Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural)
YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, presenting her latest report (document A/74/342), said Myanmar continues to deny her access, but human-rights issues, abuses and violations are still reported to her. There is no discernible improvement to the situation in Myanmar, although the Government in September ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The Government has neither repealed nor amended repressive laws that infringe on rights, and these continue to be weaponized against those attempting to exercise their rights to free expression, association and assembly. She pointed to a sharp rise in the number of such cases, with the military commencing prosecutions of protestors, activists and journalists reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State. In September, Government officials filed separate criminal defamation complaints against two satirists and a cartoonist for their social media posts, which were critical of the ruling National League for Democracy.
Expressing concern over discrimination against religious minorities, she pointed to 27 villages that describe themselves as “Muslim-free”, banning Muslims from entry. She also expressed concern over Government plans for hydropower development in conflict areas where communities have been displaced from their land, including in Rakhine and Chin States. In Rakhine State, the heavy fighting between the military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army continues. People have been targeted, killed and injured by indiscriminate fire, and entire villages have been burned. Rakhine men and boys have been detained by security forces and some have died in custody, amid reports of torture. The Arakan Army has reportedly recently abducted 31 people and is depriving them of their liberty. As many as 60,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in Rakhine this year, along with another 10,000 in Chin State. In August, there was a sudden escalation of fighting in Shan State. “I remain resolute in my belief that it is unsafe for [Rohingya refugees] to return to Myanmar until the fundamental circumstances leading to their expulsion are remedied,” she asserted. “The abhorrent treatment of these people is completely antithetical to Myanmar’s human-rights and child-rights obligations,” she said, indicative of the treatment that any returning Rohingya would face.
Across the country, attempts to claim rights are consistently obstructed by structural apparatuses that ensure such claims are not filled. The Government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry has not produced a single report. “An end to impunity in Myanmar remains a lofty, far-off goal,” she said. As such, she urged the international community to impose targeted sanctions against the Tatmadaw’s companies and its commanders most responsible for serious violations, refer the entire situation to the International Criminal Court or establish an international tribunal, and work with civil society to develop transformative processes in accordance with the pillars of justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.
HAU DO SUAN (Myanmar) said his country has been cooperating with successive Special Rapporteurs on the human-rights situation in Myanmar since the first was appointed in 1992. However, he is “disappointed and disheartened” that this cooperation has only invited international scrutiny, numerous country-specific resolutions and “more invented and unprecedented politically motivated mechanisms to exert political pressures” on his country in the name of human rights. He characterized the Special Rapporteur’s report as “subjective, intrusive and unconstructive”, adding that her conclusion — that the situation “continues to deteriorate in many areas” — lacks objectivity and does not reflect conditions on the ground. The Special Rapporteur’s report lacks “impartiality, objectivity, professionalism and good faith”, he said, adding that Myanmar has “repeatedly” called for her replacement since 2017.
Despite the many challenges Myanmar faces, as a young democracy it is determined to foster peace, prosperity, development and the rule of law, he said — noting that it held various peace conferences and successfully encouraged 10 ethnic armed organizations to sign a ceasefire agreement. On the economic front, Myanmar’s growth rate touched 6.5 per cent in 2019, and its gross domestic product (GDP) multiplied eight-fold from $8.9 billion in 2000 to $71 billion in 2018, he said, adding that the World Bank lists his country among the top 20 improvers in its latest Doing Business report. He touched on expanded access to telecommunications service, adding that there is “no restriction on Internet access.” Myanmar has also amplified national household electrification, deriving 60 per cent of electricity from hydropower. Citing recent calls for restrictions on investment and the imposition of sanctions, he said “such sweeping punitive actions will only hurt ordinary working people and their innocent family members.”
Turning to the situation in Rakhine State, he said the Government is working to expedite repatriation and create a “more conducive environment for verified returnees”. Myanmar is not opposed to accountability and has demonstrated this by establishing the Independent Commission of Enquiry and by opening a court of inquiry to investigate alleged human-rights violations. “Moreover, Myanmar is not a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Court does not have jurisdiction over alleged crimes in our country,” he said. He strongly objected to the establishment of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar as a “discriminatory” measure that his country refuses to recognize or cooperate with, calling its $26 million budget a “wanton waste of scarce resources.”
In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Venezuela, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, expressed concern over the selective approval of resolutions on specific countries by the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and the Human Rights Council, the latter of which exploits human rights for political ends. The universal periodic review is the main mechanism to review human-rights issues. The European Union’s representative recalled that Myanmar is entering an electoral campaign and enquired how the international community can ensure people are able to freely make an electoral choice. He also asked the Special Rapporteur to describe the follow-up to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. Liechtenstein’s delegate said accountability is a precondition for the return of the displaced Rohingya and asked to what extent the Special Rapporteur is cooperating with other United Nations mandate holders.
The representative of Bangladesh said the creation of a conducive environment is a prerequisite of the safe return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. The report provides recommendations, such as the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an international tribunal. The United Kingdom’s representative said the best way for Myanmar to address the report is to invite the Special Rapporteur or her successor to visit. He requested information on how civil society can help the Government move forward. The Czech Republic’s delegate asked about the current situation of political prisoners, while Norway’s representative enquired how international businesses can help end the human-rights abuses in the country.
Luxembourg’s representative, associating himself with the European Union, asked how humanitarian aid can support minorities in Myanmar more effectively. He also asked what the international community can do to guarantee the freedom of expression of journalists and rights defenders. Australia’s delegate asked how regional partners can help support the peace process and democratic transition. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s delegate, associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that country mandates are based on politicization and double standards.
Also speaking in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Ireland, France, Cuba, Germany, United States, Republic of Korea, Maldives, Burundi, Viet Nam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, China and Thailand.
Ms. LEE replied to questions on how business can help the peace process by reiterating that companies should follow guiding principles of business and human rights, conduct due diligence before implementing projects in affected areas such as Chin and Rakhine, and to suspend those projects if necessary. Businesses should also refrain from engaging with military-affiliated companies and their subsidiaries.
On involving civil society, she said that any involvement must be holistic, local, and victim-driven. Gender should also be considered. In communities facing harsh impacts due to the conflict, civil society organizations could be involved. Turning to freedom of expression and shrinking democratic space, she said a hate-speech law passed ahead of elections will stifle freedom of expression, and she called for an awareness campaign to promote tolerance and harmony. She also urged Internet companies to conduct human-rights due diligence and to allocate resources for content moderation, as social media has contributed to violence and hate speech in Myanmar. On international humanitarian aid, she pointed out that the “key issue is access,” as groups have had problems reaching affected areas, including the Kachin region.
In response to the question on political prisoners, she said as many as 606 people had been targeted for political activities, including 56 who are serving sentences; 363 are awaiting trial. Noting that she will follow up on her recommendations until the end of her mandate in March, upon which Myanmar will cooperate with a different Special Rapporteur, she expressed hope to continue the “frank and candid” conversations she had with Aung San Suu Kyi decades ago.
MARZUKI DARUSMAN, Chair of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said many of the same serious crimes reported last October continue to be committed by Myanmar’s military. The near absence of accountability for grave human-rights violations also confirms previous conclusions that the cycle of impunity enables and fuels this reprehensible conduct by security forces. The blatant persecution of the Rohingya continues unabated. The situation of some 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State is largely unchanged. The underlying persecutory structural and systemic policies and practices continue. “We conclude that there is a strong inference of continued genocidal intent on the part of the State in relation to the Rohingya, and there is a serious risk of genocide recurring,” he warned. Myanmar is failing in its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide.
The situation of internally displaced Rohingyas remains of the utmost concern, he said. Contrary to Government claims, camps for displaced persons have not been closed; those who live in them face daily hardship. The return of nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State is “simply impossible” under current circumstances. Nowhere is there a safe and viable place to which they can return. Serious violations of human rights and of humanitarian law have been committed in a series of Tatmadaw attacks in northern Rakhine State and southern Chin State in recent months, amid conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army. Civilians, mostly ethnic minorities, are suffering the brunt of this latest fighting, he said, urging the parties to stop the violence.
With that, he urged the Human Rights Council to mandate properly resourced, regular, robust and independent monitoring, investigations and reporting, and the General Assembly to grant the necessary political and financial support. For their part, Governments should consider the creation of an ad hoc tribunal, and indicate their willingness to exercise jurisdiction over the crimes under international law identified by this Mission. The human-rights catastrophe in Myanmar has not ended. The Government of Myanmar is defiant and at best unconcerned. This is not the time for complacency, and the situation remains urgent. Hundreds of thousands of victims rightfully expect no less than continued commitment by the international community to bring about accountability and justice, he said.
When the floor opened to questions and comments, the representative of Myanmar said his country’s participation in the interactive dialogue should not be interpreted as recognizing the International Independent Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, its mandate or any of its reports. The Fact-Finding Mission Chair made unsubstantiated allegations and offered misleading information based on secondary sources. The Chair also completely ignored contradicting evidence and facts, including the situation experienced by an innocent Hindu minority, as well as other ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Myanmar always takes the issue of accountability seriously, he said, stressing that perpetrators of all human-rights violations must be held accountable.
Calling the Independent Investigative Mechanism yet another form of unprecedented discriminatory scrutiny, he described the Government’s agenda for peace and national reconciliation as a national priority. Myanmar has also given high priority to finding a lasting solution to protracted problems in Rakhine State. The Government made efforts to solve the complex problems in Rakhine. However, the October 2016 terrorist attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar Border Guard posts caused the initial outflow of displaced persons across the border, following counter-terrorism operations. The High Commissioner for Human Rights then visited Bangladesh to compile a flash report on the humanitarian situation. However, it was based on information gathered from interviews with displaced people in the Cox’s Bazar camps without established facts. This led to the formation of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission by the Human Rights Council. For these reasons, Myanmar objected to the Mission’s establishment.
Myanmar is seriously concerned about widespread terror threats posed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Cox’s Bazar, he said. Death threats and intimidation against displaced persons have made the repatriation process impossible to commence. There is an urgent need to address the security threats of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in the refugee camps and create conditions conducive to starting the repatriation process.