What the U.N. Can’t Ignore in Burma

The trial of the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, has once again catapulted events in Burma onto the front pages of newspapers around the globe. The leader of Burma’s struggle for human rights and democracy has been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest after an American citizen swam across a lake and broke into her home last month. Heads of state from Asia and the West, celebrities, and U.N. leaders such as human rights chief Navi Pillay have responded strongly, demanding not only an end to the trial in Burma’s kangaroo courts but the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years.

With the verdict expected this week, many eyes remain glued to Burma. We hope this global attention will result in long-overdue action.

For while the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, without trial, has long been denounced, a less-publicized travesty has been underway in Burma for much of the past 15 years. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and Amnesty International have reported on the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed under the rule of Burma’s military regime, including the recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers and attacks on ethnic minority civilians. The former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, reported last year that he had received information indicating that the military regime had destroyed, forcibly displaced or forced the abandonment of more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma, where ethnic minorities predominate. At least 1 million people fled their homes as a result of the attacks, he said, escaping as refugees and internally displaced persons. This is comparable to the number of villages that have been harmed in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Inexplicably, the U.N. Security Council has not systematically investigated these abuses, which probably rise to the level of crimes against humanity and war crimes. So a group of jurists from the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa — of which we were part — commissioned a report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School to determine whether the United Nations is sufficiently aware of the seriousness of the charges and willing to pursue justice. The Harvard team — relying only on U.N. documents and not information from human rights groups — examined four international human rights violations documented by U.N. bodies over the past 15 years: sexual violence, forced displacement, torture and extrajudicial killings.

It found that, indeed, the United Nations is well aware that such abuses are taking place in Burma. Numerous U.N. special rapporteurs, the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (now Human Rights Council), and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women have repeatedly documented and cited human rights abuses that rise to the level of crimes, using language such as “widespread” and “systematic,” which are key elements to proving the existence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Harvard report noted that the United Nations has acknowledged that rights abuses in Burma have taken place with impunity. Moreover, U.N. reports observe that most often the Burmese military commits these grave human rights abuses. Key U.N. experts have acknowledged that there is no independent judiciary in Burma, with Tomás Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, stating as recently as November that “There is no independent and impartial judiciary system” in Burma.

Tragedies such as last year’s cyclone and this spring’s sham trial inevitably draw the world’s eyes to Burma. We should maintain our gaze. Given that the United Nations is aware of the scale and severity of rights abuses in Burma, it is incumbent on the Security Council to authorize a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. In previous, similar cases — such as the situation in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur — the council voted to create such a commission to investigate charges and recommend actions. So many U.N. bodies have documented severe human rights abuses that such a move on Burma is not only justified but long overdue.

Geoffrey Nice, the principal prosecution trial attorney in the case against Slobodan Milosevic in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague and Pedro Nikken, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and is an executive committee member of the International Commission of Jurists.