Myanmar children targeted by EU sanctions
by Justin Stares
Judges have overturned sanctions imposed by the European Union on a boy of just 16, raising questions as to whether children should pay for the alleged misdemeanors of their parents
Try to imagine how 16-year-old Pye Phyo Tay Za would have felt when, bleary-eyed after a late night playing on his games console, he came down for breakfast to be told by his mother that his plan to attend university in the United Kingdom was on hold. The reason: he was the son of a Burmese businessman deemed too close to the repressive regime.
Tay Za was a student living in Singapore on the day he discovered his name was on the European Union's list of "smart" economic sanctions. Faceless Brussels bureaucrats had frozen his assets and banned him from entering Europe. "Our client was severely affected by the travel restrictions imposed on him," his British solicitor Guy Martin tells PublicServiceEurope.com. "He was completely prevented by the restrictions from entering the EU, including to undertake a course of study, for medical reasons, for leisure or for any other reason at all. This was particularly frustrating for our client because he wished to study at a UK university."
Tay Za protested to the EU Council of Ministers, to no avail. The council, the European Commission and the UK government all maintained that the sanctions, designed to punish the Burma/Myanmar government for its "persistent human rights violations", were justified on the grounds that Tay Za's father, the managing director of Htoo Trading Co, might transfer assets to him to get around the freezing of his own assets.
Europe's General Court threw out Tay Za's case, so he appealed to the European Court of Justice. There, his lawyers underlined he had been given "no prior notice of his listing, no hearing and no opportunity to make representations". Slapping restrictions on those who benefit from the "misrule" in Burma/Myanmar "can hardly be read to mean anyone who benefits however incidentally or indirectly, from the government's economic policies, which might include those employed to build schools, hospitals or airports and those who work in them," his legal team argued. Tay Za had "lived with his mother in Singapore since the age of 13, had never worked for his father, and had no shareholdings in companies in Myanmar".
Finally, after eight years of struggle, things started to go the student's way. In 2011, the court's advocate general questioned whether the EU sanctions really needed to be extended to children with no direct, proven link to the targeted regime. "The measures in question are generally presented as 'smart sanctions', because targeted, their whole purpose being to limit the undesirable effects of international sanctions on persons who are already suffering," the advocate general said. "I consider it unfair to make an individual bear the serious consequences of being a member of his own family, about which, ultimately, he cannot really do anything". At the tender age of 16, it was difficult to conclude that Tay Za "was in a position to defend his rights".
This March, the European Court of Justice came down definitively in favour of Tay Za. The asset freeze has been overturned. Judges have ordered the council to foot the entire legal bill. The UK and the commission, which fought the case until the end, have been ordered to bear their own costs.
Does the EU systematically target children with sanctions? According to Martin, several minors have been listed in context of the Myanmar/Burma restrictions, two of them under five years old when originally named. Michael Mann, spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the Brussels High Representative for Foreign Affairs, says listing minors is "not a practice" in the EU. "It was specific to Burma/Myanmar," Mann tells PublicServiceEurope.com. "The issue will be reassessed." Unfortunately for Tay Za, the latest ruling covers the asset freeze and not the travel ban, which remains in place.