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Rights groups urge Obama to maintain sanctions

Human rights advocacy groups Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide today released a report urging US President Barack Obama to renew the US State Department’s existing sanctions on Burma, which are set to expire on 20 May.

“While Myanmar [Burma] has undergone significant reform in recent years, authorities continue to commit gross human rights violations across the country,” said Tom Andrews, a former member of the US House of Representatives and the current president of United to End Genocide.

“President Obama should renew the sanctions authority without delay and make clear that promoting human rights in Myanmar will remain a priority in US foreign policy,” he added.

While some sanctions were lifted in 2013, the US has kept key parts of the program in place. The sanctions, which were introduced in 2003, include a ban on jade imports and a list of “Specially Designated Nationals” that targets around 200 Burmese nationals connected to organized crime and the military government.

In addition, the 2012 “Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements” dictate that US businesses investing more than US$500,000 in Burma must provide key information about their investments to the government and general public.

In February, a group of five business associations signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker calling for dramatic changes to the sanctions program.

“The time has come to examine the utility of the remaining sanctions and to map out a vision for the future of the relationship [with Burma],” the letter said.

“The upcoming expiration of sanctions authority under the IEEPA provides just such an opportunity,” it added, referring to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which authorises the president to regulate commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary foreign threat to the United States.

The letter was signed by AmCham Myanmar Chapter, the National Foreign Trade Council, the US-ASEAN Business Council, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the United States Council for International Business.

However, the new report argues that the nation’s several unfolding human rights crises merit maintaining the sanctions. The researchers note that the jade industry drives war and exploitation in Kachin State, and notes that the situation for the Rohingya remains dire in Arakan State.

“The current sanctions regime is deliberately limited and creates incentives for human rights abusers to clean up their act,” said Matthew Smith, the head of Fortify Rights. “These measures are sensible and should remain in place. Known human rights abusers shouldn’t profit from improved bilateral relations.”

If the sanctions do expire, it will represent an about-face for the Obama administration, which has been signaling for the last several months that the results of the national election would not result in sweeping changes to the sanctions program.


During his confirmation in January, the new US ambassador to Burma Scott Marciel assured American lawmakers that neither he nor the president supported changing the program.

In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released a statement calling on the new government to end discrimination against the Rohingya and pressing the government to take action.

“Burma must do more to demonstrate its commitment to international human rights standards,” read the statement.


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