Saturday, November 06, 2010

Burma's sham election: What can the world do?

Burma is ruled by an authoritarian military dictatorship which is about to hold a rigged election. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is boycotting the election in protest, and parties that do stand face massive fees for standing (not unlike Britain's election deposit), have their election posters torn down, and the secret police follow opposition candidates.

It is a sham election.

Dictatorships are a threat to human rights and a threat to peace. Iraq has shown that violent intervention to depose dictators causes more problems than it solves. But what is the alternative? At present, the UN has only the Security Council with the authority to take action, but within the Security Council there is always one powerful member who will block any call for sanctions, because of their trade or diplomatic relations with the dictator. In the case of Burma, China is sponsor of the Burmese brute.

Some would have a hands-off, laissez faire approach towards foreign policy. "Self-determination" is the weasel word, and I have even heard it said that people choose to live in a dictatorship.
This is false.
Dictators choose dictatorships. We live in one shared world, in a system of interrelated parts, and the idea that we can cut ourselves off from the plight of other populations in the name of "self determination" is as wrong as the Daily Mail idea that we should ignore what is going on in other parts of the world on the grounds that they are foreign and nothing to do with us.

So we must, in the name of humanity, work to help free the people of Burma, and all the other peoples who are oppressed by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Since force does not work, the UNSC does not work, what is to be done?

Clearly, there needs to be a framework of rules within the UN that sets out incentives to better governance and disincentives to worse governance.

In 2008, the Green Party published a report on the Global Index of Human Rights. It was co-written and presented by the excellent Peter Tatchell, and set out the proposition that the human rights actions of every government should be published annually by the UN, as an easily read ranked table. Notably, it has a section directly aimed at addressing the problem of Burma. I have pasted  this section below.

Every dictatorship is different, but there are common, easily recognised steps that they take. Burma is doing one now they are holding rigged elections. Each specific step, once confirmed in a court of law, should have a specified sanction applied to it. This is sound psychology, because learning comes about when we discover that our actions have specific consequences.

New ideas, especially if they are big, take time to get acceptance. Bureaucracies, even in organisations with excellent aims, tend to reject unfamiliar ideas. Amnesty International UK and the Burma Campaign have both refused to step out of their single-issue box and support systemic change embodied in the Index. To its credit, the Green Party in England and Wales, Europe, and even the Global Greens have taken on board the Index. The next step is to take on board this specific approach to dealing with dictators.

From the Index Report:

Dealing effectively with dictators

Note: this section has not yet been adopted by the Conference of the Green Party in England and Wales]

The Global Human Rights Index (GloHRI) will provide an annual review of
governments’ progress or regress, but what of specific crimes committed by dictators
that enter the news and trouble the conscience of the international community? How
can these be addressed?

The actions of dictators repeatedly come into the media spotlight, with reports of their abuses of the human rights and welfare of their citizens. Burma, Zimbabwe, and China, Uzbekistan and Sudan have all given cause for concern recently in this role. The world’s media respond with harrowing news stories and pictures of human suffering caused by the regime’s unwillingness to protect the rights and welfare of their people. The world’s leaders respond with speeches condemning the actions of the dictators, and the case may be referred to the UNSC. There the case is discussed, and effective, timely action is usually delayed or blocked because one or other of the permanent members on the Security Council regards the dictator in question as a useful ally or trading partner.

Even if there is agreement that some action must be taken, it takes a great deal of time
to get a sanctions programme in place.

The problem lies in the fact that each case of abuse is addressed on an ad hoc basis, and action in the UN takes place at the end of a long and uncertain political process. We need therefore to move to a framework of international rules of governance that will help all dictators, indeed all rulers, to learn that certain courses of actions will certainly lead to unwanted effects on their own freedom to act for their own personal advancement. Specified forms of misconduct will be matched with a tariff of penalties which are applied in a measured, stepwise and consistent basis, in order to avoid the
protection that they often obtain from allies in the UNSC.

There are a number of identifiable steps on the road to dictatorship. For example:
• Banning critical newspapers and media
• Banning opposition parties
• Ignoring the result of a democratic election (e.g. Burma and Zimbabwe)
• Intimidation at the polling booths
• Lavish expenditure on palaces for the dictator
• Disproportionate spending on arms

Each of these steps, and others not mentioned here, can be legally defined, and each could have a sanction attached to it. For instance,
• Banning critical newspapers and media could be countered by sanctions on the import of the materials the Government itself needs to print its newspapers.
• Banning opposition parties could lead to financial support to opposition parties whose aims are judged to be helpful to the welfare of the people of the country.
• Ignoring the result of a democratic election could result in a ban in foreign travel for members of the regime.
• Intimidation at the polling booths could result in the regime being denied eligibility to serve on appropriate UN councils, for example, the Human Rights Council .
• Lavish expenditure on palaces for the dictator could result in freezing of appropriate assets of the regime.

If the regime takes action to retrace its steps, the sanctions will be promptly withdrawn.

This is based on sound psychology. It is well established that the best way to modify unwanted behaviour is to set a consistent and fair framework of punishments for unwanted behaviour and rewards for appropriate behaviour.

Note that the specific measures set out above are in outline form only, to give an idea of the kind of measures available. They must be refined by specialists in international law. Note also that these are not "Sanctions" as commonly understood, the kind of sanctions that caused such hardship to the people of Iraq. They are measures targeted specifically on the ruling clique.

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