(Yangon, August 24, 2016)—The Government of Myanmar announced yesterday the establishment of a nine-member advisory commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to address the situation in Rakhine State.
Fortify Rights welcomes the formation of the Annan Commission and commends the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi for spearheading the effort.
“This is a step in the right direction to address ongoing human rights violations in Rakhine State,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “The Commission should focus on the totality of the human rights situation in Rakhine State to establish the facts and identify solutions for decades of violations.”
The commission will convene for the first time on September 5 in Yangon.
Myanmar state security forces have committed killings, torture, arbitrary detention, rape, forced labor, and other abuses against Rohingya for decades, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Myanmar authorities have faced allegations of crimes against humanity, “ethnic cleansing,” and genocide against Rohingya.
The Government of Myanmar continues to confine more than 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, in more than 40 internment camps in Rakhine State, where they face avoidable deprivations in aid and basic services. The authorities continue to deny more than one million other Rohingya in northern Rakhine State equal access to full citizenship rights, and also subject them to daily restrictions on their fundamental human rights.
The Myanmar authorities excluded Rohingya from the 2015 national census and from participating in the 2015 national elections.
Rakhine Buddhists have also faced human rights violations, including most recently forced labor committed by the Myanmar Army and arbitrary arrest and detention.
A press release from the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi dated August 23 explains that the new commission “will consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine.”
The commission will comprise six Myanmar nationals and three foreigners, including former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the former Lebanese Minister of Culture and U.N. Special Advisor to the Secretary General Ghassan Salamé, and former Ambassador to the United Kingdom from the Netherlands Laetitia van den Assum.
Fortify Rights and others expressed concern that the government failed to appoint a Rohingya commissioner.
“We’re disappointed in the absence of an ethnic-Rohingya commissioner,” said Khin Maung Myint of the National Democratic Party for Development, a Rohingya political party based in Yangon. “But we will cooperate fully to help ensure the commission will make a positive impact.”
The Annan Commission will have one year to produce a report for the Government of Myanmar.
The Commission should objectively evaluate the facts on the ground, identify perpetrators, and provide clear recommendations for action to effectively address and prevent further human rights violations in Rakhine State, Fortify Rights said.
In operational terms, Fortify Rights recommends that the Commission collate existing U.N. data about human rights violations in Rakhine State, hold public hearings, interview victims of abuse, government officials, political operatives, leaders of the Buddhist sangha and Muslim communities, and others in Myanmar and the region.
In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution mandating an international Commission of Inquiry to assess the totality of the situation in Rakhine State, including human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists. The clinic at Yale Law School found “strong evidence” to establish the elements of the crime of genocide.
Fortify Rights and members of Myanmar civil society have recently engaged the diplomatic community, U.N. leadership, and elected officials in Myanmar on the need to establish a U.N.-mandated independent international investigation into the situation of human rights in Rakhine State.
In a June 2016 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on “a pattern of gross human rights violations” against Rohingya that “would suggest a widespread or systematic attack against the Rohingya, in turn suggesting the possible commission of crimes against humanity.”
“This commission has an opportunity to help end impunity and propel historic changes to abusive government policies, including ongoing restrictions against Rohingya Muslims,” said Matthew Smith. “But the government should take action now to immediately lift restrictions on movement and ensure populations in need have access to basic services and aid.”
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Former Myanmar President Thein Sein appointed several commissions that failed to improve, or even accurately describe, the situation of human rights in Rakhine State with regard to Rohingya Muslims.In August 2011, former President Thein Sein formed a 27-member “investigative commission” to analyze the situation in Rakhine State and find solutions. Despite receiving editorial support from the diplomatic community, the Commission’s final report failed to accurately assess the human rights situation in Rakhine State. Published on April 29, 2013, the report referred to the Rohingya as “Bengali”—a euphemism that suggests they originate from Bangladesh and do not exist as a distinct ethnicity in Myanmar. While the report made constructive recommendations on humanitarian needs, it failed to address abuses by state authorities during the violence and its aftermath and said nothing of the need for accountability for human rights violations.Likewise, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission conducted a mission to Rakhine State from June 27 to July 1, 2012, focusing on the outbreak of violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya and other Muslims in Rakhine State. On July 11, 2012, the Commission published its findings, reporting no government abuses or humanitarian needs, which contrasted with a large body of evidence collected by human rights organizations, U.N. Special Rapporteurs, and others.
The Annan-led commission includes two members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission—Chairman Win Mra and member Khin Maung Lay.