Human Rights Experts Urge US Not to Drop Sanctions

By Lalit K Jha 26 April 2012

WASHINGTON D.C.—Independent human rights experts have urged the Obama administration and US Congress not to relax sanctions on Burma, arguing reforms being initiated by the Burmese government are reversible.

“As much as we want to hope that the recent progress toward democracy in Burma will mark a turning point, nothing positive will last until the Burmese military stops committing atrocities and a political agreement is reached with the ethnic national states,” said former Congressman Thomas H. Andrews in his testimony before a Congressional subcommittee on Wednesday.

Andrews, who now heads the United to End Genocide NGO, said that Congress can help by renewing the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act and urging the administration to take a measured approach on incentives.

“It is imperative that the United States government engages with the legitimate representatives of each ethnic nationality and supports redress of their longstanding and unresolved concerns,” he said.

Noting that he understands the desire to declare Burma a success story, Andrews said he wants nothing more than to see true democratic transformation and an end to human right abuses.

“But, success isn’t marked by removing sanctions—it’s marked by lasting change for the people of Burma who have endured endless suffering under a brutal military regime,” he argued.

“We must choose our next steps wisely. Let us reward genuine progress, but let us not condemn the people—particularly those living in ethnic minority states—to increased suffering under a long oppressive military regime that is suddenly freed of accountability and consequences for its behavior.”

In his testimony, Aung Din, from US Campaign for Burma, asserted that Congress must renew restrictions on imports from Burma. “The US must remind and keep reminding the Burmese regime that their full cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic MPs in the Parliament and achieving negotiated political settlements with ethnic nationalities through a meaningful political dialogue outside the Parliament are the sole factors to justify fully lifting all sanctions,” he said.

Aung Din added that before the removal of any financial sanctions takes place, the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list on Burma, managed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, must be updated to include even more cronies and hardliners.

“It has been almost three years since the list has been updated. Many cronies, who are sanctioned by the EU and Australia, are still not included on the US SDN list,” he said. “This list should be a must-check reference for US companies that will do business in Burma.”

The implementation of a targeted easing of bans on investment and financial services should wait until we clearly see how National League for Democracy MPs and Aung San Suu Kyi are treated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military in Parliament, as well as an end to attacks against the Kachin people, he said.

And Aung Din said binding requirements or a compulsory framework for responsible business conduct should be imposed on any US business that seeks to invest in Burma.

“The US must pressure the Burmese regime to allow former political prisoners to obtain passports so they can make trips abroad, in response to the US easing of visa restrictions on Burmese officials,” he said.

Also the US must pressure Naypyidaw to allow members of Burmese civil society groups to form and operate non-profit organizations freely, in response to Washington granting permission to American organizations to support NGOs in Burma.

Earlier, nine influential American humanitarian organizations signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to prioritize democracy and human rights in Burma by exercising caution when it comes to the relaxation of sanctions.

These NGOs include AFL-CIO, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Asian Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Orion Strategies, Physicians for Human Rights, US Campaign for Burma and United to End Genocide.

The letter comes on the heels of an initiative by corporate interests seeking to encourage Obama to ease restrictions on private investment across all sectors of the Burmese economy.

“We believe the best approach in the immediate future is to conduct a comprehensive update of the SDN list before relaxing the investment and financial services bans,” the NGOs said.

In the medium term, the US needs to work with civil society and ethnic nationality leaders in Burma to develop binding standards for US companies doing business in the country, claims the letter. The US could then lift restrictions for only a few sectors, carefully selected with the participation of the Treasury Department as well as Burmese civil society, democratic opposition groups and ethnic nationality leaders, they added.

“We also believe that the administration should communicate more effectively to Congress its overall policy objectives and proposed approach regarding Burma, and make clear that current sanctions relaxations are contingent and should continue to be executed by waivers, not underlying legislative change, and that Congress will need to reauthorize underlying sanctions legislation as needed throughout the year,” the NGOs said.