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Special rapporteur underscores need for new rights resolution

Originally appeared in The Myanmar Times

October 27, 2014

The United Nations General Assembly is in full swing, with the representatives debating, among other pressing issues, whether to pass another resolution on Myanmar. As part of that process, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has recently published her country report, which she will soon present to the UN General Assembly.

While the special rapporteur takes care to highlight the “far-reaching reforms” that have taken place since the government came to office in early 2011, she emphasises the “possible signs of backtracking” that are becoming increasingly evident.

Building on the years of distinguished work carried out by her predecessor, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur’s report represents a comprehensive and damning indictment of the situation of human rights and democracy in the country. It is in stark contrast to last month’s speech by the foreign minister – a former member of the military rather than a human rights expert – who assured the General Assembly that all human rights issues were being addressed and that no new resolution was needed.

Naturally, the special rapporteur couches her criticisms in diplomatic language, but the message echoes the forceful declaration issued by more than 650 civil society participants at the recent Civil Society Organisations Forum held in Yangon: namely, that not only is there still a long way to go, but many things have not changed at all and in some areas the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

While highly critical, her report is the epitome of principled objectivity, always referring back to international human rights standards as an authority and benchmark. The special rapporteur also takes a solution-oriented approach, making specific, concrete, practical recommendations to the government. Coming from a UN human rights heavyweight, such words lend significant moral force to the increasingly depressing discourse on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

It remains to be seen whether the international community will sit up and start committing to concrete actions that reflect the realities on the ground. While individual countries seem to be blinkered in their single-minded focus on the economic and geopolitical opportunities that engagement with Myanmar offers, there is hope that the General Assembly will adopt a more principled, people-oriented approach, and maintain pressure on the government.

Will the international community choose to ignore the litany of growing concerns that the special rapporteur outlines in her report? Can it continue to turn a blind eye to the enduring violence and conflict in Kachin and Shan states, or, more recently, Kayin State? To the grave human rights abuses – including extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labour, forced displacement, and arbitrary arrest and detention – perpetuated with impunity in ethnic conflict areas, for the most part by the unreformed Myanmar army? To the spike in hate speech, discrimination and religious violence flaring up in diverse parts of the country, or the appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Rakhine State, particularly for the beleaguered Rohingya? To the upsurge in illegal forced land evictions, and the devastating social, economic and environmental implications of countless development projects for local communities, ethnic peoples and other marginalised groups?

Lack of rule of law and access to justice. The widespread abuse of fair trial rights by a non-independent, corrupt and incompetent judiciary. The undemocratic 2008 constitution, which institutionalises military power. Fears regarding the legitimacy and fairness of the upcoming national elections. The increased stifling of civil society space, including the continual arrests of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and peaceful protestors. All of these should be issues of concern.

The objective should of course be to improve the country, to advance the reforms, and to bring about genuine and long-lasting democracy, peace and reconciliation. To ensure that human rights are protected and respected, that the rule of law prevails, and that all people – regardless of who they are – can enjoy and participate in the future development of the country. Neither civil society nor the special rapporteur want to be critical for the sake of it. They are neither “peace spoilers” nor acting upon selfish or subversive interests.

However, until real change is allowed to take place, pressure must be maintained on the government. Another General Assembly resolution is one of the international community’s strongest points of leverage, and, sadly, it is one that they must use once again. The special rapporteur’s report is an essential and invaluable part of this process and must not be ignored.

Robert Finch and Alex Moodie are political and human rights analysts with Burma Partnership, a network of organisations throughout the Asia-Pacific region advocating and mobilising a movement for democracy and human rights in Myanmar.

View the original article here.

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