08 Sep 1999
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The Government’s much-heralded ethical foreign policy is to be tested in the High Court. The Burma Campaign UK (TBC) has launched a judicial review against the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, over his attitude to sanctions against the military regime in Burma, one of the most brutal in the world.
Under the EC Treaty, member states such as the UK can impose financial or investment sanctions against a non-EU country where the situation there is urgent.
The Government accepts that the human rights situation in Burma is appalling. The regime, which in 1990 ignored the elections which gave an overwhelming victory to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), is guilty of ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of minority peoples’. UK Government Ministers have called on the regime to hand over power to the NLD.
The regime has been condemned in the strongest terms 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). Thousands have fled to Thailand and other neighbouring countries, posing a threat to regional stability and peace. In addition, Burma is one of the world’s largest producers of heroin and Robin Cook has accused the regime of directly benefiting from its trafficking.
In May 1998, Robin Cook unsuccessfully urged Premier Oil, a British company working with the regime in a major gas pipeline project, not to proceed with its investment because of the harm such investment does to the cause of democracy and human rights.
Despite all this, the Government argues that the situation in Burma is not ‘urgent’ (such that it cannot impose financial sanctions). This is because the situation has been so appalling for such a long time. In the judicial review, TBC’s lawyers, led by Geoffrey Robertson QC, maintain that a situation is ‘urgent’ if it needs addressing quickly, as is the case with Burma. The long history of extreme repression does not detract from the urgency but rather adds to it.
In a video-statement smuggled out of Burma for TBC, Aung San Suu Kyi makes her most forthright call yet for economic sanctions against her country.
John Jackson, a TBC director, said: “How much suffering do Burma’s people have to endure before their situation is deemed ‘urgent’? The Government’s position lacks credibility, particularly since Ministers accept that human rights abuses in Burma are already appalling and the situation deteriorating. President Clinton has imposed investment sanctions on Burma for these reasons – its time our government did the same.”
08 Sep 1999