October 29, 2018

By Mark Farmaner

The EU is considering sanctioning garment workers but has rejected sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing

When the United Nations Fact Finding Mission published its report into human rights violations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, it was quite clear who bore primary responsibility for violations of international law, including genocide – the Burmese military. In particular, their report called for action against the leadership of the military, including Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

To date the EU has not accepted either the findings or the recommendations of the UN investigation, which they themselves helped set up. Instead they have decided to look into sanctioning people who played no role in human rights violations against the Rohingya, Shan or Kachin. They have decided to look into sanctioning ordinary workers, mainly garment workers.

This week an EU delegation is visiting Burma as part of a review ordered by Cecilia Malmström, the EU Trade Commissioner. They are considering withdrawing ‘Everything But Arms’ trade privileges awarded to Burma, which reduces tariffs and makes Burma’s exports more competitive than those from more developed countries. This is a sanction which will have virtually no impact on the Burmese military or on the government. Instead it risks putting tens of thousands of ordinary workers out of work.

The decision is even more extraordinary because the EU has made a specific and deliberate decision not to sanction Min Aung Hlaing. He is not one of the seven people the EU have banned from holidaying in the EU because of their role in the genocide of the Rohingya.

Here is a list of 15 things the EU has been asked to do, and which it has failed to do, all of which would be far more effective at applying pressure on the Burmese military and government than the withdrawal of trade privileges:

  1. The EU decided not to support referring Burma to the International Criminal Court.
  2. The EU does not support the creation of an alternative Ad Hoc Tribunal if support for an ICC referral cannot be secured.
  3. The EU decided not to ban EU members from training the Burmese military.
  4. The EU refuses to reveal which (if any) EU members are still training the military. (The EU ambassador to Burma, Kristian Schmidt, told Burma Campaign UK he would do so, then broke his word and now refuses to release the information.)
  5. EU officials in Burma still back down to the demands of racists and largely avoid using the word Rohingya in public statements and meetings with the government.
  6. The EU refuses to stop funding and training the military-controlled police force, which still uses torture and was responsible for arresting and framing the jailed Reuters journalists.
  7. The EU refuses to stop European companies from supplying equipment to the military (apart from arms).
  8. The EU does not ensure that the EAS/Commission and EU member states do not source goods and services from military owned and controlled companies.
  9. The EU and member states have not imposed policies to ensure no EU aid goes to military owned and controlled companies for the supply of goods and services.
  10. The EU refuses to impose sanctions limiting military owned and controlled companies’ access to European financial markets and the use of the euro.
  11. The EU has not supported the findings of the UN Fact Finding Mission.
  12. The EU has not supported the recommendations of the UN Fact Finding Mission.
  13. The EU refuses to review and consider ending direct and indirect financial and technical support to the Burmese government.
  14. The EU does not support the imposition of a UN mandated global arms embargo.
  15. The EU has not stopped channelling aid and development assistance to and through the Burmese government.

It makes absolutely no sense that the European Union is considering sanctions that will mainly impact ordinary people while at the same time rejecting sanctions that target Min Aung Hlaing and his military.

At present the only sanctions from the EU in response to genocide of the Rohingya, war crimes and crimes against humanity against other ethnic groups, and a huge range of other human rights violations by both the military and the government, has been to stop seven people, not including Min Aung Hlaing or senior military officers, from going on holiday in the EU. It is, therefore, not surprising that EU sanctions have not been effective in influencing the Burmese military or government.

The bizarre decision by the EU Trade Commissioner is just the latest in its long history of catastrophically bad decision making over its Burma policy.

Through its actions and inaction from 2012, the European Union contributed to the enabling environment whereby Min Aung Hlaing believed (so far correctly) he could get away with genocide of the Rohingya.

Burma Campaign UK submitted details of British government and EU complicity in this crisis to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament when it held an inquiry into what had taken place.

To date the European Union has done little to disabuse Min Aung Hlaing of the impression they’ll keep letting him get away with violating international law, especially when they deliberately avoid sanctioning him. Does the EU seriously think that having given him a personal free pass, Min Aung Hlaing will be so concerned by the EU sanctioning garment workers that he’ll change his behaviour?

As members of the European Burma Network pointed out in a joint statement: “Withdrawing these trade privileges will have a disproportionate impact on ordinary people who have played no role in human rights violations against the Rohingya and others, and in fact themselves suffer from a lack of human rights and genuine democracy in Burma.

Further, the impact of these particular sanctions on the military and government is likely to be limited compared to many other options available. It appears contradictory to impose sanctions which may predominantly impact garment workers, whilst at the same time still funding and otherwise supporting both the government and the military controlled police force.

There is a danger such sanctions could be blamed on the Rohingya, further hardening public sentiment against them. There is also a danger that these kind of untargeted sanctions and their impact on ordinary people will discredit all sanctions in the public mind and in the media, making it harder to secure support for sanctions that actually will have an impact.

Any sanctions imposed by the EU must predominantly target the military and its interests, and minimise as far as possible any impact on ordinary people in Burma.

No-one has been calling for the kind of sanctions Cecilia Malmström is now considering. Burma Campaign UK is also not aware of any EU member state supporting the withdrawal of these trade privileges. So far it appears none have been willing to publicly say so. This has to change. Cecilia Malmström may have the technical power to go ahead with these sanctions without the support of member states, but it is not a power she should use.

This review should be stopped immediately, and instead EU member states need to look again at targeted sanctions on the military, including supporting ICC referral or an alternative ad hoc tribunal. Punishing garment workers for the actions of the military is completely unacceptable, and EU member states must say so.

Perhaps the one thing we can be grateful to Cecilia Malmström for is exposing just how hopeless, contradictory and illogical the EU approach to Burma is.


Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK



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