

The special envoy, in consultation with other stake holders such as China, Russia, India, Japan, ASEAN, E.U, needs to work toward a coordinated international action on Burma.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia, which have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America). He currently pursues a Ph.D. in Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

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