Human Rights Council Member States Have Responsibility to Support COI for Alleged Human Rights Violations in Myanmar

March 16th, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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As the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) continues, Myanmar looks to evade a UN-mandated investigation into alleged atrocities committed by the Myanmar[1] Army on innocent civilians. Last week, the European Union (EU)-led draft resolution decided not to call for a Commission of Inquiry (COI) at the HRC. The move comes after numerous calls for a COI “at a minimum” for human rights violations in Rakhine State made by human rights organizations, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.

In February 2017, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) released a harrowing report revealing widespread gang rape, killings, and torture perpetrated by the Myanmar Army against residents of northern Rakhine State as part of its disproportionate security response to attacks by Rohingya militants on border police posts in October 2016. The report, based on interviews with Rohingya refugees who had fled Rakhine State to Bangladesh following the attacks, concluded that the conduct of the security forces indicated the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” Similar language was used by the Special Rapporteur in her latest report to the HRC, which calls for a COI to “investigate the systematic, structural, and institutional discrimination…against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State with focus on the incidents of violence in 2012 and 2014, and the security operations following the attacks on 9 October, 2016 which may amount to crimes against humanity.” But in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) this past weekend, the Special Rapporteur dispelled any uncertainty with the gravity of the situation, saying that the alleged violations were “definite” crimes against humanity.

As various human rights groups have highlighted, the strongest rationale for an international investigation is that domestic investigation efforts have proven to be flawed and inadequate. Since 2012, the Myanmar Government has established four major investigations on Rakhine State, with three additional bodies tasked specifically with investigating the aftermath of the October 2016 attacks. Yet, as impressive and genuine as the government’s commitments seem, the alleged human rights violations fall outside the mandate of some of the commissions, including the body led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while questionable composition and methods dog the other commissions. Notably, the Investigation Commission on Maungdaw, mandated to investigate the border post attacks in October 2016, is led by notorious former general and current vice president Myint Swe, and includes members of the police force. The very nature of these government commissions belies any serious credibility, and not unsurprisingly, recent reports from these domestic bodies contradict investigations conducted by local and international human rights organizations and the UN. This makes the government’s most recent request for more time to conduct adequate investigations—which was made in response to the Special Rapporteur’s call for a COI—virtually meaningless.

To be sure, the nature of the allegations against the Myanmar Army is not new. This is also not the first time that a COI on Myanmar has been called for, nor the first time that the Myanmar Government has mandated domestic investigative bodies and then proceeded to deny any wrongdoing in contradiction to various other sources. In 2010, former Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, called for a COI at both the HRC and the General Assembly to investigate the possibility of crimes against humanity or war crimes in the country. In response to the former Special Rapporteur’s call, the Myanmar Government stated that the Ministry of Home Affairs had established a complaint mechanism for human rights abuses, and given that it had not received any complaints about crimes against humanity or war crimes concluded, “there is no occurrence of such crimes in Myanmar.” While the calls received the support of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself and 16 countries—including current HRC members Belgium, Latvia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States—the COI ultimately failed to go through, overshadowed by the optimism surrounding the momentous national election held that year. The existence of previous calls for the COI, combined with the persistent pattern of callous government response, reveals that the issues pertaining to the alleged human rights abuses are longstanding, systematic, and pervasive, and will not disappear until serious, credible efforts are undertaken.

“The nature of the allegations against the Myanmar Army is not new. This is also not the first time that a COI on Myanmar has been called for, nor the first time that the Myanmar Government has mandated domestic investigative bodies and then proceeded to deny any wrongdoing in contradiction to various other sources. ”

While the Myanmar Government’s response to the alleged human rights violations has been patchy and unconvincing, the response from local communities has been the opposite. Local groups such as the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, Ta’ang Women’s Organization, and the Kaladan Press, a Rohingya-operated press agency, have been consistent in their documenting of abuses by the Myanmar Army in Kachin, northern Shan and northern Rakhine States. Early last week, at the Rome-based Permanent People’s Tribunal, members of the Kachin and Rohingya communities came together to emphasize that the human rights violations in their respective communities occurred at the hand of the same perpetrator—the Myanmar Army. An international expert presiding over the tribunal noted the significance of the display of solidarity stating, “This is one of the first occasions in which one of the largest non-Burmese groups have chosen to ally themselves with the Rohingya.”

A COI is the highest investigative order that can be mandated by the UN, and establishing one to investigate the actions of the Myanmar Army would expand domestic political space to address human rights violations in the country. Furthermore, it will ensure that sufficient resources are dedicated to finding out the comprehensive truth behind alleged human rights violations. Moreover, establishing a COI for Myanmar would be in line with what has been conducted in several countries facing allegations of grave human rights abuse. The call for an impartial, independent investigation is made even more urgent considering the deteriorating security situation in Kachin, northern Shan, and northern Rakhine States.

In line with the gravity of the alleged crimes, member states at the Human Rights Council have a responsibility to support a COI for at least Rakhine State, as well as hold a dedicated urgent discussion on alleged violations in areas of escalating armed conflict and increased militarization, including Kachin and northern Shan States. Failure to hold the Myanmar Army accountable would be tacit approval of military impunity and the Myanmar Government’s continued response of “defend, dismiss, and deny.” Committing to a COI is ultimately as much a test on the Human Rights Council’s resolve to its moral obligations and to its mandate as anything else.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Statement on International Women’s Day
By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Burma/Myanmar: Flawed Domestic Investigations Necessitate UN Commission of Inquiry on Serious Crimes

51 British MPs Call on UK Government to Support a UN COI into Rakhine State Situation
By Burma Campaign UK

လူမႈဘ၀ေအးခ်မ္းလံုၿခံဳေရးအတြက္ မုဒိမ္းမႈမ်ားေပ်ာက္ေရးသည္ လူသားတုိင္း၏ တာ၀န္ျဖစ္သည္
By Burmese Women’s Union

FORUM-ASIA Statement – International Women’s Day 2017

Statement on International Women’s Day from Karen Human Rights Group
By Karen Human Rights Group

KWO Statement on International Women’s Day March 8th 2017
By Karen Women’s Organization

Myanmar Now သတင္းဌာနမွ သတင္းစာဆရာ ကုိေဆြ၀င္းအား ပုဒ္မ ၆၆(ဃ) ျဖင့္ အမႈဖြင့္ထားျခင့္အေပၚ မီဒီယာႏွင့္ လူ႔အခြင့္အေရးအဖဲြ႔အစည္းမ်ား၏ သေဘာထားေၾကညာခ်က္
By  Myanmar Journalists Associations, Myanmar Journalist Network, Myanmar Journalist Union, Burma News International, Myanmar Media Lawyer’s Network, PEN Myanmar, Southern Myanmar Journalists Network,
Southern Shan State Media Network, Human Rights Defenders Forum

စတုထၱအၾကိမ္ေျမာက္ ထား၀ယ္အမ်ဳိးသမီးသမဂၢ၏ ညီလာခံမွ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Tavoyan Women’s Union

အမ်ဳိးသမီးမ်ားအဖဲြ႔ခ်ဳပ္ (ျမန္မာႏိုုင္ငံ)၏ ႏိုင္ငံတကာအမ်ိဳးသမီးမ်ားေန႕ အထိမ္းအမွတ္ ထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Women’s League of Burma



Putting Our Hope in God – FBR Teams Go to Help New IDPs in Kachin State
By Free Burma Rangers

Urgent Humanitarian Situation Update in Northern Shan State
By Joint Strategy Team

The Report on the Process of Collecting the Voices of Karenni Women and Policy Brief for Peace Process
By Karenni National Women’s Organization

ျငိမ္းခ်မ္းေရးျဖစ္စဥ္အတြက္ ကရင္နီျပည္နယ္ရွိ အမ်ိဳးသမီးမ်ား၏ အသံ၊ ရႈေထာင့္မွ မူ၀ါဒအႀကံျပဳခ်က္စာတမ္း
By Karenni National Women’s Organization

Village Leader of Nam Ma Coal Mining Area Shot Dead by Unknown Assailants
By Shan Human Rights Foundation

China and Myanmar’s Peace Process
By United States Institute of Peace

Myanmar: Northern Rakhine Flash Update No. 1 (as of 8 March 2017)
By UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”