Responding to ongoing human rights abuses in Burma and the cries of concern from thousands of activists, President Obama has acted through Executive Order to renew sanctions on the import of rubies and jadeite from Burma. The move comes at a critical time, just when the U.S. Congress allowed broader sanctions under the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act to expire.
Rubies and jadeite have been among the most exploited resources in Burma for decades, tied directly to child labor, forced labor, and some of the most egregious abuses by military leaders against ethnic minorities who live where many of the gems are found. Banning these imports sends an important message to the Burmese government that the United States is aware that widespread human rights abuses continue and that there will not be full normalization of relations until they are addressed.
It is unfortunate that the sanctions did not go farther and that the broader sanctions legislation authorizing sanctions was not continued as human rights groups, activists, and Congressional champions like Representative Joe Crowley pushed for in legislation introduced this year. No doubt some important leverage has been lost, even as the U.S. State Department recently cited the Burmese government’s failure to protect civilians and reported that “abuses continued with impunity”. As United to End Genocide wrote in a letter to President Obama, “Sanctions are the final bit of pressure the United States has left to demand that the Burmese government finally do what is right.”
The messaging could also have been better. The White House sought to emphasize the lifting of broader sanctions as a sign of progress in U.S. relations with Burma, mentioning the remaining gem ban as little more than a footnote. The move was also couched in the language of “promoting responsible economic engagement and encouraging reform”. The White House communications team would have done better to acknowledge the growing anti-Muslim violence and inadequate and at best enabling Burmese government response.
Still, President Obama deserves credit for at lease continuing sanctions on the worst of resource sectors. Sanctions also remain on individuals linked to human rights abuses and reporting requirements have been put forward to ensure that U.S. businesses investing in Burma carry out due diligence to ensure that their activities do not enable further human rights abuses. With the lapse of broader sanctions, active attention to those tools that remain becomes all the more important.