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Human Rights Council Discusses Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka

September 12th, 2022  •  Author:   United Nations Human Rights Council  •  21 minute read
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MIDDAY

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, followed by an interactive dialogue with Nada Al-Nashif, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said crimes in Myanmar had intensified. The people of Myanmar continued to suffer because of the lack of accountability for those who believed they answered to no law. There was increasing evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Women and children were at particular risk in conflicts, yet experience showed that crimes against them were typically under-reported and under-prosecuted. The Mechanism was united in its efforts to break the cycle of impunity and to ensure that those responsible for crimes would face justice.

In the discussion on Myanmar, some speakers welcomed the report and strongly condemned the human rights abuses and violations in Myanmar. Reports on systematic and sexual-based violence and crimes affecting children were appalling. The human rights situation in Myanmar had deteriorated, in particular for those who were part of religious or ethnic minorities. The military should end the attacks on civilians and allow the population to express its human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. Other speakers pointed out that political mandates did not foster an environment of protection and promotion of human rights. Political dialogue was the only way to resolve the situation in the country.

Nada Al-Nashif, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, presenting a report on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, said since the previous update in March 2022, the country had been suffering from an unprecedented economic crisis. Months of countrywide protests eventually led to the President’s resignation and a new President was elected by the Sri Lankan Parliament on 20 July 2022. Ms. Al- Nashif encouraged the new Government to embark on a national dialogue to advance human rights and reconciliation and to carry out the deeper institutional, reforms needed to combat impunity and to tackle the economic crisis.

Ms. Al-Nashif said 13 years since the end of war in Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of survivors and their families continued to seek justice and to know the whereabouts of their loved ones, with Sri Lanka repeatedly failing to pursue transitional justice. Instead, successive governments had created political obstacles to accountability, and actively promoted some officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes, into the highest levels of government. The Acting High Commissioner called on States to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level, including through the consideration of targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators, as well as cooperation to initiate prosecutions based on extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Ali Sabry, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, speaking as a country concerned, said the Government was extremely sensitive to the socio-economic hardships faced by its people, and had initiated immediate measures to address challenges and to ensure their wellbeing. Discussions on debt restructuring were in progress. The Government was in dialogue with United Nations agencies as well as bilateral partners to protect the most vulnerable from the adverse impacts of the crisis. Sri Lanka would endeavour to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The State looked forward to constructive engagement with the Council through the Universal Periodic Review process. Sri Lanka along with several Member States of this Council had opposed resolution 46/1, fundamentally disagreeing with its legitimacy and objectives.

In the discussion on Sri Lanka, some speakers welcomed the formation of a more inclusive Sri-Lankan Government and constitutional reform. The peaceful transition of power and the efforts taken to restore peace and stability were applauded. Some speakers were concerned about the current situation in Sri Lanka, which was characterised by an economic crisis and violations of fundamental human rights. There were high levels of concern around freedom of expression, as peaceful protests resulting from the crisis situation were met with violence. Sri Lankan authorities were urged to protect the freedom of expression and assembly for all, and to stop arbitrary arrests of those engaging in peaceful protests. Some speakers reiterated their position to reject country-specific initiatives and resolutions that were confrontational and did not have the consent of the country concerned. For these speakers, it was important to provide technical assistance to Sri Lanka and strengthen its national institutions. Some speakers maintained that the mandate was costly, with no effect on the situation, and did not support solidarity.

Also speaking in the morning meeting was Alfonso Nsue Mokuy, Third Deputy Prime Minister in charge of human rights of Equatorial Guinea, who said that the effects of the international economic crisis and the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic had constituted a challenge for the effective exercise of human rights in general, in particular economic, social and cultural rights. Each country had its own values, legislation and social demands, but it was also vital for all to reach basic agreements to foster respect and non-discrimination, and combat violence in all spheres. The Government of Equatorial Guinea had worked tirelessly to combat the pandemic, making it possible to reduce incidents of mortality in the country, with significant economic resources provided by the Government. The Government had also worked to eliminate corruption, and had carried out positive activities in this context.

Speaking in the discussion on Myanmar were Finland, on behalf of Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden; European Union; Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Switzerland; Egypt; France; Luxembourg; Netherlands; Australia; Ireland; Japan; Venezuela; China; Malaysia; United States; United Kingdom; Indonesia; Bangladesh; Timor-Leste; Romania; Belgium; The Gambia; New Zealand; Italy; Iran; Türkiye; Malawi; Canada; and Armenia.

Also speaking were the following civil society representatives: Centre for Civil and Political Rights; Jubilee Campaign; International Commission of Jurists; International Federation for Human Rights Leagues; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development; Meezaan Centre for Human Rights; iuventum e.V.; Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada; and the International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Speaking in the discussion on Sri Lanka were the Netherlands on behalf of the three countries of the Benelux; Finland on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries; European Union; Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council; Liechtenstein; Switzerland; Egypt; India; France; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; North Macedonia; Australia; Ireland; Japan; Maldives; Ethiopia; Cuba; Kazakhstan; Venezuela; Viet Nam; Russian Federation; China; Nigeria; Syrian Arab Republic; Nicaragua; United States; Nepal; United Kingdom; Bangladesh; Pakistan; South Sudan; Burundi; Zimbabwe; Yemen; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Montenegro; Azerbaijan; Cameroon; Canada; New Zealand; Thailand; Uganda; Philippines, Kenya; Iran; Türkiye; Bolivia; Lebanon; Sudan; Cambodia; Eritrea; and Niger.

The following civil society organizations also spoke: Khiam Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture; Christian Solidarity Worldwide; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development; Baptist World Alliance; World Evangelical Alliance on behalf of Alliance Defending Freedom; Centre for Civil and Political Rights; Franciscans International; People for Equality and Relief in Lanka Inc-; International Commission of Jurists; and Global Life Savers Inc.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-first regular session can be found here.

The next meeting of the Human Rights Council will start at 1:45 p.m. to hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, followed by an enhanced interactive dialogue on Afghanistan.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Independent Investigative Mission for Myanmar (A/HRC/51/4)

Presentation of the Report

NICHOLAS KOUMJIAN, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said crimes in Myanmar had intensified. The people of Myanmar continued to suffer because of the lack of accountability for those who believed they answered to no law. Five years had passed since the 2017 military clearance operations in Rakhine state led most of the Rohingya population to flee Myanmar. Almost all remained in neighbouring countries awaiting the day when conditions would allow their safe and dignified return home. There was increasing evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, torture, deportation, and forcible transfer and persecution. The Mechanism prioritised gathering evidence of sexual and gender-based violence and crimes against children. Women and children were at particular risk in conflicts, yet experience showed that crimes against them were typically under-reported and under-prosecuted. Children in Myanmar were tortured and arbitrarily detained, sometimes to target their parents.

There were strong indications that the executions of four individuals in July were without due process. The Mechanism faced many challenges collecting evidence, being denied access to crime scenes and witnesses in Myanmar. The Mechanism had obtained millions of items from networks of Facebook accounts controlled by the Myanmar military that were taken down by the company because they misrepresented their identity. Posts from these military accounts incited fear and hatred of Rohingya. The Mechanism was united in its efforts to break the cycle of impunity and to ensure that those responsible for crimes would face justice.

Discussion

Some speakers strongly condemned the human rights abuses and violations in Myanmar, which amounted to systematic crimes against humanity. The reported systematic and sexual-based violence and crimes affecting children were appalling. The human rights situation in Myanmar had deteriorated, in particular for those who were part of religious or ethnic minorities. Perpetrators must be held accountable. All partners of the international community should cooperate fully with the Mechanism so that victims could get justice. Some speakers strongly condemned the military coup. Human rights violations had been committed in a manner that was a widespread and coordinated attack on the civilian population, to an extent which could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The executions of pro-democracy individuals were condemned. The military should end the attacks on civilians and allow the population to express its human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

The Mechanism should continue to collect and preserve information about the situation, some speakers said. Myanmar’s persistent non-cooperation with the Mechanism was deplored: it should fully cooperate with the view to delivering justice, including and in particular to the Rohingyas. All social media platforms should share information with the Mechanism as and when they were approached, and the Mechanism should ensure that principles of “do no harm” were at the centre of their outreach in this context. The security forces and armed groups should ensure the protection of civilians, and reinstate immediately the moratorium on the death penalty. There should be a political resolution to the situation, ensuring that those culpable were brought to justice. There were serious international crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. The continuation of the tragic situation of the Rohingya was deplored, and they should be protected, with a lasting solution found to the crisis. The Office of the High Commissioner should communicate and cooperate with the Special Envoy to Myanmar. Bangladesh’s efforts to deal with the Rohingya crisis were applauded, and the international community was urged to cooperate in all ways with its efforts.

Some speakers said politically-mandated mandates did not foster an environment of protection and promotion of human rights. The Universal Periodic Review was the suitable mechanism for addressing the human rights situation of countries around the world, not the unilateral imposition of mechanisms that only undermined the work of the Council. Political dialogue was the only way to resolve the situation in Myanmar, with the support of peace-loving nations, and this was the only way that Myanmar could overcome its existing challenges. It was regretted that Myanmar could not attend the dialogue, and the work done to boost its economy was recognised. There should be a political solution to the situation, in order to restore the dialogue within the country. The international community should speak in one voice that could further help all parties to further bridge differences, instead of creating tension and causing the situation to deteriorate further. The international community should also actively promote dialogue within Myanmar in order to restore peace and truly protect and promote human rights.

Concluding Remarks

NICHOLAS KOUMJIAN, Head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said that under international law, the lack of due process could amount to an international crime. The Mechanism was interested in gathering evidence on the fairness of legal proceedings. No response had been received from the authorities in Myanmar. A key challenge was reaching those who had evidence, and achieving this required cooperation from States in the region. The Mechanism had conducted voluntary interactions, and needed the support of States to operate on territories hosting witnesses of human rights abuses. The Mechanism did not have the resources to provide all of the psychosocial and medical support that victims and witnesses needed, and requested the support of States in this regard. The Mechanism was committed to providing judges of a case dealing with genocide with the best evidence. The time that the Mechanism had to share evidence with courts was limited, and so it was redoubling efforts to collect evidence within the required timeframe.

Statement by the Third Vice Prime Minister in Charge of Human Rights of Equatorial Guinea

ALFONSO NSUE MOKUY, Third Vice Prime Minister in Charge of Human Rights of Equatorial Guinea, said the activities of the Office of the High Commissioner had moved forward and promoted many projects to protect, guarantee and defend human rights. The effects of the international economic crisis and the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic had constituted a challenge for the effective exercise of human rights in general, in particular economic, social and cultural rights. Each country had its own values, legislation and social demands, but it was also vital for all to reach basic agreements to foster respect and non-discrimination, and combat violence in all spheres. The work fostered by the Office of the High Commissioner aimed at improving the human rights situation was commended, particularly with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Government of Equatorial Guinea had decided to change the track of the National 2020 Horizon Plan, with the support of development partners, mainstreaming the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030, and the Agenda 2063 in its planning schemes, which enshrined a global vision of Equatorial Guinea and its role at the international level, including its commitment to strong economic growth, making it possible to improve living standards, eradicate poverty, protect the environment, and make it a country where all could live. The new Criminal Code had already been approved by the Head of State. The Government had worked tirelessly to combat the pandemic, making it possible to reduce incidents of mortality in the country, with significant economic resources provided by the Government.

After the pandemic, the lack of public security had been the second concern facing the inhabitants of the country, due to the threat of juvenile crime. Thanks to the clean-up operation run by the Government, there had been a positive impact and the usual serenity had returned to the society. The Government had also worked to eliminate corruption, and had carried out positive activities in this context.

Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka

Report

The Council has before it the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka (A/HRC/51/5)

Presentation of Report

NADA AL-NASHIF, Acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presenting the Office’s report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, said that since the previous update in March 2022, the country had been suffering from an unprecedented economic crisis. Inflation was at a shocking 66.7 per cent and Sri Lankans had been facing severe shortages of fuel, electricity, food, medicines, and other essential items, while 6.3 million people were estimated to be food insecure.

Months of countrywide protests eventually led to the President’s resignation and a new President was elected by the Sri Lankan Parliament on 20 July 2022. Ms. Al- Nashif encouraged the new Government to embark on a national dialogue to advance human rights and reconciliation and to carry out the deeper institutional reforms needed to combat impunity and to tackle the economic crisis. Concerningly in recent weeks, leaders and members of the protest movement and trade unions had been arrested. Ms. Al-Nashif urged the Government to take positive action to foster an environment for peaceful protest. She welcomed the tone set by the President in his first speech in parliament where he promised constitutional reforms.

Thirteen years since the end of war, tens of thousands of survivors and their families continued to seek justice and to know the whereabouts of their loved ones, with the State repeatedly failing to pursue transitional justice. Instead, successive governments had created political obstacles to accountability, and actively promoted some officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes, into the highest levels of government. The High Commissioner called on States to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level, including through the consideration of targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators, as well as cooperation to initiate prosecutions based on extraterritorial jurisdiction. The team established in the High Commissioner’s Office had made progress, including through conducting proactive analytical work, including in relation to gender and child-related violations, and was consolidating evidence collected by the United Nations into a repository, which would assist future accountability initiatives. The scale of this work required time and financial resources supported by States, and Ms. Al- Nashif urged the Council to ensure this work was supported.

Impunity remained a central obstacle to Sri Lanka’s sustainable peace and development, and risked enabling further violations. The mandate granted by the Council to continue monitoring the human rights situation and pursue accountability for crimes under international law was now more important than ever.

Response by Country Concerned

ALI SABRY, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, speaking as the country concerned, said that the Government was extremely sensitive to the socio-economic hardships faced by its people, and had initiated immediate measures to address challenges and to ensure the wellbeing of its people. Discussions on debt restructuring were in progress. The Government was in dialogue with United Nations agencies as well as bilateral partners to protect the most vulnerable from the adverse impacts of the crisis. Sri Lanka would endeavour to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sri Lanka along with several Member States of this Council had opposed resolution 46/1, fundamentally disagreeing with its legitimacy and objectives. Operative paragraph 06 violated the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka and the principles of the United Nations Charter. The High Commissioner’s report’s extensive reference to “economic crimes” exceeded the mandate of the Office.

The proposed twenty-second amendment to the Constitution introduced several salient changes which would strengthen democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions, as well as public scrutiny, participation in governance, and combatting corruption. Amendments included the establishment of the Constitutional Council and the reintroduction of the National Procurement Commission and the Audit Service Commission. Sri Lanka had extended a standing invitation to all thematic Special Procedure mandate holders to visit Sri Lanka, and facilitated a high number of visits in the recent past. The State looked forward to constructive engagement with the Council through the Universal Periodic Review process. It was time to reflect realistically on the trajectory of the resolution, which had continued on the agenda of the Council for over a decade. The State’s immediate concern was economic recovery, but advancing the human rights of Sri Lankan people was of equal priority. The State looked forward to the genuine support and understanding of the Council in this regard.

Discussion

Some speakers welcomed the formation of a more inclusive Sri-Lankan Government and constitutional reform. The peaceful transition of power and the efforts taken to restore peace and stability were applauded. Some speakers acknowledged the difficult circumstances Sri Lanka was facing, expressing solidarity with the Sri Lankan people. The current crisis presented significant challenges, but could also offer an opportunity to advance reforms, ensuring inclusiveness. Some speakers welcomed the major progress made by Sri Lanka when it came to human rights and appreciated the Government’s commitment to advancing human rights in the country. Sri Lanka’s commitment to a constructive approach provided space for engagement. Some speakers commended the Government of Sri Lanka for its sustainable progress despite many challenges, and for its clear commitment to remain engaged with the United Nations system, including the Human Rights Council.

Sri Lanka’s achievements in the pursuit of post-war reconstruction were recognised, including the rehabilitation and social reintegration of more than 12,000 former members of armed groups, some speakers said. The amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act this year were seen as an initial step in a long-awaited legal reform, while fundamental reform was needed to bring counter-terrorism legislation fully in line with international standards. Some speakers encouraged efforts by the Sri Lankan Government to reach national reconciliation, aimed at stabilising it and ensuring the adoption of a common vision for the promotion of human rights on their territory.

Some speakers were concerned about the current situation in Sri Lanka, which was characterised by an economic crisis and violations of fundamental human rights. They were deeply concerned by increased food insecurity, shortages of fuels and medicines and reductions of household income, and urged Sri-Lankan authorities to take all measures to guarantee Sri Lankans’ social and economic rights. There were high levels of concern around freedom of expression, as peaceful protests resulting from the crisis situation were met with violence. Sri Lankan authorities were urged to protect the freedom of expression and assembly for all, and to stop the arbitrary arrests of those engaging in peaceful protests.

There was an urgent need to strengthen mechanisms for investigating violations of international law and transitional justice, some speakers said. More than 13 years after the end of the civil war, the search for truth, justice and reconciliation had brought limited progress, and despite the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, accountability had never been fulfilled. Therefore, some States supported an ongoing monitoring of the situation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They called on the Government to adhere to its international human rights obligations and to establish an inclusive process towards reform supported by all parts of the population. The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the Government would also be a welcome start.

There was concern about recent reports of the increased vulnerability of women and girls to sexual and gender-based violence in Sri Lanka, with some States asking how this could be addressed. Some speakers stated dismay at the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against student activists, despite an alleged moratorium, urging Sri Lankan authorities to repeal the Act and stop its use. Concern was expressed at the constitutional commitment to give Buddhism special status, as ethno-religious tensions had been fuelled by Buddhist nationalist groups in Sri Lanka since 2012. Some speakers were also disturbed at the lack of progress in investigating the 2019 Easter bombings, and the delay to the publication of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, calling for the Inquiry’s publication; a follow-up independent investigation; and justice for the victims and their families.

Some speakers reiterated their position to reject country-specific initiatives

and resolutions that were confrontational and did not have the consent of the country concerned. Imposing mechanisms on a country without consent was counter-productive; the support of the country concerned was critical in the achievement of human rights. Instead, it was important to provide technical assistance to Sri Lanka and strengthen its national institutions, to ensure it had the required support, in accordance with its sovereignty. Some speakers maintained that the mandate was costly, with no effect on the situation, and did not support solidarity. The Council was urged to support the Sri Lankan Government in achieving economic and social recovery.

Concluding Remarks

NADA AL-NASHIF, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated the continued commitment of the Office of the High Commissioner to maintaining a dialogue with Sri Lanka. Restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis had exacerbated the impact of violence on women. Support efforts required a gender-sensitive approach. The Office had encouraged a transitional roadmap that included mechanisms for identifying criminal accountability. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission needed to be independent and have significant financial resources. Existing mechanisms had failed because they had failed to win the confidence of victims and their families. States were encouraged to empower victims and civil society. Young people and women should be given meaningful roles in establishing accountability. There was also a need to establish accountability for economic crimes.

Ms. Al-Nashif said Sri Lanka was at a critical juncture. Sustainable recovery, development and peace could only be achieved by eliminating impunity. The Office of the High Commissioner encouraged the international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery and work to end impunity in the State. The Council should remain engaged in the issue and continue to support recovery efforts in the State.


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