US & Canada

US backs inquiry into alleged Burma war crimes

Burma
Image caption Buddhist monks were among the scores killed in a 2007 crackdown by Burma's military junta

The US government says it will back the creation of an international commission to investigate alleged war crimes by Burma's military junta.

The body could advance the cause of human rights in Burma by "addressing issues of accountability" for members of the regime, the White House said.

A senior US official told the BBC the move was still consistent with the US policy of engagement with Burma.

The US announced in 2009 that it would engage diplomatically with Burma.

In March, UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana released a critical report referring to "systematic violation of human rights" for years in the country.

The Obama administration's aim was to help put Burma on a path to reform, achieve credible elections as well as promote national reconciliation, including with the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyii.

But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says efforts have yielded no improvement in the situation inside the country, ahead of general elections scheduled for 7 November.

"Diplomatic engagement is not a reward - it is a tool designed to facilitate and encourage positive change," a state department official told the BBC.

"We have been clear all along this did not preclude us from taking steps to increase pressure when warranted."

Further sanctions

The commission of inquiry could be formed either through the UN Human Rights Council, through a UN General Assembly resolution or by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and could eventually lead to a war crimes prosecution.

The US official hinted that further sanctions on Burma were also possible.

"Our sanctions regime is dynamic, is constantly being assessed for efficacy, and is capable of being adjusted as warranted by conditions within Burma and the actions of the Burmese government," he added.

The US move has been welcomed by human rights organisations like the US Campaign for Burma.

"This is the right and timely action by the Obama administration in response to the power-thirsty and brutal generals in [the Burmese capital] Nay Pyi Taw, who are expecting to delete their dirty crimes by putting a sham constitution into effect through a sham election," said the group's executive director, Aung Din.

"This is a clear message that the United States will not recognize their show-case election and will make them accountable for their horrible abuses against their own citizens."

It is unclear what impact, if any, the commission will have on the leadership, particularly the ruling General Than Shwe.

But much of what drives policy towards Burma, including the decision to engage, is about influencing younger members of the junta, who may not be as deeply involved in any alleged war crimes.

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