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Germany’s policy myopia on Burma is astonishing

Last week the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand reported that at least 18 women and girls were gang-raped by Burmese troops in Kachin state. In the same week, Germany’s federal commissioner for human rights policy, Markus Loening, published an article in the Financial Times (‘It is Time to Fine Tune Sanctions on Burma’, 20 June 2011) calling for sanctions on Burma to be relaxed.

It is astonishing that the German commissioner for human rights should ignore human rights abuses in Burma and instead focus on trade issues. As the regime breaks ceasefire after ceasefire, committing violations that are classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Rome Statute, he writes just one sentence on human rights abuses. But then, talking about human rights abuses makes relaxing pressure on the dictatorship sound much less reasonable.

The article is a rare public insight into Germany’s thinking on Burma policy, exposing Germany’s agenda of easing pressure on the dictatorship and increasing trade. While this is not a new policy, in the past Germany has denied that it has pushed to relax sanctions, hiding behind the confidentiality of internal EU meetings.

Loening argues that sanctions must be “fine-tuned, linked to performance, and lifted, stage by stage, to reward progress”. This is just how the EU sanctions policy was envisaged when the first Common Position was agreed back in 1996. Sanctions would be gradually increased if there was no progress towards improving human rights and democratisation, but would start to be relaxed in response to positive change. The focus was on pushing the dictatorship into dialogue. The generals would be faced with a gradual and systematic increase in targeted sanctions if they didn’t make progress, and a relaxing of pressure if they did. However, it is Germany that has been one of the main obstacles to implementing this policy.

The initial visa bans and asset freeze were supposed to be early steps towards stronger measures. But when it came time to step up the pressure, to impose targeted sanctions which would have a real impact on the dictatorship and their business cronies, Germany was one of the main EU members which said no.

Since then, the EU has been so divided that it has been unable to implement a coherent policy and exercise influence, a situation that the dictatorship has exploited to the full. Rather than being applied as part of a clear strategy to reinforce diplomatic efforts, the EU has only been able to agree to increase sanctions in reaction to an atrocity committed by the regime.

Loening rightly states that sanctions “should be a sensitive, political instrument, not a caveman’s club”, but Germany has been the EU caveman responsible for constructing the club. It has been one of the leading countries that turned sanctions which could have been effective economic tools into what Loening calls a “club”.

Loening admits that sanctions can have a useful role to play, describing the prospect of including Burma in the generalised system of trade preferences as “a big carrot to dangle before the government”. If Germany hadn’t spent the past 10 years blocking new targeted EU sanctions we’d have a whole field of carrots to dangle in front of the government.

If Germany is serious about refining EU sanctions and using them as a political instrument, they should support the original policy of increasing pressure if there is no change, and relaxing pressure if there is change. Sanctions should be used as a strategic tool to apply pressure on the dictatorship to enter into negotiations with Burma’s democracy movement, setting out clear benchmarks, such as the release of political prisoners, which must be met before sanctions are lifted. The threat of sanctions should be proactively used to reinforce diplomatic efforts, not simply as a punishment for bad behaviour.

In light of Germany’s history of blocking moves that might have made EU sanctions more effective, it seems more likely that Germany is trying to relax pressure on the dictatorship and increase German business interests in Burma.

But given the lack of any real change in Burma, it is hard to make the case for lifting sanctions. Germany and other EU countries may try and spin that there is a new political reality in Burma with the prospect of change, but the reality on the ground is very different.

Attacks against ethnic groups are increasing. Thein Sein has broken ceasefires in Karen, Shan and Kachin state, and he is threatening to do so in Mon state. Burmese troops are raping and killing, and thousands of civilians have been forced to flee. Rather than releasing political prisoners, Thein Sein denies they even exist. And this week the regime has threatened Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

If Germany’s commissioner for human rights paid more attention to increasing human rights abuses committed by the regime, he would be recommending that Germany supports a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity, not trying to justify the lifting of sanctions.

Anna Roberts is executive director of Burma Campaign UK.


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