Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue on the Human Rights situation in Myanmar
Human Rights Council
13 March 2017
The Human Rights Council during its midday meeting held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.
In her presentation, Ms. Lee recognized that the current Government of Myanmar was only nearing its first anniversary and that it had inherited formidable human rights challenges from the previous Government. Nevertheless, she expressed concern over the ongoing citizenship verification process, which was forced upon the Rohingya, as well as over the situation of human rights defenders, including multiple cases of killings of civil society actors, and the evictions of landowners due to large-scale mineral extraction. Ms. Lee was extremely concerned by the escalation of conflict in Kachin and Shan states, and the institutionalized discrimination faced by the Rohingya minority. Ms. Lee expressed hope that the Government was not trying to expel the Rohingya from the country altogether. She called for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the systematic, structural and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice, as well as the long-standing persecution, against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state.
Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, noted that it did not accept the idea of a “Commission of Inquiry.” It dismissed the term “crime against humanity” as it was based on unverified, intentional and one-sided allegations. Myanmar had always been against the dissemination of hate speech and incitement of violence. The situation in Rakhine state was very complicated, and it required better understanding by the international community. Operations to restore peace after provocative violent attacks had ceased, and humanitarian access had been extended into affected areas.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegations recognized the scale and complexity of the challenges in Myanmar and commended the progress made in democratization and national reconciliation. They encouraged the international community to provide all possible cooperation and technical assistance to Myanmar. Speakers were very concerned about the human rights situation in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, and violence against the Rohingya Muslims which might amount to crimes against humanity. They stressed that credible and independent investigations into such violations and abuses must establish accountability not only of the perpetrators, but of those who issued orders as well. Concerns were also voiced over the restrictions placed on the activities of civil society, limitations on the freedom of expression, and the escalation of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Other speakers categorically opposed country-specific mandates which impinged on the sovereignty of States. They said the Universal Periodic Review was the only mechanism which was appropriate for the review of human rights situations in countries.
Speaking in the discussion were the European Union, Philippines on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Poland, United Kingdom, Croatia, France, Czechia, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Venezuela, China, Netherlands, Viet Nam, Maldives, New Zealand, Thailand, United States, Estonia, Turkey, Iraq, Norway, Sweden, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Albania, Spain, Philippines, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Bangladesh, India, Iran and Ireland.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Jubilee Campaign, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, Article 19 - The International Centre against Censorship, Asian Legal Resource Centre, and World Barua Organization.
At 3 p.m., the Council will hold separate interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situations in Eritrea and in Burundi.
The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (A/HRC/34/67).
The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar - General Observations of Myanmar on the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (A/HRC/34/67/Add.1).
Presentation of Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, recognized that the current Government of Myanmar was only nearing its first anniversary and that it had inherited formidable human rights challenges from the previous Government. Ms. Lee had conducted two visits to Myanmar recently, one in June 2016 and the other in January 2017. She regretted that she had again been unable to visit several areas in the Kachin state and that those refusals had been given at the last minute. One of the key tasks facing Myanmar would be reform and modernization of all three branches of Government. Currently, a citizenship verification exercise under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law was underway, and despite understandings that the process should be voluntary, Ms. Lee received continuing reports of the Rohingya being coerced into undergoing the process. Constitutional reform seemed a distant goal. The situation of human rights defenders, including multiple cases of killings of civil society actors, was worrying. Individuals who had lived on land for generations continued to face evictions without proper safeguards and communities continued to face severe health impacts and livelihood difficulties from environmental degradation associated with large-scale mineral extraction. Ms. Lee was extremely concerned about the escalation of the conflict in Kachin and Shan states which was having a dramatic impact on civilians. More than 10,000 people were forced to flee and cross the Chinese border. There were 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. Peace was vital to the future development of Myanmar and the peace process represented an opportunity to transform the country. Ms. Lee called on all parties to increase efforts to advance the process.
As for the situation in Rakhine State, Ms. Lee said she had never felt more anxiety over potential acts of retaliation and reprisals allegedly committed by the security forces, and the institutionalized discrimination faced by the Rohingya minority. Ms. Lee expressed hope that the Government was not trying to expel the Rohingya from the country altogether. Myanmar had established several commissions to review the situation in Rakhine state. However, they were yet to discharge their investigative obligations. For investigations to be truly independent, members should be independent of any institution or agency that could be subject of the inquiry. The commission did not appear to have a robust methodology or policies in place to address key issues, such as witness protection or documentation of evidence. Ms. Lee had called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the systematic, structural and institutional discrimination in policy, law and practice, as well as the long-standing persecution, against the Rohingya and other minorities in Rakhine state. She recommended that the Human Rights Council 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. Myanmar would highly benefit from establishing a fully-fledged Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 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.
Statement by the Concerned Country
MYANMAR, speaking as the concerned country, said Myanmar was opposed to country-specific resolutions, but had received Special Rapporteurs, allowing them access to most places requested. Myanmar did not accept the idea of a Commission of Inquiry, and dismissed the term “crime against humanity” as it was based on unverified, intentional and one-sided allegations. Regarding the rule of law and democratic space, reforms had been put in place. Myanmar had always been against the dissemination of hate speech and incitement of violence. The situation in Rakhine state was very complicated, and required the international community’s understanding. Operations to restore peace after provocative violent attacks had ceased, and humanitarian access had been extended into affected areas. To probe allegations in the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights’ “Flash Report”, members of a Presidential Investigation Commission had visited 20 villages and interviewed people. Human rights challenges had been with Myanmar for decades and could not be solved by the new Government in office for barely a year. The situation in Rakhine was one of them, and Myanmar needed the international community’s understanding, assistance and patience.
Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
European Union appreciated the cooperation of the Government with the Special Rapporteur, and welcomed steps taken by the Government to promote democracy. The European Union was concerned about recent human rights violations, especially among the Rohingya. Credible and independent investigations into such violations and abuses were necessary. Philippines, speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), welcomed Myanmar’s cooperation with the United Nations mechanisms, and welcomed the holding of the August 2016 Panglong Conference. The establishment of an advisory commission headed by Kofi Annan was welcomed. Myanmar was encouraged to resolve all the issues in a peaceful manner. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, welcomed the Government of Myanmar’s constructive engagement with the Special Rapporteur. Perpetrators of violations had to be brought to justice. Concern was expressed over the loss of innocent lives. The Government was invited to ensure that security forces acted in line with the rule of law. The Rohingya minority needed to have access to sustainable livelihood.
Poland noted the progress made in Myanmar in terms of democratization and development of the legal system. However, there were concerns over the situation of civil society and the escalation of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine should be granted immediately. United Kingdom said that the Government had clearly inherited numerous challenges. The United Kingdom was concerned about the limitations on the freedom of expression and was deeply concerned about the response by the security forces to the 9 October attacks in Rakhine state. Perpetrators had to be held accountable. How could the international community engage with Myanmar without affecting the delicate military-civilian balance? Croatia urged the Government to do all in its power to stop discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minorities. Croatia looked forward to the Government’s implementation of the recommendations on democratization and the rule of law. How was the role of civil society organizations in the peace process envisioned?
France reiterated its concern about the human rights situation in “Burma”, noting that vigilance from the international community was essential. France called on “Burma” to authorize an independent inquiry to shed light on the violence. Czech Republic said recent violations and abuses of human rights were alarming and undermined the trust that the international community had placed in the democratic transition of the country, reiterating concerns about laws used to silence the media and society. Denmark welcomed Myanmar’s transition to a civilian democratic leadership, saying Myanmar’s military and police force needed to hold themselves to the highest standards, and the Government needed to investigate allegations of abuse.
Switzerland commended the Government of Myanmar for its cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, welcoming the commitment to pursue national reconciliation. But violations of human rights law in Rakhine state were concerning, and the Special Rapporteur was asked which measures needed to be taken to ensure cooperation between a potential investigation and the Government of Myanmar. Japan welcomed the holding of a peace conference, but was concerned about attacks and subsequent clashes with armed groups as well as reports of serious human rights abuses. Belgium welcomed the development of the proposed joint benchmarks, recognizing the Myanmar authorities for their cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. Myanmar was urged to continue its moratorium on the death penalty.
Australia understood the scale and complexity of the challenges that Myanmar was dealing with and was concerned about human rights violations against Muslims during the military operations in Rakhine state. The deterioration of the security situation in Kachin and Shan states were of concern. Venezuela recognized the efforts by Myanmar to bring peace and stability to enable sustainable development of its people and the steps taken to build conducive democracy space for the political participation of its people. Impositions of politicised mandates could not create environments for the promotion and protection of human rights; the Council could no longer support the establishment of mandates against countries of the south. China commended Myanmar for the positive steps taken in the promotion and protection of human rights and said that Myanmar had the right to choose its own development path and the international community should respect its sovereignty and specific conditions and give Myanmar more time, patience, and technical assistance. Ethnic disputes such as that in Rakhine state were an internal affair of Myanmar.
Netherlands said that a transition to a well-functioning democracy was a complex process which must be inclusive and was deeply concerned about allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The Netherlands encouraged impartial and independent investigation into those allegations and stressed the importance of holding accountable not only the perpetrators but also those who issued the orders. Viet Nam commended the progress Myanmar had made in promoting human rights and in strengthening cooperation dialogue with regional and international partners. Given the enormous human rights challenges facing Myanmar, the international community had the obligation to accompany the country in this process with technical assistance and cooperation. Maldives was deeply concerned about the ongoing violations and atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, and the violence in Rakhine state, and strongly condemned persecution on the basis of religion. Myanmar should eliminate root causes of the conflict and the international community should make all efforts to reverse the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state, including through renewed attempts at the peace process.
New Zealand recognized the efforts made by Myanmar in advancing its social and democratic agenda. However, land management, freedom of the press and the justice system were among the weak spots. New Zealand called on Myanmar to counter ethnic and religious discrimination and to identify the perpetrators of the 9 October attacks.
Remarks by the Special Rapporteur
YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said that the opening in Myanmar of an office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would help the monitoring process in the country, given that the Special Rapporteur could visit Myanmar for very limited periods of time. Such an office would be able to provide necessary help to the authorities. The new Secretary-General had initiated a new push for the United Nations family to come closer together in order to better address the wide range of challenges in Myanmar. Human rights needed to be built into the peace process if sustainable, long-term peace was to be achieved. Ms. Lee thanked the Government of Bangladesh for facilitating her trip. Ms. Lee trusted that the Government of Myanmar would cooperate over the developments in Rakhine state. A Commission of Inquiry into the events in Rakhine was needed. When victims were invited to travel to Myanmar, the question of their legal protection was of key importance. A number of political prisoners had been released in Myanmar, and there were currently 170 of them. Civil society was the oxygen of democracy, and Myanmar had to recognize it as an integrated partner during the Panglong Peace Conference. The Constitution of Myanmar should be amended, stated Ms. Lee.
Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
Thailand said despite much progress in the past few years, challenges remained, in particular in Rakhine state; Myanmar needed time to address those challenges. The international community was encouraged to engage constructively with Myanmar. United States said local populations needed to be protected, and shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern at the situation of journalists and others. The Special Rapporteur was asked how the Government of Myanmar should pursue legal reforms so no new political prisoners were arrested. Estonia encouraged Myanmar’s Government to continue reforms, yet Estonia remained concerned about reports of arbitrary arrests and recruitment, saying all allegations must be investigated.
Turkey thanked the Special Rapporteur for her report, noting that serious challenges remained, and emphasising that citizenship should guarantee rights. Turkey believed that conflict situations in some States required urgent action. Iraq said crimes perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims had been described as crimes against humanity, and it was a moral obligation of all countries to provide immediate assistance to put an end to crimes against Muslims in that country. Norway welcomed positive developments in Myanmar and remained committed to supporting the country, but shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern about the situation in Kachin and Shan states, asking her how the international community could assist the Government’s efforts to find lasting solutions.
Sweden stressed the importance of the Council continuing to review the human rights situation in Myanmar, particularly in light of events in Rakhine state since October 2016. How could the international community support Myanmar in stopping sexual violence in conflicts and how could the United Nations play a more active role in promoting durable peace in the country? Democratic People's Republic of Korea said it categorically opposed country-specific mandates which impinged on the sovereignty of States. The Universal Periodic Review was the only mechanism which was appropriate for the review of human rights situations in countries. Republic of Korea welcomed the progress in moving forward democratization and national reconciliation, including the release of political prisoners and demobilization of child soldiers, and expressed hope that the Government would reach out to those ethnic groups which were yet to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement. The situation in Rakhine state and the abuses against the Rohingya were of concern.
Albania said that legislative reform, particularly to address sexual and gender-based violence, hate speech and the rights of children, must be a priority, and condemned conflict-related human rights violations, including torture, inhumane treatment, sexual and gender-based violence and arbitrary killings. The violations and abuses against the Rohingya might amount to crimes against humanity. Spain was very concerned about ongoing human rights violations linked to the armed conflict. Spain followed with great attention the events in Rakhine, Kachin and Sham states and demanded that all parties to the conflict protect the civilian population. Philippines welcomed the efforts towards national reconciliation and inclusive national dialogue, and the establishment of the National Investigation Commission headed by the Vice-President, and the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Belarus said it did not support country-specific mandates, mechanisms which did not contribute to a dialogue on human rights issues in Myanmar. The proposal of creating a Commission of Inquiry would lead to financial implications for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sri Lanka recognized the initiatives taken by the Government of Myanmar, paving the way for development of the country. The Government was urged to continue working to ensure access to services to all people, and to be engaged with United Nations mechanisms. Cambodia commended Myanmar for its cooperation with United Nations mechanisms, especially the Universal Periodic Review process and the Special Rapporteur who had met with key stakeholders during her visit.
Lao People’s Democratic Republic said country-specific human rights procedures did not help address human rights issues or create a conducive environment for constructive engagement and genuine dialogue for the promotion and protection of human rights in any country. Bangladesh said it had sheltered members of the Rohingya minority population, but their continued presence was a huge burden. The root cause of the tragic situation leaving 140,000 internally displaced persons in squalid camps, was the statelessness of the minority population, which must be addressed by Myanmar. India said progress toward reform made by Myanmar was worth commending, noting that democratic institutions took time to acquire roots. The Government of Myanmar would require assistance in capacity-building.
Iran noted that cooperation and genuine dialogue should lead the work of the Human Rights Council, whereas selective approaches undermined the effective protection and promotion of human rights. Ireland welcomed the democratic transition underway in Myanmar. However, that commitment had yet to be translated into practice. Ireland deplored systematic discrimination of the Rohingya minority and serious human rights violations committed by military and security forces.
Jubilee Campaign, speaking in a joint statement, stressed that it was alarming that the international community was calling for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into grave human rights violations in Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Government had to take urgent action to protect religious and ethnic minorities in Kachin state. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, in a joint statement, shared concern about serious violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and strongly endorsed the call by the Special Rapporteur and the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry. The judiciary was not independent because it was beholden to the military under the existing Constitution.
International Federation for Human Rights Leagues warned that various official Government investigations in Myanmar had failed to establish facts, identify perpetrators and deliver justice in relation to the widespread and systematic crimes committed against the Rohingya. It also called for investigations of the violations of the rights of human rights defenders and labour activists. International Commission of Jurists, in a joint statement, noted that the authorities in Myanmar appeared to have been unwilling or unable to investigate abuses or hold perpetrators accountable. It urged the Council to adopt a resolution establishing an international, independent Commission of Inquiry to assess facts, identify causes and perpetrators, and issue recommendations, including remedies for victims.
Amnesty International said that in the space of just four months, 100,000 persons had become displaced in Myanmar as a result of the conflict, and humanitarian access was at its worst. The international community must no longer adopt a wait and see approach, and the Council should establish an independent international investigation into human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity committed in Rakhine state. Article 19 - The International Centre against Censorship was concerned about the blocking of access to Rakhine state for journalists, as well as about the lack of improvement in the overall environment for journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.
Asian Legal Resource Centre seriously doubted the intention and professional capacity of Myanmar to undertake an impartial investigation into the atrocities against the Rohingya, noting that justice institutions lacked an institutional memory of independence, professionalism or theoretical knowledge in this regard. World Barua Organization said that international cooperation was needed to address the root causes of human rights challenges in Myanmar, adding that the lives of village chiefs were threatened for refusing to take part in violence.
YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said that during her visit to northern Rakhine, she had met various communities facing increased difficulties accessing livelihoods. In response to a question asked by the delegation of the United States, she said she had in an annex to an earlier report listed 26 laws which she recommended to be amended or repealed. In response to the question asked by the delegation of Norway, she said Myanmar knew how many people had been living in the country for centuries. Addressing the question from the Swedish representative, she said the international community needed to take the Government of Myanmar to account for all its actions and inactions. She noted that there were some observer States in the peace process, urging the international community to make a demarche with the Government of Myanmar to become observers during the peace process. Regarding sexual violence against children, she noted that there was a lot of sexual and gender-based violence, and that there were serious shortcomings in the law, such as a lack of a definition of rape. In closing, she emphasised that she had no reason to present a biased, one-sided report. But she had every reason to present the situation to reflect the reality even if some did not like what she had to say. She underscored that she had always presented herself and her mandate as a support for Myanmar’s aim to become a democracy.
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