U.S. Congress should maintain targeted sanctions on Myanmar 

(Yangon, September 15, 2016)—A decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to lift all remaining sanctions on Myanmar could pose a threat to peace, the democratic transition, and the protection of human rights in the country, Fortify Rights said today. An Executive Order must be issued for sanctions to be lifted, which President Obama said will happen “soon.”

“Lifting all sanctions now will embolden the Myanmar military and its partners,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “This decision was hasty and fails to recognize political realities on the ground.”

Obama announced the decision after meeting State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House on Wednesday.

Existing U.S. sanctions on Myanmar ban the import of jade and rubies and impose restrictions on 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. The current sanctions regime also prohibits arms transfers and investments with Myanmar’s military. 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. 

These sanctions—with the likely exception of arms transfers—will be lifted if Obama’s decision takes effect. 

Fortify Rights encouraged the U.S. Congress to maintain targeted sanctions in order to support the promotion and protection of human rights and civilian leadership in Myanmar.

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

“The jade trade is notorious for a reason—it has fuelled armed conflict in Kachin State for decades, leaving a corrupt and deadly wake,” said Matthew Smith. “Enabling jade imports now would increase demand for contested territory at a time when peace remains uncertain in the ethnic states. It would enrich the very actors who are obstacles to positive change.” 

In areas of active armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states, Fortify Rights has documented extrajudicial killings,torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, forced labor, and the use of human shields by Myanmar military personnel since 2011. Fortify Rights believes these abuses constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.

Existing U.S. sanctions are grounded primarily in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1997 (IEEPA), through which U.S. presidents have annually declared Myanmar a state of national emergency. On May 9, 2016, Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide published a 34-page report urging President Obama to renew sanctions authority for another year, calling for clear benchmarks for the eventual lifting of sanctions. On May 17, Obama renewed the sanctions authority.

The decision to lift all sanctions now would allow U.S. businesses to complete transactions with military-owned enterprises and 111 Myanmar nationals who are presently “blacklisted.” The U.S. Department of the Treasury categorized these individuals and entities as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) due to their complicity or involvement in human rights abuses.

The Myanmar military maintains disproportionate political and economic influence in the country. The military appoints 25 percent of parliamentary seats, giving it an effective constitutional veto power. Through the constitution, the military controls three key government ministries—Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

Ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington, D.C., 46 national and international human rights groups supported a joint statement opposing the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar at this time. Members of Myanmar civil society have also publicly opposed U.S. plans to lift sanctions on Myanmar.

Obama cited progress over the last several months as contributing to the decision to lift sanctions. State Counselor Suu Kyi recently convened the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—an event in Naypyidaw that brought together the government, ethnic armed organizations, and other stakeholders to discuss national reconciliation and ending Myanmar’s many armed conflicts.

However, fighting continued between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states, and armed conflict between the Myanmar military and a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in Karen State this week displaced thousands of civilians.

On August 23, State Counselor Suu Kyi also appointed a nine-member “advisory commission” chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to address the situation in Rakhine State and make recommendations to the government. 

Meanwhile, Myanmar authorities continue to confine more than 120,000 Rohingya and other Muslims to dozens of internment camps in Rakhine State, while another one million Rohingya in the country are deprived of equal access to citizenship and face severe restrictions, particularly on freedom of movement. 

Since political reforms first began to take hold in Myanmar, the U.S. government has responded by removing most economic sanctions against the country, including most investment bans and trade embargos.

“Up to now, the U.S. has carefully calibrated its sanctions policy to reward positive steps without sacrificing leverage,” said Matthew Smith. “Congress should act decisively to prevent the blanket lifting of targeted sanctions and ensure human-rights benchmarks are met.”

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