Open Letter to the Heads of State of the Member States of ASEAN : ASEAN must support accountability and justice for human rights violations in Burma

Press release

Your Excellencies,

On the eve of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), representing 164 organisations across the world, and the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma) urge the Member States of ASEAN to publicly support the creation of a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both state and non-state actors in Burma/Myanmar.

The ASEAN Summit is being convened under Vietnam’s chairmanship under the theme “Towards the ASEAN Community: from vision to action”. In the context of entrenched impunity and the state’s failure to protect the rights of its own people in Burma, the time for ASEAN to take real action is long overdue. FIDH notes that the vision and credibility of ASEAN as a ‘people-oriented community’ are being seriously undermined by decades of gross and systematic human rights violations in Burma, including violations of international humanitarian law. Numerous resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, the former Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council have condemned these violations and called for effective investigation by the authorities. These repeated calls for accountability have gone unheeded.

In his latest report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Mr Tomas Ojea Quintana, reiterated his recommendation that the UN consider creating such a commission in order to ensure that victims of international crimes will have access to justice and accountability measures, which the Burmese junta has failed to provide. At least 13 states have voiced their support for a commission of inquiry and member states of ASEAN, consistent with their commitments to human rights in various international treaties and the ASEAN Charter, should join this growing chorus of international support.

The government resulting from the exclusionary and repressive November 7 elections will implement the 2008 Constitution which contains provisions that would provide state actors retroactive immunity from prosecution for human rights violations. Therefore, the need for such a commission is ever more urgent. The elections do not obviate the on-going responsibility by the Burmese government to ensure justice and accountability for serious international crimes and human rights violations that were perpetrated and are still being documented. “If the Government fails to assume this responsibility,” stressed Mr. Quintana in his latest report, “then the responsibility falls to the international community.”

A commission of inquiry can have a strong deterrent effect on future violations, establish the facts surrounding past violations and thus lay the groundwork for an effective national truth and reconciliation process that is a core element of long-term sustainable peace, development and democratic transition in Burma.

Supporting justice and accountability is consistent with the human rights aspirations of the ASEAN Charter. In the Preamble and Article 1.7 of the Charter, Member States pledge to adhere to the principles of democracy, strengthen the rule of law and good governance, as well as to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Charter obliges Member States to uphold the UN Charter and international law, including international humanitarian law (Article 2.2.J), and to “enhance the well-being and livelihood of the peoples of ASEAN by providing them with equitable access to opportunities for human development, social welfare and justice” (Article 1.11). To achieve these aims, Member States commit to “take all necessary measures to effectively implement the provisions of the Charter” (Article 5.2). By adhering to these principles, the ASEAN governments have engaged themselves on the path to strengthened respect of the universal human rights principles and values as well as their effective implementation.

ASEAN should not use the so-called ‘principle of non-interference’ as a justification for turning a blind eye to the on-going serious international crimes and persistent culture of impunity prevalent in Burma. Without justice, sustainable peace and development in Burma will remain elusive. Without peace and development in Burma, the vision of a “caring and sharing ASEAN community” cannot be realised. The credibility and relevance of ASEAN as an important and responsible regional stakeholder hinge on its willingness to work with the international community to seek justice for victims in Burma in a context where the Burmese junta has failed to do so.

Our organisations sincerely hope that you will take our concerns and recommendations into serious consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Souhayr Belhassen
FIDH President

Debbie Stothard
ALTSEAN-Burma Coordinator

H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations

H.E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
Secretary-General of the ASEAN

Members of the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN (CPR)

Members of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)

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