As the world looked on in lead up to the proceedings of Myanmar’s violation of the Genocide Convention in case of Rohingya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission’s (MNHRC) stated that they did not “find any evidence that the military tortured them or violated their human rights”– refusing to call them “Rohingya” and instead by the derogatory term “Bengali” – spoke to the complete lack of will by the domestic human rights institution to address accountability or to work to protect human rights.
Since its establishment by a presidential decree in 2011 and the passing of its 2014 MNHRC Enabling Law that set its formal mandate, the MNHRC has continued to suffer from a huge public trust deficit. The insitution’s work to promote and protect human rights has consistently been hampered by two interlinked issues: commissioners who lack the human rights sensitivity and mindset as well as relevant experiences, and the structural and procedural issues at the heart of the MNHRC law that ensures the commissioners’ selection process is not independent, but aligned to the Myanmar government and the military – the institution which has committed genocide and continues to act with total impunity.
Like most institutions set up by the government in Myanmar, the MNHRC has never recognized the identity of the Rohingya, and rather than upholding the principles of human rights, it has worked to deflect the egregious violence committed against them. The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFMM) in its report, condemned the role of the MNHRC, stating that at no point has the commission worked to “address the systemic discrimination against Rohingya, despite this falling within its mandate.” This was again made clear by commissioner Yu Lwin Aung who stated, “We found that those Bengalis only killed and troubled our ethnic groups such as Mro, Khami, Rakhine and Dainet as well as Hindus. They violated the human rights. We found no evidence that the military did it.” The statement was made in a timely lead up to the proceedings currently taking place at the international court in the Hague on the case of Myanmar’s violation of the Genocide Convention filed at the ICJ by The Gambia.
Even in cases where human rights violations do not involve the Rohingya, MNHRC has consistently failed to act when violations are committed, particularly by the Myanmar military. While the CSO Working Group on MNHRC Reform – convened by Progressive Voice with the participation of 22 human rights organizations in Myanmar – and lawmakers called on the MNHRC to investigate killing of 10 villagers who were killed in custody of the Myanmar military in war-torn Rakhine State, the MNHRC has declined to conduct an investigation. “While human rights violations are on the rise, particularly in ethnic areas where civil war is ongoing, the MNHRC remains unable and/or unwilling to address human rights violations, especially those committed by the Myanmar military,” stated Ko Bo Bo of Generation Wave during a launch of a joint report titled “Myanmar: A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action Please.” The report, produced by 20 civil society organizations, offers an analysis on the performance of the MNHRC, particularly in the context of protection of human rights defenders and shrinking civil society space. Released a day before Human Rights Day, the report calls for the reform of the MNHRC so that it can better protect and promote human rights for all people in Myanmar.
While the world looks to the case of Rohingya genocide at the ICJ, for decades, Myanmar’s diverse ethnic communities who have suffered similar grave violations at the hands of the Myanmar military have become vocal, standing in solidarity with the Rohingya community. In 2018, over 100 civil society organizations from Myanmar even called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC). As the proceedings at the ICJ neared, ethnic organizations from within Myanmar and from diaspora communities around the world rallied to express their support of the case against Myanmar. “Like the Rohingya, other ethnic nationalities in Myanmar have also suffered systematic violations and abuses of fundamental human rights, and they remain subject to violent persecution…” stated Karen and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Canada in a joint statement. Echoing these sentiments, The Worldwide Karen Community stated that it “is thus greatly heartened by these cases at the ICJ and ICC, as they send a clear signal to Burma Army leadership that the net of justice is closing in, and their days of impunity – for crimes against all the ethnic peoples in Burma – are numbered,” in a statement signed by 48 Karen organizations throughout the world. “It will undermine their stranglehold on power in Burma” asserted 15 Karenni CSOs. “This must be a wake-up call to international investors in Burma. ‘Business as usual’ means subsidizing state-sanctioned atrocities in ethnic areas, and is untenable,” 17 Shan organizations, including organizations representing refugees and IDPs who have borne the brunt of the decades long civil war, stated in a joint statement. They continued, “We are therefore, heartened that the international spotlight is finally shining squarely on these horrors, and the wheels are turning to hold Burma’s military leaders to account.”
At a time when these ethnic communities, human rights defenders and activists need an ally to foster democracy and build a foundation for principled human rights and humanitarian response to ongoing serious rights violations and grave crimes commissioned by the state, domestic mechanism, which is supposed to protect and promote human rights, either windowdress these violations and crimes or even worse, deny them.
While the MNHRC is certainly not a court to adjudicate crimes, the fact that even the MNHRC is unwilling and/or unable to protect human rights speaks to the state of domestic legal and judicial mechanisms for victims and survivors of grave violations. This is why international justice mechanisms, such as the proceedings at the ICJ and the ICC are the only pathway towards justice and accountability for the hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors who have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military. However, such proceedings must be taken, not only by The Gambia, but by other international governments willing to stand on the right side of history, especially those signatories to the Genocide Convention and act to hold Myanmar accountable, to end the military impunity and atrocity crimes once and for all.
The world is watching as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi takes a stand at the ICJ, but so too are the victims and survivors of the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. With The Gambia taking a clear stand for humanity, time is now for the international governments with moral ground on humanity to join The Gambia at the ICJ. Government such as Canada and the Netherlands have already welcomed the move made by The Gambia. Indeed, the same could be said to the leaders of the world as was said to the MNHRC this week: “a little less conversation, a little more action, please.” To this we also add, “act now and join The Gambia.”
 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 Arakan American Community
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Chin Human Rights Organization
By KNU Concerned Group
The Karen Grassroots Women’s Network (KGWN) Welcomes the Two New Legal Cases Against Burma’s State-actors and Military for Crimes Against the Rohingya in Conflict-torn Rakhine State and the Investigation Authorized by the International Criminal Court
By Karen Grassroots Women Network
By Rohingya Human Rights Network, Karen Community of Canada
By Worldwide Karen Community
By Free Burma Rangers
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.”