A week or so from now the representative of the United Nations to Burma on human rights will present his annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It should make interesting reading.
[Update, March 17: Advance copy of report available here]
The report follows Tomas Ojea Quintana’s second visit to the country since he came into the job last year, at the end of which the regime even allowed him a press conference inside the Rangoon airport, rather than back in Bangkok.
His careful remarks on the “challenging” rights situation were quoted in the state media, which also gave what by its standards was an unusually detailed account of his meetings and travels in February.
In the following days it also made out that the release of thousands of prisoners, timed to coincide with Quintana’s departure, had something to do with his visit rather than overcrowded jails.
Contrary to official news reports, the rights representative did not get everything he wanted. The government declined to let him meet with political party leaders. Because of this, U Win Tin, former long-term prisoner and National League for Democracy executive council member, refused to meet with Quintana individually.
And the rebel Karen National Union was irked that Quintana went to see leaders of splinter units that have gone over to the government side but didn’t call on it. As the envoy’s remit is to study and report on human rights abuse perhaps it should be relieved that he did not pay a call.
Ironically, the people whom Quintana could not or did not see got more press outside the country than those whom he did. Among the latter were the chief justice, attorney general, bar council members, home affairs minister and police chief.
These meetings are important because they speak to the new approach that Quintana has taken to the mandate, which distinguishes him from his predecessors.
The current envoy, the fourth since 1992, is the first to put the institutional features of rights abuse in Burma before its mere description. Whereas most of the work done by the other three was limited to documenting and classifying abuse, he has already gone a step further in having a go at understanding and addressing some of its systemic aspects.
Quintana met with the three key figures in the criminal justice system: the top cop, top prosecutor and top judge. Of course, the top cop is an army officer, and the top prosecutor and judge are both army appointees. They, like all functionaries in Burma, are not independent. But they and their agencies provide important services to the regime, and understanding what they do and how they do it is critical to understanding how abuses occur and what can be done about them.
It is meaningless just to say, like some critics did after Quintana’s visit, that there is no rule of law in Burma and until there is, human rights can’t be protected. This blanket response to the country’s overwhelming problems defeats any initiative to try something new even before it’s begun.
The rule of law won’t arrive in a box on the doorstep of an elected government. It’s not something that a country exclusively has or hasn’t. The institutions that in principle should be defending human rights in Burma need to be carefully studied and described with a view to the future, even if there won’t be any dramatic change in the present. And as the U.N. expert on human rights assigned to the country, Quintana is the man for the job.
In the place of mere rhetoric on rule of law and human rights issues in Burma we need an informed and substantive debate. Instead of bluster on political prisoners we need useful knowledge on the persons, bodies, laws and procedures responsible for their imprisonment. Instead of isolating those aspects of the state responsible for the worst abuses of rights, we need to identify the commonalities between the case of a person wrongly jailed for sedition and one wrongly jailed for fraud.
Even then, there will not be any magical solutions. So long as the army remains in power, other parts of government will remain under its orders and abuse will be rampant. But a more comprehensive approach to human rights can but contribute to a more intelligent approach to the country as a whole. And a more intelligent approach to the country as a whole may open spaces to negotiate change that years of narrow political dialogue, or so-called dialogue, have not.
Rather than complaining that the U.N. envoy met with one group but not with another, or that of the thousands of prisoners freed last month only a couple of dozen were political detainees, critics should take more heed of what fresh ideas and methods the fourth representative on human rights in Burma is bringing to the mandate and give him more time to try them out.
Everyone should lay off Quintana and see if he can—to paraphrase Win Tin—tell us something more than what we already know: that Burma is full of human rights abuse.