William Hague: The UN must halt this injustice in Burma

Those who argue Suu Kyi is a poster girl for the West should remember she was elected
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The Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi spent her 61st birthday yesterday as she has spent 10 of the last 16 years - under house arrest. During this time Burma under the military junta has experienced not only the violent reversal of a democratic election result, but also abuses ranging from the persecution of ethnic minorities to systematic rape and the conscription of child soldiers.

There are those who would argue that Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, is merely a poster-girl for the West. They should reflect on the fact that 16 years ago she was democratically elected to lead Burma. Her imprisonment is a travesty of justice, not just for Suu Kyi alone, but for the people of Burma.

When the UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Burma last month and was allowed to see Suu Kyi, the sense of optimism was such that some almost believed there could be an end to the injustice of her detention. For those with an intimate knowledge of the situation the surprise was Mr Gambari's optimism, and not the familiar woesome tale that followed. Suu Kyi's sentence was extended for another year, and the Karen, Shan and other ethnic minorities found themselves under yet another attack.

It now appears that accommodating the UN envoy was a manoeuvre designed to defuse the international outcry over the latest atrocities against the Karen people. In recent months, in the biggest offensive Rangoon's military has launched since 1997, more than 18,000 Karen civilians have been forced to flee their villages. Several thousand have reached the Thai border, while many thousands remain in hiding in the jungle.

The crisis in Karen state is by no means the only concern in Burma. The ruling junta have perpetrated gross human rights violations for decades, including the widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, forced relocation, torture, killings, and the use of human minesweepers. More than 2,800 villages have been destroyed and a million people internally displaced in eastern Burma alone since 1996. More than 155,000 refugees are in camps in Thailand, and thousands more in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other countries.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Charm Tong, a brave young Shan activist and representative of the Shan Women's Action Network, which published the report Licence to Rape, documenting the Burma Army's use of sexual violence in Shan state. Burma has an estimated 70,000 forcibly conscripted child soldiers, the highest in the world. More than 1,100 prisoners of conscience remain in jail, subjected to severe torture and inhumane conditions, and 127 political prisoners have died in detention since 1988.

In May, the Security Council was briefed by Mr Gambari, following his visit to Burma, but the council failed to agree any concrete action. Pessimists and regime apologists would have us believe that the difficulties of generating consensus on Burma at the Security Council means that the effort should be abandoned altogether. But the fact that Burma was raised at all is an important step in the right direction.

The case for UN Security Council action is clear. Last year, a report commissioned by the former Czech president Vaclav Havel and the former archbishop of Cape Town Bishop Desmond Tutu concluded that Burma meets all the major criteria for UN Security Council action. Over the past 14 years, 28 resolutions have been passed at the UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights condemning the Burmese junta's gross human rights violations. However, these resolutions are not enforceable. The time has come now for UN Security Council action, which would be binding.

A resolution under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter should require Burma's junta to work with the UN secretary-general's office to implement a plan for national reconciliation; restore the democratically elected government; release immediately Aung San Suu Kyi and all prisoners of conscience; and ensure unhindered access to all parts of the country for the UN and international humanitarian agencies.

In the meantime, our Government, with cross-party support, should lead the way in supporting democracy-building, human rights documentation, and education, and in providing urgently needed humanitarian support. It is my strong view that our Government should increase efforts to bring Burma to the UN Security Council immediately. What better way to celebrate the courage and commitment to freedom of those working bravely inside the country to advance democracy than with a full discussion of the crisis at the Security Council followed by meaningful action?

The writer is the shadow Foreign Secretary.