Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar: Oral Update to 41st Session of the Human Rights Council

July 2nd, 2019  •  Author:   Yanghee Lee , the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar  •  11 minute read

Mr President, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to update you on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

I welcome the recent announcement by the Government that the “Other Accounts” of the extractive industry State-owned economic enterprises will be abolished and all their income will be transferred to the Union Government. I call on the Government to ensure that this is a reform that translates into better respect for human rights. This is an opportunity for the Government to improve transparency in the sector and to ensure that departments tasked with enforcing environmental and social safeguards are properly resourced.

Mr President,

Unfortunately, despite this positive development, the situation continues to deteriorate in several areas. In May, police officers using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse villagers staging a sit-in protest outside the coal powered Alpha Cement Factory in Mandalay Region injured many people. The villagers were protesting the serious harm the factory’s expansion may cause to the environment, health and livelihoods as a result of pollution, and fears it will lead to land seizures. Shockingly, a villager who was arrested later died in police custody despite being in good health before his arrest. Ko Nanda, a reporter who was covering the protests, was also arrested and remains unjustly detained in Ohboe prison facing multiple criminal charges.

Villagers living near the coal-powered Tigyit power plant in Taunggyi, Shan State have been suffering severe health problems and are demanding the power plant’s operations be stopped and compensation provided. Independent scientific testing and expert analysis found that the air and water surrounding the power plant contains pollutants and concentrations of toxic heavy metals at levels which greatly exceed the national guidelines. Hair samples taken from children living in the area contained elevated levels of highly toxic elements including arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

The mud slide in Hpakant that killed 54 jade miners in April is a stark reminder of the urgent need for enforcement of environmental regulations. Accidents of this kind occur regularly, and this predictable tragedy could and should have been avoided. The legal framework for jade mining is not effective and was worsened by the new Gemstone Law. While plans for environmental management reforms have stalled, thousands of lives have been destroyed over many years by the devastating impact of the jade mining in Hpakant. I urge the Government to consider declaring an environmental emergency in Hpakant and to halt all mining indefinitely until a proper regulatory framework that meets international standards can be adopted and enforced; not just a three-month moratorium during the rainy season.

It is the duty of the Government and the responsibility of companies to ensure that environmental safeguards are adequate, implemented and complied with to protect people. Local communities must be empowered with access to proper grievance mechanisms and have their concerns addressed comprehensively, not face deception or reprisals for speaking out.

Friends and colleagues,

Muslims across the country continue to be subjected to harassment and intimidation led by ultra-nationalist groups. Extremist monk Wirathu has been charged with sedition regarding his alleged disrespect of the State Counsellor. That he faces imprisonment for this and not for inciting violence against Myanmar’s Muslim communities is deeply troubling. Local administrators have prevented mosques from opening in Sagaing and allowed armed mobs to force Muslim prayer sites to close in Yangon, despite contrary directives from Regional Governments. I am wearing a white rose today to express my support for the White Rose Campaign, initiated by a Buddhist monk who handed flowers to Muslim worshippers, and spread across the country to mark the end of Ramadan.

Freedom of expression continues to be stifled through draconian laws used to suppress criticism of the Tatmadaw. Film director and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi has been arrested and detained since April for allegedly criticising the military. I am deeply concerned for his health as he is seriously ill with liver cancer. Seven members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe are being held in Insein prison following a performance that satirised the Tatmadaw. Ye Ni, editor of the Irrawaddy, is facing trial and Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Development Media Group based in Rakhine has been forced into hiding after criminal complaints were filed against him. Both cases relate to reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State. Charges should be dropped in all these cases.

I repeat my call for the Government to take urgent and decisive action on reforming repressive laws and the judiciary. Prosecutors must be empowered to withdraw cases where there would be a miscarriage of justice in order to uphold the rule of law.

Distinguished delegates,

The Tatmadaw has extended its unilateral ceasefire in the north and east of Myanmar to 31 August, and the Shan State Progressive Party and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, who had been engaging in serious hostilities since late 2018, announced a bilateral ceasefire in May. These developments are welcome, but are not enough to bring about lasting peace that leads to security and stability in northern Myanmar, such that over 100,000 people who have been displaced now for eight years feel safe to return home.

I have not observed any progress in the peace process and I am disturbed that the Tatmadaw continues to exclude the Arakan Army from meaningful involvement in negotiations. As I have said before, an open, inclusive and participatory process is one that will bring about long-lasting sustainable peace in Myanmar. I am also seriously concerned by reports that the Tatmadaw requested Thai authorities to stop a meeting of ethnic armed organisations scheduled in Thailand, and I note this is not the first time this has occurred.

Mr. President,

The conflict with the Arakan Army in northern Rakhine State and parts of southern Chin State has continued over the past few months and the impact on civilians is devastating. Many acts of the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army violate international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, as well as violating human rights. I again call on all parties to uphold international humanitarian law and respect human rights.

More than 35,000 people are now estimated to have been displaced by the conflict in the last six months. At least 95,000 people are without access to basic and essential services due to movement restrictions on civilians and the Government’s continuing blockage of aid organisations.

Indiscriminate attacks in and around villages as well as targeting of civilians and civilian objects has left scores of civilians wounded and dead. This includes children like ten-year-old Athein Chae and eight-year-old Husson Shofi from Kyauktaw township, killed in separate incidents in May. There have been reports of the Tatmadaw using forced labour. The Arakan Army has reportedly abducted and detained civilians, including 12 construction workers in Paletwa, and I am concerned about their situation.

There are deeply disturbing reports of civilians, mostly ethnic Rakhine men, being disappeared, or detained and interrogated by the Tatmadaw on suspicion of association with the Arakan Army. Several of them have died while in the Tatmadaw’s custody.

In an alarming event in April, a military helicopter opened fire on a group of Rohingya men and boys who were collecting bamboo in Buthidaung township. The helicopter reportedly circled the group several times, firing as the men and boys were fleeing, killing six and injuring thirteen.

Just last week, the Government ordered a mobile internet shutdown in the region for security reasons while more troops were reportedly deployed. The information blackout is imperilling villagers, further obstructing the humanitarian response and shielding the military operations from scrutiny. There has already been a reported rise in custodial deaths since the shutdown. Moreover, without internet services, families relying on remittances sent by relatives are facing further hardship.

We are witness to an ongoing tragedy in Rakhine State, where less than two years ago horrific atrocities were inflicted on the Rohingya, and the civilian population is once again being subjected to grievous human rights violations by security forces. Troops under the control of the Western Command are active again and Light Infantry Divisions from other parts of the country have been deployed to the region. So long as impunity for alleged crimes prevails, we will continue to bear witness to flagrant violations of rights perpetrated against ethnic minority populations in the name of counterinsurgency, entrenching grievances and prolonging insecurity and instability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am concerned that the international community is beginning to overlook the situation of over a million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. They are subject to a human rights crisis, responsibility for which lies with Myanmar. It is entirely their responsibility to bring about all necessary conditions for all the people they forcibly drove out to return and they are entirely failing to do so. The remaining Rohingya in Myanmar continue to be denied their rights and are persecuted by authorities, making returns from Bangladesh impossible at this time. However, conversations I have had with many refugees reveal they wish to return to Myanmar, but only when they know that they will be safe; they will have citizenship and equal rights with the rest of the population of Myanmar; and they will have their property returned to them.

Mr President,

It is clear to me that accountability cannot be achieved in the domestic arena. This comes as the military announced in March that it had established an “investigative court” to respond to allegations made by the UN and non-government organisations. Its function and how it will work in parallel to the Independent Commission of Enquiry are not apparent. I remain highly concerned about the Commission, which announced in May that its staff had finally undertaken training on international standards for evidence collection and international criminal justice nearly a year after it was established and shortly before it is due to submit its report to the President. This further demonstrates it does not have the capacity to bring justice to victims or be a credible form of accountability.

I reiterate what I have now said many times, that the international community must ensure justice is brought about. I am disappointed that nine months following the resolution establishing it, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar is still not functioning. While the expectation has always been that the Mechanism will succeed the work of the Fact Finding Mission, due to the slow pace of its operationalisation, there is a real risk that there will be a gap in investigations into the most serious international crimes and violations of international law in Myanmar. Member States must remain engaged and I urge them to stress to all relevant UN offices that the Mechanism needs to be expeditiously staffed and resourced so that it can begin to fulfil its mandate by the Council’s next session. Otherwise, there will only be further delay in the justice owed to the people of Myanmar.

I welcome the decision by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to pursue a case at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention. While this course of action alone will not in itself bring comprehensive accountability, it is appropriate to consider the responsibility of the State itself in violating international law and to pursue all avenues to seek remedies for victims.

I repeat the call I made in the Council’s previous session that the situation of Myanmar must be referred to the International Criminal Court, and that alternatively the international community establish an independent tribunal in which perpetrators of international crimes may be tried. It is incumbent on the Security Council to find a way to put differences aside and unite in relation to Myanmar by coming out with a strong resolution.

With the situation not improving, and serious violations taking place on a regular basis, I implore Member States to demonstrate their commitment to human rights in Myanmar.

By now, we have all read the report of Mr Rosenthal, who found that there was a systemic failure of the United Nations in Myanmar. This is not new information. I raised issues regarding the United Nations’ conduct and called for a full independent review in consecutive reports. In his assessment, the United Nations failure also included failure by Member States. I will close by posing a question to all Member States: are you going to continue to fail to protect all the people of Myanmar?