Rights Groups Call on President Obama to Renew Sanctions before May 20 Deadline, Set Benchmarks

(Washington, D.C., May 9, 2016)—U.S. President Barack Obama should renew sanctions authority on Myanmar (Burma) for at least another year due to ongoing egregious human rights violations against ethnic minorities in the country, said Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide in a new report published today.

The president has until May 20 to renew the sanctions authority and is facing pressure from a business-led coalition of lobbyists to let it expire. 

“While some clamber for normalized U.S. relations with Burma, international crimes against minorities persist and the unreformed military maintains significant political power,” said former U.S. Congressman Tom Andrews, President of United to End Genocide. “President Obama has until May 20 to stand up against those responsible for atrocity crimes and support the many genuine reformers in the country.”

The 34-page report, Supporting Human Rights in Myanmar: Why the U.S. Should Maintain Existing Sanctions Authority, describes how Myanmar authorities continue to confine more than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims to more than 40 squalid internment camps in Rakhine State, while another one million Muslims in the country face severe restrictions, particularly on freedom of movement. The report also alleges that the Myanmar Army is responsible for perpetrating with impunity extrajudicial killings, torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and forced labor against Kachin civilians in an ongoing civil war in the country’s north.

“While very positive reforms are taking place in the country, ethnic and religious minorities continue to endure systematic abuses,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The scale of ongoing abuses and the military’s outsized role in those abuses demands more focus now, not less.”

The new report draws on 43 interviews conducted by Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide with eyewitnesses and survivors of human rights violations as well as U.N. officials and others in Yangon Division, Rakhine State, and Kachin State in Myanmar in March and April 2016.

The organizations expressed particular concern about ongoing and unchecked abuses in ethnic areas that may amount to “atrocity crimes”— defined under international law as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.

Since reforms began in earnest in Myanmar in 2011, the U.S. has removed most economic sanctions against the country, including most investment bans and trade embargos.

Existing U.S. sanctions on Myanmar ban imports of jade and rubies and target Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) responsible for human rights abuses. U.S. businesses are prohibited from doing business or completing transactions with “blacklisted” persons or businesses, and arms transfers and investments with Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense are also prohibited. In 2012, the U.S. further implemented annual reporting requirements for U.S. investments in Myanmar exceeding $500,000 in order to promote responsible investment.

Myanmar’s jade trade generated an estimated $31 billion in 2014 alone, much of which is unaccounted for or kept out of state coffers. The country’s jade mines produce the world’s highest quality jade and are located in contested territories in war-torn Kachin State. Myanmar military-owned firms, drug lords, and others are said to control the jade trade, including many individuals and entities presently sanctioned by the U.S. government. 

“The current sanctions regime is deliberately limited and creates incentives for human rights abusers to clean up their act,” said Matthew Smith. “These measures are sensible and should remain in place. Known human rights abusers shouldn’t profit from improved bilateral relations.” 

In Rakhine State, the report describes how displaced Rohingya, Kaman, and other Muslims are denied adequate food, shelter, and health care. The authorities continue to impose severe restrictions against more than one million stateless Rohingya and other Muslims, including on freedom of movement, infringing on the rights to health, education, and livelihood.

In Kachin and Shan states, armed conflict since June 2011 has displaced more than 100,000 ethnic civilians, and authorities have restricted humanitarian organizations’ access. Myanmar Army soldiers have committed extrajudicial killings, torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, forced labor, and used human shields in the conduct of the war, according to eyewitnesses, survivors, and aid workers interviewed by Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide.

Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide believe these acts may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.

The report concludes that the political environment remains fragile despite significant political reforms over the past few years, including a transfer of power in April to President Htin Kyaw, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and their party—the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The same military that ruled Myanmar for decades maintains disproportionate influence today. With the authority to appoint 25 percent of parliamentary seats, the military enjoys an effective constitutional veto and, through the constitution, it controls three key government ministries—Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide recommend that the U.S. Government establish clear benchmarks for the eventual lifting of sanctions, including unfettered humanitarian access to displaced persons, the abolishment of orders and practices that impose restrictions violating the human rights of Rohingya and other Muslims, and the amendment of the 1982 Citizenship Law, which revoked Rohingya access to citizenship.

“While Myanmar has undergone significant reform in recent years, authorities continue to commit gross human rights violations across the country,” said Tom Andrews. “President Obama should renew the sanctions authority without delay and make clear that promoting human rights in Myanmar will remain a priority in U.S. foreign policy.”

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