(Al Jazeera : February 2017)

UN Human Rights Council, 34th Session - Overview Discussion on Myanmar
13 March 2017

The political and human rights situation in Myanmar is under scrutiny for many decades due to long civil war and new process of transition to democracy. During the 34th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), states and civil society actors acknowledged the challenges faced by the new Burmese government; however, the Myanmar government and security forces were criticised for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar were very vocal on widespread and systematic violations, especially on the Rohingya Muslim minority. The HRC members expressed concerns on escalation of hostilities in Kachin and Chan as well as condemned violence against Rohingya minorities in the Northern Rakhine State. 

At the end of the session, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution A/HRC/34/L.8/Rev.1 “Situation of human rights in Myanmar” and extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar for a further period of one year, requested the Special Rapporteur to present an oral progress report to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-fifth session and to submit a report to the Third Committee at the seventy-second session of the General Assembly and to the Council at its thirty-seventh session, and invited the Special Rapporteur to continue to monitor the situation of human rights and to measure progress in the implementation of the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur.

•    UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

During his opening speech, the UN High Commissioner briefed on the Flash Report issued by his Office in February on the alarming scale and severity of operations by the Myanmar security forces against Rohingya men, women and children in Rakhine State during October 2016. The Flash Report was a result of interviewing refugees in Bangladesh. The report found material evidence and corroborated eyewitness accounts of mass killings, including babies, children and elderly people unable to flee, and the burning of entire villages; shooting; massive detention; systematic rape and sexual violence; and deliberate destruction of food and sources of food.

Moreover, the High Commissioner highlighted that the severity of the reported violations, against a backdrop of severe and longstanding persecution, to amount to possible commission of crimes against humanity, which warrants the attention of the International Criminal Court. Commissioner Zeid urged the Council, at minimum, to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the violence against the Rohingya, particularly during security operations since 9 October 2016, “I reiterate our standing request to open an OHCHR office in the country.”

•    Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee

Special Rapporteur (SR), Ms. Yanghee Lee presented her Progress Report (3rd report) and briefed the Council on two visits to Myanmar during the past year (June 2016 and January 2017). Ms Lee thanked Myanmar for cooperation and attempts in better engagement with her mandate, at the same time she noted and seriously questioned the nature of cooperation, especially her regret on the last minute refusals on visiting several areas in Kachine State thus preventing full optimisation of time she had in Myanmar. Ms Lee referred to the proposed Joint Benchmarks that Myanmar should agree as recalled during the last HRC Resolution and shared during her visits. The SR strongly emphasised her impartiality and commitment solely to promotion, protection and realisation of human rights in Myanmar.

SR Lee noted the key tasks of the Myanmar government: to reform and modernisation of all three branches of government. She referred to limitations of the freedom of speech and persecution of activists and those dissenting the government, environmental abuse as well as discrimination against the Rohingya community. The Special Rapporteur expressed concerns on the armed hostilities in Kachin and Chan states and impact on civilians. Finally, the Special Rapporteur recommended the opening of the OHCHR office in Myanmar with a full mandate.  

•    State Concerned: Myanmar

The Myanmar delegation reiterated its objection to country-specific mandates of the special procedures to avoid paying disproportionate attention. The Myanmar delegate explained the refusals during the Special Rapporteur’s visit with security constraints and accused her allegations to be one-sided. In regards to security operations in Rakhine state, the delegate noted the operations were ceased and the curfew was eased. The delegate encouraged the victims of human rights violations to come back to Myanmar and provide the law-enforcement agencies with the relevant evidence. Lastly, the delegate reminded the Council that the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State composed of local and international experts and chaired by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan should finalise its report in August of 2017. The Myanmar delegate requested the understanding, patience and support of the international community and the UN in a fair, constructive and objective manner.

•    Human Rights Council members:

Various delegates posed questions to the Special Rapporteur in addition to statements. The Netherlands, on behalf of the European Union praised the cooperation of Myanmar with the Special Rapporteur, the Joint Benchmarks and the democratisation and peace efforts of Myanmar. However, the EU delegate expressed great concern on the human rights violations of Rohingya community in Rakhine and the escalation of hostilities in Kachin and Chan states.  Lastly, the EU delegate called for the elimination of discrimination and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, independent investigation of human rights violations and abuses as well as provision of access to humanitarian observers and aid. Poland added remarks on escalation of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and continuous practice of child labour. Croatia expressed hopes for the HRC to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and welcomed draft joint benchmarks.

Philippines (on behalf of the ASEAN group) praised the cooperation of Myanmar with the SR and encouraged to continue seeking assistance of the international community in addressing the remaining challenges. Moreover, the Philippine delegate praised the efforts of the Myanmar government in Rakhine state and its cooperation with the UN, ASEAN and NGOs to meet the needs of communities in a non-discriminatory and impartial manner as well as encouraged it to resolve issues with peaceful means including unimpeded humanitarian access. In addition, she was reassured on the ASEAN’s readiness to provide humanitarian assistance. Thailand allied its statement with the position expressed on behalf of ASEAN group and noted the positive steps made by Myanmar and encouraged the international community to engage constructively with Myanmar.

Pakistan (on behalf of OIC)

The Pakistan delegate welcomed the SR’s report and expressed full support to her mandate. The delegate called Myanmar to stop violence against Rohingya minority, investigate the violations in Rakhine state and bring the perpetrators to justice within reasonable time, to restore their citizenship and ensure their freedom of movement.  

The United States thanked and expressed strong support to the Special Rapporteur and her findings.  The US delegate urged Myanmar to continue protecting local population in armed conflict areas, investigate allegations in a thorough and accountable manner, hold the violators accountable and safeguard those who report abuses. He also expressed shared views with the SR on arbitrary arrests of journalists, members of religious and ethnic minorities and civil society when they exercise their human rights.

The United Kingdom recognised the challenges faced by the newly elected government. Nevertheless, the UK shared concerns of the Special Rapporteur’s concerns on freedom of expression, forced labour and the devastating effects of the armed hostilities, especially on the Rohingya community.

Turkey delegate praised the efforts of the Myanmar government. However, the Turkish delegate made critical remarks in regards to the situation in Rakhine state and recalled that citizenship should give entitlements on equal basis.

•    Intervention of Geneva International Centre for Justice

The Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) along with other NGOs jointly submitted a written statement on the human rights situation in Myanmar. The written statement outlined the background of abuses against the Rohingya community that has continued for decades, analysed the crimes committed against this group, assessed the protection response of the government and concluded that widespread and systematic violations against the Rohingya Muslim community amount to the international crime of genocide. Finally, the written statement made relevant recommendations to the Human Rights Council and the Burmese government. Similarly, the GICJ prepared an oral statement on Myanmar.

The following are the extracts from the submitted GICJ written statement:

Despite the limited access to the victims, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and non-governmental organisations have documented the following horrendous crimes committed by the Burmese government, police, army and ordinary people against Rohingyas based on their ethnic and religious belonging: 

-    widespread killings in an organised and systematic manner;
-    rape and other forms of sexual violence;
-    torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment;
-    extrajudicial and summary executions;
-    denial of citizenship;
-    enforced disappearances;  
-    segregation and retaliation;
-    blockages of humanitarian assistance;
-    occupation, looting and deliberate destruction of housing and food sources;
-    excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detention, inhumane conditions and ill-treatment in detention facilities;
-    restrictions on freedom of movement, limited or lack of any access to education, to emergency and basic healthcare

The widespread, systemic and organised abuse of Rohingya minority in Myanmar with an obvious intent to destroy amount to the international crime of genocide. The persecution of this ethnic group since 1982 in combination with the widespread criminal acts committed against them since 2012 fulfil the elements of genocide as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Genocide Convention. Namely, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

RECOMMENDATIONS

•    Human Rights Council should urgently endorse an international independent investigation into alleged genocide in northern Rakhine State;
•    the Burmese government should ensure that the Rohingya community members have access to basics as food, shelter, water and ability to return to their place of origin;
•    the Government should grant full access for international humanitarian aid workers, observers and journalists to conflict areas, especially Rakhine State;
•    the Government should repeal discriminatory legislative and policy measures targeting religious and ethnic minorities, lift restrictions on movement that impede access to health and education services, intensify its efforts to address discrimination, to counter incitement to hatred and hate speech leading to violence and should enact legislation and implement policies to grant Rohingya the Burmese nationality and promote equality, tolerance and peaceful coexistence;  
•    the Government should work with UN agencies and special-mandate procedures to coordinate strategies to address the current and prevent future mass atrocities.


Related links:

- Joint written statement on Myanmar submitted to the Human Rights Council 34th Session

- Lest We Forget article on Rohingya survivor - Jamalida Begum