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IFIs in Burma Must Meet the Needs of Survivors of Human Rights Violations

Andrea Gittleman, JD on February 10, 2012

The US recently exercised a partial waiver authority under U.S. law which allows the US to support the work of international financial institutions (IFIs) including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to operate in Burma, notwithstanding the existing US sanctions regime. The State Department announced that Secretary Clinton used a provision in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to waive restrictions on Burma that previously kept the US from supporting assessments by IFIs.

The shift in US policy reflects some recent changes in Burma, including the release of high-level political prisoners, the political recognition of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, as well as the loosening of media restrictions.

This decision will allow the US to support initial assessments and limited technical assistance by IFIs, which aim to tackle systemic poverty in developing countries. Poverty alleviation is an important goal, but the international community must remain vigilant regarding the ongoing human rights violations in the country. The US should use its voice and its vote at the World Bank to ensure that any assessment or intervention is conducted in a way that will improve the well-being of marginalized communities, including minority ethnic groups in rural Burma, and not the individuals who have long profited from the country’s military regime. The US and the international community must understand that IFI interventions will be effective only when attacks on civilians end, impunity gives way to accountability, and the rule of law is established and respected.

IFI programs must ensure that any economic support directly meets the needs of survivors of human rights violations and is not diverted by the military regime, and that this support fully includes members of minority groups. Crucial pre-conditions for successful poverty alleviation programs are the end of the ongoing military conflict in the ethnic regions, the end of severe human rights violations which still continue in those areas, and accountability for perpetrators of these crimes.

Given the checkered history of the World Bank in Southeast Asia, the US should carefully track the institution’s activities in Burma. In the past, the World Bank has pushed for the construction of dams and other infrastructure projects, and in Burma, such projects are often the foundation for displacement, increased food insecurity, the destruction of cultural and religious sites, and significant environmental damage.

Instead of being lifted out of poverty, people living in the vicinity of dams and similar projects face the prospect of losing their homes and going to more extreme lengths to find food and other necessities. In Burma, other similar projects have historically benefited the governments of neighboring countries, not the people of Burma—such programs hardly deserve the worthy title of poverty alleviation.

Places: Burma