Human Rights Still Key to Lifting of US Sanctions: Report

By Lalit K Jha 3 January 2013

Burma’s human rights record is likely to figure prominently as US lawmakers consider whether to lift sanctions on the country, according to a new congressional report prepared ahead of the 113th Congress, which begins on Thursday.

“The continued detention of political prisoners in Burma—as well as the state of human rights in general—are likely to figure prominently in congressional consideration of US policy towards Burma,” said the report, by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

An independent and bipartisan wing of the US Congress, the CRS prepares periodic reports on issues of interest to US lawmakers so that they can make informed decisions. Prepared by eminent experts in various fields, CRS reports are not made public.

“In the coming months, Congress may decide to examine the status of the implementation of existing US sanctions on Burma. It may also assess the political prisoner issue, either in isolation or as part of a broader consideration of human rights in Burma,” said the CRS report authored by Michael F Martin, a specialist in Asian affairs.

“Congress may take up legislation to amend or alter US sanctions on Burma, depending on the evolving conditions in the country. In addition, the Obama administration may ask Congress for additional funding for humanitarian programs in Burma to address the serious humanitarian needs of Burma’s internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees, and other vulnerable population,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Irrawaddy.

Noting that the existing US sanctions on Burma are based on several laws specifically focused on the country, as well as other laws that sanction nations that fail to comply with US standards of conduct related to specific issues, the CRS said the changing political situation in Burma may warrant congressional consideration of whether alteration or removal of sanctions should be considered under current law.

“Similarly, the president has the authority—which he has used several times—to waive or suspend some of the existing sanctions on Burma if he determines that the necessary conditions have been met. If the president were to once again exercise this executive authority, Congress may choose to review the president’s determination,” it said.

Congress may also choose to monitor and evaluate the Obama administration’s efforts to address the political prisoner and human rights situation in Burma, the CRS report added.

Stating that US officials have consistently called for the release of all political prisoners in Burma, the CRS said the State Department is in talks with the Burmese government, as well as with National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition parties, on this issue.

“The discussions with the Burmese government are being led by Ambassador [Derek] Mitchell and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has compiled and continues to update a list of all known political prisoners in Burma based on non-government organization (NGO) and government sources, which forms the basis of the State Department’s ongoing engagement with the government of Burma on political prisoners,” the CRS report said.

Burma’s detention of political prisoners was a major reason for the United States to impose sanctions on the country, the report said. The Customs and Trade Act of 1990, which required the president to impose “such economic sanctions upon Burma as the president determines appropriate,” was passed after Burma’s ruling military junta refused to honor the results of May 1990 parliamentary elections and detained Suu Kyi and many other opposition leaders.

Similarly, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 (BFDA) was passed after the regime cracked down on opposition parties, and once again detained Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders. The Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008 was passed after the violent suppression of Buddhist monk-led protests in 2007 and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of many of the protest leaders.

The CRS informed lawmakers that while Burmese President Thein Sein has been granting pardons and amnesties for some political prisoners in Burma, the government reportedly continues to arrest and detain new political prisoners for alleged illegal activities.