10 March 2020
Madam President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to address you from Seoul in these highly unusual times, on the occasion of the presentation of my last report to the Human Rights Council.
For the last six years, I have independently and impartially monitored and reported on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. When I took up the mandate in 2014, there was a spirit of great optimism regarding the country's transition to democracy, and I thought that by 2020, a rights-respecting democracy would have been firmly established in Myanmar. However devastation and tragedy transpired throughout my tenure on the mandate, and that rather than observing a nation that protects and respects human rights, the world continues to watch as rights violations routinely occur, and Myanmar stands accused of the most serious crimes under international law.
The serious armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army is well into its second year. Currently, the internet blackout first imposed eight months ago once again extends to nine townships in northern Rakhine and southern Chin, affecting one million mostly ethnic Rakhine people and seriously hampering humanitarian efforts and independent monitoring. I was dismayed to receive reports that students who protested the blackout were arrested in Yangon at the end of February, and that Reuters is the latest news outlet to face defamation charges filed by the Tatmadaw for their reporting on the conflict in Rakhine.
In spite of the blackout, I am receiving daily reports from those areas of villages coming under fire; families fleeing their homes; people losing their lives. When I hear this, I think of the decades of suffering endured by ethnic minorities in Myanmar caused by countless other Tatmadaw offensives, and with the razed former Rohingya villages still barely covered by new grass. Once again the international community is watching on as the Tatmadaw displays its disregard for human life and its contempt for the values of humanity.
As the Government denies their ongoing persecution, in the past few months alone Rohingya numbering in the hundreds have been intercepted on land or at sea risking everything on perilous journeys to escape their homeland, only to be arrested, imprisoned and charged with criminal offences. I ask you to consider: what would force you to make such a desperate choice?
Naw Ohn Hla is the chairperson of the Karen Women's Union, a former member of the National League for Democracy and an environmental activist who has long been dedicated to the struggle for human rights in Myanmar. Last month, she and four others were jailed for joining a peaceful demonstration. The hard-fought democratic space that paved the way for the NLD to win an election and form a Government is under real threat. Draconian laws – including the tools of former colonisers and military regimes, as well as laws enacted by the NLD themselves – remain intact, stifling free expression and vital, democratic exchange of information. At the same time, new technologies have allowed nationalist rhetoric and divisive hate speech to flourish. Without decisive action from the Government, I fear these issues will be exacerbated by the elections later this year.
People in rural areas are being imprisoned for fighting back against the dispossession of their land. For millions of people in rural Myanmar their way of life is becoming increasingly uncertain, as the Government enacts successive laws that favour the interests of business and developers while neglecting the rights of rural people. Those who challenge environmental destruction caused by natural resource extraction and heavy industry are also risking their freedom. This weekend, environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe – who has been supporting a community impacted by pollution from a coal-powered cement factory – has been forced into hiding as police seek his arrest. Following conducting a prayer ceremony about the effects of the pollution, a complaint under the Penal Code was filed against him by the General Administration Department.
Friends and colleagues,
While these very serious and ongoing human rights issues continue in Myanmar, I must emphasise that it is not too late for the country to change course, and reorient itself to become a democracy that embraces human rights for all. To do so, I have proposed that Myanmar undertake a national dialogue to address the multitude of issues facing the country, including ongoing discrimination and inequality, and ways to move towards an equal, tolerant and pluralistic society, including through victim-centred transitional justice mechanisms. A national dialogue should be inclusive, participatory, and firmly grounded in human rights, and involve stakeholders from across the country, and include refugees forced from the country.
In addition to this, there is a critical need for wide-ranging reform and capacity building to develop modern institutions that are able to carry out their function to serve the people of the country, without discrimination. This includes bringing the entire government and security forces under civilian control. The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission must be reformed to bring it into line with the Paris Principles. There must be extensive law reform, including of the Constitution, land laws, the Citizenship Law and laws that violate fundamental rights including the freedoms of expression, assembly and religion.
Lastly, an end to impunity is the lynchpin for Myanmar to succeed in its transition to democracy. Perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses, and international crimes, must be held accountable for their actions. To do so, the Government must reform the justice system, ensure judicial independence, remove systemic barriers to accountability, including in the Constitution and legislation, and build judicial and investigatory capacity in accordance with international standards. Critical to this is to enact legislation to criminalise all international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, which does not currently exist.
In the meantime, I urge the international community most strongly to support the ongoing international accountability initiatives. Follow the lead of the Maldives and file a declaration in the International Court of Justice to support The Gambia's case. Hold Myanmar to abiding by the provisional measures indicated by the Court and act in the Security Council to enforce the orders if necessary. Refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or establish an international tribunal to try alleged perpetrators of international crimes. Cooperate with the investigation by the International Criminal Court that is just beginning, and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Consider commencing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Ensure that victims are placed at the centre of all justice initiatives.
I took on this mandate in 2014, intending to unreservedly discharge my duties with objectivity, impartiality and without any bias. I was determined from the outset to seek out injustice and voice it.
I urge you not to let the people of Myanmar down. You must stand united in your resolve to end the cycle of human rights violations and abuses, and to prevent the reoccurrence of acts that may amount to crimes against humanity, war crimes, and even genocide. Key to this, is ensuring that all those responsible for past atrocities are held accountable, without exception.
I would like to conclude my very last oral report by sharing something personal. My father, who passed away during my mandate, spent his entire life fighting for freedom and democracy. Even in his final days, his main concern for me was that I help Aung San Suu Kyi in her pursuit of freedom and democracy for Myanmar. This is the sentiment that our family has held towards Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar since I first started my mandate.
During my tenure, I believed I would witness Myanmar transition from a country under quasi-military rule into a rights-respecting democracy. However, very sadly, I now have come to realise that there remains a long way to go but I believe that with the strong, principled support of the international community, Myanmar's transformation into a democracy that embraces human rights can be achieved.
Thank you very much for the six years of your kind attention!