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Human Rights Commission comes under fire over record

Originally appeared in Myanmar Times

February 3, 2016

By Aung Khaing Min and Joses Kuan

Set up five years ago, Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) was part of a charm offensive mounted by President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government that succeeded in attracting international publicity and funding. Any legitimacy it may have held has taken a battering since.

Last week, ahead of the United Nations Human Rights Council session in March when Myanmar’s human rights record will be keenly scrutinised by member states, the commission was dealt a further blow when the international governing body of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) graded it with a “B” status.

The result hardly comes as a surprise, and is perhaps the timely jolt that the MNHRC needs to recover from its chronic underperformance.

In November last year, the MNHRC underwent a review by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC) of its compliance in both law and practice with the Paris Principles, which are the international minimum standards of an institution’s legitimacy and credibility. The “B” status implies that the MNHRC does not fully meet the requirements mandated in the Paris Principles, and is a damning indictment of its ineffectiveness and lack of impact. It is noteworthy that NHRIs remain the only state-created mechanisms that are subjected to such stringent performance assessments by the UN human rights system, which denotes their recognition and standing at such platforms.

Many would recall that the MNHRC was feted as one of the showpieces of the outgoing government’s reformist credentials, with hefty investment in the form of technical advice and money poured in by the international community. Most, however, tend to forget or remain unaware that the establishment of the MNHRC in 2011 aimed at deflecting calls for an international commission of inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Tatmadaw or the military regime in conflict-affected ethnic states, effectively serving as a window-dressing measure.

Apart from the international accolades, the grading is significant as “A” status institutions are considered as the principal and authoritative voice on the human rights situation in the country, and are accordingly allowed to take the floor or submit documentation at human rights forums such as the United Nations Universal Periodic Review or Human Rights Council. Indeed, there were worries that an “A”-status MNHRC would defend and gloss over the government’s human rights record, or even blow its own horn in front of the international community.

Still, key constituencies such as rights-violations victims, human rights defenders and activists were willing to give the MNHRC a chance to find its feet at the outset. Five years on, the institutional legitimacy and public confidence of the MNHRC have plummeted spectacularly, and even prompted a letter by 149 national civil society organisations prior to the review requesting the ICC reject the MNHRC’s accreditation application altogether, as acceptance would be seen as legitimising the body and its shortcomings.

The problems that plague the MNHRC are not just the teething issues relating to structure or operations that one would naturally expect in its infancy. They are endemic and well documented, and range from the shocking secret appointments last year where even ousted members were caught unawares, to allegedly lacking autonomy, to ignoring violations, especially in conflict-ridden ethnic areas and, in some cases, even to contributing to further abuses. The handling of the Ko Par Gyi, Brang Shawng and Duu Chee Yar Tan village cases readily spring to mind. It is hardly surprising that some have even gone on to label the MNHRC as an “alibi institution” of the state rather than an ally of the people. The MNHRC’s silence on repressive legislation, crackdowns on rights and dissent, and even on pressing issues like land grabs and abuses related to extractive industries only lends further credence to such an idea.

More recently, the MNHRC issued a statement last year calling for the release of student demonstrators who had participated in the Letpadan protests against the National Education bill. The Letpadan inquiry had also found that law enforcement officials had applied excessive force and failed to comply with standing orders and guidelines for managing protests. Just days after the MNHRC statement, however, arrests of other student activists from the Letpadan incident resumed and fresh charges have since been slapped on the students, but have been met with a wall of silence from the MNHRC.

When probed last year, the MNHRC disappointingly revealed that they would not pursue the matter further, despite hunger strikes and allegations of torture and ill-treatment. A recently released briefing paper by the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, the Justice Trust and the Letpadan Justice Committee supporting the detained students highlights a mounting medical crisis that could have been avoided or limited if only the MNHRC had fully exercised the powers and mandate at its disposal, including conducting unannounced prison visits and ensuring the protection and well-being of the detained students. It is little wonder that many thought the Letpadan statement produced by the MNHRC was a strategy to gain international plaudits ahead of the general election and the accreditation review by the ICC.

In many ways, the MNHRC story thus far largely mirrors the broader problem with transition in the country, where rights protection still remains precarious while the military wields considerable might and power. However, the “B” status is not a signal to disengage with the MNHRC. Institutional reforms will predictably be foremost on the incoming National League for Democracy government’s agenda, and rehabilitation of the MNHRC must be placed as a priority. Taking advantage of its sizeable parliamentary presence and ensuring greater legislative oversight to secure the MNHRC’s independence and accountability will be a crucial first step, and a test of the NLD government’s commitment to human rights protection and governance in the country.


Aung Khaing Min and Joses Kuan are advocacy and research officers with Burma Partnership, a network of organisations across the Asia-Pacific region advocating for and mobilising a movement for democracy and human rights in Myanmar.


View the original post here: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/18786-human-rights-commission-comes-under-fire-over-record.html

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