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Human rights groups push for extension to rapporteur role

By Laignee Barron

February 17, 2016

Despite the success of the November 8 elections last year, human rights groups are pressing the United Nations to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

UN special rapporteur on rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee talks during a press conference on July 26, 2014. Photo: AFP

The special rapporteur’s post will come up for review at the end of the month when the UN Human Rights Council convenes on February 29. Special rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the council to investigate, monitor and report back on human rights problems.

In Myanmar, the post has been particularly contentious as the outgoing government has repeatedly lobbied to have the position downgraded, or even abolished.

The current rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has faced criticism from not only the government but also nationalist groups for her criticisms of the human rights situation in Myanmar, particularly in regard to the Muslim Rohingya, whom the government refers to as Bengalis.

Ms Lee alleged at the end of her most recent visit, in August 2015 in the run-up to the election, that her trip had been forcibly truncated, severely restricted and heavily monitored by security forces.

Should the mandate be extended for Myanmar, Ms Lee would be reporting on the incoming, democratically elected National League for Democracy government.

But Amnesty International warned that the recent election should not be conflated with the country resolving human rights violations or fulfilling its international rights obligations.

“When it assumes power at the beginning of April 2016, Myanmar’s new government will be confronted with a wide range of human rights challenges, and it is unclear, at this stage, what capacity it will have to address them. The council’s attention on the human rights situation in Myanmar is still necessary,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

The group included a litany of protracted human rights crises that will soon fall to an NLD government, including discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, hate speech, political prisoners, and violations stemming from extractive resource industries and other large-scale investments.

While there is little concern that the mandate for Myanmar will be cancelled entirely, rights groups said it was possible that the council may heed requests to downgrade the rapporteur to a role restricted to providing technical assistance, rather than monitoring and publically reporting on rights abuses.

“While some in the international community may feel that the situation in Myanmar has changed enough to warrant relaxing UN pressure on the authorities, at this critical juncture in the country’s history, there is still much to do to improve the human rights situation. The special rapporteur can – and should – play an important role in this,” said Laura Haigh, a Myanmar researcher with Amnesty International.

The government has also failed to acquiesce to one of the international community’s key demands, for the opening of an in-country Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“A lot of governments, and obviously the Burmese military, favour removing or changing the mandate of the special rapporteur,” said Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK. “She [Ms Lee] has consistently highlighted very serious ongoing human rights violations, in stark contrast to the more rosy picture that the United Kingdom, European Union and United States have often tried to present in order to justify dropping human rights as their priority in Burma.”

Ms Lee cancelled her upcoming fourth trip to Myanmar, initially slated for later this week, due to a family medical emergency. The OHCHR has yet to reschedule the trip. The special rapporteur is expected to provide her next report on Myanmar in March.

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