49th Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February-1st April 2022
ITEM 4- Enhanced interactive dialogue on the report of the Secretary-General for the human situation in Myanmar/Interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on Myanmar/Interactive dialogue with Special Rapporteur of Myanmar
21st of March 2022
By Georgia Perathoraki / GICJ
On the 18th and 21st of March, the 49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council discussed the report of the Secretary-General for Myanmar, the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar, Mrs Michelle Bachelet, and the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Mr Thomas Andrews.
Mr Khaled Mohamed Khari, the Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific, presented the report of the Secretary-General regarding the current human rights situation in Myanmar after the military coup of February 2021. Mr Khiari provided an update on initiatives and concrete actions taken, based on recommendations made by Mr Gert Rosenthal in his 2019 independent inquiry. He underscored the progress made relating to the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar and the strengthening of the prevention capacity of UN systems. During his speech, the Secretary-General emphasised that the current system failed to effectively protect the human rights of people in Myanmar.
Moreover, Mrs Michelle Bachelet and Mr Thomas Andrews discussed the dire humanitarian crisis in the country, caused by the illegal military junta. They highlighted the inhumane, brutal, and unprecedented methods of violence used by military forces against civilians since February 2021 and expressed their concerns regarding the deterioration of the human rights situation in Myanmar. Finally, they emphasised the urgent need for coordination and strong support from the international community. The High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur stressed the importance of holding every individual responsible accountable for the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Throughout the Interactive Dialogue, delegations expressed their concerns regarding the human rights situation in Myanmar. Many condemned the inhumane methods used by the military against civilians and called for the release of all those who have been illegally detained and had their human rights violated. Delegates underlined the need to protect civilians and to participate in building dialogue to restore peace. Likewise, they urged the UN to continue supporting Myanmar and to efficiently use all the tools and channels at their disposal to intensify coordination among states and international organisations.
Geneva International Centre for Justice condemns this situation in Myanmar and emphasises its concerns regarding human rights violations committed in the region. Furthermore, GICJ urges the international community to pay greater attention, making strong efforts to advance tangible results and holding accountable people who are responsible for this dire and inhumane situation.
On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power, hours before the newly elected parliament was due to convene for the first time. Alleging fraud in the November 2020 elections, the Tatmadaw launched a coup, which led to the eruption of mass protests across the country. Although there were some isolated incidents of violence, security forces largely allowed peaceful demonstrations to take place throughout February. However, towards the end of February, the junta deployed increasingly violent tactics against protesters, ranging from the use of water cannons to live ammunition. On 28 February, at least 18 people were killed in crackdowns across the country, leading to a further escalation of violence. Arbitrary detentions, the unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, extrajudicial killings and the use of torture against those in custody have accompanied the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power.
Report of Secretary-General
On the 22nd of December 2018, in resolution 73/264 on the ‘Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,’ the UN General Assembly noted the recommendation by the fact-finding mission on the conduct of a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar since 2011. It encouraged the United Nations system to follow up on the issues raised and to ensure that all forms of political and legal engagement take into consideration and address human rights concerns. Following this recommendation, the Secretary-General appointed Mr Gert Rosenthal in December 2018 to conduct an independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018. Following oral presentations to the Human Rights Council on the findings and implementation of the recommendations of Mr Rosenthal’s review in 2020 and 2021, the Human Rights Council invited the Secretary-General to provide a written report on progress made on the implementation of follow-up action to enable more effective work in the future and to strengthen the prevention capacity of the United Nations system.
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner
In its resolution 46/21, the Human Rights Council requested that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights provide a comprehensive report on the overall human rights situation in Myanmar. Within this report, a particular focus was placed on alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, the rule of law, and security sector reform since 1 February 2021. It also included the implementation of recommendations contained in the reports of the High Commissioner on the human rights of minorities in Myanmar.
Report of the Special Rapporteur
In December 2021, Mr Thomas Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar, travelled to Bangladesh, as part of his overall assessment of the human rights situation of the people of Myanmar. In an annexe of the report, the Special Rapporteur reflected on his trip, noting the role that the people and government of Bangladesh played in saving untold numbers of people as they fled the genocidal attacks of the Myanmar military in Rakhine State. The Special Rapporteur spoke to numerous people who experienced violations due to the military regime, including instances of torture and other ill-treatment during periods of detention.
In his report he highlighted some of the most serious human rights violations committed in Myanmar between September 2021 and February 2022. He documented the military’s violent attacks on civilian populations, including airstrikes, arson, extrajudicial killings, and the use of forced labour and human shields. Furthermore, he described the junta’s campaign to arrest and imprison activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters. Mr Andrews’s report recorded in great detail, the junta’s criminalisation of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly.
Report of Secretary-General
In his report, the Secretary-General launched a call to action for Human Rights, which promoted a transformative vision of human rights across the United Nations system. He underlined that “human rights are the responsibility of every United Nations actor, and that a culture of human rights must permeate everything we do, in the field, at a regional level and the Headquarters”. The Secretary-General emphasised that the link between human rights protection and prevention should be clear.
Mr Rosenthal took over after the request of the UN General Assembly to implement an independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar. During his inquiry, he observed systematic issues that could be categorised as three sets of intertwined areas. The issues concerned the interactions of the UN with the host government, the dynamics within the UN system and the communications with the International Community. Mr Rosenthal highlighted the need for more coordination within the UN among member states to combat the worst impacts of the current situation in Myanmar.
A new generation of UN Country Teams (UNCTs)
In his review, Mr Rosenthal promoted the reform of the roll-out of the reinvigorated Resident Coordinator (RC) system at the global, regional, and country levels. According to Mr Rosenthal, the reform included significant enhancements to the capacities of UNCTs to conduct coordinated responses when addressing complex situations. The reinvigorated RC system has already helped UNCTs assist Governments better in their efforts to respect and fulfil their human rights obligations and commitments. State Governments have recognised and welcomed such changes, along with the broader shift in approach. Compared with before 1 January 2019, when the new RC system was put in place, programme country Governments have indicated that RCs have displayed strengthened leadership, impartiality, coordination capacity and more of a focus on common results by 78%.
The role and challenges of the RC/HC in Myanmar
There is also strong evidence that the value of the RC system – in terms of improved leadership, coordination, and convening – is translating into a strengthened and more tailored contribution from UNCTs to the overall objective of advancing the 2030 Agenda and enhancing synergies between humanitarian, development and peace and security-related actions, underpinned by human rights. A central role for the RC/HC has been to formulate a common position for the UNCT regarding engagement with the military authorities. Immediately following the takeover, the RC/HC brought together the UNCT with a view to securing the UN’s continued provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance, addressing human rights issues, supporting COVID-19 prevention and delivering urgent development aid. One of the key challenges going forward will be to ensure that the UN continues to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. The RC/HC has adopted an approach of calibrating different components of the Organisation, leveraging different mandates and areas of expertise, both within and outside Myanmar.
The report of the Secretary-General underlined that one of the main purposes of the United Nations is promoting and encouraging respect for human rights for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. He stated that when a crisis occurs, individuals and communities need to be protected, while international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law must be respected. Moreover, the Secretary-General supported the strengthening of cooperation and collaboration mechanisms to prevent the proliferation of violence.
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner
In her report, Mrs Bachelet made several recommendations to the military authorities, the international community, and the United Nations system, while also discussing the most egregious violations committed by the military of Myanmar.
Human Rights Violations
Between 1 February 2021 and 31 January 2022, at least 1,500 persons died at the hands of security forces and their affiliates, a total which is above and beyond the number of civilian deaths resulting from pre-existing armed conflicts. Over 100 children, including at least 90 boys and 15 girls, were killed. Of those, at least 19 children appear to have been below the age of 13 years and notably over a quarter of all victims killed were reportedly aged between 18 and 29 years.
Following the violent dispersal of anti-military demonstrations, security forces assaulted suspected protesters and killed bystanders. During the 9th April Bago crackdown, security forces shot and killed a resident in his house compound as they chased after protesters in the neighbourhood. This unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by the security forces against peaceful protesters violated numerous rights, including the rights to security and freedom of expression and assembly. Where such use of force resulted in the death of protesters and their corpses were disposed of without informing or receiving the consent of families. Such actions amount to arbitrary deprivations of life and perpetrators of such crimes must be held to account.
Since 1 February 2021, the State Administration Council illegally amended laws to confer to the security forces, unchecked powers of arrest and detention, which have been used to target and intimidate individuals opposing military rule. Initially, the military detained hundreds of individuals from the executive and legislative branches of government. It has subsequently targeted doctors, nurses, celebrities, students, educators, and others for criticising the coup, and for participating in peaceful demonstrations or civil disobedience movements. Individuals placed under arrest were generally detained in police stations or prisons. Subsequently, military authorities sent detainees to military interrogation centres before transferring them to police stations and then to prisons, or directly to prisons. Individuals spend varying periods at military facilities and an increasing number faced torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogations without due process.
Persons released from detention centres described harsh prison conditions, including significant overcrowding. Physical distancing was impossible and no treatment was made available for those who contracted COVID-19. Interviewees held in four different prisons across Myanmar noted that some convicts were given effective delegated authority by the prison authorities to discipline political detainees, which led to widespread extortion and abuse.
Furthermore, many armed groups have used landmines and hidden improvised explosive devices, killing and injuring individuals around the country. Landmines or explosive devices accounted for over 88 deaths, with at least 600 reported incidents of landmine usage. Tatmadaw units allegedly planted landmines in empty villages to prevent displaced persons from returning. Several instances of detonations reportedly resulted in deaths and injuries in different locations around the country. Military forces, according to the report of the High Commissioner, have burned more than 2,000 properties, including civilian houses, food stores, health centres, churches, and other buildings.
Since February 2021, Myanmar has experienced significant regression in terms of its citizens' ability to enjoy the full gamut of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Over 1,500 individuals have died exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms or while in the custody of those under an obligation to protect them. Over 10,000 people have languished in prison, arbitrarily detained, with hundreds if not thousands having been subjected to torture. Mrs Michelle Bachelet called for the immediate release of all those detained, prosecuted and/or sentenced concerning acts of political expression, free association, free assembly, and protest. She also urged military forces to cease all violence and attacks against the people of Myanmar across the country. The High Commissioner suggested that all parties in Myanmar should cooperate fully with the Special Envoys of the Secretary-General and ASEAN to develop the basis for a broad-based dialogue with all parties and stakeholders, including women, young people, and minority community representatives. She advised all parties to facilitate unrestricted access to humanitarian assistance providers immediately, including both international and local service providers and to fully respect human rights norms and comply with international humanitarian law where applicable.
Lastly, Mrs Bachelet recommended that the international community extend protection for all individuals crossing international borders, provide immediate humanitarian assistance and ensure that all repatriations are conducted in a manner that is dignified, voluntary and fully consistent with the requirements of international law. Moreover, she suggested the international community ensure that any political solution to the crisis includes transitional justice measures and eschews amnesties for serious human rights violators and perpetrators of international crimes.
Report of Special Rapporteur
In his report, the Special Rapporteur highlighted some of the most serious human rights concerns in Myanmar during the period between September 2021 and February 2022. In his report, he documented the military’s violent attacks on civilian populations, including airstrikes, arson, extrajudicial killings, and the use of forced labour and human shields. These attacks have created and exacerbated the dire humanitarian crisis that now grips the country, threatening the livelihoods, health, and lives of millions.
Violence and attacks on civilians
Mr Andrews discussed the widespread and systematic attacks carried out by the junta against civilians. He stressed that these attacks constitute probable crimes against humanity including the crimes of murder, enslavement, forcible transfer, torture, rape, sexual violence and trafficking. The Special Rapporteur underlined that when the junta’s attacks occur in the context of armed conflict, they constitute probable war crimes, including the crimes of wilful killing, torture and inhumane treatment, destruction of property, compelling service in hostile forces, unlawful transfer, pillaging, rape, sexual violence, and displacing civilians. The perpetrators and architects of these crimes must be held to account. Given that these crimes have been committed with impunity by the Myanmar military for decades, and the fact that they have been orchestrated at the highest level of the military chain of command, the international community must act to ensure accountability.
The military has utilised fighter jets, helicopters, heavy artillery, and light weaponry to attack civilians. The military’s tactics are clear violations of the principle of distinction, a fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law which requires that combatants distinguish between civilian and military targets. According to the Special Rapporteur, military forces have used aerial bombardment against civilian populations.
The junta’s relentless targeting of civilians and rampant human rights violations have contributed to widespread displacement, compounding the humanitarian crisis. As of 28 February 2022, 503,000 people have been displaced since the coup began, with 235,000 displaced since 1 December 2021. This is a dramatic increase in displacement in a country already suffering from many protracted conflicts. Moreover, many of the displaced are sheltering in forested areas or other hiding places with limited supplies. They often lack access to food, drinking water, sanitation, and medical supplies.
Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur also expressed his concerns about the rise in forced labour. The Special Rapporteur reviewed first-hand accounts of forced labour collected by NGOs, including descriptions of cases involving up to 100 victims. The International Labour Organisation indicated that its forced labour monitoring had been disrupted by the coup, but that community-based organisations reported an increase in forced labour by the military. Some victims of forced labour have also reportedly been executed.
The representative of the European Union expressed her concern over the disregard for human rights in the country. She stated that the EU supports more effective cooperation between the UN member states to prevent the humanitarian crisis from worsening. She underlined that it is very important to hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable for their actions and stressed that the EU looks forward to the appointment of the Resident Coordinator in Myanmar.
Estonia’s representative delivered a statement on behalf of a group of Nordic countries and highlighted the inhumane conditions civilians, in Myanmar are forced to endure. Estonia condemned the brutal actions of military forces and called on them to release those who have been illegally detained and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech and assembly. The delegate underlined the need to protect all civilians and participate in the building of constructive dialogue to restore peace.
The Estonian delegate urged the UN to continue supporting Myanmar and to make a concerted effort to protect human rights and promote coordination and collaboration among UN member states.
Pakistan’s representative on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation encouraged UN actors to work toward ending violence to bring an end to all forms of abuse, and ensure justice and accountability for victims. The representative of Pakistan specifically underlined that accountability should be at the centre of all efforts to prevent violations of human rights against civilians and to comply with International Law.
Furthermore, Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh supported systemic reforms to prevent further violence. They called for military forces to be granted access to the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Myanmar. Furthermore, they emphasised the need to solve the humanitarian crisis, and to hold those responsible, and accountable for their actions.
The delegate of the United States strongly condemned the military’s abuses against the people of Myanmar involving the excessive use of force including airstrikes and the burning of buildings. The representative expressed her concern about the detentions, torture, and murder of journalists, as well as the deprivation of fundamental freedoms such as speech and assembly. The United States expressed concern about the destruction of health care facilities and the use of violence against personnel which has severely exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. The delegate noted that action should be taken to ensure civilian access to humanitarian aid, including imposing an arms embargo on the military.
The delegate of the United Kingdom stated that the restoration of a democratic constitution is of high importance. She concluded her statement by emphasising that effective action should be taken by UN member states and the wider international community to pressure the military to cease all the violations and to release those who are unlawfully detained.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) welcomes the oral update provided by the Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific, the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar, and the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights. The alleged violations of human rights perpetrated in Myanmar and the unprecedented humanitarian crisis are incredibly concerning.
GICJ recognises that Myanmar has been caught in a downward spiral of violence and condemns this condition against civilians, journalists, and protestors. GICJ urges the international community to pay greater attention to the situation in Myanmar and to take serious steps to ensure a cessation of the ongoing violence. Greater efforts need to be taken to hold those who are responsible for this dire and inhumane situation accountable for their actions.
GICJ encourages the international community to safeguard the fundamental rights of people in Myanmar, protect vulnerable groups and ensure the transition to a democratic system of governance.
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