The European Union is expected to announce their decision to lift sanctions targeting Burma on Monday – the same day that Human Rights Watch published a report exposing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity taking place in Arakan state.
The move is a striking example of the growing disconnect between EU policy and the reality on the ground.
As EU foreign ministers have stated, there have been some remarkable changes in Burma. These have been both good and bad. But perhaps almost as remarkable is the reaction, or more accurately, over-reaction, from the EU.
In the past, when increasing pressure on the dictatorship was discussed by the EU, caution was the watchword. Now the EU has recklessly thrown caution to the wind, wholeheartedly endorsing Thein Sein and the changes taking place.
Within two years a sanctions regime that took more than 20 years to construct has been torn down, with only the arms embargo remaining. Of course reforms so far must be acknowledged and rewarded, but the principle of proportionality has been forgotten.
Sanctions were a stick to apply pressure for change, and their removal a carrot to encourage and reward change. The EU has now thrown away the stick and given away all the carrots. If the goal was to minimise the EU’s influence to promote human rights, then it has now been achieved.
Not one of the EU’s benchmarks for improvements in human rights has been met. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, restrictions on humanitarian access remain in place and are costing lives, conflict continues in Kachin state, and the welfare of the Rohingya has deteriorated so much that they are subject to ethnic cleansing. The UN continues to document multiple human rights abuses, which could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Yet, none of this seems to matter to EU foreign ministers, who continue blindly down their path of support for Thein Sein, talking up positives and ignoring or even actively playing down negatives.
One key factor in this dramatic shift in approach is the change in policy by the British government. The UK use to led the way in arguing for policy on Burma to be centered on human rights, but now they have not just gone missing in action, they have switched sides. The British government is now outdoing even Germany in the rush to embrace Burma and promote trade.
With sanctions already suspended it cannot be argued that lifting sanctions is about trying to help ordinary people get jobs. The lift of sanctions is a strong message from the EU as to where its priorities lie.
The move represents a significant downgrading of human rights as a priority. It will give comfort to Thein Sein and all those still committing human rights abuses with impunity, and cause despair for the political prisoners still in jail, the victims of abuses in Kachin state, and the Rohingya who are victims of ethnic cleansing.
There is just one message that Thein Sein and his government will get from today’s decision; ‘we don’t have to pay attention to the EU when they talk about human rights, we can do what we like’.
-Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK