Statement by Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

ASIA & THE PACIFIC, THE UNITED NATIONS, 19 June 2017

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – TRANSCEND Media Service

Geneva, 15 Jun 2017 – I thank you for the opportunity to once again allow me to address this Human Rights Council. This is the first time I am delivering a June oral update, and I will be covering some developments since March and will also look ahead to my next visit to the country which is scheduled to take place next month. I look forward to the Myanmar Government approving the dates, the length of my visit, and this time really provide access to the places I need to be in order to discharge my mandate appropriately.

I would like to take the opportunity at the outset to express my deepest sympathies to those affected by Cyclone Mora. My prayers are with all those who have suffered losses including their homes. I also express my sadness at the recent crash of a military plane carrying military personnel and their families which killed 122 people, including over a dozen children. My heart goes out to their families and friends at this difficult time.

Mr. President,

Since my last address to you, the Fact-Finding Mission has been established by the Council. I welcome their mandate to look into alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar. Establishing the truth in these alleged cases is in the interests of all of Myanmar and I therefore encourage the Government to fully cooperate with the Mission.

Excellencies,

In Shan and Kachin States, unacceptable reports of serious human rights violations allegedly committed by several parties to the conflict including the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups have continued to arise. I was particularly distressed to see an appalling 17-minute video posted on social media in May, apparently showing soldiers from the Myanmar army beating several bound and unarmed men. The incident apparently occurred in 2015 and the fate of those involved is still unknown. In another incident in Kachin State, three individuals were found dead, with their bodies reportedly showing signs of torture, a few days after supposedly being detained by the Tatmadaw. I note statements from the authorities that they will investigate both incidents. However, I am unaware of any investigations into another incident in November 2016, which I just learnt about, where 18 people from Nam Hkye Ho village in Shan State were reportedly detained by the army, and their burnt remains found in a grave a few weeks later.

I have reported to you on a regular basis similar incidents, and I fear a recurring pattern here. The Tatmadaw, or some elements of it, conduct themselves in violation of human rights. Some of these cases are reported but cannot be verified for lack of access. A couple of these cases get out, often because they had been caught on tape and circulated. The authorities say they will investigate, and we, the international community, accept this as an adequate response and let it go. Until the next case comes out again into the public realm, and the cycle of events repeats itself. I must remind that investigations must be conducted into all allegations, not just those that are extensively picked up by the media. And I must also remind that all investigations must be carried out in line with international standards and with all perpetrators fully held to account. I will be following progress in the cases that I have highlighted and others closely in the coming months.

Friends and Colleagues,

Sadly, the continuing conflict in Kachin, Shan and Chin States has caused more people to flee. Despite repeated requests from the United Nations agencies and their partners, and clear humanitarian needs, permission to travel to areas not under government control to assist those newly displaced has still not been granted. I am particularly concerned by recent reports that 1,500 civilians in Kachin State, who were instructed by the Tatmadaw to flee their homes, are stranded unable to travel further as the armed forces have blocked waterways normally used for transportation.

Clearly, sustainable peace and demilitarization are sorely needed across the country. I note that the most recent union peace conference was held from 24 to 29 May, which was attended by eight ethnic armed groups with seven others attending parts of the conference as special guests and some other groups choosing not to attend at all. I welcome the inclusion of a number of human rights issues in the 37 general points that were agreed on by all participants. I was also pleased to see an increase in the representation of women in this conference, and hope that renewed effort can be taken to ensure that the minimum 30% target of female participation is achieved across all delegations and the full inclusion of civil society organizations and young people in the process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome the release of a number of those imprisoned for simply exercising their rights in the amnesties of prisoners announced on 12 April and 24 May. This includes Hla Phone and Myo Yan Naung Thein whom I visited in prison in January. I note however that many such individuals still remain in jails, awaiting trial or serving sentences, including human rights defender Khaine Myo Tun, whom I visited in January and who also suffers from health conditions.

The increasing use of the vaguely worded defamation provision in section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act is particularly worrying. It is especially notable that each case has to be approved by the Ministry of Communications and Transport in order to be charged, and that an estimate of 66 cases have been reported since the new government came to power. Discussing issues of public interest, satirising the military or the President should not risk criminal charges with a maximum three-year sentence.

Mr. President,

In my forthcoming visit to Myanmar in July, I will continue to look into business and human rights issues, including the rights of those affected by Special Economic Zones. Investment projects should translate into a positive transformation, and more must be done to ensure this is the case for all and to uphold the rights of local communities.

I am particularly concerned by the developments at Letpadaung copper mine where police fired rubber bullets at community members protesting an incident in March during which a truck hit a local villager. Ten villagers and six police officers were injured and 50 individuals were later charged with offences in relation to the protests. There also continue to be protests in various areas over land confiscations, including the case of ten farmers who were convicted in April in Shan State to 16 months in prison for refusing to vacate land which had been confiscated from them.

I congratulate Myanmar on its achievement of becoming a medium ranked country in the human development index. I encourage further efforts to improve access to education and life expectancy which form part of the indicators. This must include further tackling child labour. Another shocking case of child abuse has recently come to light of a girl who was working as a domestic servant and I call on the government to do more to protect all children, including those forced to work, from abuse and neglect.

Distinguished Representatives,

There have been a number of alarming incidents of incitement of intercommunal tension and religious violence since my last update. In April, extremist Buddhist nationalists reportedly pressured authorities to close two Islamic schools in Yangon that traditionally have served as a prayer site, with no consultation and investigation. That they remain closed through Ramadan, a sacred month for Muslims when they not only observe the fasting but are also encouraged to conduct additional prayers, has resulted in a sense of greater isolation amongst the community. Three individuals peacefully protesting the schools’ closure through prayer outside the schools reportedly now face charges. These undue restrictions are in contravention of the Muslim community’s basic right to religious freedom and right to manifest it through worship and observance.

I commend the Government’s actions in pursuing the arrest of individuals involved in the Mingalar Taung Nyunt incident in Yangon where a mob of over a hundred Buddhist nationalists entered a Muslim home under the pretext of finding illegal residents, which later resulted in a clash breaking out on the streets. Many in the Muslim community are nonetheless worried that the Government is unable to counter the growing threat of extreme Buddhist nationalism. As I have said in the past, the Government must take more concerted, systematic efforts to curb hate speech and violence incited by such nationalist groups.

The situation in Rakhine State remains tense with incidents of alleged rape, torture, kidnapping and a village official being stabbed to death continue to be reported. The situation for many of those who fled following the attacks on Border Guard Police facilities on 9 October last year and the subsequent clearance operations remains difficult. While the estimated 20,000 Rohingya who were displaced within Myanmar have mostly returned to or near their places of origin, returnees face significant shelter needs due to the large number of burnt homes, a situation exacerbated by the impact of Cyclone Mora. I am further informed that 332 Rakhine, Dynet and Mro evacuees are still unable to return to their homes.  Whilst some of the reported 74,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh appear to have now returned, exact numbers are difficult to ascertain as people fear prosecution for illegal border crossing.

I am especially alarmed by the reported recent rise in the number of child brides amongst women and girls who fled Myanmar and live in neighbouring countries. As we are all aware, this perpetuates the cycle of violence and of poverty experienced by these young women.

I am also concerned by reports that at least 13 children have been detained by police in Rakhine State in relation to the October 9th attacks. According to a statement released by the State Counsellor’s Office on 5 June, one of these children died on February 2nd due to health reasons. I remind the Government that children should be detained strictly as a last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time, and must be treated with humanity and respect in a manner which takes into account their age. I urge the Government to take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights of these children not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and to fair and timely proceedings as well as to adequate medical care. Further, I urge the Government to immediately conduct a full investigation into this child’s death including why it was only reported four months later.

Please allow me at this point to highlight again Myanmar’s international obligations, in particular, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As we all know, by being party to this treaty, the State has made a public commitment as to how it will treat everyone under the age of 18 within its jurisdiction. The provision that has particularly stuck in my mind is Article 2 of the CRC which, among others, reiterates the principle of non-discrimination, and requires appropriate measures to ensure that, “the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.” Myanmar has an obligation with respect to “each child within [its] jurisdiction” without discrimination of any kind. I repeat, within its jurisdiction. This includes all Rohingya children living in Rakhine. With your permission, Mr. President, I would like to ask the Government of Myanmar, if it really has respected and lived up to this promise? Now, I would also like to ask other distinguished representatives here if they have indeed made sure that Myanmar lived up to its promise? I ask this question because of the continuing dire, if not worsening situation of the Rohingyas.

Mr President,

During my last statement to you, I highlighted the shortcomings in the investigative mechanisms established by the Government to assess the situation in Rakhine State. Unfortunately, there have been no changes to address these concerns. In early March, the Maungdaw Investigation Commission conducted a three-day visit to Rakhine State, still without a robust methodology or witness protection policies in place. I remain unconvinced that the military investigation team, which recently announced its findings dismissing practically all allegations against the security forces as wrong or false, is sufficiently independent or impartial.

I note the issuance of the interim report by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State; and while Myanmar has said it “accepts totally” the interim recommendations therein, implementation has been tentative at best. Although the Government has been closing IDP camps as recommended, many individuals are not being permitted to return to their place of origin, despite their stated desire to do so. Muslims in Kyein Ni Pyin camp, most of who self-identify as Rohingya, were told that the Government would only provide housing in the location of their current displacement, whereas Kaman Muslims in Ramree were only offered transportation options to Yangon and financial support. In contrast, Rakhine Buddhists were offered re-settlement in a neighbouring area, in newly-built homes along with financial compensation, although they have raised concerns that the location is some distance from a school. I am worried that these different re-settlement practices offer little prospect of a durable solution for the 120,000 Rohingya still living in camps, and exacerbate the grievances between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. The Government has estimated that it will take five years to close all the camps, which means that some IDPs could spend as long as ten years confined in these camps. This is simply unacceptable.

Distinguished representatives,

During my statement in March, I highlighted the proposed joint benchmarks which the Human Rights Council invited me to work with the Government to develop. In the months since then, I have still not seen significant developments on the majority of these benchmarks. In my next visit to Myanmar in July, I hope to discuss with my interlocutors how we can work together to develop a work plan and time frame for their swift implementation. I recognize the inherent difficulties in any democratic transition, and as always, I seek to work with Myanmar to address and overcome the challenges she faces. I stand ready to assist in any way I can to achieve a Myanmar where the rights and fundamental freedoms of all are respected and fully realized.

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