Statement by Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
THE UNITED NATIONS, 20 Mar 2017
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – TRANSCEND Media Service
34th Session of the Human Rights Council – Geneva, 13 March 2017
Mr. President, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured to present today my third report to this Council in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. I am conscious that this Government is only now nearing its first anniversary in power and that not only has it inherited formidable human rights challenges from the previous Government, it also has to meet with exceedingly high expectations from its people as well as the international community.
As I have conveyed to the Government of Myanmar, and to members of this Council, my approach to this mandate has always been as a friend to Myanmar. I have no agenda other than the realization of human rights in the country; the only bias and partiality is towards the promotion and protection of the rights of all people in Myanmar.
I have conducted two visits to Myanmar in the past year, in June 2016 and January 2017. I thank the Government of Myanmar for these invitations and its cooperation with my mandate, attempts at better engagement especially by the Permanent Mission here, and particularly in respecting my request to meet community members in Rakhine State without close monitoring of officials and security personnel during my most recent visit. Nevertheless, I regret that I was again unable to visit several areas I had requested in Kachin state and that these refusals were given at the last minute, preventing full optimization of the limited time I had available. I must confess that there were times that I had seriously questioned the nature of the cooperation.
The government has also yet to agree on the proposed joint benchmarks, which were called for by the last Council resolution, and which were shared with them several times before and during my recent visit.
One of the key tasks facing Myanmar will be reform and modernization of all three branches of government. The judiciary – vital arbiters of justice – need continuing strengthening and improvements to the appointments system. In the executive branch, administrative reform including on local levels will be vital. On legislative side, I remain of the view that legislative process requires further streamlining and increased transparency, and suggest a law on law-making be enacted similar to those adopted by several countries in the region. I have also welcomed the repeal of several outdated laws but dozens of problematic laws remain on the books and continue to be used.
The 1982 Citizenship Law in particular appears to have a similar standing as the Constitution as to the sensitivity surrounding its possible reform despite its clearly discriminatory provisions. Currently, a citizenship verification exercise under this discriminatory law is underway and despite understandings that the process should be voluntary, I receive continuing reports of Rohingya being coerced into undergoing the process as otherwise they are not allowed fishing licences, to carry out work as a national staff member of an international organization, sit for matriculation exams in schools or even receive food assistance.
As mentioned, Constitutional reform seems a distant goal at this time. And made even more onerous with the brutal killing of one of Myanmar’s known Constitutional lawyers, U Ko Ni, as he was holding his grandchild. Despite this unexpected and seemingly insurmountable hurdle, I urge for progress towards Constitutional reform through potentially the establishment of a preparatory committee to study possible revision processes. Until the Constitution is reformed to provide for a truly civilian government, Myanmar cannot truly attain a full democracy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The extent that human rights defenders as well as press members are monitored, surveilled, harassed, and intimidated is also a good barometer for measuring democratic space. Considering the number of former political prisoners in the ranks of Myanmar’s Cabinet and Parliament, it is disappointing to see the continued misuse of laws such as section 505 of the Penal Code and increasingly section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act to suppress voices of dissent, including through arrest and imprisonment. Of particular concern are multiple cases of killings of civil society actors for their involvement in human rights work and activism, including several in recent months, as well as cases which remain unresolved even after years of relatives of victims demanding justice. Many of these cases relate to vested commercial interests or the military.
Myanmar has rich natural resources, but it is important that efforts to extract this bounty benefit all. I am concerned that individuals who have lived on land for generations continue to face evictions without proper safeguards and that communities continue to face severe health impacts and livelihood difficulties from environmental degradation associated with large scale mineral extraction. It is important that, the recent Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures, are systematically implemented and enforced, and that full advantage is taken of the welcome decision to suspend the issuance of jade mining licenses, to reform the legislative and policy framework governing the mining industry to ensure strong protections against environmental and human rights abuses.
I am extremely concerned by the escalation in conflict in Kachin and Shan States which is having a dramatic impact on civilians in these areas. Just a week ago, fighting broke out in Kokang self-administered zone, reportedly causing over ten thousand people to flee to cross the Chinese border in search of safety. I say “reportedly” as we do not know exact conditions. Since May 2016, the United Nations and other international organizations have been systematically denied authorization to deliver vital and in some cases lifesaving assistance to over 40,000 IDPs including those recently displaced. Even in areas controlled by the government access is becoming more difficult – additional layers of approvals have recently been required – including from the military.
I also continue to receive reports of serious human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict, including torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, sexual- and gender-based violence, arbitrary killings, and abductions, all of which frequently go uninvestigated. There has also been a worrying trend of reportedly indiscriminate attacks in or near civilian area. I condemn the apparent total disregard for civilian lives in the strongest terms and emphasize the need for all parties to take immediate steps to protect civilians, respect international human rights and humanitarian law and end the violence and for investigations into allegations to be conducted.
Peace will be vital to the future development of Myanmar, and the peace process represents an opportunity to transform the country. To have this transformative effect, discussions need to be inclusive and to address complex issues related to underlying root causes. I welcome the increasing representation of women in the discussions, but hope the level of representation will reach a minimum of 30% across all groups, in the next conference. Civil society organizations must also be seen as vital partners to the process. Unfortunately the peace process at the moment appears to be at a stalemate – I call on all parties to increase efforts to advance the process.
You may be aware that one of my main concerns during my visit to Myanmar in January was reprisals. I raised concerns earlier of voices of dissent being suppressed including through arrest and imprisonment. And never have I felt more anxiety over potential acts of retaliation and reprisals than in Rakhine State during my visit.
Myself and my predecessors have long raised concerns about Rakhine State, particularly the institutionalised discrimination faced by the Rohingya population and the inter-communal violence in 2012, as well as the general underdevelopment of the state and lack of opportunities for all communities. As you are all likely aware the situation in the state took on new dimensions on 9 October, when three Border Guard Police facilities were reportedly attacked, by groups of armed men in a coordinated manner, killing 9 members of the Myanmar Police Force. In response three townships were declared closed off with the launch of a security operation, with no access to independent media, and humanitarian programmes suspended. Following the launch of the security or clearance operations, reports began surfacing, increasingly and persistently regarding serious human rights violations, allegedly committed by the security forces.
Reprisals was the main reason why I had asked to make a visit to Bangladesh where tens of thousands of the Rohingya population have fled from Rakhine State, and where they might feel less threatened to give me their accounts of what had happened during the clearance operations. In Cox’s Bazar, I met around 140 people from several villages in the north of Rakhine. I heard from them harrowing account after harrowing account. In my statement at the end of my mission to Bangladesh, I spoke about having been especially affected by a mother who repeatedly expressed regret for mistakenly thinking that her son had been brought out from their burning house. She heard him screaming for her and managed to save his life but burn scars have been seared onto him – scars which I saw with my own eyes. I wanted to share what I saw with you today.
I heard allegation after allegation of horrific events like these – slitting of throats, indiscriminate shootings, setting alight houses with people tied up inside and throwing very young children into the fire, as well as gang rapes and other sexual violence. Even men, young and old, broke down and cried in front of me telling me about what they went through and their losses.
Putting these experiences together with the institutionalized discrimination and long-standing persecution of the Rohingya population which I have reported on previously, as well as the continuing action by the authorities to make their lives even more difficult – even as the clearance operations are taking place – which include by dismantling their homes and conducting a household survey where those absent may be struck of the list that could be the only legal proof of their status in Myanmar – indicates the government may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether. I sincerely hope that that is not the case.
Myanmar has established several commissions to review the situation in Rakhine State, however I believe they have yet to discharge their investigative obligations. In the case of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the alleged human rights violations are outside the scope of their mandate. For other commissions, there are questions about the extent to which their investigations are “prompt, thorough, independent and impartial”. In particular, for investigations to be truly independent – members should be independent of any institution or agency that may be the subject of the inquiry. However, the Maungdaw Investigation Commission, whose members I was able to meet during my January visit, includes former members of the military and the currently serving Chief of the Myanmar Police Force. The commission also does not appear to have a robust methodology or policies in place to address key issues such as witness protection or documentation of evidence.
The truth about whether all, or some, or any of these allegations are correct needs to be established. There is a need for a new set of investigations which are “prompt, thorough, independent and impartial”, and this needs to happen soon, before the evidence is compromised. In Myanmar’s pursuit of a fully democratic society, no stones must be left unturned. The alleged victims, as well as all the people of Myanmar deserve to know the truth. The international community must come together in expressing a strong and single voice in this regard, regardless of varying interests of individual member states. This is why I called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the systematic, structural, and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice, as well long-standing persecution, against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine State.
Prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations are not only needed in Rakhine, but also in conflict affected areas such as Kachin and Shan which are often overlooked and where serious violations, of a similar type to those in Rakhine, have been reported for many years. Yet many of these violations have also gone uninvestigated, with the situation in these areas worsening and still receiving little attention. For this reason, I have repeatedly requested to travel to Laiza and other areas in Kachin and Shan to speak to community members and IDPs but have been repeatedly denied, including during my most recent visit. That is also the reason why I recommended for this Council to hold a dedicated and urgent discussion to address the human rights violations occurring in other parts of the country including in Kachin and northern Shan.
Following my visit to Bangladesh, I was a bit disappointed to hear that the Government of Myanmar has started to claim that I am unfair and biased. But I have to point out that the focus of my Bangladesh visit and related observations was to meet those who had fled from the north of Rakhine subsequent to the conduct of clearance operations there – and all those I met who had fled were Rohingya.
I would like to draw some attention to the joint benchmarks I have proposed as well as the suggested areas which remain to be explored for development of technical cooperation programmes. I remain convinced that Myanmar would highly benefit from establishing a fully-fledged OHCHR country office with proper resources and a full mandate to help with the provision of technical advice and assistance on human rights issues to the Government and people of Myanmar.
I want to end this statement by emphasizing that I have absolutely no reason whatsoever to present a biased, one-sided report. However, I have every reason to present the situation to reflect the reality, even if some may not like what I have to say.
I believe this Council expects me to do exactly that by entrusting me with this mandate.
As I have always done, I present myself, and my mandate, as a source for support and assistance towards Myanmar’s aim of becoming a fully functioning democracy and aspiration to be respected in the international fora.
Thank you for your attention.
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