Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

How to reset EU-Burma relations

  • Nearly 700,000 survivors have fled to Bangladesh (Photo: Lost Hope)

It's been over six months since the Tatmadaw, Burma's security forces, launched their onslaught against the Rohingya. Nearly 700,000 survivors have fled to Bangladesh to escape mass killing, rape, torture, and arson.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among many others, strongly suspects the violence amounts to genocide. The crisis is far from over.

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My organisation, the Burma Human Rights Network, has been reporting on the violence against the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities. The authorities continue to drive the Rohingya out through attacks and forced starvation, while destroying what remains of their villages to erase the minority's existence and evidence of the Tatmadaw's crimes.

I recently travelled to Brussels to brief European officials on the need for a more robust response. EU foreign ministers met on 26 February and agreed to utilize the tools at their disposal to effect the calculations of Burma's leaders.

This was the right step but now it is important to turn the intent of the EU foreign ministers into concrete action to protect lives on the ground, ensure unfettered aid access, and set the framework for a genuine political solution.

The first step in the EU's response should be to impose effective and targeted sanctions against Burma's senior military leaders. Numerous verified accounts have demonstrated that the military's onslaught against the Rohingya has been premeditated, widespread and systematic. This approach points to a military strategy that stems from the top leadership, including senior general Min Aung Hlaing.

Third largest investor in Burma

Beyond symbolic measures such as travel bans or asset freezes, the EU needs to focus on the military's economic interests, as well as those of their business cronies.

Sanctions should target military-affiliated funds, shares or investments which are processed through European financial institutions. Here, the EU should work with civil society to help gather information and identify financial targets.

Trade is another area where the EU can use its tools. The EU is the third largest investor in Burma and offers favourable trading terms through the 'Everything But Arms' programme.

Foreign ministers made clear that EU trade preferences are linked to adherence to human rights. Given the gravity of the crimes, the EU and its various institutions should examine how trade can be a vehicle for both leverage and benefits to bring an end to the Burmese authorities' violations.

In the face of one of the worst massacres of the 21st century, the EU must also aggressively pursue justice. We welcome the EU's support for Burma to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and are encouraged by the ICC prosecutor's request to seek jurisdiction over Rohingya deportations to Bangladesh.

Of course in reality the prospects of ICC referral by the Security Council remain bleak. But this does not mean there are no alternative routes to pursue accountability.

Sanctions, trade and justice measures

The collection of evidence for future due process is crucial. The EU has significant expertise in human rights and should seek to support civil society groups and human rights defenders on the ground with their work.

In parallel the EU needs to support the recommendation from the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the UN General Assembly establish a mechanism tasked with preparing criminal indictments of the crimes in Burma. Similar mechanisms have been established in other conflicts when the ICC route has been blocked.

Finally, we must pursue universal jurisdiction cases against Burmese leaders. A team of lawyers in Australia recently filed a prosecution application against state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, coinciding with her visit to Sydney for the ASEAN summit.

The effort serves as a reminder to the Burmese authorities that the threat of justice will follow them around the world. The EU should support legal teams building universal jurisdiction cases and encourage such cases in European courts.

Sanctions, trade and justice measures are important means to signal the EU's condemnation of the violence against the Rohingya. But we also need to work collectively to seek solutions to the root causes of the crisis.

To this end, the EU has endorsed the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which called on the Burmese government to take steps to end communal discord and discrimination. Among its recommendations, it advised the government to end enforced segregation; ensure freedom of movement; and "revisit" the 1982 Citizenship Law, which rendered the Rohingya stateless.

The EU has called for time-bound implementation of the recommendations. The EU should go a step further and define a calendar of benchmarks.

An opportunity to play a vigorous role

These benchmarks could focus on tangible steps that demonstrate the government's willingness to respect and protect all communities. It's imperative the process include consultation with the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities who have been systematically denied their voice.

As I told officials in Brussels, the EU's increasingly active role in the Rohingya crisis is commendable. The EU has an opportunity to play a vigorous role to end the crisis and support the foundations for genuine democratic progress.

This is why I believe the EU needs to reset its relations with Burma to pre-2012 levels, before Burma was rewarded for its democratic efforts. This reset would wipe away aid and trade benefits. In turn, successful implementation of benchmarks, such as those already being discussed, could be tied to the reinstatement of benefits.

Given the gravity of the crisis on the ground, only a comprehensive and robust approach offers a sustainable solution, serving both the Burmese people and European strategic interests in the region.

Kyaw Win is executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network

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