A High Court case has today paved the way for the Government to ban investment by British companies in Burma. Burma’s ruling military regime has one of the worst human rights records in the world and was recently described by the UN as ‘at war with its own people’.
The Burma Campaign (TBC) brought a judicial review against Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, over his approach to investment sanctions against the military regime in Burma. In opposition, Labour supported sanctions but in Government said, that for legal reasons, it could not impose them.
This was because, under the European Union treaty, a member state can only go it alone with an investment ban if the situation in the country in question can be described as ‘urgent’. Mr Cook accepted that the human rights situation in Burma is appalling but said that it was not urgent because it had been appalling for such a long time. TBC has argued throughout that ‘urgent’ simply means ‘needs addressing quickly’. The long history of oppression in Burma does not detract from the urgency but rather adds to it.
This morning Mr Cook conceded that he was wrong. He also accepted that the Government could introduce legislation banning investment in countries where the human rights situation is urgent.
In 1990 Burma’s regime ignored the election which gave an overwhelming victory to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). In a statement given to TBC before the case, Aung San Suu Kyi said she strongly supports investment sanctions against her country. So does Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a host of other world figures.
John Jackson, a TBC director said: ‘We applaud Robin Cook for being willing to accept that his original legal advice was wrong. The way is now clear for the Government to take a lead on Burma and bring real pressure on the regime. The immense suffering of the Burmese people deserves immediate action from Britain.’
The Burmese regime has been condemned in the strongest terms – as recently as 12 November by the United Nations for its widespread use of torture and other forms of repression. The International Labour Organisation recently accused it of a ‘crime against humanity’ – the most serious breach of international law – for its systematic use of forced labour of millions of people (including women and children). Hundreds of thousands have fled to Thailand and other neighbouring countries, posing a threat to regional stability and peace. In addition Burma is one of the largest exporters of heroin and Regime leaders are principal beneficiaries of traffiking.
The EC treaty provision in question is article 60.2 (added by the Maastricht treaty), which allows member states to impose financial (investment) sanctions unilaterally if there are ‘serious political reasons and on grounds of urgency’. The Government did not dispute that serious political reason exist. The issue centred around the meaning of ‘urgency’. It was common ground that trade sanctions can only be imposed by the EU as a whole.
The Government has unilaterally imposed measures short of sanctions on Burma, such as withdrawing support for trade missions. It discourages tourism. It therefore clearly believes economic pressure is justified and potentially effective. Indeed, Mr Cook, in his Labour Conference speech this year, said that a policy of isolating Burma was justified given its appalling human rights record, and castigated the Conservatives for not backing sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Twice this year, Mr Cook has publicly urged Premier Oil (see below) not to proceed with its investment in Burma.
Premier has a 27% stake in the Yetagun gas pipeline which will supply Burmese gas to Thailand. The pipeline costs well over $700m. There are well-documented human rights abuses associated with the Yetagun pipeline area and the construction of a parallel pipeline by Total and Unocal. The military benefit hugely from major infrastructure projects of this sort, while the people of Burma get progressively poorer. The people of Burma, a country rich in natural resources, remain near the bottom end of human development tables.
In 1997 President Clinton banned new investment by US companies in Burma.
Judge Lallah, the UN Special Rapporteur on BUrma, told the UN on 4 November: ‘…at the very worst, we are faced with a country which is at war with its own people. At the very best, it is a country which is holding its people in hostage’