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Myanmar: Considerable achievements but serious human rights challenges remain – UN Expert

YANGON/GENEVA (4 August 2012) – Despite wide-ranging positive developments, Myanmar continues to grapple with serious human rights challenges which, as recent events in Rakhine state demonstrated, need to be addressed for democratic transition and national reconciliation to succeed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar said on Saturday evening at the end of a six-day official visit to the country.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, who visited Myanmar from 30 July to 4 August, said he was encouraged to see increasing engagement of civil society, political parties and other stakeholders in the reform process, greater openness in discussing human rights issues, and efforts towards building a society based on the rule of law. National institutions with important roles in furthering democratic transition and ensuring respect for human rights, such as Parliament and the National Human Rights Commission, have continued to develop. But he highlighted a number of key human rights concerns, including the situation in Rakhine state and the related detention of UN staff members, the continued detention of prisoners of conscience, and the situation in Kachin state.

Rakhine state

“The human rights situation in Rakhine state is serious - I witnessed the widespread suffering of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of the violence and express my sympathy to the victims from both communities,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said.

Noting the actions taken by the Government to restore law and order, he added that he was, however, gravely concerned about allegations of serious human rights violations committed by State actors. “These include the excessive use of force by security and police personnel, arbitrary arrest and detention, killings, the denial of due process guarantees and the use of torture in places of detention,” he said.

Mr. Ojea Quintana called for a credible, independent investigation into such allegations of human rights violations as a matter of urgency, offering his assistance.

“It is of fundamental importance to clearly establish what has happened in Rakhine state and to ensure accountability. Reconciliation will not be possible without this, and exaggerations and distortions will fill the vacuum to further fuel distrust and tensions between communities,” he said.

Urgent attention was also required to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the displaced, particularly in the larger camps, he said, urging the international community to respond to Myanmar authorities’ appeal for increased assistance. He also called on neighbouring countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement.

“I am also concerned at the sentiments against the UN and international NGOs, particularly perceptions amongst the Rakhine Buddhist community that humanitarian assistance is not being provided according to the principles of impartiality and neutrality. I encourage the international organizations involved to work jointly with the Government authorities to counter these perceptions,” he said.

Mr. Ojea Quintana stressed the need for the Government to develop a longer-term strategy for rehabilitation and reconciliation – one that is based on integration and not separation of the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya communities.

“This strategy should be anchored in ensuring that the fundamental rights of all are respected and address the underlying causes of the violence,” he said, highlighting concerns about systematic discrimination against the Rohingya community. Such concerns include the denial of citizenship or legal status to Rohingyas, restrictions on their freedom of movement, marriage restrictions, and other discriminatory policies.

“I hope that steps will be taken to address these issues, including a review of the 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that it is in line with international human rights standards,” he said, adding that the international community also has a role to play in helping to identify durable solutions, premised on human rights principles, to the statelessness of the Rohingyas.

Prisoners of conscience and United Nations staff in detention

Mr. Ojea Quintana also met prisoners of conscience at Insein Prison and called for the release of all remaining prisoners of conscience without conditions or delay. He commended the President for releasing a number of other prisoners of conscience, including Phyo Wai Aung who was released during his visit.

Mr. Ojea Quintana also interviewed six UN staff members, in Insein and Buthidaung prisons, who have been detained in connection with the events in Rakhine State, adding that he had also received information that a number of staff of international NGOs had been similarly detained.

“Based on my interviews, I have serious concerns about the treatment of these individuals during detention,” he said. “I am of the view that the charges against them are unfounded and that their due process rights have been denied. This is reminiscent of the experiences of prisoners of conscience whom I interviewed in Insein Prison. I therefore call for the immediate release of these individuals and a review of their cases.”

The Special Rapporteur added that he had received information that a lawyer he met has received threats to deter him from representing one of the UN staff. He called on the authorities to guarantee that individuals he met do not face reprisals and to ensure their protection and that of their families.

Kachin state

Welcoming the ceasefire agreements reached with 10 ethnic armed groups, and the ongoing dialogue in this regard, the Special Rapporteur said that efforts towards finding a durable political solutions to the conflicts should be accelerated and should address long-standing grievances and deep-rooted concerns amongst ethnic groups.

“Yet, as a result of ongoing conflict, particularly in Kachin State,I continue to receive allegations of serious human rights violations committed, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, and torture. Furthermore, I received allegations of the use of landmines, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour and portering committed by all parties to the conflict,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said.

“I must therefore reiterate that it is vital for these allegations to be addressed as a matter of priority. The Government and all armed groups must do more to ensure the protection of civilians during armed conflict. International human rights and humanitarian law must be respected.”

The Special Rapporteur also discussed with different stakeholders, including ethnic groups, political party leaders, and members of Parliament, the establishment of a truth commission to address grievances from decades of human rights violations.

He called on Myanmar to ensure that a human rights-based approach is firmly embedded in its economic and social development, especially given the increase of foreign investment.

During his visit, Mr. Ojea Quintana met a number of high-level Government officials, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Vice-Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) and members of several parliamentary committees, the National Human Rights Commission, local authorities in Rakhine State, and civil society. He also met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The full report on his visit will be presented to the 67th session of the General Assembly in October 2012.

To read the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteur, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12405&LangID=E

(*) Check the latest progress report on Myanmar by the Special Rapporteur:
http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/116/04/PDF/G1211604.pdf?OpenElement

ENDS

Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. This was his sixth official visit to Myanmar. Learn more, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/countries/mm/mandate/index.htm

UN Human Rights, country page – Myanmar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Daniel Collinge (+66 2 288 1235 / dcollinge@ohchr.org).

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