Time for New Approach to Burma: War Crimes Mounting

07/22/2011 11:34 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2011

The catalog of documented war crimes in Burma is growing. Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) released a damning 70-page report documenting how ordinary Burmese convicts are brutally forced by the state to carry heavy munitions and supplies for the Burma Army, acting as human shields and enduring other ruthless abuses in the country's eastern war zones.

According to the report, "Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma," some of these "human pack mules" were convicted of only minor offenses, such as selling illegal lottery tickets. For their infractions, they are forced to perform the most arduous and dangerous tasks for the Burma Army, effectively being pushed into the furnace of the 63-year long civil war between the ethnic Karen opposition and the Burma Army.

The 58 escaped convict porters interviewed by HRW and KHRG capture the experiences of thousands upon thousands of convict and civilian porters over the years in Burma, up to the present day.

Just days before the report launch, I was on the Thai-Burma border interviewing two Burma Army defectors with almost twenty years of military service between them. One soldier explained how his battalion would commonly use forced porters in their patrols in Shan State and Karenni State, where his company battled non-state ethnic armies and terrorized local ethnic populations. The porters he used were sometimes ethnic civilians but "usually they were convicts," he said. He then dispassionately recounted the perverse mechanics of several extrajudicial killings of innocent ethnic civilians, some as recent as March in Karenni State. Victims were hooded and forced to kneel, he said, before his sergeant pulled the trigger as he and others watched.

HRW and KHRG likewise documented several extrajudicial killings of porters who were evidently regarded as expendable by the Burma Army.

These abuses are, of course, violations of international law. No state in the world is free from the obligations set forth in the Geneva Conventions, which provide for certain rights to people under the control of an armed force, including the right to humane treatment and prohibitions against "violence to life and person." Forcing porters to lead soldiers through land-mined terrain or to bear the brunt of an ambush meets the elements of "human shielding," which is expressly prohibited under international law.

Put simply, according to the "Dead Men Walking" report: "Individuals who order the use of human shields are committing a war crime."

In March 2010, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana issued a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council recommending an official Commission of Inquiry into international crimes in Burma. This would seem to be an uncontroversial response to unthinkable violence and widespread abuse. It would seem sensible to call to account the leaders of a country that is the world's fifth largest producer of refugees. It would seem reasonable to demand international action in a country where formal complaints of forced labor to the International Labour Organization have doubled in the last three years, to say nothing of undocumented cases. But the international community is dragging its feet. For the millions living under Burma's military rule, only a paltry sixteen nations of the world have expressed support for establishing a Commission of Inquiry.

The U.N. member states have a moral duty to finally mandate action on Burma, either through the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council. Tough talk from New York to Naypyidaw doesn't work, and neither does soft talk. It is time for something new.