Tall tales at the Human Rights Council


Tourist brochures portray Burma as a mystical land full of unseen wonders and tall tales about amazing imaginary creatures, from giant serpents to magical birds. But it was a different sort of fantasy that the government spun stories about in Geneva this week: a far more modern, albeit no less implausible entity.

In response to the U.N. Human Rights Council‘s scrutiny of its violent crackdown on protests during August and September, the Burmese government suddenly claimed to have already set up an investigating body into alleged killings, abductions and disappearances at the time.

The body, under the home affairs minister, had begun its work at the end of October, the country’s ambassador said, and so there would be no need for any international inquiry of the sort proposed by the special human rights expert on the country.

This was news to informed observers. No such body has ever been reported in the state media, or heard about in other quarters. Nor does it seem that anyone representing it has met with persons from outside the regime.

It seems reasonable to ask if the inquiry body really exists at all. Yet, this question did not once come up in the Human Rights Council. Although the ambassador described nothing of what the body has done or will do, nor anything of its powers, many delegates seemed to take it seriously. How come?

There are, very broadly, two types of governments represented at the Human Rights Council. Those who don’t really believe in such stories, but pretend they do, and those who try to believe because they don’t know what else to think or do.

Delegates of the first type generally come from other countries where phantom inquiries also are set up to mute international censure and perhaps offset public opinion. They play along because they will at some time need others to do the same for them.

This type includes Burma’s neighbors, India and Thailand, whose governments routinely use committees to obfuscate and deny, rather than reveal and admit; and Sri Lanka, which is on a par with Burma when it comes to making up stories that are nothing but complete and utter fiction.

Delegates of the second type belong to countries where inquiries are actually set up for the purpose of inquiring. Most of them know that Burma’s regime is recalcitrant and unreliable at best. But still they may be unable or unwilling to accept that something does not exist at all when told that it does. Others may realize this, but not knowing what else to do, go along with the story at least initially, giving the storyteller enough time to come up with something else.

In a new study, the Asian Legal Resource Centre examines how this sort of denial and uncertainty has characterized the global response to human rights abuse in Burma. The report argues that there is a tendency to attribute too much rationality to the country’s political and legal behavior.

“When people encounter others who may not behave according to their norms,” Basil Fernando writes in the foreword, “They seek to come up with easy explanations that fit with their personal experiences.”

It is sometimes less troublesome to believe, or pretend to believe, in something unreal than it is to try to deny it. By pretending that an investigating body exists, everyone can just carry on as before. Uncomfortable questions about what to do if there is not one can be put off until later. More difficult questions about the nature of the state, authority and law can be put off indefinitely.

“Correct diagnosis is the first requirement for effective intervention,” Fernando says. Unfortunately, although Burma has for some time been in need of effective intervention, correct diagnosis remains elusive, due to persistent bewilderment about the country abroad.

As long as the Human Rights Council and other global bodies behave as if the government’s flights of fancy are credible, its tiny allowances commendable, Burma’s regime will go on telling tall tales as usual. For correct diagnosis, the council must stop deluding itself.

Source: Burma’s tall tales in Geneva

Video: Closing remarks of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Human Rights Council, 11 December 2007 (or HTML here)


One response to “Tall tales at the Human Rights Council

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s