UK MPs Group Urges Return of Burma Sanctions if Abuses Don’t Stop

By William Boot 28 November 2014

An influential British parliamentary committee has told the UK government it should press for a re-imposition of European economic sanctions on Burma if there is no improvement in the country’s human rights situation over the next 12 months.

“We recommend that the government reiterate to the government of Burma that the current situation is still highly unsatisfactory, and that the UK will strongly advocate the re-imposition of sanctions by the EU if there is no progress over the next 12 months,” a report by the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said this week.

The recommendation follows a review of the British Foreign Office’s work on human rights in Burma and other countries. The review heard submissions from several Burma-focused human rights NGOs, which have complained that the British government has put too much emphasis on promoting British business links.

London and the European Union must in particular press for the unconditional release of all political prisoners and an improvement in the condition of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim community, the committee said.

The report coincides with a new “doing business in Burma” guide by the British Chambers of Commerce, which the NGO Burma Campaign UK said makes no reference to human rights abuses or the continuing land theft by the Burma Army and other powerful forces for commercial benefit.

“To produce a report on the trade outlook in Burma without mentioning human rights violations or responsible investment demonstrates the Chamber’s lack of genuine interest in these issues,” campaign director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.

“The British government funds the British Chambers of Commerce in Burma and this is an insight into their real priorities. They talk up trade opportunities and play down human rights abuses.”

EU economic sanctions, with the exception of weapons sales, were lifted unconditionally in April 2013 after previously being subject to annual re-assessment. Britain adhered to these sanctions along with the other 27 member countries of the union.

“Burma Campaign UK believes that European Union sanctions on Burma were lifted prematurely, without the EU’s own human rights benchmarks being met. The slowdown and then reversal of the reform process since sanctions were lifted is evidence that too much was given away too soon and the premature lifting of sanctions undermined, rather than reinforced, the reform process,” the NGO said in a statement following the British Foreign Affairs Committee report.

“Now that EU economic and diplomatic sanctions have been lifted by the EU, re-imposition of sanctions would be very difficult. To be applied most effectively, sanctions should also be applied in coordination with other countries, and in support of diplomatic initiatives to promote genuine reforms,” Burma Campaign UK said.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report voiced concerns about the general attitude to human rights by the British Foreign Office. There was an “inherent conflict that exists between promoting UK trade and investment and human rights at the same time. The government should recognize that this conflict exists, rather than maintaining that human rights and business interests go hand in hand.”

Burma Campaign UK alleged that the British Foreign Office has “dropped human rights as their priority and instead prioritized trade. There is a clear conflict of interest in challenging human rights abuses by the Burmese government at the same time as trying to win business contracts from that same government.”

“This report demonstrates how international patience with the government of Burma is now running out,” said Anna Roberts, the executive director of Burma Campaign UK. “The Foreign Affairs Committee has taken a much stronger stance on human rights in Burma than the British government. There is a growing recognition of the many problems with Burma’s reform process and of the huge scale of ongoing human rights abuses.”

In a general review on doing business abroad, the British Chambers of Commerce omits any reference to human rights issues in Burma and how they might impinge on foreign investors, but it does note that the country “still suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, corruption, and rural poverty.

“[Burma] is the poorest country in Southeast Asia; approximately 32 percent of the population lives in poverty. [It] has all the elements required to create another Asian economic miracle,” the Chambers of Commerce said. “Its strategic position located between China and India could turn [Burma] into a prime location for tapping into the growth of those two Asian giants.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee assessment also coincides with the spotlight being turned back on the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division, run by Chinese company Wanbao Mining and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), a business arm of the Burma military.

Amnesty International said there was a serious risk of further human rights abuses around the mine because of the way it is still being developed.

“Construction is proceeding without resolving ongoing environmental and human rights concerns. Thousands of farmers remain under the threat of forced evictions since their lands were acquired for the mine in a flawed process characterized by misinformation,” Amnesty said in a Nov. 27 statement.

“Two years after police used incendiary weapons against monks and villagers protesting [the] mining project, no one has been held accountable. No police officer or official who was involved in the attack has been investigated, prosecuted or sanctioned, while the government has failed to provide victims with effective remedies and adequate reparation.”