Myanmar: UN human rights office push making headway

The government has so far been reluctant to give approval for the office to open, despite repeated requests, including in EU-sponsored UN resolutions, for it to do so. However, members of the parliament’s human rights committee, as well as the human rights commission, have told The Myanmar Times the office is needed to improve Myanmar’s human rights situation.

Speaking just after the EU Foreign Affairs Council called in its annual Conclusions on Myanmar/Burma for “the establishment of a country office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights”, ambassador Roland Kobia said he believed Myanmar is looking at the proposal “positively”.

“My impression is that Myanmar understands that it might be in its own interests … [and] that it is moving forward” with opening the office, he told The Myanmar Times on December 18.

“At the end of the day it could be very useful for this transition and it could be an asset for Myanmar to say, We’ve got this office, we’re moving on human rights … and we are working together to try and improve human rights So I think there’s a win-win there.

“Myanmar should not fear the opening of this human rights office. I think it’s a little bit like when the International Labour Organization opened an office here and started questioning the labour laws … Finally it turned out to be a success story … I could very much see the same thing happening for this human rights office.”

Presidential spokesman U Ye Htut did not respond to requests for comment on the issue last week. But U Tin Maung Win, secretary of the parliament’s Committee of Fundamental Rights, Democratic Rights and Human Rights of Citizen, said the opening of a UN human rights office would help to build on the human rights gains made so far.

“It’s better if they are here,” he said. “They can help us in many ways.”

However he said that government would need to set certain rules and regulations for the office’s operations, and its success would depend on mutual trust.

“It’s normal that they can’t run an office instantly,” he said.

U Sitt Myaing, secretary of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, said an OHCHR presence would be beneficial for the commission. He said he was confident the two bodies could cooperate but warned that the human rights office would need to be balanced to avoid the criticisms levelled at some rights organisations, particularly for their perceived bias in regards to Rakhine State.

“We will know what they are like only when we work closely with them. Human rights means standing for the truth,” he said. “But I really don’t know whether [the opening of the office] has been delayed or proceeding as normal.”

The failure to allow a human rights office to open – along with the conflict in Rakhine State – was one of the major reasons that Myanmar was again the subject of a UN General Assembly resolution this year.

Human rights groups have also called on President U Thein Sein to follow through on his promise to allow the office to open. When the president visited Europe in March, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that he “should be urged to honour his pledges to permit an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with a full rights protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate and allow full and unimpeded access of humanitarian organizations to areas where civilians are in need”.

But during the discussion on the UN resolution, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN, U Kyaw Tin, said his country “reserves the right to choose the mandate of the office”.

The Myanmar government had previously insisted that the resolution was not needed because of the progress it had made on human rights, including the release of political prisoners, legal reforms and the establishment of a human rights commission. The government also said it had been told that the 2012 resolution, which it helped the EU draft, would be the last on its human rights situation.

However, after some prodding by the United States, the EU again drafted a resolution and received Myanmar’s assistance.

Mr Kobia said that despite its belief no resolution was needed Myanmar “has shown a very positive spirit in this process”.

“Of course, no country likes to have a country specific resolution, that’s normal. No country likes to be put to the fore and get a bit of criticism.

“This [resolution] wasn’t done against Myanmar but in order to try and raise awareness that we consider of great concern. What’s happening in Rakhine is of great concern for Europe, it’s of great concern for many other countries around the world, and we made it known. Now if next year the problem is solved there won’t be a resolution. If not, I don’t know – I don’t have a crystal ball. Let’s see.”