Evidence of crimes against humanity in Burma presented in
Conservative Party Human Rights Commission's first hearing

The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission chose Burma as the subject for its first hearing, held in Parliament on April 25.

In a three-hour session, chaired by Gary Streeter MP, the Commission heard evidence on human rights violations in Burma from four witnesses. The hearing comes amidst new reports of a deteriorating situation in Karen State. In recent weeks, over 11,000 civilians have been displaced by attacks by the Burma Army in one area alone. Several bodies have been found, including one beheaded and some badly mutilated. A nine year-old girl was shot after her father and grandmother were killed. Burma Army troops opened fire on civilians at point-blank range.

Charm Tong, a founder of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), presented extensive evidence of the increasing militarization of Burma, a country which spends less than one per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on health and education, the lowest in the world, and over 40 per cent on the military.

Charm Tong also provided evidence of the widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war. In the report Licence to Rape, published by SWAN in 2002, at least 173 incidents of rape were documented, involving 625 women and girls. Of these cases, 83 per cent were carried out by officers, often in front of troops, and 61 per cent were gang rapes. Similar evidence of rape has been documented by groups in Karen and other ethnic areas.

Charm Tong described the plight of the internally displaced people in Burma, and refugees on the Thai-Burmese border. Over one million people are internally displaced in eastern Burma alone, and over 155,000 refugees are in camps in Thailand. 

Nurul Islam, President of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, described the suffering of the Rohingya people on the Burma-Bangladesh border. Describing his people as “one of the most persecuted and forgotten peoples on earth,” Nurul Islam said: “The Rohingyas are oppressed and persecuted beyond all measures. They have been invariably subjected to criminal atrocities, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, extra-judicial killing and summary execution, arrest and detention, rape, looting, destruction of homes, settlements, religious schools and mosques, forced labour, forced relocation, forced eviction and expulsion, confiscation of moveable and immoveable properties, relentless taxation and extortion, restriction on their freedom of movement and residence within the state, prohibition of their right to marry and to found a family without permission, restriction and/or denial of their right to education, right to work and to get access to food and other essentials, medical care and necessary social services.” Burma’s military regime, he added, has declared the Rohingyas as non-nationals “in utter disregard of their history.”

Guy Horton, a human rights researcher funded by the Government of the Netherlands and author of Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma, presented comprehensive evidence of widespread destruction and violence in eastern Burma, and argued that the abuses violate international law, particularly Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, laws on Crimes against Humanity and Genocide. He drew attention to the remarks of the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, who concluded in his report of February 2006 that: “The current government strategy of targeting civilians in the course of its military operations represents a willful abrogation of its responsibility under international law.” As far back as 1998, as Mr. Horton highlighted, the then Special Rapporteur Rajsoolah Lallah QC said: “The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned about the serious human rights violations that continue to be committed by the armed forces in the ethnic minority areas. The violations include extrajudicial ands arbitrary executions (not excluding women and children), rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest they are nor simply isolated or the acts of individual behaviour  by middle or lower rank officers but are the result of policy at the highest level, entailing legal and political responsibility”.

Mr. Horton urged the international community to establish a United Nations Commission of Enquiry into the question of attempted genocide in Burma, and he encouraged the UK and other countries who are signatories to the Genocide Convention to refer a case of attempted genocide in Burma to the

Mark Farmaner, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, presented a number of policy recommendations to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He highlighted the weaknesses in the current EU Common Position in Burma, and urged the UK to introduce tougher targeted sanctions against the regime in Burma. He emphasized that the UK does not currently provide any support to pro-democracy groups in Burma, or any humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced people in

All four speakers urged the UK to continue to work to bring the issue of Burma to the agenda of the UN

The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission will consider the evidence presented and will develop a number of policy recommendations shortly. In particular, the Commission will examine ways in which it can encourage the British Government to increase its efforts to bring Burma to the UN Security Council agenda, provide support to pro-democracy groups and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people, and

The hearing was followed by an event at which Charm Tong and Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke. Describing Charm Tong as “a heroine in the fight for freedom: A young woman who has seen, day after day, the suffering of her own people at the hands of one of the world's most brutal regimes and who has bravely chosen to speak out,” Mr. Hague added: “Today, I want to say to Charm Tong, that the Conservative Party stands with her. We have much to learn from her experience and are grateful that she is with us today.”

“Human rights abuses in the 21st century cannot be tolerated,” Mr. Hague said. “Yet across the world unjust imprisonment, detention without trial, and torture continue to be seen … Human rights do not apply solely to the Western world, nor do they reflect standards from which particular cultures or religions can choose to opt out.

They exist to protect people everywhere against political, legal, and social abuses. It is in accordance with this basic principle that we have established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. In doing so, we hope to convey several fundamental messages: 

  • To dissidents, activists and brave people around the world who continue to struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights in their own countries, we want to say: we are on your side.
  • To the victims of state-sponsored violence in its many forms again we say: we are on your side.
  • To regimes that terrorize their own people, we must say: your behaviour is unacceptable and we will do all we possibly can to stop it.
  • To the international community, including our own Government, we say: when you act to stop these crimes against humanity, we will support you. But when you drag your feet or look away, we will not stay silent

  • And to the people of our own country, we must say: these issues matter.  Slavery, murder, rape and torture are wrong, and we have a moral obligation to speak out and act.

Mr. Hague said that the Conservative Party would develop a foreign policy which would be “

pro-active in supporting democracy and those who bravely champion freedom in their own countries. It must put economic and political pressure on brutal regimes, and it must seek to hold them to account.” 

Referring to Burma, Mr. Hague added his support to renewed calls for UN Security Council action. “Last year, the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, commissioned a law firm to examine the case for bringing the issue of Burma to the agenda of the UN Security Council. The report, Threat to the Peace, was published. Its conclusions were damning. Of all the major criteria for bringing a country to the Security Council, Burma is the only country in recent years that without a doubt meets them all. While a preliminary discussion took place before Christmas, the Security Council has still not formally considered the issue of Burma, or debated a resolution against the regime. Soon after Threat to the Peace was published, the Conservative Party backed its recommendations and urged the British Government to support it. I am pleased to say the United Kingdom did, in the end, support the initiative and I will continue to urge the government to maintain this momentum and to work with our allies to get the issue of Burma raised at the Security Council, and a resolution passed.”

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