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Statement by Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council

12 March 2018

12 March 2018

Mr. President, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to present today my fourth report to this Council in the year of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Minister U Kyaw Tin reminded us that Burma, as it was then called, was among the first nations to vote in favour of the Declaration when it was adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948. I am also reminded, sadly, that when the
UDHR was adopted it was when the world first said “never again”.

I am presenting my report without having access to Myanmar for the first time. I used to have the privilege of saying that I am the only Special Rapporteur on Myanmar to have been allowed into the country each time I requested a visit, no matter how fraught with obstacles. During my last few visits, I saw that the current civilian-led Government had been adopting tactics of the military past; it is rather ironic that I was informed last December of that Government’s decision to no longer cooperate with me.

Mr. President,

When I assumed my mandate in 2014, I vowed to discharge it in fairness and with impartiality. In all my reports, I have attempted to shed light on the plight of several communities, not just one; and I have tried to engage the Government in an open and constructive way. This includes on benchmarks which this Council mandated me to arrive at jointly with the Government to track progress and prioritize areas for technical assistance and capacity-building. Despite my efforts to remain impartial, I am now declared unwelcome in Myanmar, accused of being unfair and biased. I am hopeful that Myanmar will revisit their decision and grant me access in July. In the event that they continue not to cooperate with me, I will seek to travel to India and China in preparation of my report to the General Assembly.

Distinguished representatives,

It is irrefutable is that there are now more Rohingya people outside Myanmar than within – the vast majority of whom are taking refuge in Cox’s Bazar. The alleged 25 August attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and ensuing attacks by security forces led to record numbers of people fleeing Rakhine State in the weeks that followed.  I dreaded the worst was coming to pass and that the Myanmar military was finally looking to complete what it described as its ‘unfinished business from World War II’ – the clearing of the Rohingya out of the country.

In January this year, I spoke to over 100 refugees in Cox’s Bazar, who had fled the violence in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathidaung Townships in northern Rakhine. I heard first-hand of attacks in which homes were set ablaze by security forces, in many cases with people trapped inside, and entire villages razed to the ground. Parents told me harrowing accounts of witnessing their young children being thrown into fires. Survivors described the security forces calling families out of their homes, separating men and boys to be executed in front of their families or taken away. I heard testimony of women and girls being raped and then killed, some burned alive in their homes while unconscious or tied up.

The repatriation process for the refugees must be voluntary and they must be informed fully of what they are going back to in Rakhine. While Myanmar says it has constructed facilities to receive verified returnees from Bangladesh, it also appears to be engaging in large-scale development projects in areas that were once Rohingya villages. There is an increasing amount of credible evidence, including satellite images, which indicates that whole villages that were once home to Rohingya have been bulldozed to the ground. Just yesterday, new satellite imagery has revealed that military bases are being constructed in these bulldozed areas. This casts further doubt on the sincerity of Myanmar regarding repatriating the Rohingya from Bangladesh. Importantly, it will be impossible for anyone to claim where they are from or describe where they had previously lived if the region’s landscape has been so significantly altered. Additionally, there appears to be a policy of forced starvation in place, designed to make life in northern Rakhine unsustainable for Rohingya who remain. Before repatriation can be really considered, Myanmar must break the cycle of violence in Rakhine, recognize the Rohingyas’ right to self-identify, restore their citizenship and uphold their human rights.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

While the scale of violence in Rakhine appears to have eclipsed anything seen in recent years in Myanmar, ethnic minority groups in other areas of the country have, much like the Rohingya, been victims of the military’s campaign of domination and discrimination for generations. Minorities in Kachin, Shan, Kayin and other conflict-affected States have told me that the accounts they have heard coming from Rakhine State evoke memories of their own brutal treatment at the hands of the Myanmar military. Continuing and escalating armed conflicts in Kachin and Shan, which receive scant international attention, are having a devastating impact on civilian populations.

While preparing this statement, I received information of the military conducting new ground offensives last week using heavy artillery in the Tanai gold and amber mining area of Kachin. Additionally, the Tatmadaw has advanced into Mutraw District in Kayin State, an area controlled by the Karen National Union which is a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory. This ceasefire violation led to 1,500 villagers from 15 villages having to flee. I am very concerned about these continuing offensives; the path to peace is through inclusive political dialogue, and not through military force.

Friends and colleagues,

In the two years since the victory of the NLD in national elections, the Government has yet to make any real progress on legal and judicial reform. The statute books still contain several repressive laws from the colonial era while more recent laws are also being used to target people and stifle dissenting voices.

The democratic space continues to shrink, with journalists, civil society actors and human rights defenders placed in an increasingly perilous position, particularly when speaking out about human rights abuses.

The level of hate speech, particularly on social media, has a stifling impact on asserting sensitive and unpopular views, and this is very concerning. In January, a Muslim student was chased, beaten and detained by police in for no reason other than being on the street in downtown Yangon late at night. This prompted a social media onslaught of disgraceful anti-Muslim slurs and violent threats against him. Because I speak out on behalf of Muslims and other religious minorities in Myanmar, I, too, am the target of vulgar, hateful, and violent threats on social media. As I have repeatedly stated, Myanmar needs to enact legislation to counter incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence that complies with international standards.

While the Government continues to push forward with its economic development agenda around the country, I remain concerned about governance and transparency.

Mr. President,

No one doubted that the democratic transition from decades of military rule to a civilian government would be challenging for Myanmar. As we are now unfortunately witnessing, a change in the political context does not automatically lead to positive change in the human rights context.

This Council was given notice four years ago about the possible commission of crimes against humanity regarding the Rohingya. The High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2016 made that same warning, as well as about possible commission of war crimes in other parts of the country. Yet just months after, Member States discontinued the General Assembly resolution on Myanmar – even as reports were coming out of violations perpetrated during the post-9 October 2016 attacks.

This Council notably established the International Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar in March 2017, yet this did not stop the ongoing persecution against the Rohingya nor de-escalated the armed conflict in Kachin and Shan. Indeed, perhaps the military was emboldened to proceed with the attacks following 25 August 2017 which resulted in the Rohingya population being forcibly displaced from northern Rakhine. I urge members of the civilian government to visit the settlements in Cox’s Bazar to see the scale of displacement – the lives affected and destroyed.

Distinguished Representatives,

I am becoming more convinced that the crimes committed following 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017 bear the hallmarks of genocide and call in the strongest terms for accountability. Not only does the Myanmar Government have a responsibility to account for the alleged crimes in Rakhine State since 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017, and the violations that continue today, but the international community must also be vigilant. It must not be beguiled by the proliferating Government committees and commissions, and by promises and commitments yet to be fulfilled.

As a step towards arriving at an understanding of the truth of what had happened in Rakhine State in recent months and years, I am recommending the establishment of a structure to be based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, under the auspices of the United Nations to investigate, document, collect, consolidate, map, analyze and maintain evidence of human rights violations and abuses. Its aim would be to facilitate impartial, fair and independent international criminal proceedings in national or international courts or tribunals in accordance with international criminal law standards. The focus should include incidents of violence during the security operations following the attacks on 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017 in Rakhine State, as well as alleged attacks and abuses by ARSA and Rakhine Buddhist villagers.

The violence and suffering calls not just for accountability but also for self-reflection by the UN and the question – could we have prevented this? To that end, I have recommended in my report for the conduct of a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system in the lead-up, during and after the events of 9 October 2016 and 25 August 2017 regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates and within the Human Rights Up Front framework. I believe this is in line with the Secretary-General’s own priority on advancing a preventive approach to human rights.

I want to end by reminding the international community what it had agreed to 70 years ago: That “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” All members of the international community must respect the basic rights guaranteed to all human beings, and that everyone has the right to exercise their rights, without any discrimination.

I have shortened my oral statement to accommodate Member States’ questions, and look forward to answering questions.

I want to close by sharing with you an account which has left me distressed until this day.  In Cox’s Bazar, I met a grandmother who had fled Rakhine State with her daughter-in-law and grandson. The three-year old boy, with big innocent eyes came up to me and simply said, “They chopped up my father.” No one, let alone a child, should ever have to witness the killing of their parent. No child should ever have to recount such a dreadful incident. No child should ever have to grow up with this horrific visual memory the rest of their lives. I have two children. Ladies and gentlemen, you also may have children. Some of you may even have grandchildren. Imagine if this was your own child or grandchild.  

Thank you for your attention.