Myanmar: ICRC denounces major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law

ICRC Press Release No. 07/82

Yangon / Geneva (ICRC) - The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, has strongly denounced violations of international humanitarian law committed against civilians and detainees by the government of Myanmar and demanded that the government take urgent action to end these violations and prevent them from recurring.

''The persistent use of detainees as porters for the armed forces is a matter of grave humanitarian concern. The actions of the authorities have also resulted in immense suffering for thousands of people in conflict-affected areas,'' said Mr Kellenberger. "The ICRC has repeatedly drawn attention to these abuses but the authorities have failed to put a stop to them.''

The findings outlined below are based on observations made by ICRC delegates and numerous allegations of abuse collected by the ICRC during private interviews with thousands of civilians and detainees, mainly between 2000 and 2005. Systematic abuses against detainees and civilians are the primary source of serious concern.

Abuses against detainees

Under the prison system set up by the government, every year thousands of detainees have been forced to support the armed forces by serving as porters. This institutionalized and widespread practice has frequently led to the abuse of detainees and exposed them to the dangers of armed conflict. Many detainees used as porters have suffered from exhaustion and malnutrition and been subjected to degrading treatment. Some have been murdered.

''The practice known as 'portering' persists today despite numerous representations made by the ICRC. It constitutes a major violation of various provisions of international humanitarian law," said Mr Kellenberger.

Abuses against civilians

The Myanmar armed forces have committed repeated abuses against men, women and children living in communities affected by armed conflict along the Thai-Myanmar border. These have included the large-scale destruction of food supplies and of means of production. The armed forces have severely restricted the population's freedom of movement in these areas, making it impossible for many villagers to work in their fields. This has had a significant impact on the economy, aggravating an already precarious humanitarian situation. Furthermore, the armed forces have committed numerous acts of violence against people living in these areas, including murder, and subjected them to arbitrary arrest and detention. They have also forced villagers to directly support military operations or to leave their homes.

The behaviour and actions of the armed forces have helped create a climate of constant fear among the population and have forced thousands of people to join the ranks of the internally displaced or to flee abroad.

''The repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law,'' said Mr Kellenberger.

Government refusal to engage in dialogue

''Despite repeated entreaties by the ICRC, the authorities have consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion of these abuses with a view to putting a stop to them,'' said Mr Kellenberger. In addition, increasingly severe restrictions imposed on the ICRC by the government have made it impossible for the organization's staff to move about independently in the affected areas and have hampered the delivery of aid intended for strictly humanitarian, apolitical purposes. Since late 2005 the authorities have also prevented the ICRC from visiting places of detention in accordance with its usual procedures, which include carrying out private interviews with detainees.

''The continuing deadlock with the authorities has led the ICRC to take the exceptional step of making its concerns public,'' said Mr Kellenberger. ''The organization uses confidential and bilateral dialogue as its preferred means of achieving results. However, this presupposes that parties to a conflict are willing to enter into a serious discussion and take into account the ICRC's recommendations. This has not been the case with the authorities of Myanmar and that is why the ICRC has decided to speak out publicly."

"I urge the government of Myanmar to put a stop to all violations of international humanitarian law and to ensure that they do not recur," concluded Mr Kellenberger. "I would also like to remind all States party to the Geneva Conventions of their obligation, under Article 1, to respect and to ensure respect for the Conventions."

The ICRC stands ready to do everything it can to pursue its humanitarian activities for people in Myanmar who require assistance, in accordance with its internationally recognized mandate under the Geneva Conventions, the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its customary working procedures.

For further information, please contact:

Michèle Mercier / Thierry Ribaux, ICRC Yangon, tel. +95 980 20 529 or + 951 662 613 or +951 664 524
Carla Haddad, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 24 05 or +41 79 217 32 26
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