Make your own free website on

Parliament House, Sydney 
Wednesday 1 November 2000 

International Perspectives

By Garth Nettheim

It is ten years since the Burmese military stole the government of the country from the duly elected government. That situation still persists today. Does it follow that the International system is ineffective and has no role to play?

It would be easy to become pessimistic and to assume that the situation is hopeless and that change is unachievable. But I prefer to recall two other struggles that some of us have supported: South Africa and apartheid, and Indonesia and East Timor. In both cases, what appeared to be totally intractable situations finally yielded largely as a result of International pressures.

What, then, are the levers for engaging such International pressures? And what is the record over the recent year or so?

The record reveals that various elements in the International system are engaged with the situation.

Secretary-General On 7 April 1999 the Secretary General presented to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a report on "Situation of human rights in Myanmar" (E/CN.4/1999/29). He submitted the report pursuant to a 1998 General Assembly resolution (53/162) which requested him to continue his discussions with the Government of Myanmar on the situation of human rights and the restoration of democracy.

Kofi Anan's report was brief. It told of the appointment of the UN's Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Mr. Alvaro de Soto, and of his meeting with Myanmar's Foreign Minister at the UN which paved the way for de Soto to visist Yangon from 27 to 30 October 1998. There he held discussions with key members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and also with Central Executive Committee members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including its General-Secretary Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He reported that it had not been possible to arrange a further visit. but that efforts were continuing. He described the mandate entrusted to him by the General Assembly as one of "good offices", pursuing high level dialogue. He noted that the responsibility for fact-finding and reporting on the human rights situation remained with the Special Rapporteur appointed by the CHR.

Special Rapporteur

The Special Rapporteur pon the situation of human rights in Myanmar is Rajsoomer Lallah. He presented a detailed report to the Commission on Human Rights on 22 January 1999 (E/CN.4/1999/35). The CHR adopted a lengthy resolution on 23 April 1999 (E/CN.4/RES/1999/17).

The Special Rapporteur's Interim Report, prepared under 1999 resolutions of CHR and ECOSOC, was presented by the Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly on 4 October 1999 (A/54/440).

He noted that, since his appointment in June 1996, he had yet to be allowed to see the situation on the ground despite repeated requests by the General Assembly and the CHR. Accordingly, his Interim Report was, necessarily, based on reports from other bodies. The report considered "Measures adversely affecting democratic governance", notably "that political parties in opposition continue to be subject to intense and constant monitoring by the regime, aimed at restricting their activities and prohibiting members of political from leaving their localities". Among his sources of information were "thematic" procedures of the CHR - the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In reporting on "Prison conditions", the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar was able to note with satisfaction that the International Committee of the Red Cross had reached a verbal agreement with the SDPDC under which, for the first time, ICRC teams in 1999 had been able to visit more than 18,000 detainees and to register over 600 security detainees at nine places of detention and three places of administrative internment. Regular visits had been agreed for the future, together with an extension to all detention facilities in Myanmar.

There was nothing positive in his report under the heading of "Forced Labour". for this topic, the relevant International agency was the International Labour Organization (ILO) which had appointed a Commission of Inquiry to examine complaints of violation by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (ILO No. 29). The International Labour Conference in June 1999 adopted a strong resolution on the matter culminating as follows: (a) That the attitude and behaviour of the Government of Myanmar are grossly incompatible with the conditions and principles governing membership of the Organization; (b) That the Government of Myanmar should cease to benefit from any technical cooperation or assistance from the ILO, except for the purpose of direct assistance to implement immediately the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry, until such time as it has implemented the said recommendations; (c) That the Government of Myanmar should henceforth not receive any invitation to attend meetings, symposia and seminars organized by ILO, except such meetings that have the sole purpose of securing immediate and full compliance with the said recommendations, until such time as it has implemented the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry.

The Special Rapporteur fully endorsed the substantiated conclusions and recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry and the recommendations contained in the resolution adopted by the Conference.

On the topic, "Situation in the ethnic minority States". the Special Rapporteur was "deeply concerned at the ongoing generalized human rights violations committed against the ethnic groups and other minorities in the eastern part of Myanmar, particularly Shan and Karen States. The violations have been thoroughly documented by human rights organizations and newly arrived refugees in Thailand describing the same stories of widespread human rights violations committed by the military, including summary executions, rape, torture, ill treatment during forced labour, portering, forcible relocation of villages and dispossession of land and other property".

He was bale to report more positively under the heading "United Nations programs in Myanmar" about the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in assisting Muslims returnees from Bangladesh, in co-operation with the World Food Program and other agencies. He also reported on the operations of the UN International Drug Control Program.

In his "Conclusions and recommendations" the Special Rapporteur began by welcoming the resumption of its valuable work by the ICRC and the cooperation of the Government, and the potential for the operation activities of UN agencies in the provision of humanitarian assistance. He went on to report that, otherwise,

53... There has been no progress in the situation of human rights in Myanmar. If anything, the situation is worsening. Repression of civil and political rights continues and intensifies whenever there is any form of public protest or any form of public political activity. Repressive laws are still used to prohibit and punish any exercise of the basic rights of freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association, in particular in connection with the exercise of legitimate political rights. This regime of repression puts the right to life, liberty and physical integrity - when it is not simply violated - permanently at risk. The rule of law cannot be said to exist and function, as the judicial system is subject to a military regime and serves only as handmaiden to a policy of repression.

54. No effective measures have been taken to restrain forced labour amounting to no less than a contemporary form of slavery, in spite of freely assumed international obligations; and the practice still continues in the name of tradition, or else of economic development.

55. In the ethnic areas, the policy of establishing absolute political and administrative control beings out the worst in the military, and results in killings, brutality, rape and other human rights violations which do not spare the old, women, children or the weak.


The Secretary-General submitted a further report to the General Assembly on 27 October 1999 (A/54/499) in which he fleshed out further details of the dialoguye between himself and his Special Envoy and the Government of Myanmar, Interestingly, the report also referred to the involvement in such discussions of the World Bank.

General Assembly

On 17 December 1999 the General Assembly adopted resolution 54/186 on the Situation of human rights in Myanmar (A/RES/54/186). The preambular paragraphs recalled the Special Rapporteur's observation "that the absence of the rights pertaining to democratic governance is at the root of all major violations of human rights in Myanmar"; expressed grave concern at the "continuing and intensified repression of civil and political rights"; and deeply regretted the Government's failure "to cooperate fullywith the relevant United Nations mechanisms, in particular the Special Rapporteur, while noting the increased contacts between the Government of Myanmar and the international community". The resolution, among other things, urged full cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, welcomed the cooperation with the ICRC, deplored the continuing violations of human rights, expressed grave concern at the increased political repression, and so on.

The General Assembly strongly urged the Government of Myanmar, in accordance with assurances given on various occasions, "to take all necessary steps towards the restoration of democracy in accordance with the will of the people as expressed in the democratic elections held in 1990 and, to this end and without delay, to engage in a substantive political dialogue with political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and representatives of ethnic groups ...". It requested the Secretary-General to continue his discussions on the situation of human rights and the restoration of democracy, and to submit further reports to the General Assembly and the CHR.

Commission on Human Rights.

The Secretary General's report to the CHR on 24 March 2000 (E/CN.4/2000/29) was brief. He referred to Alvaro de Soto's second visit to Myanmar from 14 to 18 October 1999 for further consultations with SPDC leaders, NLD leaders and representatives of the New Mon State party and the Kachin Independence Organization. He stated that Mr. de Soto had assumed new responsibilities, and that the Secretary-General was in the process of appointing a new Special Envoy for Myanmar.

The CHR had the report of the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Lallah (E/CN.4/2000/38) and, on 18 April 2000 adopted a resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (E/CN.4/RES/2000/23). It too welcomed the resumption of cooperation with the ICRC.

It noted the constructive dialogue between the Committee on the Elimination against Women and the Government. It also noted the visit by the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General and noted that two senior members of the ethnic minority groups had been arrested shortly after having met the Special Envoy!

The resolution then went on to express the CHR's grave concern at increased political repression, at the continued closure of most institutions of higher learning, at the failings of the National Convention and the fact that it had not been convened since 1996, and at the issue of forced labor. The CHR deplored the "continuing pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights" in a range of areas; th elack of independence of the judiciary from the executive and the wide disrespect for the rule of law; the continued violations of human rights and widespread ddiscriminatory practices against persons belonging to minorities; the continuing violations of human rights of women; the continuing violations of children; the escalation in the persecution of democratic group activists; and sever restrictions on the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association, etc.

The CHR called on the Government of Myanmar to establish a constructive dialogue with the United Nations system, including the human rights mechanisms; to continue to cooperate with the Secretary-General or his representative and to broaden this dialogue; and to consider ratifying core human rights treatise and the Refugee Convention. It urged the Government to cooperate fully and without further delay, with all UN representatives, in particular the Special Rapporteur. "to allow him urgently, without preconditions, to conduct a field mission and to establish direct contacts with the Government and all other relevant sectors of society, and, thus to enable him to discharge his mandate, and, in this context, regrets that, notwithstanding the recent indications that serious consideration would be given to a visit by the Special Rapporteur, he has not so far been given permission to visit the country".

The resolution went on to urge the Government of Myanmar to do all the right things. It ended by deciding to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a further year and to report to the General Assembly and the CHR; to request the Secretary-General to continue to give assistance to the Special Rapporteur; to request the Secretary-General also to continue his own discussions with the Government; and to request the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to cooperate with the Director of the ILO with a view to identify ways in which their offices might usefully collaborate for the improvement of the human rights situation in Myanmar.


The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, specifically issued a statement on 1 September last about the stand-off between the Government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others, and urged "the two sides to engage, as soon as possible, in a substantive political dialogue, as called for by a series of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Commission of Human Rights". (HR/00/59).


On 20 October 2000 the Secretary-General submitted a report to the current session of the General Assembly (A/55/509). He reported that in April he had appointed the former Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the UN, Mr. Razali Ismail as his new Special Envoy. He had visited Myanmar from 29 June to 3 July on a "confidence building", and had paid a second visit from 9 to 12 October. He had meetings with SPDC leaders. He had also had two rounds of discussions with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It had been difficult time for arranging such access because of the roadside standoff, and subsequent restrictions on her movements and the movements of other NPD leaders. As the Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent reported (12/10/00) "the continuing crack-down on dissidents has further dampened prospects of progress towards internal political dialogue on the restoration of democracy".

(The same correspondent, Craig Skehan, has also reported criticism by Burmese of Australia for continuing to conduct human rights seminars in Burma while Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.)

The Secretary-General summarized the discussions that had been taking place in which he and his Special Envoy had stressed the need for dialogue and reconciliation, and in which SPDC leaders reiterated their claim to be merely a transitional government. He also welcomed the announcement that universities and colleges had been reopened.

We await with interest for any resolution that the General Assembly may adopt in its current session.


The content of these various reports and resolutions make depressing reading. And they tell us little that those of us concerned about Burma do not already know.

But the point is that these matters are being examined and discussed and deplored throughout the International system. In the United Nations itself, they engage the attention of the General Assembly, the Secretary- General, the Commission on Human Rights and its subsidiary bodies, notably the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar as well as the several "thematic" Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups. They engage the active attention, also, of specialized agencies such as the International Labor Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program and so forth.

The issues are all solidly on the agenda of the International system, placed there by Burmese and their supporters, among Governments and Non-Governments Organizations alike.

They have not yet led to liberation But the point of the International system is to subject the SPDC to pressure from as many directions as possible, and to maintain that pressure.

That pressure also needs to be supported by similar efforts directed at lobbying individual governments, corporations, and other points at which leverage may be possible. The recent involvement of the World Bank is particularly significant.

Short of a resolution of the Security Council authorizing the use of armed force, nothing more direct is likely. Economic and trade sanctions are, of course, possible. So also it may be possible to mount a challenge to the credentials of representatives of the SPDC to represent Burma at the UN or in other fora.

The position in Burma continues to be appalling, under a determined and repressive military regime. There is little immediate prospect of overturning the regime from within. The alternative is to make the regime a pariah among the world community of States.

Eventually the regime may yield. After all, who would have dreamed that Apartheid would yield? Or Indonesia's iron grip over East Timor? Or Milosevic's domination over what remains of Yugoslavia?