Burma must take significant steps to end human rights abuses, especially forced labour, before the EU can consider easing further sanctions against Burma, a leading British union body has warned.
Free and fair elections on 1 April are not enough to warrant a significant revision of the EU sanctions policy against Burma, the General Secretary of the Trade Union Confederation (TUC) said in a letter to UK Foreign Minister William Hague.
“We do not believe that the time is yet ripe for a major revision of sanctions,” said the letter. “However it appears that some EU member states are considering lifting significant economic sanctions as part of the renewal of the EU’s Common Position on Burma in early April.”
He cited a new report by the International Trade Union Federation (ITUC) outlining four key benchmarks that would first need to be met. This included an end to forced labour and restrictions on free assembly, liberating all remaining political prisoners and ending human rights abuses.
“The government has utterly failed to rein in the army, which is responsible for most of the forced labour, or ensure that those responsible are prosecuted and face appropriate criminal penalties if convicted,” said the report. “Other serious human rights abuses continue throughout the country, with little accountability for those committing these crimes.”
Legislative and judicial reform were also listed as necessary pre-conditions, including amending the controversial 2008 constitution, which is widely perceived as un-democratic.
“Much remains to be done in these areas where steps have already been taken, as these issues are far from resolved and fundamental legislative and institutional reforms are yet to be enacted,” said the report.
The global trade union movement has continuously lobbied for improved labour conditions in Burma and remains concerned about its limited progress.
In 2011, a Committee of Experts from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported to have found “extensive and detailed documentation referring to the persistence of widespread forced labour practices by civil and military authorities in almost all of the country’s states and divisions.”
More recent reports also suggest that forced labour, especially in ethnic minority areas and those affected by natural resource development, remain commonplace.
The Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) continues to lobby against a premature lifting of sanctions. “We are concerned that the British government has not been taking a strong line to ensure EU sanctions are maintained,” said its director Anna Roberts.
The EU began easing sanctions in January this year in response to the democratic reforms carried out by Thein Sein’s government, including releasing political prisoners, easing media restrictions and establishing a human rights commission. There are rumours of a split within the EU, with one camp pushing for further easing of sanctions and others urging restraint.
“We know from experience that EU members such as Germany prioritise trade before human rights, and would like to see sanctions relaxed now,” warned Roberts. “[But] to do so will remove the incentive for the military backed government to make deeper and more fundamental changes.”