Gry Larsen: 'The UN has its limits'

Norwegian state secretary Gry Larsen visited Burma last week where she met with both government officials and opposition groups, and travelled to the country’s dry zone. Norway remains one of the leading funders of exiled media and pro-democracy groups, and was one of the first country’s to open its doors to Burmese political refugees following the 1988 uprising.

Asked what she thought of a UN commission of enquiry into war crimes in Burma, Larsen warned of limitations of the security council, whilst urging the international community to unite in its approach to Burma.

What is your assessment of the situation in Burma?

The elections need to be free, fair and inclusive, and it’s important that the regime takes steps now to ensure that they will be free. I had meeting with the NLD [National League for Democracy party] and I respected their decision not to re-register and take part in the elections; I also respect other democratic voices in Burma who say they want to stand and see these elections as not free and fair but as a step.

Are you optimistic about the elections?

The elections laws that have been passed are not meeting international standards when it comes to free and fair elections and therefore I think it’s important that the international community has a strong voice towards the regime about freeing political prisoners, about freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and making sure there is freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Just having an election doesn’t make you a democratic state – it’s also the process towards the elections and what happens afterwards, and the will of the people must be respected.

Do you feel the elections give a window of opportunity?

I’m not saying that; some people inside Burma are saying that these elections could be a window of opportunity, that this is the first election that has been held in Burma for 20 years, and that it’s a step that can be in the right direction, but I think it’s too early to say.

You’ve also said that one should engage with the person in the driving seat. What do you feel the direction will be?

I think that in the international debate, which has been one of either sanctions or dialogue, it’s important to have both. You can have sanctions and dialogue at the same time – sticks and carrots. Therefore that’s why I say that the Burmese regime is at a crossroads – they have to decide. If they decide to take a democratic path and hold free and fair elections, the international community will respond to that. But we need to see them take some steps before they do respond.

What is Norway’s approach towards addressing poverty in Burma?

After cyclone Nargis international organisations and Norwegian organisations have been working on the humanitarian field inside Burma. That’s making sure that people get shelter and go to school. We will continue to give humanitarian aid to Burma, but not just in the delta – in other areas of the country that have humanitarian challenges. I went to the dry zone myself and saw that the local farmers are struggling.

Were you able to visit the ethnic areas?

I didn’t ask to visit the ethnic areas. The humanitarian organisations cannot operate so freely in those areas and I think that that’s one issue that we need to discuss. I raised the issue of ethnic minorities with the Burmese authorities. My visit was one of the first political visits from Norway in a long time; I think that’s the right approach, that we broaden our contacts in Burma, both with the regime and the NLD and different civil organisations, and we will continue to do that.

What is Norway’s position on the UN human rights rapporteur’s proposal to have a war crimes investigation done on Burma?

Right now we are focusing on what is going to happen now until the elections so a lot of the international attention is on making sure the elections will be more free and fair than it seems that they’re going to be. We need to be honest about the fact that it’s going to be very hard to get an agreement in the UN security council on this issue, but it’s important that Burmese authorities cooperate with the UN and allow UN representatives to operate freely within the country so they can monitor the situation themselves.

Do you have a benchmark for engagement with the regime?

It’s very difficult to set a timeframe for this. What is important is that the international community always tries to discuss whether it is taking the right approach and achieving what it wants to achieve. The past 20 years have shown us that we haven’t achieved what we wanted to achieve and now I believe that it’s important that the international community speaks with one voice, that we have carrots and sticks. But it’s not the international community that needs to decide – it’s the Burmese authorities that need to decide what path they want to walk. If they want to walk the democratic path, then the international community will follow up on that.

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