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RIGHTS-BURMA: UN Emergency Session to Study Crisis

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Sep 28 2007 (IPS) - The United Nations Human Rights Council will hold an emergency session next week to discuss the bloody crackdown on protests by the military regime in Burma, which has left an unspecified number of Buddhist monks and other demonstrators dead and injured this week and hundreds under arrest.

The decision by the highest U.N. human rights body was the finishing touch to its three-week ordinary session, which was largely dedicated to procedural matters.

It is not clear how many protesters were killed this week in Burma, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets, led by Buddhist monks. Some media outlets have reported 13 or 14 deaths, but diplomats in Rangoon have warned that the death toll may be much higher, and activists speak of up to 200 victims of the security forces.

In Burma, which has been ruled by successive military regimes since a 1962 coup, a wave of protests broke out in mid-August, triggered by a 500 percent hike in oil prices. The demonstrations are the biggest since a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was crushed with brutal force, with some 3,000 civilians killed by the army.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who travelled to Geneva to follow the Council’s debates, called Friday’s resolution “a major development.”

“We believe that it is a very important step for Burma and for the Human Rights Council, another signal to the Burma rulers that violence will not be tolerated,” said Hicks.

The European Union request for a special session on Burma – which the ruling junta calls Myanmar – was signed by 17 members of the 47-member Council, as well as 36 observer states. (Support from a minimum of 16 members is needed to call an emergency session).

Industrialised countries formed the majority of the countries that backed the request, along with six countries from Latin America and two from Africa.

No nation from Asia or the Caribbean backed the motion. Nor did Brazil, the home country of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

The level of support for the European initiative would appear to indicate that the debate, to be held next Tuesday, could end in a mild rebuke and a call for dialogue among all parties in Burma.

Hicks said that the decision to study the situation in Burma “is not just symbolic.” She added, however, that at any rate “symbolism is important; the Council is taking action on this. It alone is not going to change the situation. But I think that it was incredibly important to say to the authorities of Burma that this is a…human rights crisis in demand of the urgent attention of this body.”

With regard to the first three weeks of the Council’s sixth session, which will continue in December, the activist told IPS that “I think that the Council is working a little better than it has been, but it has a long way to go.”

“We are still quite disappointed,” said Hicks. “We detailed the situation in 10 countries that we thought the Council should be engaged in. But in reality only two of them have gathered substantial attention: Darfur (the conflict-torn region in northwestern Sudan) and Burma.”

There are many more situations in the world in need of the same attention, she stressed.

She also complained that the debate on renewing the mandates of the special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were put off until December.

Furthermore, Hicks said, the Council ignored endemic human rights crises like those of Uzbekistan and Iraq. Nor did it pay full attention to the cases of Sri Lanka, Iran, North Korea, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

She applauded, however, the Council decision to begin the universal periodic review process in early 2008. Under the new mechanism, all 192 U.N. member states will be scrutinised by 2011 with respect to their compliance with the human rights treaties they have signed and ratified.

The universal periodic review is the main difference setting the Council apart from its predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced in March 2006. The Commission examined the individual cases of countries suspected of serious human rights violations, a system that gave rise to allegations of political bias that helped precipitate its downfall.

The Council will begin the universal periodic review in February studying 16 countries selected in a random draw on Friday: Bahrain, Ecuador, Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia, Finland, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Algeria, Poland, the Netherlands, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Argentina.

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