THE BLOG

Burma's President Thein Sein in the Hague At Last

09/09/2014 11:40 BST | Updated 08/11/2014 10:59 GMT

This week Thein Sein, President of Burma, will be visiting The Hague, in the Netherlands. As a man with a lot of blood on his hands, you might be thinking this is long overdue. But instead of being indicted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity, Thein Sein will be receiving red carpet treatment from the Dutch government.

In a few short years, the Netherlands has gone from a country that strongly supported human rights in Burma, to a country prepared to ignore the multiple violations of international law since Thein Sein became President in 2011, and the numerous violations of international law that took place during the 14 years that he was on the ruling council of the previous military dictatorship.

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A campaign poster highlights ongoing war crimes in Burma.

For a country which hosts the International Criminal Court, which incidentally is just three kilometres from the Noordeinde Palace, where Thein Sein will be meeting King Willem-Alexander, such an approach is immoral and indefensible.

Governments in Europe have tried to justify their embrace of President Thein Sein by citing the reforms he has introduced since becoming President. They argue that we have to forget the past, and focus on the future. If Burma's leaders face prosecution for their crimes, it will endanger the reform process, they claim. There are several reasons why this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

First, crimes have been committed and there has been no justice or reconciliation process. President Thein Sein and the rest of his government, mostly serving or former generals, have never acknowledged the human rights violations which took place and never even apologised. Thein Sein has even defended the crushing of the uprising in 1988 in which thousands were killed, saying it saved the nation. He refuses to publish his own military records for the time. Victims of those crimes deserve justice.

Second, it's an argument devoid of any morality. Imagine if the Prime Minister of the Netherlands tried to persuade Dutch citizens that a serial killer should not be prosecuted for his crimes because he was now doing good charity work. It's simply not a credible stance to take.

Third, numerous violations of international law took place during the previous dictatorship. Although many of these took place before the Rome Statute came into force, so many took place after 2002 that they could keep ICC investigators busy for several decades. To ignore these crimes undermines the credibility of international law and encourages dictatorships and authoritarian rulers all over the world to continue to believe that they can violate international law with impunity.

Fourth, there can only be justice and the application of law if the international community acts. Burma's 2008 Constitution grants immunity for acts committed by any government officer.

Fifth, exactly what kind of reform process is the international community seeking to defend? Most people in Burma are much more sceptical about the process than the international community. They don't see it as a genuine transition to democracy. The first step of the reform process was the introduction of a new Constitution, drafted by President Thein Sein, which gives the military power at every level of government. Burma is transitioning into an authoritarian regime, not a democracy.

Sixth, reforms are backsliding, now that sanctions and other international pressure has been lifted. New laws are being used to arrest peaceful protestors, the number of political prisoners has doubled so far this year, repression of the ethnic Rohingya has increased, journalists are being thrown into jail again, foreign journalists are being deported and barred entry again, and repressive laws remain in place.

Seventh, violations of international law in Burma are not just historical. Most are the result of new conflicts which began after Thein Sein became President. In fact, violations of international law have actually increased since Thein Sein became President. 2011 saw a sharp increase in human rights violations which could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity, as the Burmese Army broke ceasefires in Shan State and Kachin State. Numerous cases of rape, arbitrary execution, arbitrary detention, torture, mutilations and deliberate targeting of civilians by the Burmese Army have been documented by the United Nations and other organisations. These abuses by the Burmese Army have continued in Northern Shan State and Kachin State in the past three years.

Eighth, Thein Sein is directly responsible for violating international humanitarian law by obstructing humanitarian access to internally displaced civilians who have fled conflict and human rights violations in Kachin State. This is a war crime, which continues to this day.

But perhaps the most urgent reason why international law needs to be applied to the situation in Burma is the treatment of the ethnic Rohingya by President Thein Sein and his government. Since the latest wave of anti-Rohingya violence in 2012, Human Rights Watch has collected evidence of abuses which amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya. They also collected evidence of state involvement.

Fortify Rights has documented evidence of government policies targeting the Rohingya which also classify as crimes against humanity.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma has also reported that: "The pattern of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Rakhine State may constitute crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court," and that "Local and central authorities are not intervening to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law." Thein Sein has personally given support and encouragement to those inciting anti-Rohingya hatred and violence.

United to End Genocide has stated that precursors of genocide against the Rohingya now exist in Burma.

There is a downward spiral of continuing attacks, human rights violations, repression and restrictions on humanitarian aid against the Rohingya. There is impunity from the villager to the President, and as long as this impunity continues, so will the repression and violations of international law.

Ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity have all happened under Thein Sein's rule. Experience with Assad and Gaddafi has shown that befriending war criminals simply doesn't work in the long term. Any country which genuinely supports human rights and international law would be working to ensure the United Nations Security Council refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court.

Hopefully one day soon President Thein Sein will be back in The Hague, but this time three kilometres down the road from the Palace.