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Statement by Thomas H. Andrews UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar United Nations Human Rights Council

July 6th, 2021  •  Author:   Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  •  8 minute read
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Madam President, distinguished members of the Human Rights Council:

In the five months since the government of Myanmar was overthrown in an illegal coup, two interlocking patterns have emerged:

First, the military junta’s widespread, systematic attacks against the people of Myanmar, acts that amount to crimes against humanity. And second, the inability of the international community to do what is required to stop it.

The first of these patterns is painfully clear and has been accurately described by the High Commissioner in her statement.

The junta’s military forces have murdered approximately 900 people; forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands; tortured many, including torturing people in custody to death; disappeared untold numbers; and arbitrarily detained nearly 6,000.

The junta continues to stifle freedom of expression, arbitrarily detain thousands, and systematically strip away due process and fair trial rights. It is using criminal defamation charges to target journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society leaders.

It has also cut off food, water and medicine to those who have been displaced by its brutal attacks on entire villages. The junta has also taken family members hostage when its forces are unable to find those with outstanding arrest warrants. Authorities recently imprisoned a four-year-old child, for example, when they could not locate her father for arrest. A four-year-old child… And now the junta has begun detaining lawyers for defending their detained clients.

On top of this, a third wave of COVID is taking hold in the country. Limited testing shows an alarming positivity rate of 26 percent. One in four of those tested have tested positive to this highly contagious disease. The public health system is in tatters and many are unwilling to get vaccinated in a junta-run operation. Myanmar is at grave risk of becoming a Covid 19 super-spreader state, impacting untold numbers of people both inside and outside of its borders.

Despite facing lethal force, people across Myanmar continue to vigorously oppose the junta and demand that it end its attempted coup.  I use “attempted coup” deliberately here. The junta captured many levers of state power, the purse strings of Myanmar’s Treasury and the administrative offices, but it has not – not even close – taken control of the nation and its people. The people of Myanmar roundly view the junta as illegitimate and, indeed, a terrorist scourge set loose upon them.

Civil servants continue en masse to refuse to work for the junta. Boycotts of military-produced goods and services continue. And support for the opposition leadership, the National Unity Government, is widespread.

The National Unity Government —established by parliamentarians whom the junta illegally denied the right to form a government—is laying the groundwork for a new, unified Myanmar. It has taken the historic step of welcoming the Rohingya ethnic minority back into the national fabric of Myanmar, assuring them justice and full citizenship rights.

The National Unity Government is  helping to coordinate humanitarian assistance into the country and has committed to ensuring international justice and accountability for victims of atrocity crimes, indicating its willingness to pursue justice through the International Criminal Court.  The National Unity Government deserves to be embraced as a valuable resource and partner by member states.

Some in Myanmar have lost hope that help from the international community will be forthcoming and have instead sought to defend themselves through the formation of defense forces and acts of sabotage, while some are reportedly targeting suspected junta collaborators and officials.

This trend could escalate quickly and the junta’s pattern of the use of grossly disproportionate force in response will likely lead to an even greater loss of life.

The people of Myanmar are working to save their country. But they desperately need the support of the international community before it is too late.

Which leads me back to the second pattern: the failure of those outside of Myanmar to take measures that could help end this nightmare.

Bodies of the UN, including the General Assembly, Security Council, and the Human Rights Council, have met to discuss developments and issue statements or resolutions. Last month, 119 member nations of the General Assembly voted for a resolution calling upon the junta to “respect the will of the people” as expressed in the November 2020 elections and called upon “all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”

We have watched as the junta has made a mockery of efforts by ASEAN to resolve the crisis. But we are also seeing evidence of the junta’s growing insecurity and sensitivity to world opinion. The junta is relentlessly trying to stop the truth from emerging through social media, including the confiscation of mobile phones to search for evidence of support for the opposition; arresting journalists and even threatening those who call them what they are, a military junta. They are now even using the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to deliver their twisted version of events to the world.

Some nations have decided to act by imposing sanctions to reduce the junta’s access to revenue and weapons. While these measures are important and welcomed, they remain limited and without the coordination necessary to have significant impact.

Five months ago, before this very Council, I called for the formation of an Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar. I based this recommendation on the necessity for action and the idea that governments that are willing to take action should do so even if others are not.

Over the last five months, we have witnessed what happens when there is a lack of strong, coordinated international action. We therefore know with virtual certainty that if the international community continues its current course, things will continue to deteriorate for the people of Myanmar.

Madam President, I believe it is time to try another way.

An Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar – nations willing to stand with the people of Myanmar through meaningful, coordinated action – would be in a position to impose significant costs on the junta. It could reduce the junta’s ability to attack its citizens, save the lives of those in acute crisis, and gain political leverage so that the crisis in Myanmar might come to a just and permanent conclusion.

There are viable options that such a coalition would have to achieve these goals:

  1. First and foremost, an Emergency Coalition could significantly reduce the revenue that the junta needs to continue its reign of terror. The junta prides itself on its large, well-equipped military. But what they see as a source of strength, indeed the only reason they are able to hold the people of Myanmar hostage, is also a vulnerability. It takes considerable revenue to supply, equip and sustain that military. Cut off their income, and you cut off their capacity to continue their relentless attack on the people of Myanmar.
    Since the coup, some countries have instituted sanctions, targeting military-controlled enterprises and revenue from gems, timber, and mining.  Two countries sanctioned the so-called State Administrative Council, the junta itself.
    These are important steps. But the fact remains that many nations have yet to impose any economic sanctions, and a key sector remains untouched by all: oil and gas. Oil and gas-sector revenues are a financial lifeline for the junta and are estimated to be close to what is needed for the junta to maintain the security forces that are keeping them in power. They should be stopped.
  2. Second, an Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar could outlaw the export of arms to the Myanmar military, as called for in last month’s General Assembly resolution.
  3. Third, coalition members that have universal jurisdiction laws could coordinate investigations of these ongoing crimes and make preparations to file charges against Myanmar’s senior security officials.
  4. Fourth, coalition members could dramatically increase humanitarian aid by working with the National Unity Government to utilize non-junta channels to assure that aid goes to where it belongs – to the people of Myanmar. And, finally,
  5. Fifth, the coalition could work together to deny any claims of legitimacy that the junta may try to assert, such as the false claim that they are recognized by the United Nations.

These actions are all possible but they require nations that are prepared to act to do so through collaboration outside of formal mechanisms that require consensus. Frankly, consensus decision-making has meant paralysis, and paralysis is lethal to the people of Myanmar.

Madam President, there is no guarantee that this approach will succeed, but there is overwhelming evidence that the current path leads to even greater impunity, a humanitarian disaster, and a failed state.

Future generations may look back upon this moment and ask: “Did the people and nations of the world do all that they reasonably could to help the people of Myanmar in their hour of great peril and need?”

I am afraid that the honest answer to that question, at this point, is no. The international community is failing the people of Myanmar.

There is time to set a new course and achieve a just outcome. Now, more than ever, we must summon the courage of the people of Myanmar and choose the path of meaningful and sustained action.

Time is short and the stakes could not be higher.

Thank you for your kind attention and for the privilege of serving as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

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