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Statement by Ms. Yanghee LEE, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council

By UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee  •  March 14, 2016

Mr. President, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen,

I thank you for the opportunity to once again address this august Human Rights Council on the developments in Myanmar. 8 November 2015 will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of the country. Elections held on that day are a testament of the culmination of the reform process which started in 2011. The people of Myanmar strongly expressed their voice for democracy. It was truly heartening to see thousands of people flocking to the polls, many of them voting for the very first time. The long transition period that followed generated some uncertainty, but I commend the outgoing President and the Government for a smooth facilitation of the transfer of power.

Mr. President,

I would like to take this opportunity to express appreciation to the Government of Myanmar for the cooperation extended to my mandate and its willingness to accommodate my personal tragedy through means of written responses. I was prevented from undertaking my most recent planned visit due to the sudden passing of my father.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a testament to the scale of change that over 100 former political prisoners, once of concern to this Council, are now sitting in Parliament and that Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, herself confined to house arrest for nearly 15 years, is the leader of the majority party in Parliament.

The elections truly signal a new chapter in the country’s history – a new beginning.
But, there is still a long way to go. As it is with any government, the coming weeks and months will be challenging with many factors at play and delicate issues at stake.

Today I would like to discuss four major areas in this regard. The first relates to existing structural challenges. The Constitution continues to grant the military 25% of seats in both houses of Parliament and the state and regional legislatures. This gives them an effective veto on constitutional changes, which require a 75% majority. It also grants the military three key ministerial posts: the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Border Affairs. All of these ministries are key to progress in the area of human rights.

Institutional challenges also face other branches of the State. Parliament’s own Committee on Judicial and Legal Affairs Complaints and Grievances reported in 2015 that the judiciary remains one of the country’s most corrupt institutions. Moreover, civil society actors continue to report being monitored and harassed by the Special Branch Police and military intelligence. Changing this institutional culture and mind-set will take time and effort.

Secondly, I would like to highlight the need for legislative reform. I welcome some of the steps taken since 2011 to review and amend laws that did not meet international standards. Yet, hundreds of laws remain on the books which do not comply with Myanmar’s human rights obligations. Some of them are old laws, while others have been recently enacted.

The Government has rightly been lauded for releasing thousands of political prisoners since 2011 and I welcome the release of another 54 individuals in the most recent Presidential amnesty.

In his remaining two weeks in power, I call upon President Thein Sein to unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners, including peaceful protestors charged or convicted under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law or outdated defamation, trespassing and national security laws. Until legislation used to suppress critics is amended, there will remain a risk of perpetuating political imprisonment.

Legislative reform is absolutely needed, but must not be rushed. The legislative system itself must be reviewed to require systematic input from civil society and the public.

Laws must meet the needs of the people. As I highlight in my report, there have been some positive examples in this area. However, addressing all the laws in need of revision in a consultative manner will be a mammoth undertaking. Particularly problematic legislation should be prioritised. I hope the annex to my report, which identifies some laws to be amended as a matter of priority, will be of assistance.
The third issue is the situation in Rakhine State. The arrival of a new Government is an opportunity to break from the tragic status quo. I am aware of the complexity of the issues at stake and the severe underdevelopment affecting all communities in the state.

But development efforts alone will not be enough. Concrete actions must be taken rapidly to address the structural dimensions that lead to the serious human rights concerns on the ground. Allow me to briefly illustrate what it is like if you are a Rohingya Muslim living in Rakhine state. Your travel is restricted within and between townships and you need specific authorization to travel outside the state. If you are ill and require urgent treatment, you might not be granted access to the nearest hospital and might have to travel a few hours to reach the Sittwe general hospital. If you live in Northern Rakhine State and have more than two children, they risk being unregistered (‘blacklisted’). If you are a Rohingya, you are also most probably stateless, without even the temporary documentation that you had until last year, and your children will not be allowed to enter Sittwe University. If you are one of the estimated 140,000 individuals in IDP camps since 2012, you probably live in a longhouse on the verge of collapse as it was initially only built to last two or three years for temporary shelter.

Turning around this situation will be a significant challenge for the new Government and may not be popular. But action must be taken and the international community can provide support. One key priority is the lifting of restrictions on freedom of movement.

These restrictions have not only a knock on effect on a host of other rights, such as the right to health and the right to education, but also hamper interactions between Rakhine and Muslim communities. How can we expect communities to recreate bonds if they continue to be segregated?

Lifting on-going restrictions will be an important structural change. But steps must also be taken to win hearts and minds. There are currently opposing forces at play in Rakhine. On the one hand, radical voices are inciting the population against Muslim communities in the most disturbing ways. On the other hand, outstanding groups and individuals continue to work tirelessly to promote tolerance and understanding between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. I encourage the new Government to take steps towards the criminalisation of incitement to hatred which crosses a clearly defined multi-step threshold. At the same time, it should prioritise and expand ongoing preventive, educational and awareness-raising measures.

There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many.

The fourth issue I would like to address is the continuing conflict in Myanmar. I welcome the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed with eight armed groups in November 2015 and the first Union Peace Conference that took place in January.  The peace process dialogue is starting to discuss issues that have been the root cause of the conflict. I welcome for example the inclusion of land and natural resource sharing concerns in the agenda of discussions for the Union Peace Conference held in January, while noting these are difficult issues whose resolution will be complex and politically sensitive. The conference also agreed an important commitment to enable at least 30% participation of women in political dialogue.

But, many significant challenges remain. 7 groups decided not to sign the Ceasefire Agreement and three groups were excluded from the process altogether. In the meantime, as we speak, hot spots of conflict continue and may even be intensifying.

Fighting is accompanied by a long list of conflict related human rights violations reportedly committed against civilians by all parties to the conflict, including extrajudicial killings, torture, underage recruitment, forced labour, abductions and sexual and gender based violence. I sought to raise individual cases with the Government but have been unable to do so as victims or their families declined to give consent, fearing retaliation. This fear is not ungrounded. Following the rape and murder of the two Kachin school teachers in Shan state, the military allegedly threatened to take legal action against anyone publically accusing the army of involvement. One year on, no one has been brought to justice in this case.

I welcome the release on Saturday of 46 children and young people from the armed forces, bringing the total released since 2012 to 745. But I would like to reiterate that unknown numbers remain in the ranks and there is a need to immediately bring to an end the recruitment of children by all parties.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, often leaving everything behind, in order to find safety. These include 96,000 individuals in Shan and Kachin States. In Shan State shifting front lines, remoteness and difficulties receiving authorisation limit access, whereas in Kachin over half of IDP camps are located in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army.  An additional 230,000 IDPs, more than the population of the city of Geneva, are in situations of protracted displaced in southeast Myanmar with thousands more in other areas. There is a need to facilitate voluntary returns in line with international standards in areas where fighting has ended. However, this will be difficult, for one thing as the land remains littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance, with large scale mapping and removal exercises yet to begin.

There is also a deep scepticism from many, born from historical experiences. One civil society actor told me that while there are changes in Myanmar, they are not affecting remote rural and ethnic areas – there is a feeling that they have been left behind. The new Government comes to power with a commitment to facilitate national reconciliation. It has the opportunity to discuss issues that have prevented some groups from joining the peace process and to tackle the scepticism some on the ground feel. It will be crucial to place human rights at the heart of these discussions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome Myanmar’s increasing engagement with the international community, its decision to ratify a number of human rights treaties since 2011 and its interest in joining a number of others. I was disappointed however that the Government did not accept many recommendations made during Myanmar’s recent UPR on issues that I have consistently raised. I hope the new Government will look at the UPR recommendations afresh and decide to act even on noted recommendations.

In addressing all the human rights challenges I have highlighted, Myanmar would highly benefit from a fully-fledged OHCHR office with proper resources and a full mandate. The current model of having only two OHCHR staff members of the ground, who face increasing visa and travel restrictions, is simply not sustainable. I hope the arrival of the new Government will open a new page in Myanmar’s relationship with OHCHR and that meaningful discussions on the opening of an office will shortly resume.

Mr President,

The areas I have identified are clearly difficult ones and will require sustained efforts and vigilance, but with collaborative approaches and political leadership resolution of all these issues is possible. Progress in some areas will take time but in others quick actions can and should be taken. My report includes 8 concrete recommendations for actions for the first 100 days of the new administration. I also make recommendations for the first year, including for the Government as well as for businesses and investors and for the international community.  I encourage all of you to monitor progress on these benchmarks and to offer support and assistance to the new Government to effectively translate promises into concrete actions that will benefit all people of Myanmar. From my side, I reaffirm my willingness to engage constructively with all in Myanmar and to assist in the process in any way I can.

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This post is in: Press Release

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