UN Rights Envoy Rebuffs Foreign Ministry Criticism

By David Hopkins 5 February 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The United Nations human rights envoy to Burma on Thursday hit back at government claims she was infringing upon state sovereignty and exacerbating tensions in the country, saying the criticism was “hard to comprehend.”

Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, told The Irrawaddy she was surprised at the various charges leveled at her by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press release published in state-run media on Wednesday.

“I have a mandate to monitor and report on the human rights situation of Burma and it’s really difficult to understand why the sovereignty issue was brought up,” Lee said. “I [report] in a constructive manner and I’ve been very transparent throughout my mandate so far.”

The ministry’s Wednesday press release, issued in response to Lee’s statement on Jan. 16 at the conclusion of a 10-day visit to the country, accused the rapporteur of “selectivity” and specifically objected to her remarks on Rohingya, land issues, political prisoners, media freedom and the controversial “protection of race and religion” legislative package currently before parliament.

Lee, who was appointed to the role of rapporteur in June 2014, told The Irrawaddy, “I would certainly encourage the foreign minister to go back and read my end of mission statement very carefully because I [also] brought out a lot of positive developments that I’d seen in the past six months.”

The rapporteur questioned the ministry’s assertion that the race and religion draft laws were in accordance with the will of the people, describing the four bills as “clearly against all international norms” and in breach of Burma’s international human rights treaty obligations.

She also defended her use of the term Rohingya to describe the group of over 1 million people in conflict-torn Arakan State derogatively referred to by some members of the Burmese government as “Bengali.” In its statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that using such “controversial terminology” would only exacerbate tensions in the state.

“Everybody has the right to self-identification,” Lee said, while acknowledging sensitivities over the term and the concerns of Buddhists in Arakan State. “The fixation on the word is really paralyzing any resolution and we need to go beyond this fixation.”

Special rapporteurs in Burma have routinely attracted the ire of Burmese officials determined to play down human rights concerns. Community opposition to envoys’ visits has also occasionally surfaced, including in September 2013, when the convoy of then UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana was set upon by a crowd of around 200 people while traveling through the city of Meiktila in central Burma.

Yanghee Lee also encountered some local opposition during her second visit to the country last month, including demonstrations in Sittwe and Rangoon.

In a now infamous address at a demonstration in Burma’s commercial capital on Jan. 16, nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu labeled the envoy a “whore” and a “bitch” for her criticism of the draft race and religion bills.

“Freedom of expression is a right that everybody [is entitled to] and should be protected,” Lee told The Irrawaddy. “However, I was rather shocked to hear these statements come from a man of the Buddhist clergy, Wirathu…I don’t think there’s anybody in the United Nations system that has ever been described in those terms.”

Asked whether the government should have issued a statement condemning Wirathu’s inflammatory speech, Lee said that would have been the “common expectation.”

“As a responsible member of the international community, [Burma should] eradicate and prevent hate speech and incitement,” Lee added.

The Special Rapporteur is due to submit her latest report on the human rights situation in Burma to the UN Human Rights Council in March.