With just a little more than two months before the general election in Burma, scheduled for Nov. 7, the United States joined countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the creation of a United Nations-led commission to investigate purported war crimes by Burma's military junta.
On Aug. 18, the White House in a statement said the commission could advance the cause of human rights in Burma by "addressing issues of accountability" for members of the regime. The Obama administration also hinted at the possibility of further sanctions.
Such a commission of inquiry against the military leaders also has been sought by the Burmese human rights groups. The issue gained prominence when Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, released a critical report to the Human Rights Council in March.
"According to consistent reports, the possibility exists that some of these human rights violations may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes under the terms of the statute of the International Criminal Court," Mr. Quintana said.
When the diplomatic engagement of the Obama administration, which began in September 2009, had not yielded the desired results, not too many options were available on the table.
During the past 11-month engagement, the Obama administration apparently has learned more about the intention and psychology of the Burmese military junta. This gives the White House an opportunity to redraw its strategy to better deal with the recalcitrant members of the State Peace and Development Council.
Washington has tried to reach out to the Burmese leadership through high-level visits. Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, visited the country in November 2009 and in May. Neither visit, however, yielded desired results.
The Obama administration anticipated a positive response from the junta. The administration's primary demands, such as release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and creation of a free and fair environment before the general election, have not been implemented.
This disappointment has been exacerbated by reports of Burma seeking a nuclear program with support from North Korea. Moreover, the Obama administration has not ruled out tougher sanctions if and when warranted.
Because Washington has not achieved the desired objectives with its engagement policy, it has decided to back the establishment of a commission of inquiry.
This commission of inquiry could be implemented by the U.N. Human Rights Council, a U.N. General Assembly resolution, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or a vote at the U.N. Security Council. It could lead eventually to a war-crimes prosecution.
Any attempt at the U.N. Security Council is likely to be opposed by veto-wielding China and perhaps by Russia. The case of the Bosnian war-crimes commission in the early 1990s was an example of the secretary-general initiating a case.
Though the prospects of a commission of inquiry to prosecute senior Gen. Than Shwe (Burma's junta chief) is debatable, such action may help prevent the younger generation of the junta from committing more crimes against their own people.
Liberian ex-President Charles Taylor is on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes. Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 and has yet to be arrested. Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, was arrested after leaving office and tried for war crimes, although he died during the trial.
Since the Obama administration has embarked on endorsement of a commission of inquiry, it must further push the agenda to see it through to the end. A commitment from the U.N. secretary-general, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly and wider support from the international community are essential to its success.
Meanwhile, the United States should not abandon its engagement policy. The Obama administration needs to appoint a special representative for Burma, as was mandated by the Congress in 2008.
The special envoy, in consultation with other stakeholders, such as China, Russia, India, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union, needs to work toward coordinated international action on Burma.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general-secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum.
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