Human Rights in Burma: Can the UN Human Rights Council Rise To The Occasion?

By R. Iniyan Ilango 15 March 2016

As the world anxiously awaits the announcement of a new president for Burma on March 15, the United Nations is discussing the human rights situation in the country. Yesterday, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, presented her report in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council. At the end of this month, a resolution by the Council will decide how to move forward with the scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country.

Since 2011, international attention on Burma has heavily focused on the political transition within the country. As that transition now moves into the verge of a new era, human rights challenges that the country has faced for decades loom large. In her report, the Special Rapporteur says that the “new government will now face formidable human rights challenges.” The actions of the UN Human Rights Council will play a key role in deciding the future of these challenges.

On Feb. 24, in an open letter addressed to member and observer states of the Council, 121 Burmese civil society organizations urged the body to maintain the country’s status under Item 4 of its agenda, which addresses human rights situations that require attention. This would also mean not ignoring the dire state of human rights in the country, which could happen if scrutiny were to be relaxed and Burma promoted to an Item 10 classification, in which the focus would be merely on technical assistance and capacity building.

The overwhelming majority secured by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma’s November 2015 elections has ushered in new possibilities for democracy and human rights. This change, however, has yet to take root in reality. Extensive and pervasive powers held by the military hang over the new government like the sword of Damocles. The 2008 Constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in the national parliament as well as key government positions and powers; the army also enjoys a preeminent position in the powerful National Defense and Security Council.

It may take some time before the extent of civilian control over the government is delineated and apparent. Meanwhile, as the NLD remains locked in a delicate dance with the military in negotiating democratic space, the UN Human Rights Council has a duty to strengthen the cause of that space by maintaining its scrutiny and remaining steadfast in its past demands.

Decades-long armed conflicts continue in Burma’s ethnic areas despite the October 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). As a result, hundreds of thousands remain displaced inside and outside the country and abuses such as torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings continue. In her report, the Special Rapporteur has reiterated the calls of previous UN experts on establishing accountability for violations of international humanitarian law.

In the meantime, intolerance and religious extremism have been on the rise within the country. Systematic discrimination of Muslim communities, including the Rohingya, continues through legislation and state policy. These disastrous effects were visible in the massive regional crisis that engulfed South and Southeast Asia last year due to an exodus of refugees from Arakan State. Institutionally, the country faces a breakdown in the rule of law, and basic freedoms such as those of expression, association and assembly remain under severe threat. In this context, the Feb. 24 civil society letter calls on the Council and the Special Rapporteur to come out with clear benchmarks and a roadmap for the future of human rights in the country.

Burma sits precariously on a geopolitical faultline that dangerously straddles competing interests of global and regional powers. The country’s rich natural resources have added fuel to the fire. As economic powers compete over access to the country’s untapped resources, new patterns of human rights violations involving business interests have emerged. Geopolitical tensions are also visible in current negotiations underway at the Council over the resolution on Burma. Several calls have been made for lowering—or even ending—the scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country. The UN Human Rights Council has a duty to not politicize human rights concerns. In the coming weeks, both the world and the people of Burma will be closely watching the outcome of negotiations and the resolution that emerges from it.

International human rights bodies can be a key ally for the incoming NLD government in providing an open, transparent and standards-based path to address massive human rights challenges amidst residual internal pressure and competing external interests. As the premier human rights body of the world, it is imperative that the UN Human Rights Council is able to be meet its mandate to promote and protect human rights and show leadership at this pivotal point in Burma’s history. It can contribute towards this not by abandoning its scrutiny and long-standing concerns, but by laying down clear benchmarks and a roadmap to address the human rights challenges that haunt the country.

  1. Iniyan Ilango is the UN Advocacy Programme Manager, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).