The resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council on 22 March unpacks the dire human rights situation in Myanmar, but also the failure of the UN in Myanmar to respond and take measures to prevent some of the worst atrocities the world has seen in recent years. It is welcomed, therefore, that the resolution recommends that a “comprehensive” investigation into UN operations in Myanmar since 2011 – as recommended by Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in their report to the Council in September 2018 – is undertaken and calls on the Secretary-General to report on the findings at the Council session in March 2020. Given the reputation that certain UN agencies have in the country for emphasizing economic development and supporting established political and civil elites in Myanmar, and relegating the importance of human rights protection, this is most necessary. Human rights defenders and rights-based civil society in Myanmar, regionally, and beyond have welcomed this resolution, and further called for the referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court “to ensure justice and accountability for the grave international crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed in the country, primarily by the Myanmar Military and security forces.”
The resolution highlights some of the key areas in Myanmar where the human rights situation is deteriorating. It points to the escalating armed conflict in Rakhine State, where military offensives aimed at routing the Arakan Army are having a huge impact on local communities, including cultural and national heritage sites, as human rights violations and displacement are commonplace. The resolution also notes the impacts of previous rounds of violence inflicted upon the Rohingya community and urges the Government to “address the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State and the need for creating conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and forcibly displaced persons.”
The resolution also states that despite the establishment of a domestic commission of enquiry to investigate what happened in Rakhine, it notes that previous government-established commissions have not been “able to work with independence, impartiality, transparency and objectivity, including for alleged crimes committed by the Myanmar armed forces.” As such it is vital that independent, international accountability mechanisms are supported, including the ongoing independent mechanism established to follow-up the work of the Fact-Finding Mission, and the resolution rightly calls for “the expeditious entry into operation of the ongoing independent mechanism established by the Council and steps to secure its effective functioning as soon as possible, and for the close cooperation between the mechanism and any of the future investigations pertaining to human rights violations in Myanmar by national, regional or international courts or tribunals, including by the International Criminal Court.”
Yet the human rights violations committed by state actors and the lack of political will by the Myanmar government to address them are not new and have been highlighted by previous resolutions. It is why there is momentum for international mechanisms and/or processes to be implemented to find justice and accountability for the countless victims and survivors of abuse at the hands of authorities and in particular the Myanmar military. This resolution, however, points to the vital role that UN agencies have played or not played, especially in regard to efforts to prevent the crisis in Rakhine State. Previous media reports revealed the UN Resident Coordinator playing a significant role in downplaying human rights abuses, preventing human rights advocacy on the Rohingya, kowtowing to government requests that the word ‘Rohingya’ is not used in meetings and statements, and producing mealy-mouthed statements that at best downplay the human rights situation in Rakhine State and at worst, being complicit in the genocide against the Rohingya.
In light of these reports, as well as independent reviews of UN agencies and other international agencies, especially in Rakhine State, there is a need for the UN to review and hold its agencies accountable for their actions or inaction in Myanmar. The resolution thus calls for the UN Secretary-General to conduct “a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar since 2011 with a view to establishing whether everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises was done, identifying lessons learned and good practices, making recommendations as appropriate, including on accountability, and enabling more effective work in the future.” It also calls for the Secretary-General to present a report of this inquiry to the Human Rights Council in March 2020.
The international community has given the Myanmar government enough chances to prove its political will and commitment to hold the perpetrators of the crimes against Rohingya accountable, yet the Government has not taken any of these chances. It is time for the international community to change strategy and place substantive diplomatic pressure on Myanmar rather than giving it a free ride. The review of UN operations may be an important step towards a more coordinated strategy that focuses on the victims and survivors of violence and prioritizes the issue of justice and accountability in Myanmar as integral and essential foundations of democracy, not misplaced faith in some kind of magical democratic transition in which the military continues to enjoy impunity.
 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
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Fortify Rights
By FORUM-ASIA and Progressive Voice
By Human Rights Watch
By Members of the European Burma Network
By Human Rights Watch
By UN Human Rights Council
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.”