April 22, 2013

EU Abandons Burma’s Political Prisoners – Downgrades Human Rights

European Union members have abandoned hundreds of political prisoners and downgraded human rights as a priority in Burma, following their decision to lift all sanctions on Burma except arms.

The EU suspended sanctions on April 26th 2012, in recognition of changes that had taken place in Burma. At the time the decision to suspend the sanctions was controversial, with concerns that a suspension of all sanctions was premature given that key improvements in human rights which had been demanded by the EU had not been met.

On suspending the sanctions, the EU laid out four key benchmarks where it expected to see improvements in return for the suspension of sanctions. These were:

“…the EU still expects the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released. It looks forward to the end of conflict and to substantially improved access for humanitarian assistance, in particular for those affected by conflict in Kachin State and along the Eastern border, as well as to addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas.”

Not one of these benchmarks has been met, and in the case of the Rohingya the situation has significantly worsened.

  • Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, and almost all of those who have been released have only been released conditionally.
  • Humanitarian access is still restricted with significant problems in delivery of aid to displaced people in Kachin and Rakhine state.
  • Conflict in Northern Shan State and Kachin State continues and the Burmese Army launched a major offensive in December during which civilians were targeted. The Burmese Army is also frequently violating the ceasefire in Shan state.
  • Around 130,000 Rohingya have been forced from their homes and are now living in squalid camps, and President Thein Sein has ruled out reform of the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law.
  • The United nations has documented multiple on-going human rights abuses which could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity

Burma Campaign UK has produced a detailed analysis of the benchmarks and EU policy, available here.

The lifting of sanctions on the same day as Human Rights Watch publishes a report on ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya highlights the growing disconnect between EU policy and the reality on the ground.

The EU has always pledged to respond proportionately to change. Sanctions should have been lifted gradually in response to positive steps, based on benchmarks laid out by the EU. There is no proportionality in the EU’s current approach.

“The lifting of sanctions when even the EU’s own benchmarks have not been met represents a downgrading of human rights as a priority,” said Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK. “European leaders should have the courage to go and explain this decision to political prisoners still in jail, to ethnic Kachin women who have been raped by Burmese Army soldiers, and to mothers in camps for the internally displaced who have watched their child die because of Thein Sein’s restrictions on aid delivery. Ask them how ‘remarkable’ the changes are. Thein Sein now knows that he can safely ignore the EU when they talk about human rights. The human rights abuses which led the EU to impose these sanctions have not stopped.”

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