United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana has been following the country closely since his mandate began in 2008. DVB spoke with Quintana about his concerns regarding Burma’s current human rights record and what the country needs to do to ensure further abuses don’t continue
Can you talk a little bit about your role and responsibilities as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Burma?
I was appointed by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in 2008. I started my mandate in 2008. I’ve visited the country five times already. My role is to report to the UN about the human rights situation in Burma. I hold my mandate as an independent expert. I do not represent governments and I do not represent NGOs. I act as an independent human rights expert. My next report will be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in October. And before that I plan to visit [Burma].
At the moment, what is your greatest concern with regards to human rights in Burma?
There are a number of issues that are of my concern, which includes the remaining political prisoners. I have been calling for the release of political prisoners since the start of my mandate. The government lately has made important decisions in this respect, but the problem is that there are about 600 political, or 500 I would say, who remain in [Burmese] prisons. The government is forgetting about them. I haven’t been able to clearly see that the international community has a clear message on the necessity of having the government release the remaining political prisoners.
The situation in Kachin state, where it’s clearly complex to address the human rights situation, for me it’s a serious concern.
The Kachin Independence Organisation made the allegation that the Burmese army was in the process of undertaking ethnic cleansing in Kachin state. To what extent do you agree with that analysis?
I’ve never assessed the problem in Kachin state from that point of view. According to the information that I’ve been receiving during my mandate, the situation is serious. The human rights abuses are systematic in Kachin state, including the forced displacement of people from the area, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. But to the level of the qualification of ethnic cleansing, I have not received enough information to include that type of appreciation in my reports.
What should the role of the international community be with regards to war crimes in Burma?
When we speak about the international community, we have to really have a more specific [definition] of what the international community means. My role as special rapporteur is absolutely important in terms of making visible the obligations of member states of the UN and of course the [Burmese] government with respect to human rights obligations when we see crimes against humanity that have been committed in the country.
In my opinion, what is clearly necessary now is the initiation of a process of justice and accountability in [Burma]. The UN has the obligation to follow up on this. With respect to what is going on with political prisoners with respect to justice and accountability, countries from the UN are leaving behind this important obligation in the democratic process, which is to address the past and to see how to end impunity in the country.
In [Burma], I don’t see a real debate, discussion or conversation in this respect and I also don’t see member states from the United Nations giving importance to this important issue. Accountability and justice are key to any democratic process, are key to ending impunity and key to preventing current and future violations of human rights.
At this point, my role as special rapporteur is to find ways to make all the stakeholders understand that it’s crucial for the democratic process in [Burma]. This involves not only the government but also stakeholders inside the country. I would like to see from everyone in [Burma] that this is a discussion that is on the table with respect to the future of [Burma].
Do you have any concern now that most sanctions have been dropped against Burma that there’s a certain amount of leverage that’s been lost at the negotiating table?
From my point of view, we are at the point where sanctions have to be reconsidered, but on the other hand that doesn’t mean that the member states of the UN and some other international bodies stop requesting the government of [Burma] to start respecting the human rights of all the citizens in the country – in Kachin state, in northern [Arakan] state, in [Burmese] prisons and so on and so forth.
Lifting sanctions doesn’t mean you have to forget the question of human rights.
In Burma, should a commission of inquiry still be pursued given the Burmese government’s refusal to investigate human rights abuses?
I really believe that this has to be discussed – absolutely. Can it be at the parliamentary level? Can it be in the lower house or the upper house where they suddenly decide to create a commission for these investigations? We need to find the possibilities to see where is the proper environment for a commission to be independent and undertake serious investigations.
This has to be discussed. During my next trip to [Burma] this will be part of my agenda and I will discuss this with the authorities, the parliament, the judiciary, the NLD and some other political parties.
What is on your agenda during your next trip? What key issues are you going to focus on while your there?
First, the problem of accountability and justice and how to deal with that — whether there needs to be the creation of a commission of inquiry or some other ad hoc commission. The situation in Kachin is serious. During my last trip, I asked to visit Kachin state, but that was not possible to accommodate. I will try to negotiate with the government so I can go to Kachin state and directly address the human rights concerns in that area. Also, the situation of political prisoners; I discussed with the minister of home affairs and visited Insein Prison to visit political prisoners in the past and I will do it again.
Another important pillar is the judiciary, where I do not see any process of serious reform. We see the government’s executive power, the president, trying to deal with reforms. We see the parliament also trying to deal with reforms, but the judiciary is absolutely static. We haven’t seen that the judiciary really understands the importance of the process of reform. The rule of law for any system is crucial. It is a human right.
Say the Burmese government does nothing to address the systematic human rights abuses that you’ve talked about, what would your prescriptions to the UN be with how to deal with a country that is still abusing humans’ rights after years of reform?
To be really frank on this point, this is not the moment for the country members of the UN to decide and politically to have the space to create an international commission – something that was discussed in the past but now it seems that the political environment at the UN level does not allow for that and we have to be honest on this.
Again, I am an independent expert – I show the facts and I make assessments with respect to the facts. In the past, I discussed with UN members the creation of an international commission of inquiry that was not finally [followed]. But with this point, again what I believe is that the problem of human rights abuses in [Burma] and the lack of justice or accountability and the persistence of impunity has to be discussed publicly, openly at the UN. That is what I believe is needed at this moment in the context of the democratic reforms. The members of the UN have to say that for any democratic reform to be successful it is necessary to address the impunity question. This is something that has happened in every country in the world that has gone through a democratic process. At some point, the problem of impunity arises and you have to face it.
And this has to be included in the discussion of any UN member who wants to help the [Burmese people], who wants to cooperate with the [Burmese] government, and who wants to assist through economic resources or some other resources.
Do you have any other thoughts on Burma that you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I believe this is an important opportunity for [Burma]. I started in 2008 and I have witnessed a lot of change and that has to be recognised – good decisions need support. On the other hand, a crucial and serious problem at this moment in [Burma] is how the military will really adapt to civilian rule and a democratic system. The military has been in power in [Burma] for decades and they still retain a lot of power. Of course, a military is a necessity for any country in the world, but the question is to what extent the military of [Burma] will adapt and accept the rules of a civilian government and a democratic process.
We haven’t seen signs so far against that, on the other hand in Kachin state it has been difficult for the civilian government and the president of [Burma] to send orders to the military and have those orders respected. We need to follow this problem closely and support those who want to change the military in [Burma] so it really complies with a civilian government.