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Statement by Thomas H. AndrewsUN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

15 July 2020

44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Geneva, Switzerland
13 July 2020

It is an honour and a privilege to address the 44th regular session of the Human Rights Council for the first time as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Human rights are not the domain of a particular culture, or nation or region of the world – human rights are universal, the birthright of all human beings regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion.

They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing us with a common reference point, a “true north” to follow when we seek to determine if government policies or practices are consistent with these universal values.

I am deeply honoured to work with you, the members of the Human Rights Council, who have the solemn responsibility of applying these values to the real world, even when to do so is difficult.

Distinguished delegates,

In the short time that I have to address you today, I would like to make two preliminary points about my approach and to then identify examples of issues that I will be addressing and questions that I will be asking as Special Rapporteur.

First, I come to this position with humility and a commitment to what I believe is the most important ingredient to communication – listening.

My first act on my first day as Special Rapporteur was to deliver a letter to the Government of Myanmar and State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, seeking the opportunity to visit, to engage, to listen.  Since then, I’ve had the pleasure to engage with the Permanent Representative of Myanmar, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun.

Several months ago, before I was appointed as Special Rapporteur, I had the opportunity to meet with officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs during a visit to Myanmar. They explained that one of their challenges is communication with the world outside; that too often they found that the international community was either unable or unwilling to appreciate the realities and complexities of the challenges facing Myanmar. 

I replied that from my experience, action always speaks louder than words – and that the best way to communicate that the Government of Myanmar wants the world to understand its positions and perspectives, is to open its doors – even to those who may challenge or criticize.

I make this commitment to you, and to the Government of Myanmar:

While my reports will include questions and concerns about how government policies and practices may or may not measure up to fundamental human rights principles, I will do so with respect and always with a willingness to engage and to listen.

Second, I come to this position with a deep commitment to the advancement of human rights.  

And while I am accountable to you, members of the Human Rights Council, my primary constituents are those whose human rights are under threat or under siege.

The most powerful resource that I will yield with and for them, is the truth. And I pledge to you that I will seek the light of truth to serve as a guide for the choices that you will make as members of this Council. 

I would now like to site a few examples of the issues that I have begun to examine and the questions that I am asking as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

The twenty-first century ushered in a period of reform for Myanmar that followed a sustained campaign of opposition and resistance to authoritarian rule, a campaign led and inspired by now State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. A military-controlled state yielded, at least to an extent, to calls for justice, democracy and human rights.

At issue, today, is whether that reform will continue:

Will the military, or Tatmadaw, be based on service to the nation – accountable to its people through their duly elected civilian representatives, or will it be beyond the reach of civilian government authority and accountability?

In a few short months, Myanmar will hold a national election:

Will it include the fundamentals of a free and fair election –

Starting with the right to vote – regardless of one’s race, ethnicity or religion.

Will it include freedom of expression and assembly, will voters have access to information and a free press?

Will laws that are now used to imprison those who peacefully criticize the military continue to be enforced and allowed to stand?

Will journalists be able to do their jobs freely and without fear of retribution? Will they, and will human rights defenders, face criminal charges for exercising their basic rights?

Will the positive steps that the Government has taken, such as the order that all Government and military personnel denounce and prevent hate speech, be effective in preventing dangerous provocations that we know can lead to violence?

Will national and international business communities do their part to protect and promote human rights in Myanmar – from industrial enterprises to Facebook?

Will the horror of war continue to be a fact of life for far too many in Myanmar?

Will the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire be respected in war ravaged ethnic states?

I regret to report that to date the Secretary-General’s call is being ignored in many areas of Myanmar and the cost in human lives and human suffering is enormous.

The ravages of war are particularly onerous and escalating daily in Rakhine State, causing growing numbers of civilian casualties and displacement.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.

I commend the Government of Myanmar for developing a national strategy to close camps for internally displaced persons. The plan calls for the voluntary and sustainable return, relocation or local reintegration of displaced persons.  This is welcome news and a positive step forward.

Unfortunately, I have been informed that the pilot project under this new strategy not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home, but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services including healthcare and education. And, it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.

This is neither voluntary nor sustainable and it is my sincere hope that corrective measures will be taken - that IDPs will be consulted and their wishes respected and that the apparent gulf between what the national strategy says, and what actually occurs, will be eliminated.

Some challenges have no respect for national boundaries including, of course, the scourge of a global pandemic that currently prevents my travel to Myanmar and, indeed, to Geneva.

I commend the Government of Myanmar for the positive steps that it has taken to forge a coordinated response to this disease, including regular health care messaging by the State Counsellor to the people of Myanmar who have access to social media.

These are but some of the significant issues and challenges facing the people of Myanmar, all of whom deserve nothing less than the full realization of their fundamental human rights.

Distinguished delegates,

Thank you for your commitment to the protection and advancement of human rights.

I am deeply grateful to you for your support of my mandate and your confidence in me as the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

And I pledge to each one of you, and to the Government and people of Myanmar, that I will fulfill the duties and responsibilities of my mandate to the very best of my ability.

Thank you.