China campaigning against international probe of possible war crimes in Burma

Protesters shout slogans calling for a boycott of the Nov. 7 elections in Myanmar during a rally Friday in front of the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City.
Protesters shout slogans calling for a boycott of the Nov. 7 elections in Myanmar during a rally Friday in front of the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City. (Pat Roque/associated Press)
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 6:28 PM

The Chinese government has launched a high-octane diplomatic campaign during the past two months aimed at thwarting the Obama administration's plan to back an international probe into possible war crimes by Burma's military rulers.

The Chinese effort - which includes high-level lobbying of top U.N. officials and European and Asian governments - has taken the steam out of the U.S. initiative, which was designed to raise the political costs to Burma's military junta for failing to open its Nov. 7 elections to the country's political opposition.

A senior U.S. official was pessimistic about the current prospects for securing international support for a war crimes probe and made it clear that Washington had no immediate plans to introduce a proposal to establish one. "We have been and continue to consult with others," said the official, who requested anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "It's on the list of things that are good ideas that we want to discuss and explore."

Liu Yutong, a spokesman for the Chinese mission at the United Nations, did not respond to a request for comment.

Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, is widely considered to have one of the most appalling human rights records in the world. The ruling junta has detained more than 2,100 political prisoners, who have endured torture, inadequate medical care and even death. The Burmese military has also imposed abuses on ethnic minorities, including the forced relocation of villages, forced labor and systematic human rights abuses, including rape.

"There is a pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights which has been in place for many years and still continues," the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, wrote in a March report, saying such crimes could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. "There is an indication that those human rights violations are the result of a state policy."

The United States outlined its plan to support Quintana's appeal for a war crimes inquiry against senior Burmese officials, including Burma's top military ruler Than Shwe, in August interviews with Foreign Policy magazine and The Washington Post. The decision reflected frustration that U.S. officials' effort to engage the regime had failed to produce democratic reforms or the release of political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves under house detention.

At the time, a senior U.S. official said the United States anticipated the effort could take years, comparing it to the decades-long struggle to hold Khmer Rouge leaders accountable for mass killings in Cambodia in the 1970s. The most likely method for pursuing the creation of a commission of inquiry is through the passage of resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee, which is now in session, or the U.N. Human Rights Council, which will convene early next year.

Washington could also appeal to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to do it under his own authority - although Ban, who is seeking reelection, is unlikely to pursue the proposal without broader support for it in the Security Council.

But the United States has pursued a highly cautious diplomatic strategy, merely sounding out top U.N. officials and potential allies about their willingness to support the prosecution of top Burmese officials, but not offering a clear plan on how to do it, these officials said. So far, Washington has garnered little public support for the initiative from Asian and European governments or the U.N. leadership.

China, meanwhile, has forcefully urged European and Asian countries and the U.N. leadership to oppose the measure on the grounds that it could undermine Burma's fragile political transition, according to diplomats and human rights advocates. Just days after the United States signaled support for the war crimes commission, China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, paid a confidential visit to Ban's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, to make his opposition clear: The U.S. proposal, he said, was dangerous and counterproductive, and should not be allowed to proceed, three U.N.-based sources familiar with the exchange told The Post.

"What we are seeing is the Chinese practicing American-style diplomacy and the Americans practicing Asian-style diplomacy," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington-based director of advocacy for Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese are making it clear what they want, and they are using all the leverage at their disposal to get what they want. And the Americans are operating in this hyper-consensual, subtle, indirect way that we associate with Chinese diplomacy."

Malinowski said the problem is less about Chinese or Russian opposition, which was to be expected, so much as a failure of U.S. leadership. "One should recognize why the Chinese are against this: They recognize it would be a consequential measure," he said. "If you allow Chinese opposition to deter you, then what you are saying is that you are only going to take steps on Burma that are inconsequential."

In the first major test of the U.S. strategy, the annual debate on human rights at the General Assembly, the Obama administration was the only country that explicitly called for consideration of a commission of inquiry - although Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia signaled support for holding human rights violators accountable for crimes.

"After carefully considering the issues, the U.S. believes that a properly structured international commission of inquiry that would examine allegations of serious violations of international law could provide an opportunity for achieving our shared objectives of advancing human rights there," said Rick Barton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, told members of the General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human rights.

In contrast, China, Russia, Singapore and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations voiced firm opposition to the proposal. A report by Ban to the General Assembly on Burma's human rights record made no reference to the controversial proposal.

The senior U.S. official said it was unlikely that the General Assembly's human rights committee would address war crimes in a resolution drafted by the European Union that will be considered next month. "We don't run the resolution in the General Assembly. So that's not our call. My sense is there is not much momentum right now in the General Assembly to add this new element to the resolution. But the dynamics could change over time."

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