On Human Rights Day, Abuses in Burma Continue

While Ban Ki-moon is in Bangkok to celebrate Human Rights Day, ongoing abuses and corporate partnerships in Burma remind us of the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 60 years later.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon is currently in Bangkok, Thailand celebrating Human Rights Day. Falling on December 10, the day marks the 60th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Right next door in Burma, 55 million people continue to live under one of the world’s worst human rights-violating regimes; and in tragic irony, PTTEP of Thailand and Daewoo International of Ban Ki-moon’s own South Korea continue to sign lucrative deals for the exploitation of Burma’s natural gas; deals which threaten to exacerbate the already abysmal human rights situation in Burma, making a mockery of the UDHR.

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This is only more reason to promote the UDHR. Comprising a preamble and 30 articles that enshrine the basic human rights we all share by virtue of being human, the UDHR laid the foundation for international human rights law. It is meant to guide the behavior of all relevant actors regarding the protection of human rights, including state and non-state actors. The historic importance of this Declaration to the world can not be overstated.

On a symbolic level, the UDHR affirms a universal and common understanding of the basic dignity of every human person. On a practical level, it is used to train officials about human rights; it has informed legislative processes and the development of national laws and constitutions (in countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Puerto Rico, and Syria, among others); it has been referred to in judicial opinions and national court cases, as well as by the International Court of Justice; it laid the foundation for international human rights treaties and conventions; and perhaps most importantly, it is used all over the world to educate and empower victims of human rights abuses and communities fighting for human rights protection. It is legally, morally, and spiritually indispensable.

It is also wholly disrespected in Burma, where abuses such as forced displacement and forced labor are connected to natural gas development, and where the regime’s violent repression against any political dissent continues with impunity.

Natural gas is the military regime’s single largest source of revenue. Exports last year accounted for US$2.16 billion in revenue to the regime, and Thailand’s PTTEP plans to invest over US$1 billion in developing new discoveries in the M9 Block in Burma’s Gulf of Martaban. Nearly all of Burma’s current commercial natural gas production is exported to Thailand.

Last week in Seoul, Daewoo International announced that China won the rights to purchase natural gas from the coveted Shwe gas fields in Burma’s Bay of Bengal. Daewoo has the largest stake (60 percent) in a consortium that is developing that gas project, which also includes the Korea Gas Corporation and two national firms in India – ONGC Videsh and GAIL. In a November 27th interview with the Korea Economic Daily, Daewoo’s Chief Executive Kang Young Won claimed the company is in talks to sell Burma’s Shwe gas to PetroChina, a deal that will involve construction of a cross-country overland gas pipeline from Arakan State, Burma to Yunnan Province, China.

Barring a radical change in the military regime, this pipeline will result in forced displacement, increased forced labor, and increased militarization across at least 24 townships in Burma. Like the PTTEP projects, it also stands to earn the regime billions of dollars in otherwise unaccounted revenue.

Dating back to Daewoo’s 2004 discovery in Burma’s Bay of Bengal, the Shwe gas deposits A1 and A3 are now estimated to hold a sizable 7.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas; Burma’s total reserves amount to an estimated 19 tcf.

India, China, and Thailand were in tight competition to purchase gas from A1 and A3 and transport it to their respective markets via overland pipelines. Japan and South Korea hoped to convert the gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ship it overseas.

While Daewoo is taking credit for “choosing” to sell the gas to PetroChina – which is now the world’s largest corporation as of November this year, with a market value of $US1 trillion, surpassing Exxon Mobil - the decision undoubtedly came from the ruling generals in Burma. In January 2007, China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have resulted in UNSC-supported action in Burma.

Previous and well-documented human rights abuses by the military regime connected to natural gas development in Burma involved the multinational corporations Total of France and the US-based Chevron (formerly Unocal.) With no access to justice in Burma, those abuses resulted in litigation in US courts against Unocal Corp., for which ERI served as co-counsel, and in French courts against Total for complicity in abuses by the military.

However, litigation and the likelihood of future abuses by the military have not deterred new corporate interest in Burma’s resources, nor has the recent violent crackdown against monk-led protestors.

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council, recently reported that 500 to 1,000 people are still detained in connection to the ongoing violent crackdown against monk-led protestors. Protests began in August after a 500 percent overnight increase in state-controlled fuel prices. They were brutally crushed by the regime. According to Pinheiro, at least 31 people were killed in the crackdown, at least 74 are missing, arrests are continuing, and the 1,150 political prisoners held prior to the demonstrations have not been released. His estimations, however, are undoubtedly conservative, due to his limited access in his 5-day tour, the lack of cooperation of Burmese authorities, and a longstanding local fear of reprisals for speaking to foreigners about the military regime.

On Human Rights Day, EarthRights International would like to commemorate the UDHR and call attention to the human rights abuses currently ongoing in Burma, and those that are directly and indirectly connected to Burma’s fast growing energy sector.

While the ruling military regime is engaged in an historic assault against human dignity and the environment, you can show your solidarity and support the fight for earth rights in Burma: