Emmanouil Athanasiou: The long arm of human rights law is the only thing that will frighten the generals into change

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The Independent Online

For the first time in 45 years, the international community is coming around to the view that justice must be available to the victims of Burma's military regime. UN bodies, NGOs and independent experts have documented a pattern of appalling and systematic human rights violations including summary executions, torture, forced labour, mass rape and the recruitment of child soldiers. These acts clearly constitute crimes against humanity under the statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Yet, not only have Burma's armed forces overseen a reign of terror, they have done so with impunity. The victims are crying out in despair at the knowledge that their rulers may never have to pay for their actions.

Washington's support for a UN commission of inquiry will play an extremely important role in influencing those countries which have been reluctant to hold Burma to account. These governments have for too long bought the deluded notion that by engaging with the junta's plans for elections, Burma can be coaxed to democracy. This is a nonsense, because the elections are based on a constitution in which not a single democratic principle has been respected. Article 445 of Burma's 2008 constitution for example, enshrines immunity for any act committed by the regime in the execution of its duties. Whether Burma's leaders will end up, like President Bashir of Sudan, being indicted by the ICC remains to be seen. But the Obama administration's policy shift will at least ratchet up pressure on the most hypocritical EU nations. For financial and business reasons they have hidden behind ineffective sanctions and the claim that Washington's engagement policy left them no other option.

It should also inhibit the excesses of Than Shwe and his fellow rulers who act as if they are untouchable. The fear of being held to account in an international court may even drive them to accept dialogue with their country's democratic forces. If there is any hope for Burma's future it lies in the application of international justice and not in sham elections.

The writer is head of the Asia desk at the International Federation for Human Rights