The Council of the European Union (EU) has initiated a plan for regular human rights dialogue between the bloc and Burma.
In a statement on Monday, EU foreign ministers endorsed a framework which will include the provision of EU support, “including through technical, financial and other expertise and assistance”.
“The dialogue will be held on an annual basis through face to face meetings, in principle alternating between European Union and Myanmar/Burma at senior official level. The EU will be represented by the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Myanmar/Burma by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other relevant stakeholders,” the EU said.
The EU foreign ministers laid out a list of 21 “benchmarks” which it expects the Burmese authorities to fulfill, including: cooperation with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN human rights special procedures; the release of all political prisoners; the strengthening of rule of law; greater media freedom; and “effective measures to combat intolerance, communal violence and hate speech”.
But while the latter clause clearly alludes to the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment that have racked many parts of Burma, no mention was made in the report about the dire conditions facing the Rohingya/ Bengali community in Arakan State – a situation the UN’s Special Rapporteur Tómas Ojea Quintana and others warn is sliding towards a humanitarian disaster.
“I have continued to receive allegations of serious human rights violations being committed during this police operation [in Duchiran Dan], which also involved Rakhine [Arakanese] mobs, including allegations of the brutal killing of men, women and children, sexual violence against women, and the looting and burning of properties,” Quintana said in February, addressing reporters at Rangoon airport for the final time during his tenure as the UN’s special rapporteur.
Speaking to DVB on Wednesday, Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said, “The EU has obviously decided to make its benchmarks neutral from an ethnic perspective, focusing instead on ‘addressing concerns’ about discrimination, and stopping the problems of communal violence and hate speech – both of which encompass at least some of the issues facing the Rohingya. Given the ethnic diversity of Burma and the serious problems with the census, it’s really unfortunate that the EU neglected to establish a benchmark to address statelessness and citizenship issues. That’s a big oversight that the EU officials in the dialogue will have to make up for.”
The director of Burma Campaign UK, Mark Farmaner, also voiced skepticism. “Burma Campaign UK welcomes human rights dialogue taking place but only if it is robust and time bound,” he told DVB. “The danger with this dialogue is that the EU will see the process itself as success, rather than human rights improvements, and also that they will tread very softly in the dialogue, fearing that if they push too hard the Burmese government will pull out.”
However, according to a spokesperson for the EEAS, a department which essentially serves as the EU’s foreign office, the Europeans’ proposal will pave the way for greater communication about the human rights issues facing Burma.
“The 21 benchmarks provide a comprehensive list of human rights issues which allow a deep discussion about the situation in Rakhine State and elsewhere in the country,” he said.
Asked what the dialogue would do for the thousands of refugees and IDPs in ethnic areas, the EEAS said, “The EU follows very closely the evolution of the humanitarian and human rights situation in Myanmar, including the situation in IDP camps. We have called for unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to IDPs and all those affected by conflict and violence. The EU has actively advocated the full resumption of humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State which was suspended in March.”
Burmese President’s Office spokesman Ye Htut said he welcomed the initiative. “President [Thein Sein] decided to improve the Myanmar human rights situation since he took office. For the last three years, there has been much tangible progress in the human rights situation. But we still have some challenges and we will cooperate with our international partners to overcome these. So we welcome the EU proposal for human rights dialogue,” he told DVB this week.
An EU delegation led by the bloc’s ambassador to Burma, Roland Koria, is currently touring the country ahead of the first EU-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue meeting since the framework was announced – due to take place on 20 May and to be co-hosted by EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis and Burma’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Thant Kyaw.
“While a dialogue is important, it will ultimately be judged by its outcomes,” concluded HRW’s Phil Robertson. “There are many rights issues in Burma that the EU should press hard on, and they will need to also be totally honest on what progress they make and transparent about what obstacles they encounter from the Burmese government.