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Latest Human Rights Abuse Case Demonstrates Urgent Need to Reform the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission

By Burma Partnership  •  September 27, 2016

mnhrc-parliamentThis past week, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) sparked outrage for failing to provide an adequate response to a case involving the abuse of two young domestic helpers in Rangoon. The victims, Ma San Kay Khaing, 17, and Ma Tha Zin, 16 reported being both physically and psychologically abused by members of the family-owned Ava tailoring shop that employed them. Ma Tin Tin Khaing, has also been recently identified as the third victim of abuse from the same family in a Facebook post from the Rangoon Police. According to the girls –after enduring years of regular beatings – at times involving knives and scissors, as well as poor living conditions, broken bones, long work hours, poor wages and limited contact with their families, the case was eventually brought to light by Ko Swe Win, a senior correspondent at Myanmar Now. Ko Swe Win exposed the case before the MNHRC after the Kyauktada Township police failed to take action.

According to their own website, the MNHRC’s mandate includes “visiting the scene of human rights violations and conducting inquiries, on receipt of a complaint or allegation or information,” among a list of other duties. In response to the case, the MNHRC arranged a meeting between the girls’ parents and the abusers, and mediated that the victims accept a monetary compensation totaling $4,000, paid out by the tailor shop owners. However, despite a clause in the MNHRC’s founding law that prescribes the organization to investigate human rights abuse complaints after they have been received, reports suggest that the rights body neglected to even arrange a meeting with the victims.

The Commission’s mediation drew swift criticism from human rights defenders and legal authorities around Burma. Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, summarized the criticism of the MNHRC, stating, “The suffering these children have had to endure is clear. The extent of injuries on their bodies is solid evidence of torture. Yet the MNHRC failed to recommend they seek justice via legal and human rights channels.”

Civil society groups launched immediate protests in front of the MNHRC office, along with an online petition, “Justice for the Domestic Helpers,” calling for legal action against the shop-owners and an investigation into the MNHRC. Further, local human rights groups have collected 142 civil society organizations’ endorsement for an open letter to the President calling for the reform of the MNHRC according to the Paris Principles. An anti-trafficking division of the police in Rangoon is seeking their own legal action against the alleged abusers, including at least two charges under the Anti-Human Trafficking Law. The case is also being subjected to a separate investigation from the Office of the President.

Most notably, Parliamentarian U Htay Win Aung has called for the immediate replacement of MNHRC members for failing to treat the case as torture. On Monday, 26 September, this motion was approved by the Lower House of Burma’s Parliament, with 383 out of 400 votes in support. As a result, disciplinary action – including the suspension of members for neglecting to protect victims, or cooperate with law enforcement bodies and failure to fulfill the objectives of MNHRC– is a likely outcome.

The handling of this case is in violation of the Paris Principles, the internationally agreed upon minimum standards that guide the work of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) such as the MNHRC. For instance, the Paris Principles state that the function of NHRIs in handling human rights complaints should be based on two principles in particular: 1. “Seeking an amicable settlement through conciliation or, within the limits prescribed by the law, through binding decisions or, where necessary, on the basis of confidentiality” and 2. “Informing the party who filed the petition of his rights, in particular the remedies available to him, and promoting his access to them.” By failing to provide either an “amicable settlement” or information pertaining to the complainants’ rights and “available remedies,” the MNHRC has clearly failed in its duties as an NHRI.

This is far from the only criticism facing the MNHRC, an organization set up under the former military-backed government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party whose many members have been involved in or complicit in human rights violations while serving under previous military regimes. According to the 2015 ANNI Report, an annual report written by civil society organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region that analyzes the performance and effectiveness of their respective country’s NHRI, several problematic elements of the enabling law of the MNHRC allow the institution to operate without transparency and accountability to the public. The MNHRC has previously neglected to investigate human rights abuses, such as the 2015 murder of a 14-year-old girl at the hands of the Burma Army, while also failing to protect the complainant – her father, Brang Shawng – from being subjected to harassment and criminal prosecution. In another case, the MNHRC failed to investigate the death of Ko Par Gyi, a freelance journalist who was tortured and killed by the Burma Army while covering the outbreak of armed conflict.

Notably, Win Mra, the head of the MNHRC and newly announced member of the advisory commission for Arakan State has also faced a fair share of criticism. In particular, Win Mra’s previous role defending Burma’s human rights record before the United Nations has critics questioning why he would lead an organization charged with investigating the same violations that he denied internationally.

This latest case involving the MNHRC’s failure to investigate a clear human rights violation must prompt a significant overhaul of Burma’s human rights body. As the country moves forward in promoting a culture of universal human rights, it must be supported by an effective and competent NHRI that is willing to provide both adequate investigations into human rights abuses and help victims seek justice, including sufficient remedies. The MNHRC at this stage is clearly not such an organization. However, as Burma transitions to democracy, this is a perfect time to reform the organization by amending its enabling law to be in full compliance with the Paris Principles. Further, the reselection of new commissioners should be conducted through an open and transparent process in consultation with and including recommendations from civil society, as well as oversight and approval of Parliament.

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