Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Examines the Situation of Rohingya Women and Girls in Northern Rakhine State

GENEVA (22 February 2019) – The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon reviewed the situation of Rohingya women and girls in northern Rakhine state, based on a report submitted by Myanmar under the exceptional reporting procedure.

Introducing the report, Win Myat Aye, Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement of Myanmar, said that the situation in Rakhine state was highly complex and too complicated for outsiders to comprehend, and that any solution would require a thorough understanding of the local context and historical background, and most importantly, time.  Terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2016 and 2017 had undermined the Government’s efforts to bring peace, stability and socio-economic development to Rakhine state.  The recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, helped find a sustainable solution, he said, adding that the process of repatriation for verified residents of Myanmar from Bangladesh continued despite some naysayers.  Myanmar was committed to ensuring accountability for human rights violations, including sexual violence, and stood willing and able to investigate allegations of crimes and human rights violations in its territory.  In that vein, the Independent Commission of Enquiry had been set up to investigate allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), with a view to seeking accountability and ensuring peace and stability in Rakhine state.

Committee Experts said the international community had hoped that the historic 2015 elections in Myanmar would end decades of military rule, but was now greatly concerned as the democratic space in the country continued to shrink and access by the international community to the affected population in Rakhine state was extremely restricted.  Experts inquired about steps taken to address the critical question of citizenship and birth registration for the Rohingya, lift restrictions on freedom of movement which negatively impacted their access to health, education and livelihoods, and ensure unrestricted access for international partners to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance and protection to most vulnerable populations.  Experts commented on Myanmar’s continued denial of the accusations of acts of violence and sexual violence against Muslim women in Rakhine state by its security forces, despite documented evidence of mass atrocities, including wide-spread killings, torture and rape, as well as indications that sexual violence was orchestrated and perpetuated by Myanmar’s armed forces, guard police and militias.  The Committee welcomed the signing in December 2018 of the Joint Communique with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, and stressed the importance of accountability and justice for national reconciliation and peace.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Aye remarked on a gap between the Committee’s perceptions and realities on the ground, and said that the national priority was the rule of law and sustainable development, as well as a lifetime of peace and harmony for all Rakhine state.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked the delegation of Myanmar and commended it for its efforts.

The delegation of Myanmar consisted of representatives of the Ministry for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Office of the President, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue its concluding observations on the report of Myanmar at the end of its seventy-second session on 8 March.  Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will reconvene at 4 p.m. on Monday, 25 February to meet with civil society partners from the United Kingdom, Angola, Serbia and Botswana, whose reports the Committee will consider during its second week of the session.

Report

The Committee has before it the report of Myanmar under the exceptional reporting procedure on the situation of Rohingya women and girls in northern Rakhine state (CEDAW/C/MMR/4-5/Add.1).

Presentation of the Report

WIN MYAT AYE, Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement of Myanmar, introducing the report, said that since 2011, there had been tremendous changes in Myanmar’s political landscape.  The general election in 2015, regarded as free and fair, had ushered in a democratically elected Government in 2016, which had inherited constitutional constraints, the world’s longest-running internal conflict, and deep-rooted ethnic and communal divides.  On top of those issues was the situation in northern Rakhine which had become the focus of international attention and which was a huge and complex challenge with many hidden complicating factors.  Myanmar shared the concern of the international community over the rights of Muslim women and girls in Rakhine.  The Myanmar National Committee on Women, which now included seven leading local non-governmental organizations active in gender equality and women empowerment issues, was working to effectively implement the existing laws and make new ones to ensure the equal rights of women and men, and to prevent all forms of violence against women, and it had developed the national strategic plan on the advancement of women 2019-2022.  Myanmar had drafted a law on the prevention of violence against women, it was working on replacing the suppression of prostitution act with the prostitution law, and the new child rights law was being discussed in Parliament.  On 7 January, the Committee on the Prevention of Grave Violations against Children in Armed Conflict had been set up.

Turning to the situation in Rakhine state, the Minister said that this was a highly complex issue, too complicated for outsiders to comprehend.  Any solution would require a thorough understanding of the local context, historical background, genuine concerted efforts, and most importantly, time.  Since it had taken office, the Government had been working on bringing peace, stability and socio-economic development to Rakhine state, but terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2016 and 2017 had undermined the efforts and the progress achieved.  There were specific programmes dealing with women and children, including a joint project in collaboration with United Nations Women and the United Nations Development Programme that aimed to provide services for women victims of violence, training on women’s leadership and economic empowerment, and capacity-building for judicial officials.

Despite the many complex challenges, Myanmar believed that a durable solution required the various communities to live together in peace and harmony, while the recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan helped find a sustainable solution.  The process of repatriation for verified residents of Myanmar from Bangladesh continued despite some naysayers, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had been invited to cooperate in this process.  Its Emergency Response and Assessment Team had been deployed in northern Rakhine state to conduct needs assessments for the repatriation process, and the Myanmar Red Cross was collaborating with the Red Cross Movement to provide humanitarian assistance.

Myanmar was focusing on creating a conducive environment for the return and was also committed to ensuring accountability for human rights violations, including sexual violence.  It stood willing and able to investigate allegations of crimes and human rights violations in its territory, and had set up the Independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), with a view to seeking accountability and ensuring peace and stability in Rakhine state.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts recalled that the international community had hailed the historic elections in Myanmar in 2015, hoping it would end decades of military rule, but it was increasingly concerned as the democracy space in the country continued to shrink and access by the international community to the affected population in Rakhine state remained extremely restricted.  Myanmar had failed to report on the Committee’s concluding observations in which it was requested to address the issue of birth registration of Rohingya and other ethnic groups and remove all obstacles of women and girls to citizenship, as well as to urgently establish an independent body to investigate all acts of violence, including sexual violence, against Rohingya women and girls.

The Committee remained deeply concerned that acts of violence, including sexual violence targeting Rohingya women and girls, continued to be perpetrated.

Recalling the events in 2017 that had led to the displacement into Bangladesh of 700,000 Rohingya and the internal displacement of another 300,000, the Committee deeply regretted that similar patterns of abuses had been reported for almost three decades and that, until today, there was no evidence of accountability.

The Expert recalled that until 1970, Rohingya had had national identity cards, which with the passage of the citizenship act they had had to hand in.  In return, 700,000 had received temporary identity cards, and this was at the core of the statelessness of so many.  What had been done to address the statelessness of the Rohingya, particularly birth registration, and to lift restrictions on freedom of movement which limited access to health and education and affected the livelihood of the population?

What would be done to ensure unrestricted access to Rakhine state for international humanitarian partners to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance and protection to the most vulnerable populations?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that the report had been very clear about nomenclature.  Myanmar was the only country that had submitted its exceptional report to the Committee which was a reflection of the importance accorded to the United Nations, and Myanmar – a responsible member of the international community – had appeared before the Committee on its own will and for the goal of the promotion and protection of women’s rights.

The Government had established a social protection system in Rakhine state, and was working together with United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations to support livelihood activities.  There was no discrimination in education and everyone living in Rakhine state had the right to access education.

The citizenship verification process applied to all who lived in the country and did not have identity documents; the process was governed by the citizenship act.  At the end of the process, individuals were declared citizen, associated citizen, or naturalized citizens; all citizens had equal rights and had an obligation to respect the country’s laws.  By the end of 2018, a total of 13,215 citizen verification requests had been received.

People holding citizenship enjoyed freedom of movement in the country; those without had to apply for temporary travel authorization to the Committee chaired by the security board of Rakhine state.  There was no legal restriction on freedom of movement for Muslims who followed the citizenship verification procedure.

In terms of access of humanitarian organizations to Rakhine state, the delegation explained that the Government was working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and several United Nations agencies and had already implemented some quick impact projects and several needs assessments.  Because of the security situation in some parts of northern Rakhine state, some of the projects had been postponed.

Questions by Committee Experts

Another Committee Expert highlighted the obstacles to access to services for Rohingya women, particularly health, due to limitation of freedom of movement, indiscriminate violence, and the absence of humanitarian assistance due to State-imposed restrictions.  As a result, Rohingya women had higher maternal mortality rates than the national average.  Food insecurity of the population was an issue of concern, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children.

While 93 per cent of women in Rakhine did not have knowledge of contraception and family planning, the authorities had restricted the Rohinga, for many years, to a two-child policy, and offenders were criminally sanctioned.  What justified this prosecution of Rohinga women who had more than two children, particularly in light to such low rates of contraceptive use?  Could the delegation comment on the forced sterilization of this group of women and explain about specialist services available to women victims of rape and other forms of violence against women?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that upon taking office, the new Government had adopted a social protection strategy and plan for Rakhine, which included a maternal and reproductive health programme, in order to reduce maternal mortality rates.  The social protection strategy was universal and applied the life cycle approach, and was conditional to women using ante-natal services.

Maternal mortality rates in Myanmar in 2015 stood at 128 per 1,000 live births.

Health services were provided to all the population in the state without any discrimination, and since 2017, additional medical professionals had been appointed to Rakhine state, including specialist doctors, nurses and midwives.  There were 39 mobile clinics which operated in 11 townships, including in the camp for internally displaced persons.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee commended the implementation of significant recommendations made by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in its comprehensive road map to reverse decades of economic marginalization and communicable divisions as well as human rights abuses against the Rohingya.  However, the escalation of serious violence and displacement had threatened the Commission’s vision of peaceful coexistence and inclusive development among communities in Rakhine state.

Although Myanmar had repeatedly expressed its denial about the accusations that its security forces had committed sexual violence and violence against Muslim women in Rakhine state, there was documented evidence of mass atrocities, including wide-spread killings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, committed by the security forces.  Rohingya women were systematically targeted on account of ethnicity and religion.  There were indications that sexual violence was orchestrated and perpetuated by Myanmar’s armed forces, guard police and militias.

The Committee welcomed the signing in December 2018 of the Joint Communique with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict to address conflict-related sexual violence, and asked the delegation to explain how it was implementing this agreement, including the timely investigation of alleged abuses.  Would Myanmar consider drafting a national action plan on women, peace and security?

Replies by the Delegation

With regard to violence against women and girls, the delegation said that Myanmar had zero tolerance to violence against women throughout the country and there was no impunity for rape, which represented a serious crime.  The delegation outlined the difficulties in investigating and prosecuting acts of rape reported long after the crime had happened, because the DNA evidence and physical signs of rape had disappeared by then.  The police procedure required that concrete evidence and proof were taken whenever a complaint of rape was made, and effort was focused on finding the offender.  If an offender was found and there was evidence, the conviction would follow, in line with existing laws.  Complaints could be filed through a mechanism by the Independent Commission of Inquiry, and the police.

The Joint Communique on the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence had been signed in December 2018, and a number of measures had been taken to raise awareness about the issue; capacity-building activities had included members of the police, the anti-trafficking unit and border police.  In the upcoming months, Myanmar would form an inter-ministerial committee for the implementation of the Joint Communique and would organize a workshop, with the support of international partners.

Myanmar was working together with United Nations partners on the issue of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 and was making efforts to raise awareness around the issue of women, peace and security.

Questions by Committee Experts

Concerning the investigation, prosecution and accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine state against the Rohingya, the Committee noted that Myanmar had established seven national and international commissions to address the situation in Rakhine state.  However, none had found any evidence of wrongdoing by the security forces, thus there had been no prosecutions and convictions to date.  The Committee stressed the importance of accountability and justice for national reconciliation and peace.

As for the Independent Commission of Inquiry set up in July 2018, how would Myanmar ensure that it operated independently, impartially and in compliance with international standards, and how would it ensure that victims and complainants were protected from reprisals?  The delegation was asked to provide the designation of the battalions and their commands, that had undertaken the clearance operations in northern Rakhine state since August 2017.

Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that Myanmar was not in a position to reply to questions related to the findings of the Independent Commission of Inquiry of July 2018, whose report was due in July 2019.  The Commission was solely responsible for its methods of work, and its independence was already confirmed by its name.  The delegation said that the Government did not have access to information of a military nature, and added that those kinds of question were not within the mandate of the Committee.

Questions by Committee Experts

The Committee welcomed the signing of the Joint Communique on the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence signed with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in December 2018, and stressed the importance of an independent and impartial judiciary for accountability and the fight against impunity.  Serious offences committed by active military officers were prosecuted by military courts whose decisions were final.  Would Myanmar ensure that all offences of sexual violence were tried by independent civilian courts irrespective of whether the perpetrator was a member of security forces and irrespective of the rank, and guarantee that there would be no immunity nor amnesty for acts of sexual violence?  The delegation was asked to inform on the adoption, revision and scope of the draft bill on the prevention of violence against women that had been in the pipeline for a long time.

The Committee was deeply concerned that the legislative framework did not provide adequate protection and remedy for conflict-related violence and human rights violations.  Serious international crimes were not criminalized and Myanmar was not a party to the Rome Statute.  The delegation was asked whether Myanmar would provide for offences of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity to be triable by national courts, and whether it would agree on the setting up of an international court to try all those suspected of committing crimes against Rohingya, including the Tatmadaw, the national armed forces.

The Government continued to deny its complicity in the atrocities against the Rohingya, insisting that those had been done by other powers.  Nevertheless, the Government had the responsibility to provide remedy to Rohingya women who suffered violence, including sexual violence, displacement and loss of livelihoods.  Most women continued to rely on traditional justice, which risked to further perpetuate violence.  What compensation was being provided to those women?

Replies by the Delegation

With regard to the use of the term genocide, the delegation recalled the words of Kofi Annan who had stated that in the context of Rakhine state, the term genocide should be used with caution and should not be used lightly.  The Independent Commission on Inquiry had received a number of reports, and the Government was awaiting its report in July 2019.  The drafting of the bill on prevention of violence against women was under the leadership of the National Committee on Women, which was working with civil society organizations.  The bill would be submitted to the cabinet soon.

In terms of military justice, the delegation explained that all complaints of human rights violations committed by members of the military, including for acts of violence against women, could be freely filed.  Once a complaint was received, a superior officer would conduct the investigation, and trials were conducted in a transparent manner.  The sanction for rape was 20 years of imprisonment, while those who committed murder in the course of rape received a death sentence.  In case of offending police officers, the delegation said that the initial sanctioning was done according to the police codes, and then the offender would be referred to the civil court for further sanctioning.

In 2016, the Government had opened, for the first time, a 24-hour help line for complaints of violence, which was opened to all women in the country.  The Government provided psychological support to women affected by natural and man-made disasters in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, including in camps for internally displaced persons.  Further, the Government was providing services to women victims of violence through one-stop centres and by free legal aid in order to support access to justice.  Health staff had received training on psychosocial support to those affected by disasters and calamities in partnership with the World Health Organization, while the United Nations Population Fund had provided training on gender-based violence and had provided gender-based violence kits to health structures.

In the 2018 academic year, a total of 258 Muslim students were enrolled in the Yangon University.  The delegation confirmed that everything was ready for the return and repatriation of Muslims from Bangladesh.

Questions by Committee Experts

An Expert reiterated Myanmar’s obligation under the Convention to protect women from all forms of gender-based violence and provide support and remedy to victims, and asked whether specialised rehabilitation services were being provided to women victims of sexual violence from conflict-affected areas, without any discrimination.  What was being done to ensure their free and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance?  Was State compensation available and how could it be accessed?

Another Expert recalled that hundreds of thousands of Rohinga had to flee their homes and land.  Designated a “burned land” according to the Natural Disaster Law, it would become Government land.  The Committee was concerned that the announced nationalization of the land and the redevelopment of the region would seriously hamper the return of the Rohingya to their homes.  How many Roginhya families had been displaced by the violence, and what was the Government doing to support their repatriation and return, provide compensation for the loss of land and livelihoods, and address the climate of fear and mistrust that still remained?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that the Government was doing its utmost to provide for the safe and voluntary return and repatriation of Muslims, and had already signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations in June 2018.  In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had been invited to cooperate in this process.  Its Emergency Response and Assessment Team from the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) had been deployed in northern Rakhine state to conduct needs assessments for the repatriation process.

The criminal law did not provide for compensation to victims, who could lodge a complaint to civil courts; the burden of proof was on the victim.  The legal aid law of 2016 provided for free legal aid to anyone without exception, based on demand to the legal aid body.  Myanmar had adopted a law on persons with disabilities, developed a national strategy to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, and had installed a disability grant, payable annually.

Concluding Remarks

WIN MYAT AYE, Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement of Myanmar, in his concluding remarks welcomed the interactive dialogue, which represented an important day in the history of cooperation between Myanmar and the Committee.  There was a need to understand the Constitutional constraints and limitations faced by the civilian Government.  The Minister remarked on a gap between the Committee’s perceptions and realities on the ground, and said that Myanmar could not accept questions based on allegations.  The national priority was the rule of law and sustainable development in Rakhine, and lifetime peace and harmony for all who lived in the State, and the Government was doing its utmost to implement the recommendations made by the Advisory Commission led by the late Kofi Annan.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked the delegation of Myanmar and commended it for its efforts.

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