26th Mar 2019

EU wary of US idea for UN action on Burma

EU states are wary of a US suggestion to push for speedy action on Burma at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), with the UK saying the move is premature and Finland saying it is unrealistic and may not add value to existing international measures.

Washington over the weekend requested through informal channels that the UNHRC holds a week-long "special session" on Burma in early April. The move could lead to a resolution mandating a "commission of enquiry" to visit the country and propose future action.

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UN commissions of enquiry are typically made up of senior ex-judges or politicians and reserved for grievous humanitarian problems, with one previous UN commission to Cambodia leading to the establishment of the Khmer Rouge court in May 2006.

Burma - home to 50 million people - is rich in gas, oil and gems but its military junta rules a country where 40 percent of children are malnourished, ethnic minorities undergo forced labour and at least 1,100 political prisoners face torture, according to Amnesty International.

The EU has historically taken a tough line on Rangoon: it is planning to renew a basket of arms, trade and visa-related sanctions against the regime when the issue comes up for review in May. Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still seen as a hero in Brussels.

At the same time, the EU is looking for new ways to handle the junta. The then Finnish EU presidency last year let the Burmese foreign minister attend an EU-Asia summit in Helsinki in a meeting that produced only "rhetoric" on human rights and sparked protests from Burmese exile groups.

EU diplomats say the European discussion on any fresh UN moves is just beginning, with the seven EU states in the UNHRC - Finland, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania - voting in Geneva en bloc on the basis of a common position established at EU27-level in Brussels.

But early signs are not positive for the US idea, with the UK - a former colonial power in Burma - saying a resolution will probably have to wait until the recently-established UNHRC completes its institution-building phase at an unspecified time later this year.

"The UK with its EU partners is ready to support any reasonable and effective proposal for the situation in Burma at the human rights council," a UK foreign office spokeswoman said. "But it's still very early days [for the UNHRC]."

Finland is even more negative, saying an EU-tabled resolution would probably not secure the 16 votes required to get through the 47-strong UNHRC body and that Europe should wait until something drastic happens in Burma before going ahead.

"A special session is meant to deal with urgent and acute situations, so it would be easier to argue for a special session if something dramatic happens, which of course nobody would wish for," one senior Finnish diplomat said.

"The third committee resolution [a UN General Assembly resolution on Burma in November 2006] is quite good and it is at a higher level than the UNHRC. So I am not sure what value a UNHRC resolution could add to this," another Finnish diplomat added.

Meanwhile, Germany, France and the Netherlands are playing wait-and-see for now. "There is obviously a human rights question that has to be addressed. We cannot be silent, but we are still studying this," a Dutch diplomat said.

The EU is worried about "alienating" swing voters in the UNHRC and the UK is wary of openly backing the US in case it looks like "an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy against Burma" Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia director Brad Adams told EUobserver after briefing EU experts in Brussels last week.

"There is an absolute international vacuum on Burma for now...[and] there will be no action at the [UN] council unless the EU pushes for it," Mr Adams said. "The EU should put forward a resolution not just for its own sake, but something with real teeth to it."

UNHRC faces baptism of fire

The UNHRC was set up in March 2006 to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had faced criticism for focusing too much on Middle East issues and for letting member countries with flawed human rights situations at home seize control of the agenda.

The US, despite its informal Burma proposal, has levelled similar criticism at the UNHRC, which since March has seen Islamic countries push through four "special sessions" on Israeli human rights abuses and which sees Burma's strategic ally, China, control significant voting power.

The US boycotted the UNHRC last March in a move described as "stupid" by HRW's Mr Adams, but the NGO also has doubts about the institution's credibility. "If the human rights council can't handle a case like Burma then what is it for?" he asked.

UN officials are already in defensive mode over the Israeli-heavy agenda. "It's easy to criticise, but it's premature," one contact said, adding "I wouldn't rule it out, but I think it's unlikely" on the chances of an UNHRC Burma special session.

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