Are sanctions enough?

The EU’s common position on Burma is up for renegotiation. Sanctions might not be effective, but are they the only option the EU has?


How should the EU deal with regimes like the one in Burma? That’s a question that is put into focus this week as the EU’s common position on Burma expires on 30 April. If it is right to retain the EU’s current position, which is largely reliant upon the power of sanctions, what does this say about the power of sanctions as a foreign policy tool for the EU?

The EU common position on Burma will probably be renewed in more or less its current form, extending the sanctions which include a travel ban and asset freezing on regime personnel, an arms embargo, a ban on EU companies investing in the logging, mining and gemstone industries, and a ban on the export of these products to the EU. Things probably won’t change much in Burma as a result of the extension of this EU position. Burma’s people – particularly those from ethnic minorities – continue to suffer on a daily basis at the hands of the dictatorship in spite of the measures which the EU, US, and other actors have put in place in protest at their actions. The Burma Campaign UK estimates that more than 3,500 villages have been destroyed by the Burmese Army in the past 15 years, and the use of torture and rape even against children, is widespread and systematic.

The forthcoming elections in October 2010 will also fail to bring change for the people of Burma. The military junta has issued a new set of electoral laws that refer to the highly dubious 2008 Constitution, and prevent anyone with a criminal record, including political opponents of the regime, from standing for election. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won over 82% in the 1990 general elections, have made it clear that they will not register for re-election this year, arguing that these laws ignore the demands for an all-party inclusive election made by the UN Secretary-General and the international community.

The outlook is not good. This doesn’t mean that the EU is wrong to extend the common position but it does beg the question of whether it is doing enough. It also raises the question for that matter, of whether, with a regime like that in Burma, sanctions can be effective at all, or if they are only of symbolic value. Perhaps this is tacitly recognised in the fact that the EU persists with sanctions in the case of Burma more tenaciously than with other states responsible for human rights abuses. For instance it decided to lift the sanctions on Uzbekistan in autumn 2009, despite there having been no attempt at investigation of, or accountability for, the Andijan massacre, which had led to the sanctions in the first place. But if the EU uses the same tool, but with different levels of leniency depending on whether it believes it has any chance of having an impact, or whether the sanctions are simply a response to the need to be seen to act in the face of grave and persistent abuses, this will of course undermine the credibility of this tool in all cases.

If sanctions are not effective in putting pressure on the generals ruling Burma, surely there are other ways in which those outside the country can support Burmese democracy activists and human rights defenders in their efforts to challenge the dictatorship under which they live? Undoubtedly reporting, wherever it is possible to get around the ban on foreign journalists in Burma, has an important role to play in keeping the pressure on the international community to act, and reminding us that the situation there really is as bad as we thought. But the issue with Burma is not so much a lack of recognition of the enormity of the problem among other governments around the world: rather it is not knowing how to tackle it.

The generals seem indifferent to public shaming from other governments or intergovernmental organisations drawing attention to the more significant of the steady stream of violations for which they are responsible. Statements like that made by Baroness Ashton on behalf of the EU in March, deploring the rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal against her latest sentence, are vital to draw the attention of the international community to the ongoing plight of the Burmese people, but appear to fall on deaf ears among Burma’s ruling elite. Maybe Ashton seems a long way off when you are sitting in Rangoon. But even a message from last year’s ASEM summit, in which Burma and all its key supporters in the region participated, on the need to free political detainees, didn’t lead to a change of conduct from the military junta.

Since these other lines of attack have not so far borne fruit,  support for an approach that centres around international justice is now growing. In particular, the UN Special Rapporteur’s call for a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma has recently received explicit backing from Australia, the UK, and most recently the Czech Republic. Surely the renewal of the EU Common Position on Burma provides a prime opportunity for EU member states to take a collective view on this, and perhaps, given their commitment to promoting the International Criminal Court (ICC), to start to push more strongly for the generals to stand trial.

Since Burma is not signatory to the Rome Statute, in order for members of the regime to be prosecuted by the ICC, the  UN Security Council would have to refer the case to the Court.   The sticking point here would of course be that other Security Council members  – China in particular  – would be very likely to block such a referral. So if the international community is to begin to pursue the international justice route with more vigour, this would have to be combined with intelligent diplomacy to continue to chip away at the monolith of the Chinese principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. As their intervention in the wake of Cyclone Nargis showed, China is willing to use its considerable clout with the Burmese junta at extreme crisis points. However they need to be persuaded that the situation for the civilian population of  Burma is one of permanent crisis and desperate times call for effective measures.

Listen to a podcast with Susi about Burma here

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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