RANGOON — International organizations called on overseas governments to engage Burma in allowing unfettered access to a UN fact-finding mission into human rights abuses by authorities in Arakan, Kachin, and Shan states in an open letter released Thursday.
The letter, signed by 23 organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Fortify Rights among others, argued that “sustained international engagement” would be needed to ensure the team of UN experts was granted full access by the Burmese government.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, told The Irrawaddy that accepting the mission was the “responsible” thing for the government to do and that it was “good for Myanmar, for victims and survivors, and for the authorities.”
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution—adopted at its 34th session in Geneva, Switzerland in March—provides a mandate “to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces,” but has been consistently rejected by the Burmese government.
“The fact-finding mission is in the interests of the government of Myanmar [Burma],” the letter read, arguing it would “demonstrate the government’s willingness to uphold the rule of law, work collaboratively with the international community to help establish the facts, identify perpetrators, and deter future crimes by all parties to the conflict.”
UN Special Rapporteur to Burma Yanghee Lee reported numerous allegations of human rights abuses committed by Burmese authorities to the UNHRC in March and recommended a UN Commission of Inquiry—a more thorough UN-mandated investigation into human rights abuses than the adopted fact-finding mission.
Yanghee Lee drew particular attention to allegations of arson, torture, extrajudicial killings, and widespread sexual violence against the minority Muslim Rohingya population in northern Arakan State during Burma Army “clearance operations” begun in response to insurgent attacks on police border guard posts on Oct. 9 of last year.
“I encourage the Myanmar government to cooperate with the fact-finding mission as far as possible and for the fact-finding mission to seek such cooperation in the spirit of constructive engagement and open dialogue,” the UN expert told the Irrawaddy earlier this month.
Both Burma’s de facto leader State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have rejected the team of experts, who are expected to be appointed by UNHRC president Mr. Joaquín Alexander Maza Martelli soon.
In her State of the Union address last month Daw Aung Suu Kyi said she did not accept a fact-finding mission into Arakan State. “It does not mean we disrespect the UN,” she added, “it is just that it does not correspond with our country’s [situation].”
On the occasion of the 72nd Anniversary of Armed Forces Day last month, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing reiterated that the Rohingya population did not belong to Burma, but were interlopers from Bangladesh—and that any international political intervention on the pretext of assisting refugees from this community would threaten Burma’s sovereignty.
Matthew Smith called government claims that the UN mission would inflame tension between ethnic groups in northern Arakan State “a shameless political ploy to avoid scrutiny.”
Among international players, the EU has a special role to play, having drafted the resolution that mandated the mission, but Asean states and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation need to step up in advocating investigations of Burma’s human rights violation, Smith said.
He noted that ground-level push back and obstructions from the military were likely but that “if the government denies the experts access to the country, it will raise international alarm bells and only intensify the pressure.”
“This is a critical moment for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and military leadership,” the human rights expert said. “Any failure to cooperate with this mission could signal more atrocities and impunity.”
Independent analyst on Burma David Mathieson welcomed the fact-finding mission, particularly its broad scope that would also cover the north of Burma, but noted that it was unlikely to unearth anything new in northern Arakan State.