Friday, 29 October 2010

Burma needs a war crimes inquiry

The proposed UN inquiry would call the Burmese regime to account, but it depends on global support that's so far lacking

Some governments seem concerned that pushing for an international process of accountability may negatively affect the conduct of the elections by driving Burma further into isolation. A few Asian leaders have suggested a commission of inquiry could lead to renewed intense fighting in Burma. If anything, embarking on an accountability process will put all parties to the conflict on notice that there are consequences for serious abuses. As we have seen from Liberia to the Balkans, justice could instead facilitate a process in which highly abusive figures are marginalised and a more reformist leadership is able to emerge in Burma.
Some states are concerned that acting on a commission of inquiry may affect whether democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be released shortly after the elections, as her current term for house arrest expires. While we all want to see Suu Kyi released, her liberty is not a meaningful indicator of progress in Burma. She has been released and detained many times over the last 20 years. Burma's military rulers are masters at using one woman's freedom as a bargaining chip to distract and deter the international community from taking actions that would harm the military's interests.
Another argument is that certain powerful countries, namely China, are actively lobbying against a commission of inquiry for Burma. A commission will only succeed if the major players who have come out in support of a commission are as active in support for it as China is in efforts to scupper it. In the past, commissions of inquiry have been created by the security council despite China's initial reservations, most recently in the case of Darfur. But there will need to be a commitment to a campaign of sustained advocacy and high-level démarches to ensure enough votes to support it.
The international community needs to heed the call of the UN special rapporteur to act, because as he points out, "Justice and accountability are the very foundation of the UN system." Getting a commission of inquiry for Burma will entirely depend on how much the EU, the US and like-minded states are prepared to engage, rather than on how much the spoilers want to shoot it down.

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