Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

27th May 2001

No shopping in Harrods for retired tyrants

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BRUSSELS - A new threat against human rights violators has surfaced in Western Europe and the United States.

The threat is particularly ominous to former world political leaders and ex-heads of state not excluding those in Sri Lanka who could find themselves thrown in jail outside their home countries on charges of presiding over repressive regimes involving torture, assassinations and human rights abuses.

During the UN Millennium Summit in September last year, international human rights groups moved against several visiting heads of state, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Mohammed Khatami of Iran and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, with arrest warrants.

But since heads of government and heads of state are protected by immunity, the warrants were legally ineffective.

The law, however, could be enforced with a vengeance, once a political leader has stepped down from power and is on a visit to Europe or the United States while on retirement.

Agusto Pinochet of Chile, who presided over one of the world's most brutal military regimes, escaped life behind bars in Britain primarily because of his failing health and old age.

The new threat almost succeeded in Brussels last week where the 15-member European Union (EU) played host to the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries attended by all 189 UN member states.

A Brussels-based human rights organisation, Action Birmanie, sought a warrant from a local magistrate to arrest the leader of the Myanmar delegation no sooner he set foot on Belgian soil.

The leader of the delegation, U. Soe Tha, Minister of National Planning and Economic Development, was to be arrested on charges of "crimes against humanity."

Although he was not personally accused of such a crime, the charges were directed against the military government in Myanmar (Burma) of which he is a key member.

Gregor Chappelle, lawyer for Action Birmanie, said the Myanmar delegation escaped the arrest warrant primarily on technicalities: "We couldn't get the arrest warrant because of a technical problem."

Asked to elaborate, he would only say: "We don't want to say anything beyond that because we are going to try again in the future and we want to make sure we don't fail the second time around."

Chappelle also pointed out that Belgium has a three-year-old law which permits the arrest of anyone even a head of state accused of crimes against humanity if he or she happens to be on Belgian soil. That person could then be tried in a local court of law, he added. 

The law is currently being tested as four Rwandans accused of genocide are being tried before a 10-member People's Court, the equivalent of a Grand Jury in the United States.

The case has riveted the attention of Belgians and is being viewed as a test case for future such arrests.

At a news conference last week, Glenys Kinnock, member of the European Parliament, challenged the participation of the Myanmar delegation at the Brussels conference.

"We can understand the legality of granting visas under UN Charter obligations," she told a news conference at the European Parliament in Brussels, "But Myanmar also has pressing and unfulfilled obligations on human rights, good governance and democracy."

She accused Myanmar of being the world's second largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, and being ruled by a military regime that practises slave and child labour in defiance of international human rights laws.

Kinnock said the EU had to send a clear message that the military leaders were not the legitimate rulers of Myanmar. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 elections with about 80 percent of the votes.

But not only were the elections nullified by the military regime, but NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also a Nobel Laureate, still remains under house arrest despite international appeals for her release. Since Kinnock was unable to prevent the EU from issuing a visa, she said that the Burmese delegation should leave Europe immediately after the UN conference.

"There's no question of shopping at Harrods in London," she added.

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