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At United Nations Human Rights Council, Outgoing Government Defiant To the Very End

By Burma Partnership  •  March 23, 2016

General view at the opening day of the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 25, 2013 in Geneva. The Council kicks off with widespread abuses in North Korea and Mali the top items on the agenda, along with the crisis in Syria. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI

Last week on 15 March 2016, the same day Burma’s Parliament elected its President, the country also underwent a review by member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council following which a resolution will be made on how to move forward with the scrutiny and accountability of the human rights situation in the country. The day-long review, which included a report submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Yanghee Lee, also featured oral statements made by civil society organizations. A delegation of women human rights defenders from Burma also held a side event during the Council to raise concern and spotlight the lack of justice and accountability for rape and sexual violence in war, particularly in ethnic areas.

Despite the prospects of a new democratic dawn in the country, and further boosted by the incoming administration’s recent shake-up of Cabinet portfolios to streamline its work as well as enhance its functioning and capacity, the Special Rapporteur’s report called attention to the massive tests awaiting the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government that need to tackle comprehensively and urgently. However, the key and prevailing issues raised by Ms. Yanghee Lee, such as existing structural challenges, legislative reforms, the situation in Rakhine State as well as the ongoing conflict and problematic peace process, “traditionally” remain under the purview and sphere of control of the military (and its allies or proxies) in the political and security apparatus. Undoubtedly, this will pose serious constraints on the new NLD-led Government’s ability to meet the demanding 100-day and 1-year targets set by the Special Rapporteur.

Such fears are not unfounded and evidently were on display last week in the Human Rights Council. In his response to the report, Mr. Maung Wai, Permanent Representative to the United Nations representing the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) Government at the forum, berated the Council for its “unfair treatment” and was in a demonstrably defensive mood, asserting that the arrests of prominent student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung and U Gambira, leader of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, have no relation to shrinking democratic space. On issues such as sexual and gender-based violence in conflict areas as well as the dire situation in Rakhine State and discrimination against religious minorities, he claimed such assertions and allegations was “exaggerated for effect”, and even bizarrely accused the Human Rights Council of “hate speech” for raising and allowing concerns on persecution and discrimination of religious minorities in the country to be aired and addressed in the Council. Coincidentally, a group of nationalist Buddhist monks called the Buddha Gonyi and who claim to protect the religion are preparing to stage a protest against the NLD-appointed vice president-elect of Christian faith. They are currently awaiting a response from the police to go ahead.

Quite clearly, in their desperation to mask their dismal human rights record and garner international plaudits, the Burma Government has shown no qualms in lying to the world’s premier human rights body in same way it has carried itself over the past 25 years. Mr. Maung Wai added that the ongoing transition has been “peaceful, inclusive and orderly” and urged the Human Rights Council to “see Myanmar in that light and review its agenda vis-à-vis Myanmar.” But just in March 2016 alone, the Burma Army has launched 15 airstrike offensives in Shan State alone, with daily fighting in Namhkan, Mangtong, Kyaukme, Namhsan, Kutkai, and Muse townships. It also resorted to junta-era claims that political prisoners do not exist, while continuing with persistent non-recognition and blanket denial of rights to the Rohingya. It must be in such contexts, among others, that the Human Rights Council must not abandon its responsibility and leadership, as some are already inclined to do, but warrant further pressure and scrutiny.

The dangers are already apparent. In the closing remarks by the Special Rapporteur during the interactive dialogue segment of the review, she spoke on the direction and future of her mandate and stressed that the monitoring and reporting functions, including through the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) with a full mandate, must be maintained. She cited the police’s poor crowd control and management of assemblies during the vicious Letpadan crackdown and the subsequent mandatory pregnancy tests administered by male medical officers to harass, shame and intimidate female detainees from the Letpadan protest in Tharawaddy prison as examples to the international community that dropping vigilance towards Burma under the Human Rights Council’s agenda Item 4 – as a country that requires the Council’s attention – to a fully technical cooperation-oriented approach centered on advice and capacity-building under Item 10 would be misguided at the moment.
As the Council deliberates and prepares to deliver and adopt a resolution on Burma at the end of the month, including the future of the Special Rapporteur mandate, it is imperative that progress of human rights situation in Burma is assessed on how the Government ensures protection from human rights violations and accountability for longstanding and ongoing violations and abuses, based on international human rights standards as well as Burma’s international obligations and commitments.

While Burma is a significant site for both competing geopolitical interests as well as “early mover advantage” economic investment and growth, the Human Rights Council has a duty not to politicize human rights concerns in the country. Supporting the country by laying down clear benchmarks and a roadmap to address the human rights challenges that plague the country for many decades would go a long way in this early dawn of Burma’s new NLD-led Government era.

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