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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

AFTERNOON

17 March 2014

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with Tomas Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Mr. Quintana said this was the last time that he would address the Human Rights Council after six years on this mandate. On the ongoing efforts to secure peace and national reconciliation between the State and Myanmar’s ethnic minority communities, positive progress towards a national ceasefire accord continued. He hoped that the military strengthened their commitment to the extraordinary efforts of the Government and the ethnic minority groups to stop the decades of fighting in their country. The development of a freer media had been an important feature of the reform process, and the release of prisoners of conscience was one of the most significant achievements of the Government. While the transition was generally moving in the right direction, the complex situation in Rakhine state remained dire and the Rohingya community in Myanmar continued to suffer systematic discrimination and human rights violations.

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, said it opposed country-specific mandates and resolutions, convinced that they did not create a climate conducive for genuine dialogue and cooperation between the Council and the countries concerned. In line with the code of conduct for Special Procedure mandate-holders, it was imperative for them to always seek to establish the facts, based on objective, reliable information emanating from relevant credible sources as well as to duly verify the facts to the best extent possible. Myanmar appreciated the recognition of achievements and progress made in Myanmar in the area of human rights. However, the report contained elements and recommendations which it could not agree with.

In the interactive dialogue, speakers welcomed the positive reforms in Myanmar and stressed that the progress made was a good example of how States could achieve the improvement of human rights through cooperation with international mechanisms. Delegations welcomed the release of prisoners of conscience and the ceasefire agreements. Challenges remained in the Rakhine and Kachin states, so the Government should adequately address the underlying causes of those conflicts and find a long-term solution that would bring peace and reconciliation. It was essential that Myanmar urgently addressed the marginalization of minorities, intolerance and hate speech.

Other speakers said they were not in favour of any further country-specific initiatives against Myanmar in the Council or the General Assembly. The human rights situation in Myanmar did not warrant a country-specific agenda item in the Council. Country-specific mandates pursued by Western countries were aimed at infringing upon the sovereignty and interfering in the internal affairs of developing countries that were not obedient to them. Human rights should not be misused as a tool for denouncing the legitimate government of a sovereign State. The Council should eliminate all country-specific resolutions.

Speaking were the European Union, Philippines on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Thailand, Argentina, Norway, India, Italy, Japan, United States, Canada, Turkey, Republic of Korea, France, Ireland, China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Denmark, Venezuela, Belgium, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Poland, Viet Nam, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
International Commission of Jurists, Asian Forum for Human Rights, Human Rights Now, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers for Lawyers (joint statement), Jubilee Campaign (joint statement), and International Educational Development also took the floor.

The Human Rights Council will resume its work on Tuesday, 18 March, at 9 a.m., when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Documentation

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (A/HRC/25/64).
The Council has before it an addendum to the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (A/HRC/25/64/Add.1).

Presentation by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

TOMÁS OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said this was the last time that he would address the Human Rights Council after six years on this mandate. On the ongoing efforts to secure peace and national reconciliation between the State and Myanmar’s ethnic minority communities, positive progress towards a national ceasefire accord continued. He hoped that the military strengthened their commitment to the extraordinary efforts of the Government and the ethnic minority groups to stop the decades of fighting in their country. It was crucial that this transition focused on securing ceasefires and sustainable peace, which would also require inclusive political dialogue on how to reframe the Constitution and redistribute power so that Myanmar could become a peaceful multi-religious and multi-ethnic country. The development of a freer media had been an important feature of the reform process and civil society groups were now operating more freely and openly; there were however, new attempts to restrict these evolving freedoms. The release of prisoners of conscience was one of the most significant achievements of the Government. While the transition was generally moving in the right direction, the complex situation in Rakhine state remained dire and the Rohingya community in Myanmar continued to suffer systematic discrimination and human rights violations. Mr. Quintana expressed concern at the situation of internally displaced persons, limitations to humanitarian access given insecurity and violence, noting that the Rohingya community had been disproportionately affected. It was imperative for the Government to recognise the seriousness of the problem and develop a comprehensive plan for Rakhine State, which included the issue of accountability and the need for independent and credible investigations into violent incidents.

During the transition, the executive and legislative branches of government had played a visible role but the judiciary, given its lack of independence, had lagged. An independent judiciary was necessary to uphold the rule of law and protect fundamental rights. There were currently no accountability mechanisms for previous violations, for example for instances of torture or excessive force during peaceful protests, or the violations to humanitarian law carried out by the military. The Constitution, besides its current human rights provisions, should include bringing the military under civilian control and oversight. The establishment of the rule of law and access to justice would also be crucial. The rule of law would be crucial for the process of economic development, not only to protect the interests of investors and to ensure that the rights of the people affected were upheld. The 2015 general election would provide an important indication of progress in this democratic transition. Despite challenges to overcome, Mr. Quintana praised the cooperation extended by Myanmar to this mandate and believed that this cooperation represented a good example of how States could progress on human rights through engagement with the international community, as envisioned in the United Nations Charter.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, said it opposed country-specific mandates and resolutions, convinced that they did not create a climate conducive for genuine dialogue and cooperation between the Council and the countries concerned. In line with the code of conduct for Special Procedure mandate-holders, it was imperative for them to always seek to establish the facts, based on objective, reliable information emanating from relevant credible sources as well as to duly verify the facts to the best extent possible. But the truth of the matter was that there was no clear mechanism to verify whether the Special Rapporteurs strictly followed the code of conduct.
Myanmar appreciated the recognition of achievements and progress made in Myanmar in the area of human rights. However, the report contained elements and recommendations which it could not agree with. A majority of the recommendations were no longer relevant because Myanmar had already accomplished most of them, while the remaining ones were being worked out. No matter how much Myanmar had accomplished in the promotion and protection of human rights, it remained on the Council’s agenda and this was very difficult to justify and comprehend. While some challenges still remained to be tackled, like many other countries, these were not insurmountable.

Interactive Dialogue

European Union agreed with the Special Rapporteur that the reforms in Myanmar were going in the right direction and was concerned about the continuing detention of prisoners of conscience. The situation in Rakhine state presented a challenge to the Government and the international community. All allegations of human rights violations must be investigated by an independent mechanism and those responsible brought to justice. Philippines, on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, welcomed the positive reforms and the process of national consolidation and reconciliation in Myanmar. The promotion of national solidarity and harmony among various groups in Myanmar constituted an important part of the reform process. The Association stressed the importance of universality and non-politicization in addressing human rights issues. New Zealand said that historic progress in Myanmar was encouraging for all and recognized some of the remaining challenges that were very complex, such as those in Rakhine state. There was a need to build a wider constituency for the reform in Myanmar. New Zealand asked about the awareness of people in Myanmar of their rights and their expectations of the society based on the rule of law and good governance.

Czech Republic welcomed the release of prisoners of conscience and other reforms and steps undertaken. It deplored the recent ban on the operation of the Doctors without Borders in some areas of the country and was concerned about the situation of the Rohingya minority. Thailand said that the continuing operation of Myanmar was a good example of how States could achieve improvement of human rights through cooperation with international mechanisms. Reforms took time and therefore the Government must be given enough time and should receive adequate support by the international community in this regard. Argentina welcomed the reversal of the death penalty to life sentences by the President of Myanmar, the release of prisoners of conscience and the ceasefire agreement. Argentina hoped for a speedy end to the recruitment of children by armed groups and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Norway pointed out that continued improvements had been seen in many areas in Myanmar. It was important to recognise the efforts by Myanmar to bring the peace process and democratization forward, and the willingness to have a dialogue with the international community on the human rights situation and how to improve it because there were still many challenges and concerns. India said that the progress towards political reforms and democratization in Myanmar today was truly worth commending. Myanmar needed further encouragement and support for developing its democratic institutions and it should also be encouraged to further develop the necessary capacities to address human rights issues. India was not in favour of any further country-specific initiatives against Myanmar in the Council or the General Assembly.

Italy commended the Government of Myanmar for the cooperation extended, which it found to be an example of best practice. Myanmar’s efforts deserved full support. However, crucial challenges remained. It was essential for Myanmar to urgently address the marginalization of minorities and to speak out against intolerance and hate speech. The establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights may be a key step forward. Japan welcomed the series of measures being taken in Myanmar towards democratization, including the space for freedom of expression and a ceasefire with ethnic minority groups. Myanmar was strongly encouraged to continue to take steps to ensure that freedom of expression and belief were respected and to ensure the rule of law. Japan remained concerned by the clashes among the residents of Rakhine state.

United States reiterated its serious concern about the crisis in Rakhine state. What specific steps should be taken by Myanmar to establish accountability measures to ensure security forces did not continue to commit violations? What steps were recommended to ensure that large investment projects took into account the impact of their activities on local communities? Canada said that many economic and political changes had occurred leading to improvements in Myanmar. Political prisoners had been released and freedom of expression had picked up in a marked way. Despite this much remained to be done and the international community had to be ready to help. Canada was concerned by the situation of ethnic and religious minorities. Long-term peace and prosperity would require dialogue and cooperation amongst all groups.

Turkey welcomed recent economic and political reforms in Myanmar, particularly the release of prisoners of conscience. It was unfortunate that the situation in Rakhine state and the plight of Muslims throughout the country had deteriorated. Turkey called for a reconciliation process to be implemented between Muslim and Buddhist communities, and a spirit of cohabitation to be nurtured. Republic of Korea said the encouraging assessment in the report could be attributed to the Special Rapporteur’s consistent and constructive engagement with the Government of Myanmar as well as the willingness of Myanmar to political reform, which was an exemplary case for other country mandates. How could the Council contribute to the reform process in Myanmar?

France agreed that Burma had made excellent progress, and asked questions on four areas: the remaining 33 political prisoners and allegations of arrests over peaceful political activities; heightened tensions and acts of hostility towards Rohingas in Rakhine state; the ceasefire agreements between the Burmese Government and various ethnic groups; and the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burma. Ireland thanked the Special Rapporteur for his work, which included nine missions to Myanmar, and commended the release of over 1,500 prisoners of conscience, the holding of free and fair elections and progress towards ending the fighting in border areas. A critical step forward would be a ceasefire and political agreements with ethnic minority groups in Kachin state and Northern Shan state.

China appreciated Myanmar’s achievements including domestic reform and stability and accelerated economic and social development. It called on the international community to respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and support the Government in its efforts in promoting national reconciliation. As its neighbour, China was ready to continue to provide constructive assistance to the development of Myanmar. The human rights situation in Myanmar did not warrant a country-specific agenda item in the Council. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said country-specific mandates pursued by Western countries aimed at infringing upon the sovereignty and interfering in the internal affairs of developing countries that were not obedient to them. Human rights should not be misused as a tool for denouncing the legitimate government of a sovereign State. The Council should eliminate all country-specific resolutions.

Mexico welcomed the efforts made by Myanmar toward national reconciliation and its cooperation with the Special Procedures. It was important to pay attention to the protection of the rights of minorities and Mexico welcomed the intention to establish a local bureau of the Office of the High Commissioner, which would open the doors to much greater cooperation with the international community. Sri Lanka congratulated Myanmar for moving forward in the transition and reform process, noting the progress made on the ground such as legislation laying the ground for the establishment of a human rights commission in accordance with the Paris Principles. Myanmar had cooperated with the United Nations mechanisms and with the Special Rapporteur, despite its opposition to country-specific mandates.

Cuba said it had a clear position of principle against country-specific resolutions and mandates against countries in the South, which did not contribute to cooperation and dialogue. Cuba took note of Myanmar’s efforts in cooperation with the United Nations machinery and hoped that this would contribute to efforts towards self-determination of the people of Myanmar. Cooperation mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review, rather than politicised or confrontational tools, should be promoted. Denmark agreed that important changes had contributed to improving the human rights situation, but shortcomings remained which could compromise the ongoing reform process. Denmark remained deeply concern with the situation in Rakhine and the systematic discrimination and violence against the Rohingya community, and asked Mr. Quintana what, in his view, constituted the main risk to progress.

Venezuela said that the report was a demonstration of the politicisation represented by the Special Procedure mandates against sovereign countries by the powers and their allies. Myanmar had been the victim of war and colonization during decades, which had prevented its realisation as a sovereign country. Dialogue, assistance and cooperation without impositions were essential to promote national unity and a long-term development strategy, in opposition to the imposition of selective mandates and double standards. Belgium commended Myanmar for their cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, a mandate Belgium hoped would be extended. The establishment of a bureau of the Office of the High Commissioner was an indispensable step to confirm the positive dynamic and address remaining concerns, such as the situation of prisoners of conscience and death sentences. Belgium reiterated concerns at the persistent violations in Rakhine state.

United Kingdom said that Myanmar continued to make encouraging progress on a number of human rights issues, but challenges remained in the Rakhine and Kachin states. The Government should adequately address the underlying causes of those conflicts and find a long-term solution that would bring peace and reconciliation. Switzerland said that the Government needed to establish an independent, impartial and effective judicial system in line with international standards and to bring to justice perpetrators of human rights violations. Switzerland expressed concern about the situation in Kachin and Rakhine states and reiterated the importance of allowing access to conflict areas for humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.

Lao People’s Democratic Republic noted with appreciation the efforts of Myanmar on recent positive developments, including efforts to promote and protect human rights. The international community was urged to constructively respond to these positive developments. The Government was encouraged to continue its cooperation with the United Nations and other international organizations to overcome obstacles and challenges. Australia acknowledged the Myanmar Government’s cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. Myanmar had made significant progress in improving human rights. Also noted was progress on the peace process. The sides were encouraged to work towards an agreement which would lead to long-term peace. The Government and ethnic armed groups were encouraged to continue efforts to identify and release all child soldiers.

Poland commended the Government for its cooperation with the Special Rapporteur. In spite of progress in the democratization reforms achieved by the authorities, Poland was concerned by numerous accounts of violations of freedom of opinion as well as the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Myanmar was urged to release all remaining prisoners of conscience and allow for unhindered functioning of independent media. Viet Nam warmly welcomed the positive developments in Myanmar. Viet Nam shared the view that the international community should further engage with Myanmar on the basis of sovereignty, respect, mutual trust, constructive dialogue and genuine cooperation. Where there was divergence, there had to be mutual good will to constructively engage and work even harder to eventually arrive at mutually satisfactory results.

International Commission of Jurists said that despite progress, reforms were fragile and legal obstacles continued to block improvements to the extremely poor state of the rule of law and respect for human rights. Ethnic and religious minority groups faced significant barriers in the justice system. The situation concerning the judicial treatment of Muslims, especially Rohingya, was particularly concerning. Asian Forum for Human Rights said that persistent, gross and systematic violations, including sexual violence, torture and extrajudicial killings continued in ethnic nationality areas. The escalation of communal violence, particularly against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, remained unaddressed.

Human Rights Now welcomed the considerable improvements in Myanmar but said censorship and repression of the press were still serious concerns. Journalists had been arrested and detained for reporting on new projects and at least 33 political prisoners were still detained. New projects linked to economic investment were provoking human rights violations. Human Rights Watch said despite significant improvements many serious concerns remained. Human Rights Watch called for a credible investigation into the Du Chee Yar Tan incident in Rakhine state in January 2014. Widespread and systematic abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in October 2010 amounted to crimes against humanity.

Lawyers for Lawyers, speaking in a joint statement with Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, spoke about the need for an independent judiciary and National Bar Association. Major challenges included allowing lawyers access to their clients, particularly those charged with political crimes, widespread and systematic corruption, and abuse by the authorities. Jubilee Campaign, speaking in a joint statement with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said grave human rights violations continued to be perpetrated, particularly against Muslims. Myanmar must take urgent action to protect religious minorities from violence and urge its religious and political leaders to speak out against intolerance and hatred. International Educational Development agreed with the Special Rapporteur that the situation of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state constituted crimes against humanity. In light of calls by public officials to rid Rakhine state of one million Rohingyas, the issue of the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities must be addressed.

Concluding Remarks

TOMÁS OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, in concluding remarks referred to the situation in Rakhine state. The reports were very specific with respect to the recommendations and initiatives that had to be undertaken by the Government to try and find solutions. All that could be added was to say that although the situation in Myanmar was highly sensitive, after having visiting the area on many occasions, there was conviction that it had to seek further cooperation from the international community as it had done with regards to political prisoners. Some recommendations had been made today that some were extremely interesting and could yield positive outcomes. Various delegations this afternoon had been reminded by the President of the Council about the use of the denomination of the country under review, and this was done advisedly and appropriately. On the rule of law, an unprecedented openness to democratic values was seen in Myanmar.

It would take quite some time for the Government to put in place formal fora that protected the rights of citizens and therein was the challenge. It was not just a matter for the Government of Myanmar to heed and deal with the lack of rule of law. It was also an obligation of the international community that was coming into the country and bringing in its investments. This was something everyone was to be reminded of. On new challenges not included in the report, once the peace agreements were brought home, it was thought that a major challenge would be the practical implementation of the peace agreements in the ethnic groups. Myanmar had said that on various occasions the Special Rapporteur had used the word ‘however’. ‘However’ simply reflected the very many voices raised to express suffering, in the hope that their needs and expectations would be brought to the Council.
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