Statement by Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif, Human Rights Council
12 February 2021
The seizure of power by the Myanmar military earlier this month constitutes a profound setback for the country, after a decade of hard-won gains in its democratic transition.
Those gains, which this Council reviewed less than three weeks ago in Myanmar’s third UPR, had been reinforced by the clear results of the general elections of November 2020 – now effectively betrayed by the coup and the declaration of a one-year State of Emergency.
Myanmar’s democratically elected political leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, have been detained on politically motivated charges. Our Office is tracking more than 350 political and state officials, activists and civil society members, including journalists, monks and students, who have been taken into custody. Several face criminal charges on dubious grounds. Most have received no form of due process and have not been permitted legal representation, family visitations or communication. Some remain missing, with no information as to their whereabouts or well-being.
The High Commissioner and I greatly admire the conviction of the demonstrators – many of them young people and women, from diverse ethnic backgrounds – who have peacefully marched and participated in other activities to oppose the coup and the crackdown. It is they who represent Myanmar’s future: a future of shared justice and equitably shared national wealth, amid harmonious relationships between peoples and communities.
The world is watching. Draconian orders have been issued this week to prevent peaceful assembly and free expression, and police and military presence on the streets has grown progressively over the last several days. Following violent clashes with police on 9 February, at least one woman is in critical condition. Pro-military and nationalist groups have also taken to the streets.
Let us be clear: the indiscriminate use of lethal or less-than-lethal weapons against peaceful protestors is unacceptable. More violence against Myanmar’s people will only compound the illegitimacy of the coup, and the culpability of its leaders.
This crisis was born of impunity. Long-standing lack of civilian control over the military, its disproportionate influence in the country’s political and economic structures, and ongoing failure to genuinely account for crimes committed by the security forces over decades, have combined to compromise Myanmar’s democratization and indeed, its development.
For over twenty years, successive High Commissioners and many eminent experts have briefed this Council, and its predecessor, on violations committed by the country’s military, which include some of the most serious crimes alleged under international law. Lack of action to address them has emboldened military leaders and contributed to this present crisis.
As this Council’s own Fact Finding Mission warned explicitly in 2018, “The Tatmadaw is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation. The Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, Min Aung Hlaing, and all the current leadership must be replaced, and a complete restructuring must be undertaken to place the Tatmadaw under full civilian control. Myanmar’s democratic transition depends on it.”
Today, the democratic crisis that the people of Myanmar face is deepened by economic disaster wreaked by the pandemic. Already, COVID-19 has had profound impact, severely taxing a fragile health system and marginal social safety nets, and driving millions of people into severe financial distress. The reckless actions of the military leadership raise the spectre of a reimposition of broad sanctions on the country – and could threaten many years of development gains.
To the international community, I express my concern that any sanctions under consideration should be carefully targeted against specific individuals who are credibly alleged to have violated people’s rights. Leaders of this coup are an appropriate focus of such actions. It is of critical importance that no harm should be inflicted on the most vulnerable people in the country; and that assistance to help fight the pandemic can continue, alongside humanitarian support in conflict areas.
To this Council, we recommend the strongest possible call for the military authorities to respect the result of the election, to return power to civilian control and to immediately release all individuals arbitrarily detained. They should have prompt access to legal representation and medical support, and specious criminal charges should be dropped. Internet and telecommunications restrictions must be lifted to allow media freedoms and access to information through the Internet. The courageous human rights defenders, civil society and trade union movement that have emerged in recent years must be protected.
Additionally, the military authorities must not be allowed to exacerbate the situation of the Rohingya people, after the extreme violence and decades of discrimination that they have endured. Myanmar must fully comply with the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice, and move to genuinely address the root causes of conflicts in Rakhine State and other ethnic minority areas.
We regret that our Office has long been denied a presence in Myanmar, and urge the military authorities to grant OHCHR and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar full and immediate access.
To the people of Myanmar, we express our support for your rights to justice, to freedom, to democratic participation, to personal safety and security, and to peaceful, sustainable and inclusive development. We have been greatly moved by your determination – and also by the solidarity expressed by many members of ethnic groups who themselves have faced discrimination and violence.
The High Commissioner and I are hopeful that, from this crisis, you will be able to rebuild a country that rests on firmer democratic foundations, which can ensure the equality, dignity, human rights and the full inclusion of all in national development. And we are confident that the entire UN family – from its many teams on the ground to this Council and other bodies – will continue to stand together, with you, to uphold your legitimate aspirations for a free Myanmar.
Thank you, Madam President