Myanmar: “Build on achievements and reach for democracy” – Outgoing UN Special Rapporteur
GENEVA (30 May 2014) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, today calls on the Government and people of Myanmar to build on the many achievements of the last three years in laying a solid foundation for a robust democracy.
Mr. Ojea Quintana completes his six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar at the end of this month. His successor, Ms. Yanghee Lee (Republic of Korea) will take up the position as of June:
“During my six-year term as Special Rapporteur, Myanmar has been undergoing an historic transition which has already significantly expanded freedoms in the country, helped to consolidate peace and promises a better human rights future for all.
Throughout my work, I emphasized on four core human rights elements in assessing Myanmar’s democratic transition: the establishment of the rule of law and the institution of an impartial and independent judiciary; constitutional and legislative reform; reform of the armed forces; and the progressive release of political prisoners.
Rule of Law
The release of over 1,100 prisoners of conscience has been, for me personally, the most welcome step taken by the Government and I commend President Thein Sein for his leadership in this regard. I remain concerned for the remaining political prisoners numbering at least 59, and hope their release will be expedited too, and that all those who have served unjust sentences will receive redress accordingly.
Myanmar is to be commended for the recent adoption of a law on the establishment of an independent human rights commission, for the vibrant work of its Parliament, for initiating police reforms, and for seeking to ensure better development, health, education and social protection for its population. But its state institutions in general remain unaccountable, and the judiciary is not yet functioning as an independent branch of Government.
In order for the rule of law to prevail, the laws of the land must be in line with international human rights standards and they must apply equally to all persons. There must be civilian control and oversight over the military. The 2008 Constitution needs to be amended in line with the overall transition to a democratic system of civilian governance.
Without the rule of law, the process of economic development will have a corrosive effect on Myanmar society and its environment, leading to exploitation and the reinforcement of the position of privileged elites. The international community, particularly those that engage in trade and investment with Myanmar, have a tremendous responsibility.
Despite the notable widening of space for freedom of expression and the development of political freedoms, many laws still remain which do not conform to international human rights standards.
Such laws if not revised will continue to be used to stifle freedom of expression and opinion, and interfere with the people’s rights to peaceful assembly and association. Legislative reform must be accompanied with better protection for human rights defenders, an enabling environment for civil society, and a change of mind-set within all levels of Government, to allow civil society, political parties and a free media to flourish beyond current limited freedoms.
The expansion of freedom of expression and the proscription of hate speech are complementary. I am deeply concerned about the spread of incitement of racial and religious hatred, especially from some religious leaders, which appear to be left unchecked by the authorities.
This, and proposed legislation that would put obstacles in the way of interfaith marriages and religious conversions, can have a chilling effect on a multi-cultural, pluralist democratic society as well as being in contravention of international treaty obligations. This cannot be the model to which Myanmar will want to aspire as the current ASEAN Chair.
Humanitarian Access and Rakhine State
No one has yet to be made accountable for the mob attacks against international humanitarian actors in Sittwe, Rakhine in late March this year; and although some organizations have been allowed to return, the humanitarian situation remains dire especially for the Muslim communities in Rakhine State which rely the most on services delivered by international actors.
Local Rohingya leaders and three INGO humanitarian workers continue to be in detention, and others face intimidation and harassment by local groups in the provision of healthcare to the Muslim communities, worsening their limited access to healthcare. I have also received reports of deaths in particular of women and children caused by preventable, chronic or pregnancy-related conditions which could have been avoided had adequate and timely medical services been provided to these communities.
This situation, as well as the recent denial of self-identification during the Census process, is reflective of the wider and systematic discrimination against and marginalization of the Rohingya community. As I warned in my last report to the UN Human Rights Council, the pattern of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Rakhine State may constitute crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
I reiterate my call to the Council to engage the Government of Myanmar in accounting for these violations through the establishment of an independent and credible investigative mechanism.
The Government as well as the international community, particularly neighbouring member states and ASEAN, must urgently address the human rights situation in Rakhine State. To do otherwise would not only risk local and extremist groups taking complete control over the situation there, and compromise the entire democratic transition for Myanmar. It will ultimately mean the extermination of the Rohingyas.
Kachin State and Peace Process
I have also received reports regarding resumed clashes and increased fighting in Kachin and Shan states. More worryingly, the army has been further accused of attacking civilians particularly internally displaced people (IDPs) in southern Kachin State.
The Government has made commendable progress towards a national ceasefire accord, but whatever the course of these negotiations, military and non-state actors need to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law. Access to humanitarian aid in Kachin State is also critical.
Securing peace in Myanmar’s ethnic border areas is fundamental to Myanmar’s transitional process. The monitoring of ceasefire agreements would be vital and addressing the resettlement of IDP and refugee communities is just one of several challenging issues at stake. For these issues to be resolved in a sustainable way, the voices of all parties, especially of women, the youth and minority groups, must be allowed to be heard in the national process of peacebuilding and reconciliation.
There also needs to be transparency in negotiations to allow for entire communities, and not just their leaders, to benefit from development projects and profitable business deals, and ensure that the interests of the communities are at the heart of such negotiations.
Accountability and Participation
A truthful account of past human rights violations is needed in order to inform and solidify the ongoing process of national reconciliation. A lasting reconciliation can only be achieved through the fulfillment of the rights to truth, justice and reparation. Impunity, which is deeply entrenched in Myanmar institutions, should be confronted.
Evolving from a state of military rule of five decades to one of civilian democracy obviously requires a change in attitude and thinking for all especially the military. While the civil society enjoys a long history of activism, the military retains a prevailing role in the life and institutions of Myanmar.
The energy and enthusiasm of the younger generation and of women should be fully developed to help reinvigorate the reform process and ensure that Myanmar secures a successful transition.
The international community will be watching closely for the conduct of free and fair elections in 2015. The upcoming elections provide a unique opportunity for the military rulers of the past to allow the people of Myanmar to freely choose their future leaders and President.
I hope that my time on this mandate has helped to improve the human rights situation for the people in Myanmar, and to keep human rights high on its reform agenda. I praise the cooperation extended by the Government of Myanmar to this mandate as well as by other political and civil society actors. I call on the support of the international community towards the fledgling democracy in Myanmar through technical assistance and capacity development. I particularly encourage the establishment of a country office by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with a full mandate.
I hope that through this mandate I have assisted in elevating the voices of those who have suffered as well as expressing their needs and expectations to the United Nations and beyond, and I wish my successor Ms. Yanghee Lee ever success.”