US rights group supports bipartisan legislation on Rohingya Crisis


US Senator from Arizona John McCain. Photo: EPA

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is urging the US Senate bill’s passage into law, saying tough sanctions are designed to halt Myanmar’s atrocities against Rohingya.

The human rights organization UUSC is hailing the bipartisan Burma Act of 2017, introduced in the Senate Thursday. If passed into law, it will impose tough, specific sanctions and restrictions on the government of Myanmar and its military. The legislation is designed to accelerate the regime's halt to its atrocities against the country's Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, according to a press release on November 3.

UUSC has launched an effort to build national support for the bill. Appeals are being made to UUSC members and affiliated congregations as well as allied organizations and faith leaders across the nation to contact their U.S. Senators, urging support for the legislation.

The action follows mounting U.S. and international outcry over Myanmar's continued massive, brutal campaign focused on purging the country of its two million-plus ethnic Rohingya minority. 

The NGO says more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar to safe harbor in neighbouring Bangladesh refugee camps. More than 200,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar where they face the danger of more brutal attacks and blockades of food and medicine.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Democratic Whip, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led a bipartisan group of colleagues in introducing the legislation.

"The U.S. government has been long on hand-wringing over the brutal attacks against the Rohingya and short on action," said UUSC President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Andrews. "This legislation is an important step towards holding Burma's government and military accountable for their actions and human rights abuses."

Andrews is uniquely positioned to speak on Burma's issues and the power that U.S. legislation and policies can have in forwarding human rights internationally. A former Member of Congress, he has long been engaged in human rights issues affecting Burma and recently traveled to the region. 

Andrews said a recent related statement from the Department of State was necessary but insufficient. "It fell far short of what is required and lacked the weight and reach of Thursday's proposed legislation. The Senate bill would put into law clear, enforceable U.S. actions with teeth," he said.

The Senate Burma Act of 2017 authorizes the President to identify by name and immediately place on the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN) any individuals participating in or aiding organizations that promote the military of Burma's repressive, abusive policies.

The Senate bill also would enact visa bans, financial sanctions, and blocking of property in the United States owned by military officials responsible for human rights violations.

Along with the reinstatement of previous U.S. import restrictions on the import of jadeite and rubies from Burma, the proposed legislation would prohibit U.S. financial institutions from supporting projects in Burma that directly partner with, contract or sub-contract with Burma's military.

"Some in Congress may take issue with this Senate bill's focus on military sanctions, out of concern that it puts Burma's revered civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a difficult position with the nation's military, due to the fact that her party and the military are required to govern hand in hand," UUSC's Andrews said. 

As noted in an NBC News report on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has lauded Suu Kyi, has so far resisted any U.S. actions that might put her in a vulnerable position with the military and rattle Myanmar's fragile transition to democracy.

"But what Burma's military must see is that the country's overall strength, position and economic attractiveness globally is far more fragile if it doesn't quickly correct its course on human rights," Andrews said.

"We hope the Senate Burma Bill of 2017 receives strong bipartisan support and quick passage, and that it is one resounding step towards Burma's accountability," Andrews said. "Although we know the divisions are deep and old, it is time for Rohingya and other of Burma's persecuted minorities to breathe the air of freedom and inclusion."

UUSC has worked in Myanmar with local partners since 2002, to help empower the region's most marginalized communities, while advocating for protection of their human rights at U.S. and world body levels.

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