The evidence against Burma's junta has been piling up for many years. Thousands upon thousands of girls and women raped as a tactic of war by the Burmese army; children press-ganged to serve as porters; 3,500 villages burned to the ground in recent years; millions of people forced from their homes -- these are some of the crimes against humanity sponsored by the generals who rule their Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people.
Now, by deciding to support a United Nations commission of inquiry into these misdeeds, the Obama administration has acknowledged the weight of the evidence and has testified to the urgency of holding criminals accountable for their crimes. It is a major step forward. The U.N. special envoy for Burma (also known as Myanmar), Tomas Ojea Quintana, has called for such an inquiry, citing the "the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar over a period of many years." In Congress there is strong bipartisan backing for such an inquiry. Most important, Burmese human rights activists and dissidents both inside and outside the country have supported such an inquiry, sometimes at great personal risk.
Backing a U.N. commission does not supplant previous U.S. policy. It's not a substitute for economic sanctions, which should be extended and targeted more precisely at the nation's leaders. Nor does it replace the administration's policy of engagement, which has yet to bear fruit but need not be discarded. Had Burmese leader Than Shwe responded more positively to administration outreach, investigation into his crimes would nonetheless have been appropriate. Conversely, an inquiry need not discourage the administration from reaching out in a pragmatic way.
What an inquiry can do, however, is signal to the younger officers around Than Shwe, 77, that their futures may be brighter if they do not hitch themselves to his policies of mass rape and ethnic cleansing (not to mention his deepening ties with North Korea). It can provide a ray of hope and moral support to the unimaginably brave fighters for democracy inside Burma, who will carry on their struggle with or without such encouragement. And it can signal to the most offensive dictators around the world that they cannot escape justice by selling off their nations' timber and natural gas, or by scheduling (as has Than Shwe) fraudulent elections aimed at civilianizing their authoritarian regimes.
If its support of a commission of inquiry is to be more than a gesture, the Obama administration now must engage in hard-headed diplomacy. That means making clear to China, the European Union, Canada, India, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and others that justice for Burma is a priority and not an afterthought. It will take work. But, as President Obama said when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, "When there is genocide in Darfur; systematic rape in Congo; or repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. . . . And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression."