Human Rights Council Holds an Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

Human Rights Council
HRC/20/27

10 March 2020

Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, speaking via video conference, presented her last report to the Council. She noted the serious nature of the conflict in Myanmar, the violence experienced by people in Rakhine state, and the recent Internet blackout extended to nine townships affecting more than 1 million people, mostly in Rakhine state. She noted the number of students arrested, as well as a crackdown on journalists. People in rural areas were being imprisoned for resisting the confiscation of their lands. Those who challenged environmental destruction were also risking their freedom. An end to impunity was the lynchpin for Myanmar to succeed in its transition to democracy.

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, noted that sustainable peace and development were two sides of the same coin that was an inevitable part of the path towards democracy and the realization of human rights in Myanmar. The democratically elected Government of Myanmar had faced numerous challenges in numerous sectors since taking office in 2016. Progress had been made on national reconciliation and the peace process with the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement in January 2020. Repatriation was the first priority of the Government and it had been working with regional partners to facilitate the repatriation process.

In the discussion on Myanmar, speakers called on the Government to facilitate the safe return of Rohingya refugees, to address pervasive hate speech that targeted minorities in the country, and to end the Internet shutdown in parts of Rakhine and Chin states. They also called for the Government to ensure that the 2020 elections were free and fair. States asked Myanmar to lift restrictions on political activists, and to cooperate with the work of the future Special Rapporteur. There were calls for the international community to support accountability efforts, including the International Criminal Court investigation, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, and the International Court of Justice’s preliminary ruling on provisional measures. Some States recognized the complex nature of the situation in Rakhine state, noting it should be approached objectively and comprehensively. These regretted that the Special Rapporteur had consistently assailed the credibility of the Independent Commission of Enquiry since its inception, rather than encourage domestic accountability efforts.

Speaking in the discussion on Myanmar were Pakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), the European Union, Viet Nam (on behalf of the Association of South East Asian Nations), Czech Republic, Canada, Bangladesh, Estonia, Australia, Afghanistan, Liechtenstein, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, France, Philippines, Luxembourg, Sierra Leone, Costa Rica, Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, Croatia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Greece, Republic of Korea, Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Venezuela, Thailand, Sweden, Indonesia, Albania, Maldives, China, Nepal, Belgium, United Kingdom, Iceland, Norway, Malaysia, Cambodia, Marshall Islands, Ireland, Viet Nam, Switzerland, Spain and Belarus.

Also taking the floor were the following civil society organization: Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Physicians for Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, International Commission of Jurists, Save the Children International, International Educational Development Inc, Association for Progressive Communications, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Presentation of Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, speaking via video conference, presented her last report to the Council. She noted the serious nature of the conflict in Myanmar, the violence experienced by people in Rakhine state, and the recent Internet blackout extended to nine townships affecting more than 1 million people, mostly in Rakhine state. She noted the number of students arrested, as well as a crackdown on journalists with Reuters being the latest news agency to be sanctioned for reporting from Rakhine. She regretted the lack of international intervention, even as Rohingya refugees were risking their lives to flee the region. People in rural areas were being imprisoned for resisting the confiscation of their lands. Those who challenged environmental destruction were also risking their freedom. She proposed that Myanmar embark on an inclusive national dialogue to address discrimination and inequality, and find ways to move towards a pluralistic society.

An end to impunity was the lynchpin for Myanmar to succeed in its transition to democracy. Perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses and international crimes must be held accountable for their actions. The Government should reform the justice system, ensure judicial independence, and remove systemic barriers to accountability, in order to ensure that they criminalize all international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, which did not currently exist. The Special Rapporteur urged the international community to support strongly the ongoing international accountability initiatives, including to refer Myanmar to the International Court of Justice, establish an international tribunal to try alleged perpetrators of international crimes, or cooperate with the investigation by the International Criminal Court that was just beginning, and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. The international community should ensure that victims were placed at the centre of all justice initiatives.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, noted that sustainable peace and development were two sides of the same coin that was an inevitable part of the path towards democracy and the realization of human rights in Myanmar. The democratically elected Government of Myanmar had faced numerous challenges in numerous sectors since taking office in 2016. It was striving to build an all-around democratic society despite many challenges. Myanmar had a unique history and it was more than just one story. One would not be able to see a true and comprehensive picture by selectively choosing a chapter. Concluding with one’s own narrative would only further create misunderstanding among the different communities in the country. Progress had been made on national reconciliation and the peace process with the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement in January 2020. In its endeavour to achieve sustainable development, the Government was paying special attention to balance business, development and the protection of human rights. Several legal reforms had taken place. Achieving democracy was not easy for Myanmar. Since 25 February 2020, the Parliament had been discussing heatedly the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

Myanmar was at a critical juncture in light of the upcoming general elections later during the year. It was battling against hate speech offline and online before the elections. Repatriation was the first priority of the Government and it had been working with regional partners to facilitate the repatriation process. In conclusion, Myanmar stressed that it was important for Special Procedure mandate holders to work in good faith, in an impartial and objective manner, and that they strictly adhere to the code of conduct. Non-constructive measures, retribution and ill intentions were the obstacles that would lead to mistrust among the communities in the country.

Discussion on Myanmar

In the discussion, speakers called on Myanmar to cooperate with Bangladesh in repatriating the displaced Rohingya, to ensure that the general elections in 2020 be free for all, and asked how the Human Rights Council should continue to address the pertinent question of accountability in the country. Some States regretted that members of the peacock generation were being persecuted and arrested for their political views, and called on Myanmar to respect the rights of minority groups in the country. The pervasive nature of hate speech targeting the Rohingya was of great concern to a number of States, with several expressing regret that a resolution had not been passed within the Council on this matter. Members asked Myanmar to facilitate the safe return of Rohingya refugees, and to work to end the cycles of violence that had led to years of conflict in the country. States asked Myanmar to lift restrictions on political activists, allow free and transparent elections, and cooperate with the work of the future Special Rapporteur.

The lack of effort by the Government to address the almost 1 million refugees fleeing the country, as well as the widespread violation of women’s rights across a number of regions was of great concern. A number of States supported the actions brought forward by the Gambia to pursue accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingya. These called on the international community to support accountability efforts, including the International Criminal Court investigation, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, and the International Court of Justice’s preliminary ruling on provisional measures. Some States recognized the complex nature of the situation in Rakhine state, noting it should be approached objectively and comprehensively. They regretted that the Special Rapporteur had consistently assailed the credibility of the Independent Commission of Inquiry since its inception, rather than encouraging domestic accountability efforts.

Interim Remarks by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, responding to questions about pursuing accountability and how the Human Rights Council could help in that regard, noted that the Council could invite the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Also, the Council could take action to pressure Myanmar to follow the provisional measures that the International Court of Justice had set up. Furthermore, the Council should very closely monitor the situation in Rakhine state. As for the persecution of critics in the election year, Ms. Lee said she had pointed out an increasing number of politically motivated arrests. Some 647 individuals had been imprisoned due to political activities, she reminded, noting that those included protesters against large economic projects that had been initiated without prior consultations with the local communities. Journalists and activists had been systematically persecuted.

The rise in nationalist, extremist and populist rhetoric stoked by the parties in power, affected the right to political participation by ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Rohingya minority. With respect to the peaceful settlement of the conflict, the Special Rapporteur noted the increase in conflicts and displacement in the Shan state. In many instances, the landmines in the conflict areas had been causing many civilian deaths among internally displaced persons upon their return home. The conflict was not due to underdevelopment, but due to inequality in revenue sharing and inequality of access to some basic economic rights. Thus, successful conflict resolution would depend on listening to the needs of ethnic minorities. Speaking on the rate of Rohingya returns, Ms. Lee said the exact number was very difficult to assess and verify. The general sentiment was that Rohingya wanted to come back, but under favourable conditions and not under the present conditions, she emphasized. The national human rights commission of Myanmar was not following the Paris Principles and its members had ties with the Myanmar military. There was no transparency in the appointment of its members, the Special Rapporteur noted.

Discussion

Speakers regretted Myanmar’s lack of cooperation with the Special Rapporteur and noted that the Government had squandered every opportunity to display leadership and to undertake reform to further the transition and improve the situation of human rights. They also regretted backsliding in many areas, notably in the democratic space and the fact that the conflict raged on, and that international crimes might have been perpetrated. Myanmar should hold an inclusive, participatory and human rights grounded national dialogue to bring the nation together. Speakers were concerned about the lack of tangible progress in the return of Rohingya refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. Myanmar must create the necessary conditions for the voluntary, safe and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees. The upcoming elections would be a litmus test on the democratic transition in the country, speakers underlined. An important part of that was ensuring that freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly were respected, speakers added, voicing concern about the Internet shutdown in parts of Rakhine and Chin states. They asked the Special Rapporteur about what the Human Rights Council and countries could do to ensure the respect for freedom of expression in the context of elections. Furthermore, speakers welcomed the recent international efforts for accountability in Myanmar, including at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, noting that impunity could not prevail. It was essential that Member States sustained the recent momentum generated by the moves towards accountability for the crimes against the Rohingya.

Some speakers welcomed the bilateral cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh in order to facilitate an early repatriation process. They stressed that the best way to promote and protect human rights in any country was through the Universal Periodic Review, and not by imposing country specific mandates against the will of the concerned country. The mandate on Myanmar was an example of wasted time and resources. Special Procedures should carry out constructive dialogue and cooperation with concerned countries, with respect to their national sovereignty and respecting the information that concerned countries submitted. It was necessary to recognize the difficult circumstances in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state, but also to recognize the efforts made by the Government of Myanmar to promote peaceful coexistence of the different ethnic and religious groups in the country. Speakers called on the international community to assist Myanmar in creating an environment conducive to long-term solutions in Rakhine state through the promotion of sustainable development and livelihoods for all affected communities. They encouraged Myanmar to enhance its efforts for national reconciliation, sustainable peace and inclusive development.

Concluding Remarks by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, reiterated that legislative reform, an independent judiciary and civilian control of the army were important steps that the Government of Myanmar should take in order to improve human rights in the country. In anticipation of elections scheduled for November 2020, the Council should request updates from Myanmar in the June and September sessions, and ask access for independent monitors on the ground. The Council should also investigate whether elections were held in conflict areas, and whether Internet restrictions were lifted. She expressed concern that expansion was needed in the energy sector, as approximately half the population did not have access to electricity. However, the offshore energy sector received significant foreign investment, and was very opaque, therefore more transparency was needed to ensure corruption was prevented. The Special Rapporteur reiterated that she had taken on the mandate in good faith, and had not politicized the role. She concluded that there remained a long way to go, but Myanmar’s transformation into a democracy that respected human rights could still be achieved.

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