Govt, NGOs prepare to face off at UN on human rights

The battle lines are being drawn over Myanmar’s human rights record ahead of a four-yearly United Nations review later in 2015. The process seems set to be dominated by questions of whether Myanmar’s reforms have stalled, as the government’s critics argue.

By Shwe Yee Saw Myint and Thomas Kean   |   Friday, 30 January 2015

On January 15, the government formed a 21-member committee to draft a report on the human rights situation in Myanmar for submission to the UN Human Rights Council, while human rights and civil society groups are preparing their own submissions to the UN body.

The national report is required as part of a universal periodic review that the council conducts for each member country every four years.

Despite a number of important human rights-related reforms over the past four years, these NGO submissions are likely to be highly critical of the government’s perceived lack of progress, with some contending that U Thein Sein’s administration has “done far less than it claims” on human rights.

Myanmar’s progress over the past four years toward meeting human rights targets it accepted in 2011 will be reviewed at the council’s 23rd session, scheduled for November 2-13. The Myanmar government is required to submit its report to the council by July 20, while NGOs have until March 23 to make a submission to the council.

In a sign of the importance it is attaching to the endeavour, the government’s committee is headed by Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko. It also includes representatives from a range of government departments and other bodies, including the Myanmar Police Force, the Union Supreme Court, the Corrections Department and the Union Attorney General’s Office.

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission is not represented on the committee but will assist it in preparing the report, chair U Win Mra said.

The government also organised a workshop on January 20, with support from the Australian embassy in Yangon and Australian Attorney General’s Department, that brought together departmental officials to provide input for the national report.

The Universal Periodic Review was created with the establishment of the Human Rights Council in 2006.

When the first periodic review of Myanmar was conducted in 2011, Human Rights Council members put forward 190 recommendations to promote and protect human rights in the country. In response, the government said it had already implemented 10 of these, but accepted another 64. It also agreed to consider another 46, of which six were later accepted.

Among its pledges, Myanmar undertook to “sign and ratify the core human rights treaties”, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It also agreed to establish a national human rights body in line with the Paris Principles, to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur on human rights and to work with the UN to end the recruitment of child soldiers.

Another 110 recommendations were rejected outright because they “were couched in such a manner that acceptance of them would infringe on Myanmar’s sovereign rights”, Attorney General U Tun Shin told the council at the time.

Under the review, countries are required to have implemented or begun implementing accepted recommendations by the time the subsequent review is conducted.

However, the government has made progress toward or completed a number of these rejected recommendations, including allowing the ICRC to resume prison visits, removing restrictions on press freedom and releasing political prisoners.

U Win Mra said the government had successfully implemented a number of the recommendations, including ensuring freedom of association, improving rule of law and forming an independent human rights commission. “But I cannot say we have been totally successful in implementing [the] human rights [recommendations],” he said.

He said the human rights commission plans to meet with civil society groups to get their input on the report.

“Civil societies can give suggestions for the government report but the committee cannot guarantee that they will be included,” he said.

Non-government organisations are also preparing to make their own submissions to the Human Rights Council on Myanmar’s human rights performance. U Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, said 30 civil society groups will submit a report to the council at the end of February as part of the period review process.

He said the government has failed to make progress in a number of human rights-related areas, including peace-building, rule of law and women’s rights.

“Over the past four years the government did not keep its promise to sign the agreement on the prevention of torture. Some laws for women that it submitted to the hluttaw do not uphold the rights of women,” he said.

He attributed the government’s failure in part to the widespread lack of awareness about the Human Rights Council process and the promises made in 2011.

But Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, which participated in the 2011 review of Myanmar, was more critical of the government, saying it had “done far less than it claims” on its human rights commitments.

“Closer examination of the pledges Myanmar accepted from other governments find plenty where there has not been any appreciable progress – like protecting human rights in northern Rakhine State, prosecuting soldiers committing sexual violence against civilians, bringing domestic laws into line with international rights standards, or ending discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities,” he said.

While the government agreed to ratify a range of rights conventions in 2011, Mr Robertson said it had only added one, on disabilities, over the past four years. He dismissed the caveat that U Tun Shin gave the council in 2011 – that ratification was contingent on cabinet and parliamentary approval – by pointing out that the government’s party has an “overwhelming” majority in parliament, and opposition groups are hardly likely to oppose ratification.

“If something is a government priority, I don’t believe for a second that they cannot get positive action to approve it by the parliament,” he said.

Human Rights Watch is working on a submission for this year’s periodic review. Mr Robertson said that while accepted recommendations cannot be enforced by the council in any way, the review was still an important process.

“The UPR is a trial by fire on human rights by peer governments from around the world and that is a source of pressure that should not be discounted,” he said. “Most governments go to the UN and put their best foot forward, so getting a dressing-down on rights issues is something that they will go a surprisingly long way to avoid.”

Former Australian ambassador to Myanmar Trevor Wilson, who visited Myanmar with human rights-related missions in September 2012 and March 2014, said Western governments will likely take a political approach to the process and be influenced by the strong criticisms from international rights defenders, who fear that many of Myanmar’s reforms are being reversed.

Mr Wilson said most of the U Thein Sein government’s human rights reforms, such as on freedom of speech, assembly and association, have yet to be consolidated and fully developed, and this is unlikely to happen over the course of 2015. At the same time, situations that are a source of human rights abuses, such as domestic insurgency and communal conflict, remain far from resolved. “I do not currently see political will in Myanmar to introduce radical reforms ahead of the elections scheduled for the end of 2015,” he said.

Myanmar took a cautious approach in 2011, and is likely to do the same in 2015, particularly given that the Ministry of Home Affairs will be coordinating the country’s response, he said.

“Myanmar can afford to take a measured approach to its responsibilities, but should recognise that its long-term political stability now requires a government commitment to move forward in some of the ongoing problem areas,” he said.

“At the very least, a nationwide peace agreement with satisfactory concrete provisions needs to be finalised, and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission needs to find an effective reformist role for itself.”