In a dramatic break from the past, Myanmar is undergoing significant political reform. On November 7, 2010, the country held its first election in 20 years. Though the election was neither free nor fair and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was only released from house arrest six days after the polls, reforms instituted following President U Thein Sein’s inauguration in March 2011 have given the outside world substantial reason for hope.
As Myanmar goes down this path, the international community in general, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in particular, should acknowledge genuine progress where it exists, but also remain actively engaged to ensure that respect for human rights is a real priority of all parts of U Thein Sein’s government.
Until 2010, the human rights situation in Myanmar was one of the worst in the world. Sexual violence, torture and extrajudicial killings were commonplace; children were pressed into military service by the thousands; the country’s prisons were full of arbitrarily detained dissidents; and more than a million people were displaced by conflicts that often directly targeted civilians.
Since 2010, the situation has only marginally improved. While hundreds of political prisoners have been released and some limited changes have been made to restrictive laws that historically were used against civil society, many violations continue. Of particular concern are the military attacks in Kachin and northern Shan states, and the arrests, killing and displacement of parts of the Rohingya Muslim population by the military in June 2012.
During much of the last 20 years, the direct personal role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar was limited, focused mainly on issuing public statements of concern. More meaningful engagement from the OHCHR, however, came via staff support for the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar.
During this time, four Special Rapporteurs issued 36 reports documenting human rights challenges and violations in Myanmar. Consequently, these reports helped influence the UN General Assembly to adopt 20 annual resolutions on Myanmar, and to place Myanmar on the Security Council agenda in 2006. However, in 2007 China and Russia vetoed a proposed Chapter VI Security Council resolution intended to address the human rights abuses in Myanmar.
From 2010 to the present, the opportunity for engagement by OHCHR has increased dramatically. Included among the new OHCHR activities are: assisting with a Universal Periodic Review workshop in 2010, training of government officials in 2011 and a new capacity-building project on human rights that targets the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and related stakeholders.
Similarly, the current Special Rapporteur has gone beyond describing human rights abuses and highlighted the need for law reform and the rule of law. In addition, there are indicators of progress by the Myanmar government in engaging with the UN, including its signing of a plan to end the recruitment of child soldiers, and the adoption of a new law allowing labor unions.
These signs of progress are encouraging. At the same time, challenges for deeper engagement persist. First, historically the Myanmar government has been unwilling to take seriously the concerns of the UN, particularly when it highlighted the culture of impunity of the Myanmar judiciary that benefits the perpetrators of human rights violations. In order to end abuses and the impunity, the government must begin to acknowledge that there are abuses, something it has been slow to do.
Second, in-country access must be enhanced. Previously, the Special Rapporteurs had difficulty getting into Myanmar; presently, the main obstacle is accessing conflict zones such as Kachin and Arakan states.
Lastly, additional UN financial and administrative resources must be allocated. While OHCHR has to cope with resource constraints, the High Commissioner should urge member states to give more, ideally so that OHCHR can open an office in Yangon, as the government has now said it would be willing to accept.
There are additional areas that are vital to helping Myanmar’s reform efforts. First, the High Commissioner should take a more public and active personal role in promoting human rights in Myanmar. Second, OHCHR should expand its efforts focused on advancing the rule of law, law reform, and ensuring foreign investment respects human rights. Finally, OHCHR should support the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. Together, these initiatives would go a long way in advancing Myanmar’s progress.
Myanmar still has a long way to go in its transition process to democracy. During this process the international community has both a moral and legal obligation to ensure the Myanmar government respects the human rights of its people. We owe the Myanmar people nothing less.
Jared Genser is managing director of Perseus Strategies, a boutique law and consulting firm focusing on international human rights, humanitarian law and corporate social responsibility. This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.